Andrabi Receives Grant for Education Research in Pakistan

For 15 years, Pomona College economics professor Tahir Andrabi and his research team have been conducting research to understand and improve education for villages in Pakistan. The World Bank Strategic Evaluation Fund awarded Andrabi and his research team a three-year $745,000 grant this September to continue this research. 

"As far as I know, this is the largest grant ever to come to a professor in Pomona’s economics department," department chair Eleanor Brown wrote in an e-mail to TSL. "Even at a research university, this is a huge grant for economics."

Andrabi 's project has focused on education for the poor in Pakistan. 

“Human capital is really important in terms of moving out of poverty," Andrabi said. "And since kids are young, we want to give them a level playing field, we want to move them up, and we want to provide them capital and tools so then they can participate effectively in society as they become adults."

"Among the many things Professor Andrabi’s work gives us is the realization that even very poor people are involved in the market for education," Brown wrote.

When the team first arrived in Pakistan, Andrabi said that they expected to find one government school in each village, but instead found that the schools "were funded by local people with very little investments and almost all staffed by local female teachers in the community." 

He said that the teachers were paid very little, roughly a dime per day.

Between 1999 and 2000, Andrabi and his team convinced the Pakistani government to release a census of these schools, and the team was the first to analyze the data when the government did so. They found a huge growth in enrollment in these schools.

“The Pakistan enrollment in the country is something like 40 million kids, and one-third of them were in these kinds of schools," Andrabi said. "The access of education is improving, even in a country like Pakistan."

While enrollment is on the rise, however, Andrabi said that his team noticed little discussion in Pakistan about the quality of the education that students, especially the poorest children, were receiving. 

"The whole idea is that human capital is not just about going to school, but it’s about the skills, about the abilities, that you develop while in school, and we had no measures of that," Andrabi said. "So that was a big vacuum. We wanted to move ahead of that." 

In 2004, the team members sought to create a database of schools, choosing 120 villages with about 800 schools and 4,000 teachers. They then tested all third-graders in these schools and began tracking their educational progress. Additionally, they picked another random sample of 2,000 households from these villages to track.

“The kids that we first interviewed and talked to were 10 years old, they were third-graders, and now the last time that we did it was in 2011—seven years later—so many of them are 17 years old and so we can look at dropouts; we can look at exactly the full learning and growth trajectory of these kids," Andrabi said. "And that’s really what is exciting in terms of tracking it down." 

Andrabi and his research partners also conducted a series of surveys designed to collect data comparing the performance of individual students, schools, and villages. 

“The idea is to introduce competition in the market," Andrabi said. "Learning levels in the kids really went up over the period of one to three years.”

From there, the crew measured the effects of the education levels of mothers and teachers, and compared public and private schools. Now, the team has moved on to intervening in the market. 

“These are like field-based lab work, and that’s very exciting," Andrabi said. "We are expanding our work and moving from this research into more kind of policy design."

Andrabi and his team partnered with a local foundation called the Ahmad Foundation to give grants of 50,000 rupees, or $500, to each of 300 rural schools.

“For these schools that is a lot [of money]," he said. "About the salary of two to three teachers for the year—that’s the context. We wanted to see what was the effect of alleviating the capital constraint on these schools, but of course it’s not sustainable, so then we have partnered with the largest microfinance bank in the country, Tameer Hacked. Now we have the credibility; now we have the market leaders." 

Andrabi will be returning to Pakistan during winter break.

“We want to get all the education providers, people who specialize in improving quality," he said. "What has happened is that nobody has touched the segment for the poor. There’s a whole elite school market in Pakistan. There they have very elaborate structures for support of teachers, curriculum, pedagogy, and all this. But for these schools that tailor to the poor there’s like nothing. We want to really see learning more enriched in these schools." 

Andrabi has worked on the project with many people, including Pomona students.  

Nick Eubank PO ’07, who worked with Andrabi on the project, is now a fourth-year Ph.D. student in political economy at Stanford University, where he works to better understand civilian-militant relations in Pakistan, as well as the origins of governmental financial accountability in sub-Saharan Africa.

“It's hard to overstate how much I've learned from working with Tahir and his coauthors," Eubank wrote in an e-mail to TSL. "Class is very good at teaching concepts and theory, but when it comes to doing actual research—designing real surveys, analyzing real data, applying that analysis to both academic and policy-related questions, and writing separate papers for those two audiences—there's no substitute for getting involved in real research."

"Beyond that, Tahir and his coauthors are extremely mindful and serious about mentorship, and so at every stage of professional development, from first learning statistics, to working at the World Bank in India or D.C., to applying for graduate school, they've been incredibly supportive,” he added. 

"Andrabi’s research informs his classes in development economics and his senior seminar, so it is great for our current students," Brown wrote. "It also helps us to recruit new faculty by making it clear that Pomona’s economics department is a place where serious research is taking place." 

Andrabi said he advises students to not let financial concerns deter them from pursuing a project. 

"You can always raise money," he said. "If you have an idea, you work on it, you follow through with it. Money will follow. We don’t have any money but we’ve raised over a million and a half dollars for this."