Why parents know best when it comes to lifting school grades

The genius kid with chart-topping IQ score
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Story highlights

  • It's estimated that 500 million youth in Asia are underemployed
  • More needs to be done to lift education rates, but what is the answer?
  • New analysis shows information on school performance lifts the quality of education

Shang Jin Wei is chief economist at the Asian Development Bank. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Parents get it. In a survey of global attitudes, Pew Research found that 60% of parents worldwide agree education is the most important way for their children to "get ahead" in life.

Parents also understand that it's not enough to send children to school. Kids need to learn critical skills that will help land them a good job.
The data backs this up. Holding everything else equal, countries with higher skill levels, as measured by international science and math exams, achieve systematically higher growth rates, higher living standards, and less poverty.
    Countries with relatively worse skill levels grow more slowly and less consistently, have higher under-employment rates, and are less productive. This is true regardless of whether a country is rich or poor -- education matters for growth and prosperity.
    But in Asia alone, the World Economic Forum estimates that over 500 million youth are underemployed. The question is how do we increase skill levels on a mass scale?

    What economic analysis shows

    In research published Tuesday, we provide some answers. Our results show that a lot depends on getting information on student and school performance into the hands of those who stand to benefit most from better skills -- parents and students.
    Through a meta-analysis of education indicators across 67 economies in Asia, we demonstrate that providing information to parents is correlated with a doubling of test scores when compared with more common prescriptions to improve education, such as targeted funding for early childhood education.
    The simple act of receiving test scores that provide student and school rankings relative to others in a geographic area appears to helps parents make better decisions for their children. The upshot is that it appears to raise test scores overall.
    Indicators such as financial aid, increased teacher certification and higher teacher wages are not correlated with any impact.

    Accountability is vital

    Our cross-country evidence generalizes insights from randomized control trials done in individual countries. Pomona College economist Tahir Andrabi and colleagues have shown evidence from Pakistan that demonstrates that when parents are given report cards on schools in their area, test scores increase significantly and over the long term. Similar results have been found in Uganda and India.
    Creating Pakistan's dream school
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    This doesn't mean that having a strong curriculum or highly qualified teachers aren't important. They are.
    But it does show that without accountability mechanisms in place, even the most advanced curriculum, best designed early childhood program, or highly qualified teachers may fall short.
    The reason is simple, in many countries there is simply no incentive for schools to focus on quality. Budgets may be set in a far off capital and teachers may be protected by strong labor laws. But most critically, parents and students often lack information that can hold schools accountable.
    How can we change this?

    Improve data collection

    A quick win for governments is better data collection. Data collection and storage costs have plummeted in the last decade. Meanwhile, countries are making more information available to citizens through legal frameworks, such as Freedom of Information Acts (FOIAs). The challenge is to get this information in the hands of parents and pupils.
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    In tandem, we need better evaluation of what works and what doesn't. Randomized control trials, such as in Pakistan, have given policymakers critical information on how small adjustments in areas like information dissemination can impact education quality. More macro level interventions can also help.
    The introduction of internationally recognized exams, such as the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, has been widely cited as a tool that helps countries in a race to the top.
    The stakes for failing are high. Governments in developing Asia alone spent over $1.2 trillion on education in 2014. Households pitched in an additional $6.9 billion. In South Korea, parents spend over 10% of household income on education. This means that getting education reform right matters.
    Researchers need to do more to systematically develop, invest and evaluate other such metrics that appropriately incentivize changes in quality not just by teachers and administrators, but national governments as well. Investment in education and evidence-based-decision making go hand in hand.
    Parents understand this intrinsically. It's time for policymakers to follow their lead.