School of Economics

Motivation, resources and the organisation of the school system

Motivation, resources and the organization of the school system

Facundo Albornoz, Sami Berlinski and Antonio Cabrales

Education policy is at the forefront of the social and political debate. The belief that education is a catalyst for a better and more equitable society ensures its role in the political agenda, in both developed and developing countries. As a consequence, a variety of policies and reforms are continuously being proposed with the objective of improving the outcomes of the education system. Surprisingly, the implementation and evaluation of these policies often overlook the changes in behaviour they can induce in the actors involved in the education process. For example, the debate about the role of school resources on student learning does not usually take into account behavioural responses from parents and school managers. Similarly, school vouchers proposals generally disregard their influence on parental involvement in education.

In this Nottingham School of Economics working paper, published in the Journal of the European Economic Association, Facundo Albornoz, Sami Berlinski and Antonio Cabrales incorporate behavioural interactions into a multi-agent model of education. Using this model, they explain why the evaluation of educational interventions often finds mixed results, and provides a novel micro-foundation for peer effects, which has empirical implications for different education policies.

Why behavioural interactions among students, parents, teachers and policymakers matter? Consider the case of school resources. Today, societies typically spend more on education than in the past, classes are smaller and schools are endowed with more facilities and better technologies. However, it is far from clear that student learning outcomes have improved. This apparently weak association between resources and student performance also emerges in comparisons across countries. It is certainly not the case that countries exhibiting higher education investment necessarily perform better in standardised student assessments. In the model, parental involvement depends on the opportunity cost for parents to invest in motivation. As their opportunity cost of time increases due to, for example, changes in the labour market such as higher female participation, parents would like to rely more heavily on schools for motivating their children, which triggers actions by those responsible for the education system. As a result, the policymaker responds to higher demand for school involvement by increasing the resources devoted to education. Thus, an increase in school resources may not be accompanied by an overall improvement in educational attainment even if better resources do have a direct effect on student performance as it is usually observed at the school level.

The model also provides a micro-foundation for peer effects. Groups of children with higher average ability are more "profitable" to manage by teachers, who as a consequence exert more effort in their learning process. Then, any child with better peers will benefit from an endogenously higher power of motivational activities in the school, not necessarily from externalities emanating from her/his peers themselves as usually assumed by the literature on peer-effects. The type of endogenously motivated peer-effects identified in this paper has relevant implications. For example, parents of children in schools with better (worse) peers reduce (increase) their involvement. These parental behavioural responses may be strong enough to offset or at least to attenuate the positive effect of sharing classrooms with better peers.

All in all, the results of this paper serve as a warning: many evaluation exercises in education may be seriously compromised by issues of external validity due to a lack of knowledge of behavioural aspects provoking and responding to changes in education policy. Indeed, the effects of changing educational inputs on educational outcomes depend crucially on the sources of variation that cause this change. For this reason, evaluating education policies requires further understanding and awareness of the behavioural responses they necessarily induce.

Journal of the European Economic Association, "Motivation, resources and the organisation of the school system", by Facundo Albornoz, Sami Berlinski and Antonio Cabrales.


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Posted on Tuesday 4th October 2016

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