GBV and social norms. By me! In print!

I’m constantly amazed at both how long the publishing process is and how quickly the years have gone since I started a handbook chapter with my wonderful, talented colleagues, Betsy Levy Paluck and Laurie Ball Cooper. I’m happy to say that today, the The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Psychology is available for sale and has some great essays on gender, including ours on gender based violence and social norms around the world.

Examining a different “why” in development, aid, and girls

I was in London last week at the behest of the Nike Foundation and DFID for what I’m told was a very unique event, the first of its kind, on the status of adolescent girls in the world. It was a whirlwind couple of days with lots of amazing conversations, lots of confusing conversations, and lots of learning. My coauthor and I were both struck by the tremendous amount of experience and wealth of knowledge around that room. I could not have fathomed anything like it before getting on a plane to the UK.

It was definitely the first time I’d ever been in a room like this. 70 people from various development agencies–both funding and programmatic–people who work in the field, people who work in development administration and a few like me, who work with numbers and evidence and research.

At the end of it all, I was totally exhausted. By the time we even finished our first dinner, I was curious as to whether I would make it through the rest of the week, but I left with a much greater sense of the work that is being done and the challenges of implementing the kinds of programs and collecting the data I study. I hope that practitioners also left with some insight into how they can make my job of evaluating easier.

Given that the work we produced for this conference was on using social norms to reduce societal discrimination against girls, I spent a lot of time this week thinking about the “why?” I don’t mean the “why are we here?” or “why are we doing this kind of research?” I think the community convened this week has a very clear idea of why they think this research is important, though I think they have a harder sell to some of those that fund it. I mean the why rather in a sense of why does this work? And why doesn’t it work? I think a lot that was discussed is about “what works” and “how should we proceed” and the other why is actually very important if we’re concerned about expansion, replication, and scale.

What works is only so useful a question in development if you are looking at comparable populations, comparable implementers, comparable geographies, and similarly changing economies. That’s almost impossible. But if we can say this works, and this works because of they way it interacts with more global phenomena–like desire to conform to a group, or desire not to be embarrassed–, that helps us figure out how to take it somewhere else. Because then the question of how to effect the same behavior change in another environment becomes not “what worked over there?” but rather “how does the mechanism through which we achieved change there come to work over here?”

I grant that it’s a more complicated question. And it may seem silly coming from me compared to someone with decades of experience in the field, but I do think there are big contributions to come from social norms research and other mechanisms. There are several avenues to be explored, but it’s nice to have a bit of a grasp on one of them.

Signaling and subconscious bias in Economics papers

I saw down this afternoon to read a paper on inheritance laws and gender for a paper on societal discrimination against adolescent girls. I found it through another paper that describes it as identifying a causal effect of allowing women to inherit land on educational attainment and age of marriage and so of course my econometric feelers went up. I was going to read it anyway, but you all know I’m glutton for seeking out statistical causal identification strategies. I’ve been putting off the paper because though the paper comes out of the World Bank’s Working Paper series, the cover page really wasn’t doing it for me.

I finally scrolled to the next page this afternoon, and it’s typed using LaTeX, a scientific word processing program. Wouldn’t you know that just seeing that font makes me that much more excited to read it? And, though I hate to admit it, maybe even a little more trusting of what’s coming, even though I haven’t read it yet?

Kind of scary. I would love to see a study of this over time. How is a paper typed in Word Perfect received versus a paper typed using a scientific editor?

Cited:  Deininger, K., A. Goyal, and H. Nagarajan (2010) “Inheritance Law Reform and Women’s Access to Capital: Evidence from India’s Hindu Succession Act.” Policy Research Working Paper 5338. Washington, DC: World Bank.

The goddess is coming

Girls, we have been told, or at least some would like us to believe, are the key to development. There’s been a lot of talk about productivity differentials being resolved by decreasing discrimination in the US, but much of the world has yet to catch up in this manner. Girls, getting them to school, keeping them from getting pregnant and dying in childbirth early on, giving them skills to earn wages and get jobs. All these things, clearly, are important, but there’s also not much hard evidence regarding just how important.

This is pretty much all I think about these days (that and, what the heck am I going to do India in two weeks). At a ladies’ tea on Saturday (yes, I do teas; you expect me to write about economics or go cycling all the time?), a friend said she was sure the Goddess was coming. This is a very Boulder thing to say, but all the same, I had to agree. My head, of course goes to the much more terrestrial outcomes of things like: women are becoming more educated than their male peers, earning more money, taking on higher leadership roles, but it’s the same sentiment, I think.

Just musing for the moment, but here’s a link to the World Bank’s 2012 report on Gender Equality. It’s long, and is perhaps not as optimistic as my friend, but  points out some pretty exciting things, like “gender gaps in primary education have closed in almost all countries,” and “over half a billion women have joined the world’s labor force over the last 30 years.” The website is also good and much more navigable if you don’t feel like reading the whole report.

Testing, incentives, and low-achieving students, redux

Last week, a few kind words from a friend turned into an extended conversation about testing structures and incentives for teachers to help low-achieving students. Mark’s organization is unique and very cool because it targets the lowest achievers, students Mark posited are the least likely to benefit from the incentives provided by standardized testing to maximize the pass rate. Brett Keller responded with a link to a discussion of an article from the Review of Economics and Statistics that basically confirmed Mark’s thinking.

Below is a quick summary of a long, dense paper and lessons learned. In short, Mark, yes, research backs up your intuition. From “Left Behind by Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-based Accountability” by Derek Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach:

The use of proficiency counts as performance measures provides strong incentives for schools to focus on students who are near the proficiency standard but weak incentives to devote extra attention to students who are already proficient or have little chance of becoming proficient in the near term.

Students who might just need a little extra push to get to the passing mark are going to get any extra teaching effort that is encouraged by the testing system itself, and even may draw effort that might have gone to students at the ends of the distribution. It seems that this problem at least would unite parents of the highest and lowest achievers in protest. Low achieving students are left behind and high-ability students make no gains either. This system is clearly not beneficial to anyone except the marginal passers and ensures that low-achieving students never have an opportunity to catch up.

The continual process of raising the standards only makes worse the distribution problem. In their model, an increase in the proficiency standard necessarily increases the number of high-ability students receiving extra attention, thus decreasing the number of low-achieving students receiving extra attention.

The study was also repeated with low-stakes testing, where the individual student may have had something to gain by passing (not going to summer school), but the school had little to gain. The lopsided distribution of effort didn’t appear in these cases.

Derek Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach. 2010 “Left Behind by Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-based Accountability.” Review of Economics and Statistics 92(2); 263-283.

An abstract

Tuesday was Equal Pay Day, and appropriately, I met with the Vice-Provost to negotiate my contract for next year. He only wanted to give me a one-year contract the first time around, despite knowing that the Economics department needed me and wanted me for two years, so clearly, I was going negotiate again.

Through the course of our discussion, I began to get a little nervous about upcoming calls for papers, conference deadlines and the looming market. As I have told a few of you, I will be on the market again in the Fall, attending the American Economic Association meetings in San Diego in January, and filling out ridiculous numbers of applications as the year comes to a close. There’s lots to be done, but also lots to finish up–getting my dissertation out–and lots to start–new papers!

So, I’m trying to get some papers out and I think I’m close to getting this one done. It’s so hard sometimes, because it’s really so easy just to keep editing, keep running regressions and keep looking for other things to do. But I like this paper. I hope some editor does, too. Hopefully, next week I can share the whole things with you.

Abstract for “Match Quality and Maternal Investments in Children”, Working Paper, April 2012, Erin K Fletcher.

Marriage advocates suggest that the unstable environment caused by divorce can have adverse effects on children’s educational and behavioral outcomes. However, the causal assignment of poor outcomes to the divorce itself fails to take into account relationship quality and heterogeneity in place before or in the absence of divorce. I explore the link between heterogeneity of relationship quality and investments in children. I show that women who report less satisfaction in their relationships spend less time reading with their children. I test various theoretical mechanisms by which we would expect women to decrease their investments in a child using additional information about the match including argument frequency and whether the union dissolves in the future. The anticipation of a union’s dissolution is associated with a decrease in investments in children while the relationship is intact, but argument frequency and mother’s estimation of the father’s character do not have a significant correlation. The results suggest that subjective measures tell a more complete story about investments in children than indicated by future union status, argument frequency or parental quality.

Have a great weekend!

Tests, incentives, and low-achieving students

In the midst of my paper-reading/grading marathon over the weekend, I expressed some frustration on twitter and got some pretty wonderful responses from friends. In particular, one friend who runs a non-profit in DC sent me an immediate gchat, “I believe in you; you can do it.” It managed to snap me out of it and put a smile on my face, but then also morphed into a discussion about the quality of students’ writing. Mark’s contention was that writing skills have in fact declined over time, largely because composition, grammar, and spelling aren’t emphasized any longer in school curricula. It’s not tested, so it’s not taught. I confessed my inability to make a claim about the decline given my limited tenure as a teacher and lack of good comparisons. I think I’m a pretty good writer.

This resulted in Mark calling me arrogant, so I had to laugh a little when Mark’s recent blog post for Reach, Inc. had an arrogance-related title, but he also brings up another really important point regarding incentives and testing in schools.

It is true that incentives are not aligned to support the work we do. If a student comes to Reach reading in the 5th percentile, he or she can make 2-3 years of reading growth and still be labeled a failure on standardized tests. This means, in an environment with limited resources, it actually doesn’t make sense for a school to invest in that child’s learning. The incentives push schools to focus on those students that can go from failing to passing.

I’ll admit that I’m only cursorily familiar with the practices and rewards of the public school system and testing, but I am pretty sure that we haven’t it gotten right yet. A system that rewards or punishes based on the mean or median or a dichotomous pass/fail and ignores distribution and progress is necessarily going to leave a lot of students behind. As Mark suggests, it makes it near impossible for individual students to catch up, not only because it’s hard work, but because there’s little immediate reward for stakeholders to do the pushing. It works the same way with writing. There’s not a good way to test writing, so we don’t test it, and thus it’s not emphasized in school, leading to worse outcomes in writing.

Mark’s work reminded of a paper I saw presented at CU this winter. In an RCT in Togo (or Benin? The researcher was from one of those and did the work in the other) an experiment was set up to see how different incentives schemes could reward cooperation to study for standardized tests and how that affected student outcomes from different parts of the ability distribution. The results make cooperation look pretty good. I of course, cannot remember the job candidate’s name or the title of the paper, but I’m going to find it. Don’t worry.

For Valentine’s Day, on love and marriage and economics

Perhaps I’m hyper aware of things going on in both media and social media these days, but it seems that UPenn economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson are everywhere these days. They’re all over my twitter feed for one. Then, today this came out in the Washington Post, and over the weekend, out came a profile in the NYT. The Times article describes them as a ‘power couple’ of economics. Which is pretty funny if you know any economist couples.

Though our research hasn’t come head to head yet, Justin and Betsey do a lot of work in family economics, much like I do. So, their meteoric rise to national prominence (at least among the WaPo-, NYT-reading set, is of interest to me. In particular, someone mentioned a quote from Betsey Stevenson saying that the household problem (as we so lovingly call it in economics) had turned from one of shared production to shared consumption.

Much of the dominant thinking in family and household economics has roots in Gary Becker’s A Treatise on the Family. It rests on ideas that can only politely be called antiquated. Women are in charge of domestic production (cleaning, child-rearing, cooking, laundry, etc) and men are in charge of bringing home the bacon. It’s specialization at the household level. Very economist-y. On some level, it probably made a lot of sense to think about marriage in this manner, particularly when women’s wages were much, much lower than men’s. In fact, it made so much sense that it partly earned Becker a Nobel Prize in Economics.

At some point during my fourth year of graduate school, I ordered my own copy. It was a simple (though really expensive!) purchase. A paperback, just a book, but a book that essentially formed much of the dominant thinking in my field. Even then, I knew its time in the spotlight was waning. I’ve still never read the whole thing. Despite knowing it was a classic, I can still only look up passages when I think they’re relevant. Reading more than a few pages makes the feminist in me absolutely boil.

But someone else recently said that, as economists, we should hope that our research becomes irrelevant, because that means that society has changed or that we’ve developed policy solutions for those questions and problems. And that’s probably what is happening here.

The world is changing; marriage is changing, love is changing. Household production is definitely changing. And perhaps all of this is about household consumption (enjoying kids and raising them together) rather than household production (raising kids, a public good). I’m unsure whether this is true at every socio-economic level, or whether it’s a privilege of high-earners, but it’s certainly an interesting way to frame and model marriage in economic terms.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Boycotts are all around us

There has been quite a bit of talk lately about boycotts, in the academic world, in the foreign policy world, and in the consumer world.

Academics are signing on in rather large numbers to a boycott of the journal publisher Elsevier, for practices they view as stifling to creative and innovative thought, and access. The original call to boycott is here, the Chronicle article is here, and if you Google the thing, you’ll find dozens of blogs and articles talking about it. It doesn’t seem to have hit economists too hard yet, but I imagine it’s going that way.

In foreign policy, all the talk is about boycotting oil from Iran in order to ensure that they don’t get the bomb.

Finally comes the Apple boycott, rocking the consumer world. The NYT came out with a an article last week exposing exploitation of workers and unsafe working conditions in China by Apple. Combined with the conflict minerals stuff, some people are hoping to end their iAddictions. Others, of course, want to point out that the whole thing is ridiculous.

Of these, Iran is definitely the silliest. Oil is a fungible commodity. If we don’t buy it from Iran, we have to get it from someone else, say Norway. Thus, another country who formerly bought from Norway, will now buy it from Iran. Iran will sell it to someone else, perhaps at slightly higher transportation costs, but they still will sell it. (Update: Off the wire blog goes into this in a bit more detail here.)

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the Elsevier boycott. I am all for voting with my dollars, and my time, but I guess this feels big because it is inextricably linked to my profession and my sense of self. As graduate students, we are shown over and over again that the path to success is publish, publish, publish, get tenure, and be satisfied. But I can’t help but think that all of this is changing. It’s like the rug is being pulled out from underneath me. It’s not the end of the world surely, but I’m not sure what an open-access academic content world is going to look like. I’m sure that functionally, it won’t change much for most people. But for academics, it’s likely to change a lot. And that’s scary on some level, even if it’s also exciting and desirable.

I’m going to mull over my thoughts on the Apple boycott a bit more, but they certainly seem to be all around us, don’t they?

Update on Fun Wednesday Reading: I’m in the midst of Innes, Rob. “A Theory of Consumer Boycotts Under Symmetric Information and Imperfect Competition.” The Economic Journal, 116 (April) 355-381.

h/t @mflbellemare

Public Randomization

A significant issue in conducting randomized control trials in a community is the issue of fairness. The idea behind RCTs is to mimic the medical model by scientifically ascertaining just how useful a treatment might be. In the case of development economics, this could be a subsidy or an extra year of education, for example. In order to eliminate (or at least reduce) the effect of confounding factors, the researcher randomizes over the population, picking a representative sample to receive the treatment and compares their results to those who did not receive the treatment.

While in theory this should give us the best answer as to how to combat poverty, or get children to school, or determine the effect on whatever outcome we hope to affect, it’s also problematic. The process of randomization necessarily leaves some people out, essentially denying them help that could be life-saving or life-transforming. It might also provide benefits that researchers view as small, but that are capable of creating divisions in a community, or perhaps jealousy, suspicion, or bitterness.

Different RCTs deal with this in different ways. Some do nothing. Some hope the treatment group doesn’t notice. Some tell the control group that they will get the treatment after the analysis is done, some take this course but without informing the treatment or control groups. All of these solutions have their issues, which are dependent on the type of treatment. In some cases, control respondents might change their answers to certain questions to appear more sympathetic, or deserving of the treatment. Or they might anticipate how the treatment is going to affect them in the future and have their answers reflect their hopes rather than their actual state.

As in all survey data, the mere act of asking the question affects the answer.

Last week, Kim Yi Dionne, a professor at TAMU, posted on her blog about making the randomization process public. While I don’t think it solves the problem of people changing their answers to what they think they should be (either to make the treatment look better or worse), it does deal with the bitterness and competition that can often arise out of randomly selected treatment groups.

I especially love the education component of it.

[A Malawian research supervisor] posed a question to the audience: if he wanted to know how the papayas in the village tasted, would he have to eat every papaya from every tree (pointing to the nearby papaya trees)? Some villagers laughed, many said “ayi” (no) aloud. He said, instead he would eat one or two from one tree, then take from another tree, but probably not take one from every tree in the village so that he could know more about the papayas in this village.*

Every mentor I have had for research in the developing world has been adamant that we share findings with the community whose participation was requisite to our success. But rarely do we take the opportunity to educate about how we came to our conclusions, hoping the conclusions themselves will suffice.

I think it’s brilliant.