Lant Pritchett on performance-based approaches to education

In this short video, Lant Pritchett gives his views on performance-based approaches to education. He argues that getting nearly every child in the world into school is one of the success stories of both development and the 20th century. Now the agenda must shift from focusing on access to focusing on learning. This approach will better prepare children for the challenges of today’s world and the challenges of the world of the future. Lant argues for more pressure on performance in education. Schools should be judged on their ability to provide learning, with people who work in the schools, including the teachers, having the space and autonomy to learn what works and provide the education that is needed. They also need feedback to check what they are doing is working. More flexibility for schools and providers is needed with clearer direction around what outcomes need to be achieved.


Lant Pritchett is Professor of the Practice of International Development at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In addition he works as a consultant to, is a non-resident fellow of the Center for Global Development, and is a senior fellow of BREAD. He is also co-editor of the Journal of Development Economics.

He graduated from Brigham Young University with a B.S. in Economics and from MIT with a PhD in Economics. He worked for the World Bank, where he held a number of positions in the Bank’s research complex, including as an adviser to Lawrence Summers when he was Vice President 1991-1993. From 1998 to 2000 he worked in Indonesia. From 2000 to 2004 he worked as a Lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has been part of the team producing many World Bank reports, including: World Development Report 1994: Infrastructure for Development, Assessing Aid: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why (1998), World Development Report 2004: Making Services Work for the Poor, and Economic Growth in the 1990s: Learning from a Decade of Reforms (2005).

In addition he has authored (alone or with one of his 22 co-authors) over 50 papers published in refereed journals, chapters in books, or as articles, as least some of which are sometimes cited. In addition to economics journals his work has appeared in specialized journals in demography, education, and health. In 2006 he published his first solo authored book Let Their People Come.

Selected papers by Lant Pritchett

Pritchett L. and Viarengo M. 2010, Explaining the Cross-National Time Series Variation in Life Expectancy: Income, Women’s Education, Shifts, and What Else? United Nations Development Programme.

This paper examines the variation across countries and evolution over time of life expectancy. Using historical data going back to the beginning of the 20th century several basic facts about the relationship between national income and life expectancy are established. The paper shows that even by examining the augmented Preston curve there is no indication that the Preston curve is “breaking down” and no indication from over 100 years of data that a very strong relationship between national income and life expectancy will not persist, particularly over the ranges of income of primary interest to the Human Development Report.

Empirical findings show that there are actually fewer “puzzles” than might appear while trying to reconcile the strong cross-sectional association with the time evolution of life expectancy in specific countries and most of the existing “puzzles” come from using either very short time-horizons or very small moves in income per capita when the Preston curve is a long-run phenomena.

The paper also discusses the phenomena of the cross-national convergence, with the life expectancy of the poorer countries increasing, in absolute terms, faster than those of the rich countries and how the findings about the augmented Preston curve relate to discussions of health policy.

Pritchett L. 2009, Long-Term Global Challenges in education: Are There Feasible Steps Today? Chapter 3 in Shaping Tomorrow Today by Lempert R. Et al (eds). RAND

This chapter raises two sets of issues. The first is the current status of the level and distribution of measured learning achievement and whether students emerging from schools around the world are ready for the economy of today (much less the next 40 years of their working lives). This breaks into three distinct concerns: (1) the failure of most countries of the world to produce students with even minimally adequate levels of actual learning, (2) the long-run stagnation of measured learning achievement in nearly every single OECD country—in spite of massively increasing inputs, and (3) the question of the educational preparation of superstars in an increasingly global market for top talent.

The second issues are about the structure of educational systems themselves. Most countries have educational systems that were developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and that are almost identical now to the systems as they consolidated in the 1950s. In almost no area of activity has there been as little organisational and systemic innovation as in the production of schooling—which perhaps helps explain the outcomes observed. The question is whether the existing educational systems, as systems, are sufficiently adaptive so as to make short-run accommodations add up to adequate long-run change. In the author’s view, this is an open, not rhetorical, question.

Pritchett L. and Viarengo M. 2008, Producing superstars for the economic Mundial: The Mexican Predicament with quality of education. Harvard University, USA.

The question of how to build the capabilities to both initiate a resurgence of growth and facilitate Mexico’s transition into a broader set of growth enhancing industries and activities is pressing. In this regard it seems important to understand the quality of the skills of the labour force.

Moreover, in increasingly knowledge based economies it is not just the skills of the typical worker than matter, but also the skills of the most highly skilled. While everyone is aware of the lagging performance of Mexico on internationally comparable examinations like the PISA, what has been less explored is the consequence of that for the absolute number of very highly skilled. We examine how many students Mexico produces per year above the “high international benchmark” of the PISA in mathematics. While the calculations are somewhat crude and only indicative, our estimates are that Mexico produces only between 3,500 and 6,000 students per year above the high international benchmark (of a cohort of roughly 2 million). In spite of educational performance that is widely lamented within the USA, it produces a quarter of a million, Korea 125,000 and even India, who in general has much worse performance on average, produces over 100,000 high performance in math students per year. The issue is not about math per se, this is just an illustration and we feel similar findings would hold in other domains. The consequences of the dearth of globally competitive human capital are explored, with an emphasis on the rise of super star phenomena in labour markets (best documented in the USA). Finally, we explore the educational policies that one might consider to focus on the upper tail of performance, which are at odds with much of the “quality” focus of typical educational policies which are often remedial and focused on the lower, not upper tail of performance.

Pritchett L. 2008, The Policy Irrelevance of the Economics of Education: Is “Normative as Positive” Just Useless, or is it Worse? Harvard Kennedy School, USA. 

A high quality basic education for every child has been enshrined as a development goal since even before there were development goals. Promoting the achievement of this goal around the world, particularly the “high quality” component of the goal, requires a serviceable general positive model of education policies—a coherent causal explanation of why governments actually do what they do. The difference between thinking small and thinking big in research the economics of education and in “policy advice” depends on whether researchers and policy advisers have a correct positive model of the process of the diffusion to scale of new knowledge, of potential innovations and of what factors influence policy adoption. “Normative as Positive” (NAP) is one possible positive model, which explains that the policies actually chosen were chosen because they maximize some aggregate social welfare function. But since NAP is false, “policy recommendations” based on NAP will be relevant to the actual process of policy making only by coincidence. This is equally true of policy recommendations based on more “rigorous” empirical methods like field and randomized experiments—these techniques are intrinsically no more nor less policy relevant than other research methods—they still must be linked with a plausible positive model of policy and policy change if they hope to have influence at scale. A false positive model such as NAP is not only useless as a guide to policy relevance, it is potentially worse than useless as it may point the research and “policy” work of economists and educationists in precisely the wrong direction—towards nation-states, technocrats and bureaucrats (or “policy makers”) as the locus for educational reform rather than students, parents, communities, and teachers.

Pritchett L & Woolcock M. 2004, Solutions When the Solution is the Problem: Arraying the Disarray in Development. World Development; 32 (2) 

An analytic framework for tracing three waves of efforts to provide key public services in developing countries is provided. Persistent (though not universal) failure has been the product of (a) the imperatives of large bureaucracies to discount decisions that are inherently both discretionary and transaction-intensive (and thus less able to be codified and controlled), and (b) good and bad reasons for believing that, because modern bureaucracies underpin rich country prosperity now, simply adopting their institutional form elsewhere is the surest way of facilitating development. Contemporary debates regarding the merits of incorporating more “participatory” approaches into public service delivery are best understood in this context.

Sumarto S, Suryahadi A & Pritchett L. 2003, Safety Nets or Safety Ropes? Dynamic Benefit Incidence of Two Crisis Programs in Indonesia. World Development; 31 (7)

The authors extend the standard concept of static benefit incidence to dynamic benefit incidence––the relationship between programme benefits and changes in household expenditures. Using panel data this paper compares the static and dynamic benefit incidence of two programmes: sales of subsidised rice targeted on administrative criteria and a set of public employment schemes based on self-selection targeting. Programme design appears to have made a substantial difference in both static and dynamic benefit incidence. The employment creation schemes were much more responsive to expenditure shocks than were sales of subsidised rice. For instance, a household from the middle quintile of expenditures in the pre-crisis survey period (May 1997) who suffered the worst quintile shock was four times more likely to have participated in the employment creation programme than a similar household with a positive shock but only one and a half times more likely to receive subsidised rice. Using the observed pattern of static and dynamic benefit incidence to compare the two programmes and a uniform transfer, the authors show that if the middle-income households are sufficiently risk averse the additional insurance value of programmes with superior dynamic benefit incidence can alter the median voter outcome in favour of more targeted programmes.

Pritchett L. 1996, Where has all the education gone? The World Bank Working Paper 1581, The World Bank.

Cross-national data on economic growth rates show that increases in educational capital resulting from improvements in the educational attainment of the labour force have had no positive impact on the growth rate of output per worker. In fact, contends the author, the estimated impact of growth of human capital on conventional non-regression growth accounting measures of total factor productivity is large, strongly significant, and negative. Needless to say, this at least appears to contradict the current conventional wisdom in development circles about education’s importance for growth. After establishing that this negative result about the education-growth linkage is robust, credible, and consistent with previous literature, the author explores three possible explanations that reconcile the abundant evidence about wage gains from schooling for individuals with the lack of schooling impact on aggregate growth: 1) that schooling creates no human capital. Schooling may not actually raise cognitive skills or productivity but schooling may nevertheless raise the private wage because to employers it signals a positive characteristic like ambition or innate ability; 2) that the marginal returns to education are falling rapidly where demand for educated labour is stagnant.

Expanding the supply of educated labour where there is stagnant demand for it causes the rate of return to education to fall rapidly, particularly where the sluggish demand is due to limited adoption of innovations; and 3) that the institutional environments in many countries have been sufficiently perverse that the human capital accumulated has been applied to activities that served to reduce economic growth. In other words, possibly education does raise productivity, and there is demand for this more productive educated labour, but demand for educated labour comes from individually remunerative but socially wasteful or counterproductive activities – a bloated bureaucracy, for example, or overmanned state enterprises in countries where the government is the employer of last resort – so that while individuals’ wages go up with education, output stagnates, or even falls.

This HEART Talks video is part of a series of resources on education reform in developing countries. The accompanying HEART Talks videos are:

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