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Essays On K-12 Education in Developing Countries – Causes, Consequences and Impediments

By Naveen Sunder, Cornell University, 2019

This dissertation focusses on the causes and consequences of low human capital accumulation among children and adolescents in developing countries in Asia and Africa. My analysis is divided into three separate papers that explore different aspects of this research agenda. Broadly, chapter 1 of the dissertation describes the intergenerational learning impacts of a national–level school construction policy in India. Chapter 2 picks up where chapter one ends – using unique 17–year panel data from Senegal and Madagascar this analysis shows that children who perform better on learning tests in second grade have better later life (young adult) educational and learning outcomes (ages 23–25). In chapter 3, I take a step back and explore the role of one of the biggest impediments of school learning in the developing world – child marriage, which accounts for a large proportion of school dropout among girls in developing countries. In the first chapter of my dissertation, I examine the impact of a national-level school construction program in India on educational outcomes of direct beneficiaries and their children. Between the years 1993–2004, the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) served over 50 million children and prioritized districts with below-average female literacy rates. I use a fuzzy regression discontinuity design to estimate the causal impact of the program by comparing outcomes of school-age children in districts on either side of the average female literacy cutoff. To uncover the difference in timing of program implementation across districts, I use unique archival information that I collected and digitized. The results show that DPEP increased school access, enrollment, literacy and years of education for both male and female direct beneficiaries. I then provide one of the first evidence of intergenerational effects of a school construction policy. Using test score data spanning the years 2007–2014, I find that children whose mothers were DPEP beneficiaries had higher scores on math (0.18 S.D.), vernacular (0.19 S.D.) and English (0.09 S.D.) tests. Daughters’ test scores went up by more than 10 to 15 percentage points higher than that of sons. Fathers DPEP exposure had no effect on children’s learning. I find evidence that the intergenerational impacts may be mediated through mothers’ increased bargaining power, higher investments in children’s education and better health/health-related behaviors. In the second chapter, I (along with my co-authors) study the determinants of human capital outcomes of young adults in Madagascar and Senegal, employing a production function approach. Using unique and comparable long– term panel data sets, which span more than 15 years, from both countries, we find that test scores in second grade are strong predictors of school attainment and French/math skills of individuals in their early twenties. The association between second–grade skills and later–life outcomes is stronger among girls than boys, and likewise, stronger for math than French test scores. These findings highlight the importance of not falling behind during early school years, as it can lead to worse long–term outcomes, particularly for vulnerable groups like girls. We also find that height, a proxy measure of childhood health and nutritional status, does not affect the magnitude and significance of the early childhood test score variable, and also has an independent effect on the test scores of young adults in Senegal. Chapter 3 analyzes whether Ugandan women who marry at younger ages fare differently on a wide range of later life outcomes than women who marry at later ages. Using a nationally representative dataset, I identify the causal impacts of women’s marriage age by using their age at menarche, a plausibly exogenous variable, as an instrumental variable. Results indicate that a one year delay in marriage leads to higher educational attainment (0.5–0.75 years), literacy (10 p.p.) and labor force participation (8 p.p.) among women. I also explore intergenerational effects of later marriage and find that the children of mothers who marry later have higher BMI (0.11 kg/m2) and hemoglobin levels (0.18 g/dl), and they are also less likely to be anemic (4 p.p.). Finally, I present evidence that suggests that the observed effects might be mediated through an enhancement of women’s agency within their household and positive assortative matching in the marriage market. By pointing to the beneficial consequences of delaying marriage, this research calls for concerted policy action to prevent child marriage.