Who benefits most from school access policies? A gender breakdown of results from randomized evaluations

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Classroom full of children raising their hand
Children at school in Kenya. Photo: Aude Guerrucci | J-PAL/IPA

The majority of out of school children are girls, and much of the rhetoric about improving access to education focuses on girls. Yet many of the policies designed to improve primary school access (particularly those evaluated with randomized evaluations) do not specifically target girls. In J-PAL’s recent review of education RCTs, Roll Call, we therefore ask: Which gender benefits most from these school access policies?

We were surprised to find that recent systematic reviews of education evaluations reported very few results by gender, even though many of the randomized evaluations in a recent J-PAL review on student participation included results disaggregated by gender.

The results of the simple exercise we conducted were clear and compelling: In all but two cases, school attendance improved for girls as much as—if not more than—for boys (the difference was statistically significant in 10 out of 25 cases). The two exceptions where boys’ attendance improved more than girls’ were cases in which boys had lower attendance than girls to start with. In other words, policies aimed at improving school attendance in general appear to benefit the disadvantaged gender (usually but not always girls) most.

The J-PAL education team worked hard to put the results of multiple studies into as consistent a metric as possible when data was available, thus allowing comparisons across studies.

Our measure captures both the number of children enrolled in school and how much children attend school once they are enrolled. For example, if 50 percent of children are enrolled, but those who are enrolled show up 100 percent of the time, the overall attendance rate for the community is 50 percent. If 100 percent of children are enrolled but they show up only 50 percent of the time, the attendance rate is also 50 percent.

In the chart below, reproduced from pages 22-23 of Roll Call, we show the school participation rates for boys in the control group (teal) and the increase in participation resulting from the policy change (yellow). We then show the initial participation rate and the change for girls. In most cases the gender gap in enrollment or attendance after the intervention (teal plus yellow) is smaller than it was before the intervention.

There are, naturally, caveats to our conclusion that policies aimed at both genders tend to benefit girls as much as, or more than, boys. We are not saying that there is never a case for gender-targeted interventions: Clearly such interventions are sometimes needed when there are very specific barriers faced by one gender or another. Indeed, a few of the policies summarized in the bulletin were designed with gender disparities from the start (for example, village-based schools in Afghanistan).

Our attempt to put all results in one metric has disadvantages: We weigh enrollment and attendance equally, while it may be that increasing enrollment by 5 percent—getting more children into at least some school—is more beneficial to society than increasing the percentage of days enrolled children attend school by 5 percent. In some cases, we did not have both enrollment and attendance data (both are necessary to calculate our aggregate attendance rate) and we had to make assumptions.

But we feel these disadvantages are outweighed by the benefits of being able to view results through one metric. In particular, it can be extremely difficult to draw conclusions from a review which cites results on entirely different bases: It’s hard for our brains to process a comparison between, say, a 17 percent reduction of dropouts on a base of 32 percent with a 14 percent increase in attendance on a base of 55 percent. Creating a metric consistent across multiple studies makes it much easier to compare results and draw policy insights.

Understanding the differential impacts of education policies on girls and boys is critical for policymakers seeking to design programs that reach the most children. For more lessons from our analysis of 58 evaluations, read the full bulletin: Roll Call: Getting Children Into School.

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