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Winter 2012

Lecture Hall: Felipe Barrera-Osorio

Felipe Barrera-OsorioFelipe Barrera-Osorio says his upbringing in Colombia wasn't typical. His father graduated from MIT with a Ph.D. in engineering, and his college-educated mother helped spark in her children a long-lasting love for learning. Through them, Barrera-Osorio also learned about public service and the importance of investing talent and energy for the greater good, as his father had done by returning to Colombia after Cambridge to help the country tackle various problems. In September, Barrera-Osorio spoke to Ed. about how his parents influenced his thinking, his recent move from the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and his love for a comic book character with a dog named Snowy.

You're an economist. Why education? I try to apply economic tools to analyze education problems. I believe education is one of the most powerful institutions to level the field for so many people.

Your research in places like Pakistan is, in some ways, your public service. For the last four years, I have been doing research on the effects of a program in Punjab, Pakistan. The government is creating a partnership with the private sector to provide good, quality education to low-income individuals. The government provides financial resources for each kid enrolled in the private partner school, but schools have to show continuous student performance improvements, measured by a standardized test. There are also bonuses for teachers and schools.

What is your research looking at? Three fundamental questions: First, can this program increase the enrollment rate, especially for low-income individuals? Second, are the schools in the program delivering higher performance, measured by individual test results, vis-à-vis similar schools that do not belong to the program? Third, when there are financial incentives attached to performance, do we see certain actions in the schools, such as teaching to the test or selecting only the best students? Our results, so far, have been quite impressive. These schools are receiving more students than similar schools, and there is evidence of real gains in student test performance.

What drives better test scores? This is the new area of my research. Results show that schools at risk of losing benefits react in a fast and quite effective way, improving performance from one academic period to the next. In other words, "stick" incentives work. However, it is unclear what type of actions the schools are taking to improve. They haven't changed the composition or type of teachers, increased inputs, or selected better students. It seems that, with the same resources, they are able to increase efficiency.

You have another project in Uganda? Uganda is facing another type of problem. Thanks to the free education policy, classrooms in public schools are overcrowded and the quality of education is low. The government is exploring several policy options, including the creation of double shifts. The double shift is a polemic measure. On one hand, on average, systems with longer school hours have higher test scores on international tests like PISA. On the other hand, very large class sizes are correlated with low performance. I am working on a randomized experiment to assess what happens when schools go from one to two shifts.

You've had your own shift. How is life at Harvard different than the World Bank? Managing my time. Last week was my first week here and I said to myself, "I need to be a lot more disciplined." Here there is a lot of freedom. You decide how to use your time.

Your dad was a big influence, but your mom also shaped you. How? Two months after my father died, when I was nine, my mother received her college degree in psychology at the age of 36. While working full time, she raised her three sons, alone, yet she was also very present in our lives. And she made the ordinary special. She'd cook our favorite meals. She made sure she ate with us every day. She didn't do "extraordinary" deeds, but these everyday actions made very extraordinary statements. I am a father of two, in a household with two adults, and I barely can cope. My mother built a household that teemed with security. Nowadays, when I think about her, I think about being secure. About being loved.

Your Facebook profile picture is from Tintin. You're a fan? When my mother entered the university, I was in kindergarten. She would pick me up at daycare at noon. We came home, ate lunch, and then read. All sorts of books. Among my favorites was Tintin. We read it over and over. And my father used to read to us articles from the Britannica, probably way above my understanding. Now that I have my two sons, three and five, I read even more diverse books with them: Verne, Rowling, Tolkien, Feynman, you name it. And, of course, Tintin.