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What should be the big debate in education circles for Africa is where to make the marginal $50 million investment... in e-readers for schoolchildren, or in community libraries. 

I would venture the numbers are something like this:

$50m gets you 500,000 Kindle equivalents, which maybe gets you 12 months of reading say, for 2 kids, until it burns out (my wife's lasted 18 months with lite usage in the ideal climate of San Jose!).  So 1 million kids read for a year. 

Alternatively, $50m gets you 2000 libraries with 4 years of library service for, say, 200 kids.  Assuming each library costs $15,000 to get started and then costs $2,500 per year for 4 years, so $25,000 per library.  So $50m gets you 2000x200= 400,000 kids read for 4 years or 1.6 million kid/years. 

So the two are pretty comparable.  Why is all the attention on distributing e-readers rather than extending the pathetically low numbers of community libraries (Burkina has at most 20 village libraries for maybe 5,000 villages that ought to have libraries.  Uganda has a 100 in Uganda Community Library Association, for a population that is almost double the population of Burkina.) 

Then we start thinking of intangibles.  E-readers generate demand for recharging and... nothing else.  I doubt there will be much of a market for repairing e-readers.  Libraries generate demand for... carpenters, authors, publishers, newspapers, librarians, summer reading camp counsellors, good governance, etc etc.  I'd love to see e-readers subject to a proper test... distribute $50m in Kindles, and spend $50m on an NGO (hmmm... FAVL?) library program.

Anyway, what prompted this is this blog entry from Berk Ozler at the World Bank.  Child laptops had very few effects in any case....

A few months ago, the first randomized evaluation of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) came out as a working paper (you can find a brief summary by the authors here), after circulating in the seminar/conference circuit for a while. Many articles and blogs followed (see a good one here by Michael Trucano and find the short piece in the Economist and the responses it generated from OLPC in the comments section) because the study found no effects of OLPC in Peru on test scores in reading and math, no improvements in enrollment or attendance, no change in time spent on homework or motivation, but some improvements in cognitive ability as measured by Raven's Progressive Colored Matrices.
At the Australasian Development Economics Conference (ADEW) I attended last week at Monash University in Melbourne, another paper on a smaller pilot of the OLPC in Nepal presented similar findings: no effects on English or Math test scores for primary school children who were given XO laptops along with their teachers (This study has some problems: the schools in the control group are demonstrably different than the treated schools, so the author uses a difference in difference analysis to get impact estimates. There are worries about mean reversion [Abhijit Banerjee pointed this out during the Q&A] and some strange things happening with untreated grades in treatment schools seeing improvements in test scores, so the findings should be treated with caution). What I want to talk about is not so much the evidence, but the fact that the whole thing looks a mess - both from the viewpoint of the implementers (countries who paid for these laptops) and from that of the OLPC.

Incentives for prisoners in Brazil to read books

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From Tyler Cowen's Marginal Revolution


Brazilian prisoners are now able to shorten their sentences by reading books and writing essays about them.

...four days less for every book they read.  Inmates in four federal prisons holding some of Brazil's most notorious criminals will be able to read up to 12 works of literature, philosophy, science or classics to trim a maximum 48 days off their sentence each year, the government announced.

Prisoners will have up to four weeks to read each book and write an essay which must "make correct use of paragraphs, be free of corrections, use margins and legible joined-up writing," said the notice published on Monday in the official gazette.

The story is here, and for the pointer I thank David Zetland.  Here is the Reddit discussion.

So somebody thinks reading a whole bunch of books has some effects on a certain category of people.... pretty wild actually.   Wish they had designed this as a randomized experiment.


ALA at war.jpg

Will reading diminish stereotype threat and sharpen expectations?

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Something interesting I read today... Crossposted from Derek Bowd's Mindblog (one of my favorite blogs to read).....

An everyday instance of how your thinking affects other people's being is the Pygmalion effect. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson captured this effect in a classic 1963 study. After giving an IQ test to elementary school students, the researchers told the teachers which students would be "academic spurters" because of their allegedly high IQs. In reality, these students' IQs were no higher than those of the "normal" students. At the end of the school year, the researchers found that the "spurters'" had attained better grades and higher IQs than the "normals." The reason? Teachers had expected more from the spurters, and thus given them more time, attention, and care. And the conclusion? Expect more from students, and get better results.

A less sanguine example of how much our thoughts affect other people's I's is stereotype threat. Stereotypes are clouds of attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that follow around a group of people. A stereotype in the air over African Americans is that they are bad at school. Women labor under the stereotype that they suck at math. As social psychologist Claude Steele and others have demonstrated in hundreds of studies, when researchers conjure these stereotypes--even subtly, by, say, asking people to write down their race or gender before taking a test--students from the stereotyped groups score lower than the stereotype-free group. But when researchers do not mention other people's negative views, the stereotyped groups meet or even exceed their competition. The researchers show that students under stereotype threat are so anxious about confirming the stereotype that they choke on the test. With repeated failures, they seek their fortunes in other domains. In this tragic way, other people's thoughts deform the I's of promising students.

As the planet gets smaller and hotter, knowing that "You think, therefore I am" could help us more readily understand how we affect our neighbours and how our neighbours affect us. Not acknowledging how much we impact each other, in contrast, could lead us to repeat the same mistakes.
To me this all seems like a great argument for A LOT more reading, especially by people most subject to stereotype threat, that I presume diminishes when interacted with mindfulness/discernment, both of which I assume are enhanced by a repertoire of empowering fiction.  Reading also creates in your mind a character (the proverbial teacher) who expects more from you.  You have to live up to the expectations of he character.  Did any boy reading Catcher in the Rye not think that Holden might be evaluating him for whether he was a phony?

Atlanta library history tidbit

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I did not know this... from the Atlanta-Fulton public libraries website...

 At the time that the [Atlanta] Carnegie Library opened[in 1902], African-American scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois led a group of African-Americans in an unsuccessful effort to receive representation on the Library Board, full use of the new library, or at least some branches to provide for their needs. Andrew Carnegie had offered funds for a branch library for black citizens, but the money was not used for years. Finally, in 1921, the Auburn Avenue Branch Library (1921-1949) began operating as the first of three branches eventually established to serve African-American patrons in the years before integration.
I am reading Reading Places: Literacy, Democracy, and the Public Library in Cold War America, Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2010 by Christine Pawley.

It is a study of a short-lived bookmobile project in upper Wisconsin in Door and Kewaunee counties in the early 1950s.  Pawley cobbles together the extant records of the project and interviewed many of those involved, including the rural librarians and especially the readers.  In many ways it reminds me so much of our library promotion efforts in Burkina Faso and Ghana, except I keep sighing as I realize that her occasional statistics (like 30% of adult women having attended high school) are almost wildly huge compared with Burkina Faso where maybe 1% of adult women attend high school!  But the most important issues: who are the library services for (it always ends up being for children) and how to get more adults reading (very hard) are issues in Africa.  There are nice descriptions of the tradeoffs faced in extending library services, and the political minefields that affect funding.

The book offers a number of suggestions for quantitative research that I am interested in with some colleagues, namely how to estimate the magnitude of the impacts of library services.  In estimating these magnitudes we are always looking for reasons why library services varied somewhat randomly... then if we can find measures of outcomes that happened years down the road, we have some good methods for estimating the magnitudes of the effects.  Pawley's book reminded me that the WPA built out a lot of rural libraries during the Depression, perhaps comparable in scale to Carnegie's build out earlier....  And of course the Door-Kewaunee experiment would have been like a controlled experiment, except that the two counties are on a peninsula extending into Lake Michigan!  So no "control" counties neighboring them.

An excellent short review of the book by "Marvin" is here and I'm grateful because he reminded me of the series of Landmark biographies that Iread also as a child... doezens of them

"People like to read about themselves"

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That is a quote from "What people want to read about: a study of group interests and a survey of problems in adult reading" by Douglas Waples, Ralph Winfred Tyler, 1931, Joint Committee on a Study of Reading Habits, American Library Association, Carnegie Corporation of New York. 

It is a truism that always bears repeating and always has to be qualified.
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The article cites no research or evidence on the impact of school libraries compared with "full-day" teachers.  Remarkable actually that a large-scale randomized experiment has not been run where one period a day students spend in quiet free reading time in the library, with helpful guidance about reading choices from a librarian.  My prior is that 2-3 years of that "treatment" would show that library reading time generates better reading scores and more "knowledge" than in-class time, which has to be marginally effective in its 7th hour, and that the variable costs are probably similar if not lower (libraries do have significant fixed costs, but the irony of the article - validated by our local experience here in San Jose- is that the public loves spending money on library infrastructure, while school officials love cutting library variable costs).

The schools superintendent in Lancaster, Pa., said he had to eliminate 15 of the district's 20 librarians to save full-day kindergarten classes. In the Salem-Keizer school district in Oregon, all 48 elementary and middle school librarians would lose their jobs under a budget proposal that faces a vote next week. In Illinois's School District 90, which spans several rural and suburban communities in the southern part of the state, parent volunteers have been running the libraries in the district's seven schools since September, in what the schools superintendent, Todd Koehl, described as "a last-ditch effort" to avoid closing their doors. And in New York City, half of the secondary schools appear to be in violation of a state regulation requiring them to have a librarian on staff, with the city currently employing 365 licensed librarians. "The dilemma that schools will face is whether to cut a teacher who has been working with kids all day long in a classroom or cut teachers who are working in a support capacity, like librarians," the city's chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, said in an interview. In New York, as in districts across the country, many school officials said they had little choice but to eliminate librarians, having already reduced administrative staff, frozen wages, shed extracurricular activities and trimmed spending on supplies. Technological advances are also changing some officials' view of librarians: as more classrooms are equipped with laptops, tablets or e-readers, Mr. Polakow-Suransky noted, students can often do research from their desks that previously might have required a library visit. "It's the way of the future," he said.
"The way of the future"?  He needs to visit Martin Luther King, Jr. library in San Jose, or Joyce Ellington Branch library to see how nicely libraries fit into the future.
I'll read the paper, but I am wary of abstracts that don't actually say what they found... other than "insights"... apparently they didn't find any way to improve themselves as effective communicators.  (Hey, it's a blog!  Remember "being snarky"?)

We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of 'culturomics,' focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. Culturomics extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.
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FAVL Blog

Books, reading, and libraries relevant to Africa by Michael Kevane, co-Director of FAVL and economist at Santa Clara University.

Other contributors include Kate Parry, FAVL-East Africa director, Peace Corps volunteer Emilie Crofton, Krystle Austin, Elisee Sare, and Monique Nadembega.

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