COVID-19 has forced governments across the world to work on the fly to help their residents cope. Peru’s Ministry of Education (Minedu) recently began a slightly unusual strategy: it started national broadcasts of a telenovela meant to reach its students.
Minedu wants its students watching a daytime soap opera because the broadcast, Decidiendo para un Futuro Mejor (Choosing a Better Future), isn’t your usual telenovela—it provides specific, accurate information about the long-term benefits of staying in school to students who may be facing a decision about whether or not to continue their education.
A recent study found that an earlier version of the telenovela, screened in urban classrooms, reduced dropout rates. Can a version adapted for the realities of COVID-19, when many students whose education has been paused will face a decision about whether to return, produce similar results?
How health crises impact student decisions
Time away from school has long-term consequences. A recent report from the World Bank estimates that five months of school closures will, on average globally, result in a loss of 0.6 years of schooling and USD$16,000 of earning during a student’s lifetime. An even worse scenario is that faced with the delay, a large number of students may drop out of school altogether.
Time away from school has long-term consequences.
Evidence from Ebola in West Africa during the 2010s highlights the potential for health crises that also affect economies and education systems to create significant long-term disruptions: the World Bank found that 25 percent of students in Liberia and 13 percent in Sierra Leone did not return to schools when they re-opened. The main reasons were economic: families could no longer afford school fees, and they needed their children to generate income at home. A recent paper by Oriana Bandiera et al. shows that girls between 12 and 17 years old in their sample in Sierra Leone suffered the most from this dynamic.
Preventing dropout in Peru
Peru has eight million students currently out of school, and dropout is a priority policy issue even in normal times. Since March, the Ministry of Education has made a tremendous effort to provide students with the necessary materials for high-quality education through a set of remote learning tools called “Aprendo en Casa” (more information available in this blog post). However, access to these remote learning tools is not equal for all students—and social distancing has increased older children’s responsibilities for unpaid care work in the household and paid labor outside of it.
Access to these remote learning tools is not equal for all students—and social distancing has increased older children’s responsibilities for unpaid care work in the household and paid labor outside of it.
Many students in Peru face difficult trade-offs between the long-term benefits of education and its short-term costs. COVID-19 makes this decision even more difficult, as the future of schooling remains unclear and the pandemic makes economic life more precarious for households.
Building on a promising program
A strong body of existing evidence suggests that motivating students and parents to invest in education can be effective—specifically by providing information about returns on education. Hypothesizing that students and parents may underestimate the return of education and choose less education than they would with more accurate perceptions of its value, IPA Peru partnered with J-PAL LAC, MineduLab, and researchers Christopher Neilson, Francisco Gallego, and Oswaldo Molina to carry out a randomized evaluation of a cost-effective “telenovela” intervention to reduce dropout in more than 3,800 primary and secondary schools across the country.
In urban areas, four 15-minute videos were shown in classrooms from the fifth year of primary to the fifth year of secondary school. Each episode focused on a different topic, such as the returns to education by level and major, the social benefits of education, or scholarship opportunities for higher education. (In rural areas, only one 30-minute video was shown in classrooms to students in the fifth and sixth years of primary school.)
The preliminary results were very encouraging: students’ and parents’ perceptions about the returns of education changed, and two-year dropout rates dropped. A year later, Minedu decided to scale the program to reach about 500,000 students in 2,000 secondary schools with full class days, mostly in urban areas.
Can it work during COVID-19?
With COVID-19’s impacts on students in mind, this existing in-country evidence suggests one promising path forward. Soon after the pandemic arrived, IPA and the World Bank began working together on an updated version of the video with the most recent data about returns to education and scholarship opportunities. To reach as many families as possible, Minedu agreed to broadcast the updated video nationwide. We don’t yet know whether the video will have the same impact as it did in the original evaluation: the environment will be much less controlled than it was when teachers screened the telenovelas during the school day.
To evaluate this new iteration, we are using an encouragement design to randomly select certain parents who will receive text messages and phone calls about when the videos will air and what their content will be. Participants are being randomized at the school level. To optimize resources, we decided to prioritize urban schools because households in these areas have higher cell phone coverage on average. Within these areas, the schools included are the ones with the greatest percentage of student dropouts.
The experience so far has taught us how useful data collected during prior health crises (like the Ebola crisis) can be in revealing COVID-19’s potential policy consequences. We have also seen how evidence produced in a different context—whether the Ebola crisis or Peru during normal times—can motivate policymakers who don’t have time to build a “brand new” response in an urgent situation.
Evidence produced in a different context—whether the Ebola crisis or Peru during normal times—can motivate policymakers who don’t have time to build a “brand new” response in an urgent situation.
“Crisis brings on an additional set of challenges. If you can find the data to test how your program works in a crisis, that’s also critical information,” said Oeindrila Dube in an interview on the IPA blog earlier this year. As we stay tuned for the next soap opera episode, we hope our evaluation is able to provide that critical information for Peru’s education sector.