Improving Primary and Secondary School Education

The Challenge

The benefits of quality education are well known: increased earnings and growth, better health outcomes, and stronger, more functional institutions and public services, to name a few.

Getting an education requires a variety of actors to make multiple decisions and actions—from parents saving enough money to send their children to school, to teachers showing up to class, to students engaging with the curriculum both in class and at home. Research in behavioral science shows that people living in the context of chronic scarcity—as do many families in low- and middle-income countries—have a particularly difficult time making these types of decisions. 

Although access to education has improved over the last decade, there are still significant disparities in levels of education, particularly within low- and middle-income countries. The primary problems contributing to these disparities include: 

  • Lack of access to early childhood and primary education, preventing hundreds of millions of children from reaching their development potential and going to school on a regular basis
  • Low levels of education quality, leading to only 14% and 5% of primary school children in low-income countries achieving minimum proficiency levels in math and reading, respectively
  • Low completion levels, with more than three quarters of secondary school students in sub-Saharan Africa, and more than half in Latin America not completing high school


Our Approach

Existing approaches to improve education in low- and middle-income countries tend to focus on structural issues and/or require significant financial investments. For example, in order to make education more accessible, policymakers have focused on building new schools and hiring additional teachers. Despite these efforts, significant obstacles to the most critical part of education, learning, remain—teachers may fail to show up to class or lack the necessary skills and knowledge to teach effectively, students may struggle to learn the curriculum and fall behind, or caregivers may keep their children at home to help out instead of sending them to school. Further, although investments in computer-assisted learning and performance-based incentives for students and teachers have shown some promise, implementation of such solutions at scale can be prohibitively expensive.

Behavioral approaches can have a big impact on reducing the cognitive effects of chronic scarcity on education-related decisions. Importantly, these solutions can be implemented and scaled at low cost. For example, providing cash transfers and helping families set goals and make plans has had a positive impact on school attendance and completion among children and adolescents. Additionally, the use of commitment devices has led to increased savings by families, translating into greater investments in schooling and improved educational outcomes for students. 



There is a clear and urgent need for innovation in order to design impactful, scalable solutions to education in low- and middle-income countries; this is where applied behavioral science can make a difference. 

ideas42’s work to date applying behavioral science to improve access, quality, and completion of education in countries and contexts around the world includes:

Interested in our work applying behavioral science to education in low- and middle-income countries around the world? Get in touch via email: