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JPAM Featured Article: Can Social-Emotional Learning Reduce School Dropout in Developing Countries

May 20, 2016 12:05 PM

"Can Social-Emotional Learning Reduce School Dropout in Developing Countries?"

As part of our ongoing effort to promote JPAM authors to the APPAM membership and the public policy world at large, we are asking JPAM authors to answer a few questions to promote their research article on the APPAM website.

By: Huan Wang, James Chu, Prashant Loyalka, Tao Xin, Yaojiang Shi, Qinghe Qu and Chu Yang

What was the genesis/history of the idea for your research?

One reason that students drop out of school is because it is too costly. A previous study had shown that giving cash to families who keep their children in school (commonly called conditional cash transfers or CCT) reduced dropout rates among early adolescent (junior high) students in poor areas of China. However, the program was not as effective as we expected. We noticed that many of the students who dropped out mentioned that they left school because it was too stressful and competitive. This led us to think about whether we could reduce dropout by reducing learning anxiety at school. We focused on social-emotional learning programs because they teach students ‘soft’ skills like stress management, help-seeking behaviors, or how to respond to peer pressure. We were really interested in whether such programs—implemented by real government agencies—could actually reduce learning anxiety and dropout rates.

What is the main conclusion that becomes evident from your research? (Or, what is our main takeaway?)

If our goal is to reduce dropout rates in developing countries, supply-side interventions that improve the experience of students in schools may be just as important as demand-side interventions that help students and their families pay for school. Among students at highest risk for dropping out, the government-run SEL program evaluated in this field experiment reduced dropout rates by 7.3 percentage points. This effect is particularly meaningful because it is comparable to effects from more expensive conditional cash transfer programs (7.6 percentage points). 

What are some of the more interesting or surprising findings/conclusions, you discovered during this process?

Our prior was that the SEL program would have larger effects on reducing learning anxiety. After all, the program was geared toward reducing anxiety in the classroom. However, the program only temporarily reduced learning anxiety in the shorter term (8 months), with the effects wearing off after 15 months. 

What next steps do you envision should be taken because of your findings academically and/or practically? 

One future step is to ascertain exactly how the program reduces dropout. As noted above, contrary to our expectations, the program does not appear to clearly reduce learning anxiety. We show suggestive evidence in our paper that the SEL program helps students cope with anxiety. That is, students still feel anxious, but they know how to deal with this anxiety better instead of simply running away from it (dropping out). It would be important to establish this idea more rigorously in future studies. 

Authors' Bio

huan_wangHuang Wang is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Economics and Management at Northwest University, Xi’an, China. She studies regional economics. She has been involved with REAP (Rural Education Action Program) since 2010. Her research focuses on reducing dropout in rural China's junior high schools. She received a scholarship from the China Scholarship Council as a visiting student researcher at Stanford University in 2013.





james_chuJames Chu is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Stanford University. His research is on inequality and stratification in educational systems, with a focus on in-school social processes (e.g. grading discrimination, bullying, social-emotional health, competition) that drive disparities in achievement and attainment. James managed randomized controlled trials prior to graduate school.




prasahnt_loyalkaPrashant Loyalka is a Center Research Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, an Assistant Professor (Research) at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, and a Research Fellow at National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. His research focuses on examining/addressing inequalities in the education of youth and on understanding/improving the quality of education received by youth in large developing economies, including China, Russia and India. His work assesses and compares student learning in higher education, high school and compulsory schooling. Furthermore, he conducts large-scale evaluations of educational programs and policies that seek to improve student outcomes.



tao_xinTao Xin is a Professor at the Institute of Developmental Psychology at Beijing Normal University. His research focuses on mental health and education; the theory and techniques of large-scale assessment; the relationship between education and adolescent development; and psychological statistics.






yaojiang_shiYaojiang Shi is a Professor at the Center for Experimental Economics in Education, Shaanxi Normal University in Xi'an, China. He is the founding director of the Center for Experimental Economics in Education (CEEE). His research interests include the emergence and development of economic enterprises in rural China, as well as how incentives can affect government performance. His work is increasingly focused on China's education reforms and using empirical research to identify important leverage points for education policy that addressed the needs of the rural poor.




qinghe_quQinghe Qu is a Research Assistant at the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy at the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research. Her research interests focus on improving education in rural China and human capital investment. She received her MA in Psychology from Beijing Forestry University.






chu_yangChu Yang is an Assistant Professor at the School of Economics and Management at Xi 'an Shiyou (Petroleum) University. His research focuses on reducing dropout in rural China's junior high schools. He received a scholarship from the China Scholarship Council as a visiting student researcher at University of Pittsburgh in 2013.


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