This blog post is a summary of a $900,000 grant from Omidyar Network to the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO) for general operating support over three years, with a special focus on the development of their Compara Tu Escuela platform. This information is also available in IATI-compliant XML.

Amount of grant: Up to USD $900,000

Date that grant agreement was signed: May 22, 2012

Description:

Omidyar Network has given the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO) a grant of up to USD $900,000 over three years for general operating support with conditional yearly disbursements tied to the fulfillment of impact metrics. IMCO will use the funding to improve the functionality and impact of its online platforms, with a special focus on Compara Tu Escuela.

Context:

We tend to assume that the CEOs of highly successful businesses have exceptional talents, but when we dig deeper, as Malcolm Gladwell did for his book Outliers, we find that they also had access to exceptional opportunities. Gladwell doesn’t dispute that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is an intelligent, talented individual, but he does point out that Gates and co-founder Paul Allen were probably the only high school students in all of Washington State that had access to a mainframe computer thanks in part to their attendance at Seattle’s exclusive Lakeside High School.

What would have become of Bill Gates and Paul Allen had they not attended Lakeside High School? What if instead they were born in the Iztapalapa area of Mexico City where only 60% of high school-aged teenagers attend school? Would Gates and Allen still have been positioned to create Microsoft? And, for that matter, how many Gateses and Allens are growing up in Iztapalapa right now without access to the opportunities that allow them to develop to their full potential?

What we do know is that in Mexico, like elsewhere, education pays. On average, each year of education in Mexico corresponds with 10% greater income. If you graduate from university, you earn on average more than twice the salary of a high school dropout. Individuals with more years of education also have better health and report a higher quality of life. IMCO has made this 8-minute video to describe some of the benefits that correspond with education in Mexico:

Clearly, deciding where your children will go to school won’t only have a dramatic effect on their lives, but also the lives of their children and their children and so on. So how do parents in Mexico choose which schools their children attend? And how can they be more active in improving the quality of education at those schools?

There is an analogy here with restaurants. We use to choose where we would dine out based on the recommendations of friends and random chance. Sometimes we would also follow the recommendation of a newspaper or magazine article, but often with a suspicion that their might be money behind the endorsement.

Platforms like Yelp and Foursquare have had a dramatic effect on how diners find restaurants. Studies by researchers at Harvard Business School and UC Berkeley have found that Yelp ratings dramatically influence diners’ choices; as little as an extra half-star on a five-star scale can increase the number of reservation by 19%.

Prospective diners are presented with a wealth of information when making a choice about where to eat: rankings, reviews, hours, directions, noise level, wheelchair accessibility, price range, attire, and much more. But when it’s time for parents to make the much more important decision about where to enroll their children, most simply choose the nearest school or rely on the recommendations of neighbors and friends. And once their children are enrolled, parents rarely participate in their children’s schools beyond annual parent-teacher meetings.

IMCO’s Compara Tu Escuela platform hopes to become the Yelp for schools in Mexico. It’s not alone. In the US there is GreatSchools, which is funded by Gates Foundation. In Bangalore, India there is the Karnataka Learning Project. And in the Philippines there is CheckMySchool.org. Each platform is slightly different in its approach, but in general they seek to provide students, parents, teachers, school administrators and policy makers with greater information about the performance of individual schools so that 1) parents can choose the best schools for their children and 2) there is greater information to measure the performance of schools over time.

Impact metrics and matching funds:

  • Double the average monthly number of unique visits to Compara Tu Escuela each successive year.
  • Double the average monthly number of site visits to the IMCO website each successive year.
  • During the first year of Compara Tu Escuela’s relaunch, the platform will receive at least 2,000 citizen reports about issues related to schools.
  • Double the number of followers of IMCO’s Twitter account each successive year.
  • 50 annual mainstream media citations of the Compara Tu Escuela platform (newspaper, radio, TV).
  • By the end of the first year IMCO will have had 12 meetings with government education officials to discuss the Compara Tu Escuela Platform and related policy issues.

IMCO must meet the above impact metrics in order to receive continued funding for the project. They also have the opportunity to receive up to $50,000 in matching funds each of the three years of the grant period for every money they raise via crowd funding platforms like Fondeadora and Idea.me. The logic behind the matching funds for crowd-funding campaigns is that the success of Compara tu Escuela depends on the adoption and appropriation of the platform by its users who should be willing to contribute financially to ensure its success.

Final thoughts:

IMCO’s General Director Juan Pardinas has put together an excellent advisory board to judge the progress of its tech activities. We met for the first time last month for a two-hour conversation that felt like it easily could have continued for another six hours.

There seemed to be consensus that it’s not enough to simply provide parents with information about how to choose between schools; the platform should also present opportunities to improve school performance. For most parents it is extremely difficult to take their children out of a poorly performing school and into a highly performing school. There are multiple factors including convenience, social relationships, childcare, and above all, cost.

Meanwhile, decades of educational research have led to concrete actions that can be taken to improve educational performance. A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that five specific strategies applied to public schools in Houston, Texas dramatically increased student performance:

  • Increased instructional time
  • A more rigorous approach to building human capital
  • High-dosage tutoring
  • Frequent use of data to inform instruction
  • A culture of high expectations

Something as seemingly benign as encouraging students to wear sweaters with the branding of the university they would like to attend can actually increase the likelihood that high school students will attend college.

These evidence-based strategies are not well understood or distributed in most Mexican schools. Compara tu Escuela could go beyond informing parents’ choices when it’s time to enroll their children in school; it could also help spread the best ideas to increase school and student performance.

Finally, I would be remiss to not point out that Compara Tu Escuela was the brainchild of IMCO’s Director for Economic Affairs and Regulation, Armando Chacón, who is also the co-author of Cómo Cambiar Historias, a book that focuses on what Mexican society can do to improve education in their country even without the intervention of the government. The book praises volunteer projects like 826 National, City Year, and Big Brothers Big Sisters, and rightfully calls for similar organizations to be founded in Mexico. (I should point out that some do exist, but they are mostly focused on providing scholarships — like Bécalos — or affordable loans — like Lumni.) Once more volunteering programs are launched, Compara tu Escuela could also help prospective volunteers find the most convenient and rewarding programs, and ensure that they are effective and accountable.

If you have any questions or concerns about this grant, please leave a comment below or email me at dsasaki@omidyar.com.

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