Here is a nice article about an experiment done in Kenya to study the impact of free textbooks on test scores. The conclusion--"that many students may be left behind in societies with curricula that cater to the elite"-- is not so startling, especially if you have seen how education system works in the developing countries.
Providing textbooks to students who lack them seems to be an obvious way to improve educational performance. Textbook provision is almost universally accepted as an effective education policy, even by those who doubt the effectiveness of increased school spending. Yet our results show that providing textbooks to rural schools in Kenya did not increase average test scores, although it did increase the scores of students with high initial achievement. The latter finding suggests that the official textbooks are ill-suited for the typical student and may reflect more fundamental problems with centralised educational systems, heterogeneous student populations, and entrenched elite power. Remedial education and suitably designed achievement tracking may be promising ways to address these larger problems.
Although, Glewwe, Kremer, and Moulin show that free textbooks do not necessarily increase scores of all the participants (students from elite families did see increase in scores), such interventions designed to continue for at least until primary or secondary schooling do increase scores, as shown by the intervention in Sulu and Basilan in Mindanao, Philippines. Anxiety of discontinuation of such intervention de-motivates students and result in high drop out rates and low score. If you guarantee such intervention contingent on some results/progress, then students do study hard and achieve higher scores. Providing free text books, chairs, tables, school supplies, stationary, and scholarship for children from very poor households instead of cash for education sector reform, not only raises overall exam scores, but also help increase enrollment and graduation rates. Highly selective intervention based on needs generally generates better outcomes.
While doing an internship in Washington, D.C. during Spring 2008 semester and summer of 2008, I studied and analyzed progress report of twelve schools in Mindanao, Philippines and looked at how highly selective intervention, as opposed to wholesale intervention in the name of education sector reform, can help attain better results in a very cost effective way.
Asia America Initiative (AAI), the NGO where I interned, is intervening in education sector in one of the most impoverished regions (Sulu and Basilan) in Philippines. Unlike other interventions, this approach was based on a needs of the community and schools, and the community itself was encouraged to engage in the project. For a detailed discussion about the project intervention and a related paper click here. I also designed an economic model for the institutions. Click here for a general tree diagram of intervention diagnostic. The result of highly selective intervention is very pretty impressive. Enrollment rates and graduation rates increased, so did IQ test scores. . Below are some of the results: