Juan Saavedra has spent more than 20 years researching how developing countries can do a better job educating children in ways that improve opportunities and reduce poverty. With a particular focus on education in his native country, Colombia, Saavedra has studied how socio-economic policies such as school vouchers and conditional cash grants for schooling can encourage attendance and boost performance. Saavedra joined the faculty of Harvard Kennedy School this year as a lecturer in public policy after spending ten years at the University of Southern California. For Saavedra, it was something of a homecoming. He earned a Master in Public Administration-International Development degree at HKS in 2003 and then spent several years studying at Harvard for his PhD in public policy. The title of his dissertation captures what has been his career obsession: The Role of Resources and Incentives in Education Production. Saavedra previously taught at his alma mater, the University of the Andes in Bogota, and has conducted numerous on-the-ground studies in Colombia in partnership with policy implementers testing the effectiveness of various educational innovations.
Saavedra answers questions about his work and his teaching:
Q: How do your research and teaching connect to solutions to pressing problems in the world today?
My research is focused on expanding educational opportunities in developing countries, where access to secondary and tertiary education is still pretty limited relative to developed countries. While I have conducted projects in various countries, most of my past and current projects are in Colombia, where we have built strong research practitioner partnerships with governments, NGOs and the private sector. A methodological theme that connects my research and teaching at HKS concerns the design, implementation and scaling of evidence-based policy that builds on rigorous empirical evaluations. A more substantive theme concerns the economic impact of policies that aim to increase access to education at various levels, including but not limited to school vouchers, information provision, and conditional cash transfers for schooling.
Q: What is one thing that you want students to come away with from your teaching?
While I teach technical material in core economics courses for MPPs and MPA/IDs, my focus has always been to be able to promote a very intuitive level of understanding of how economic forces shape behavior, and how economics is useful to understand theoretically and measure empirically the way public policy may affect social welfare. I strive to make the content relevant and application-based, which resonates with the student body at HKS. I always tell my students that verbalization is key: being able to explain a concept in lay terms to a non-specialist is the best test for content mastery.
Q: What research findings have been most eye-opening or surprising for you?
In a recent working paper with long-term collaborators, we look at the long-term impacts of a secondary school voucher program in Colombia targeted to low-income students. The Colombian voucher program initial had a modest goal: provide access to secondary school for low-income students by tapping excess capacity in existing low-cost private schools. Our findings suggest that the program may have achieved much more than that. In addition to expanding access to secondary school, it opened up avenues to educational opportunities that in turn increased the likelihood of the typical participating student would transition into the middle class in adulthood, and did so at a very low-cost to taxpayers. Essentially the program increased economic opportunity while paying for itself. These findings stand in contrast with some of the evidence of school voucher programs in more developed countries.
Q: Who or what has inspired you in your work?
While I have been very fortunate to have incredible mentors, particularly during my time as a master's degree and PhD student at Harvard, my mentor and long-term collaborator on Colombian education research Michael Kremer (Memorial Nobel in Economics award 2019) has been incredibly influential as a student and in my academic journey. I am deeply grateful to him. I was also very fortunate to experience first-hand how education can change people’s lives—it has changed mine in so many positive ways. So my own personal journey has also influenced my research interests.
Q: And finally, a book question: What book has been foundational for you?
There are two books that I keep returning to year after year for both my teaching and research. They are incredibly accessible and modern in approach, and as such have really influenced the way I think about the economics of public policy and about empirical research, and the way I teach some of this material. The first is Public Finance and Public Policy by Jonathan Gruber. The second is Mostly Harmless Econometrics by Joshua Angrist and Jörn-Steffen Pischke. I have been studying them for more than a decade and I still often consult them for new ideas and insights for both teaching and research purposes.
Banner image: Students in a primary school in Colombia. Photo by Ton Koene. Portrait by Ken Richardson