Evaluating the Impact on Low-income Children and Families’ Access to a Private Comprehensive Schooling Model: Experimental Evidence from Mexico

October 3, 2016

Many public schools in Mexico are failing to educate students, particularly schools in poorer areas. Recent tests show that most 15-year-olds do not have basic competency in math, and almost 20 percent do not have basic reading skills. Reforms to improve education in Mexico move slowly, and parents rarely have a voice. This research evaluated the impact of Christel House de Mexico, a low-cost, rigorous private school for poor children that also works to ensure parental commitment.


Research area: Education
Country: Mexico
Evaluation Sample: 172 poor first-grade students in Mexico City
Timeline: 2013 – 2016 (Completed, endline report pending)
Intervention: education, subsidies
Researchers: Lucrecia Santibañez, Claremont Graduate University; Juan E. Saavedra, University of Southern California; Raja Bentaouet Kattan, World Bank; Harry A. Patrinos, World Bank
Partners: Christel House de MexicoThe World Bank


Emerging economies need quality education systems in order to improve their competitiveness internationally and develop high-skilled industries. Often, government-run schools are slow to catch-up with the demands of these developing economies, which in turn can slow or even depress growth. Schooling for low-income or otherwise marginalized groups can be an even bigger challenge, and without changes those most in need can be left out or unable to take advantage of opportunities to find productive work. This evaluation, which looked at the impact of subsidized private education in Mexico specifically for poor students, provides evidence about the effectiveness of these education models as a route for reaching disadvantaged students.


Like many other developing and middle-income countries, Mexico seeks to shift its economy from labor-intensive to one that relies more on knowledge and technical know-how. Doing so requires an educational system that can successfully teach students and produce graduates who are ready to move into non-labor intensive work or go on to higher education. But Mexico’s public education system is not meeting these demands. High school graduation rates are low, and standardized test scores are below those from other middle-income countries. Less than half of children who start first grade will complete high school. In Mexico City, reform efforts have faced tremendous opposition, particularly from the teachers’ union. The problems of educational quality and achievement are especially acute for disadvantaged students. Private schools that offer services beyond education are emerging as an alternative, especially for poor and otherwise marginalized students.

This evaluation investigated whether a private, affordable comprehensive school for poor families – in this case, one supported primarily through philanthropic donations -- can be a model for improving Mexico’s educational system.

Photo: Curt Carnemark / World Bank

Intervention and Evaluation Details


Christel House de Mexico, a non-profit private school in Mexico City that also receives some public funding, provides free or heavily subsidized education for around 400 children in grades 1 through 9, mostly from families earning less than $370 a month. The children’s families often are the most disadvantaged – homeless families, those with a criminal record or history of abuse, or families with very low parental education. The school waives tuition for students if their parents contribute to helping maintain the school, such as providing cleaning assistance. About a quarter of students pay a subsidized tuition, which works out to around $50 to $65 a month for the 11-month school year.  

Education at Christel House is more demanding than at most other schools in Mexico. For example, the nine-hour school day is twice as long as the norm in public schools. Christel House follows a “no-excuses” model that demands high commitment from students, teachers, and parents. Students must have a 95 percent attendance rate and parents must attend regular meetings or risk losing their slot in the program. The standard national curriculum is supplemented with sports, arts, intensive English and computer skills programs. In addition, the school provides preventative health and dental services and a comprehensive nutritional package that includes breakfast and lunch.


The evaluation used a rigorous randomized experimental research design at the child level to study the difference in student achievement between eligible first graders accepted into the program by lottery and those who did not receive a slot through the lottery and attended other schools. Treatment and control groups were assigned based on the outcome of Christel House’s vigorous application system.

In the 2013-14 school years, Christel House had 28 slots for incoming first graders (which excludes slots reserved for siblings of current students, orphans and other groups with privileged admission status). From a pool of 96 applicants from disadvantaged families, 31 applicants were chosen by lottery for admission and enrolled (accounting for some siblings and lottery selected students who chose not to enroll and several who consequently enrolled off the randomly selected waitlist). For the purposes of this evaluation, the 31 successful applicants were assigned to the treatment group and the unsuccessful applicants were assigned to the control group. The same process was continued for the 2014-15 school year, in which Christel House had 35 first-grade slots to allocate using the lottery mechanism and 93 applicants, giving researchers an anticipated total of 66 students in the treatment group and 121 in the control group.

Researchers collected baseline data as students entered the first grade at the beginning of each school year and will collect follow-up data each year for the next two years. In addition, researchers used data collected by Christel House on applicants and students, including test scores. Similar administrative data was used for students in public schools. Standardized test results, competence in English and technology, and overall well being was analyzed, as well as the degree of parent involvement and program costs.

Policy Impact

This evaluation can provide valuable information on the usefulness of low-cost private schools. The research can also help inform educational policymaking in other countries struggling with school quality and interested in the potential of private schools.