What We Haven't Learned About Education

What We Haven't Learned About Education

Education and Poverty

I was raised in a family that placed great emphasis on education and I never thought much about it. Across the world this holds true - education is often treated as a panacea for creating a better life for oneself and one's families. But is this realistic? This week I'd like to dive into education as a source of poverty alleviation and what that actually means. 

From the standpoint of an economist, increases in education lead to increased human capital, or the value of an individual or population for their country based on their skills, knowledge and experience. A commercial farmer with a degree in Agricultural Systems Management is said to have higher human capital than an uneducated subsistence farmer, for example. Education increases a person's ability to make money and increase labor productivity.

Unsurprisingly, lack of education perpetuates the cycle of poverty that is not easily broken. It is not that there's lack of need or desire for quality education, but rather no access in many developing countries. So if an individual does not have access to quality education, what are his or her viable life outcomes? Lack of quality education leads to social immobility, affecting individual life outcomes and potential positive impacts on society. Illiteracy leads to overpopulation, lower incomes, lower productivity, less frequent use of family planning methods, and a perceived need for more labor. And the consequences of an uneducated population on the whole can be catastrophic. With few well educated citizens, who in a society can innovate? Who can become highly skilled doctors, lawyers, etc.?

A packed classroom in a primary school in Tanzania

It Can't Be That Hard, Can It?

So when the importance of education is so obvious to all, especially to those who need it most, why are poor kids still growing up illiterate? It turns out the odds are really stacked against poor people that live in poor countries, especially in rural areas. I'll break it down quickly:

Firstly, poverty is cyclical and traps people in its relative position. Less educated parents are less likely to be able to afford school fees and rely on their children to generate household income. Although primary education is almost universally free across the world (the quality of this education varies drastically), parents often have to pay for school lunches as well as books and uniforms, which prove debilitating for the poorest of the poor. This results in children dropping out of school. And even if a child makes it through primary school, secondary school is not often affordable. How far can an adult make it professionally with a primary school education?

For those who live in large countries with small populations, usually in rural areas, access to quality schooling is even harder to come by. In a country with already strained education resources, they will not allocate more funds for fewer students in difficult-to-reach areas. And in these places, there are even fewer mechanisms for monitoring teaching quality. In rural villages in Tanzania that I used to work with, half the time the teachers were not even teaching. There were no incentives to, as teachers themselves are paid so poorly and infrequently. It was overwhelming for these teachers, as there were too few of them for the number of students trying to learn.

Language barriers can also play a hindering role in school attendance. Take my experiences in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda for example. School children were taught in the vernacular up until a certain grade, in which they began to be taught in English. That transition year from Swahili/Luganda/Lusoga/etc. to English proved to be difficult, as children are often unprepared for the transition and do not actually learn much of the material taught in English because they do not understand it. This is further compounded when children attend school infrequently and/or have parents, often poor and uneducated themselves, that do not speak English well. Infrequent school attendees are often called home during times when work is in high demand, when household income is suffering or when parents can no longer afford school fees. If a child does return to school after this, they are behind and have the momentous task of learning missed material in a different language. Their parents cannot help them and they often feel too overwhelmed to continue classes and drop out. Therefore, teachers in poor areas are often too overburdened to help every struggling and frequently absent student.

It Gets Worse?

Just as the poorest of the poor are stuck in their relative positions due to a poverty trap, poor governments too are stuck in a fiscal trap. When governments do not have enough money to provide the infrastructure necessary to provide quality education for its citizens, both groups suffer. Wealthier people pay more taxes than the poor, but without a large wealthy and well-educated population a state's income is far below its potential. And this challenge (worth an entire blog post on its own) begs the questions: So, are developing countries in their relative position because they don't have quality schools? Or is the lack of quality schools a result of a country's "developing" status?

In addition to all of that (and yes, it already seems overwhelming), we have to keep in mind that in many poor countries (as well as wealthier ones) often face governance failures including blatant corruption and lack of accountability. So who is to say that money that gets allocated for a state's education system will actually reach the people it was meant to?

We're not even going to attempt to tackle the convoluted geopolitical mess that is development aid for education. The policies of an aid-giving country can negatively influence aid receiving countries and negatively impact children who are in school.

Don't Forget Girls

We can't forget that access to education disproportionately affects women and girls due to cultural barriers as well. In many poor households, a boy's education is prioritized over a girl's, especially when a family can only afford to invest their resources in a single child.

But let's look at the facts. Educated girls are less likely to marry young or contract HIV . Plus they are more likely to have educated and healthy children.  Each additional year of school a girl completes cuts both infant mortality and child marriage rates. Additionally, The Brookings Institution calls secondary schooling for girls the most cost-effective and best investment against climate change. Research also suggests that girls’ education reduces a country’s vulnerability to natural disasters. 

And yet despite the facts, 130 million girls are currently out of school.

So Now What?

I'm realizing now how depressing this all seems. I think that developing countries cannot really bootstrap; they need more resources, programs and funding. It's difficult though when the most successful community development programs come from the people themselves. Some economists argue that we should trust people to make good decisions about their own lives, and I agree to an extent. But there seem to be some barriers that are too great for a person to overcome. 

RoHo works with our artisans to provide quality, education to their children. See more of RoHo's impact.

RoHo dives into more about the complexities of poverty 


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