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All the World’s a School – What Should Students Learn?

July 6, 2011

Brookings’ new report on education is definitely a worthy read for those who struggle to improve education in the developing world. The report also places a strong emphasis on the role of education in job creation, which leads CGP to wonder:  Does the narrow focus on economic growth do justice to the goals of education?

The report, “A Global Compact on Learning: Taking Action on Education in Developing Countries,” was released on June 15 to a packed house at Brookings’ D.C. office. Jenny Robinson, the primary author of the report, declared it a “paradigm shift” in educational policy.

While that language may be a little bombastic, Robinson does offer several crucial insights on the state of education in the developing world. This post offers two big takeaways: (1) the distinction between access and learning and (2) the messy relationship between education and economic growth. It concludes by discussing the ends of education and whether job creation is its only purpose.

Access and Learning

Over the last two decades, developing countries have taken great strides in increasing educational access. Since the introduction of the education Millennium Development Goals, the number of primary-school-aged children not in school has dropped 39 million. Of those who attend, primary completion rates have increased by 20%, and the number of students successfully moving from primary to secondary school has never been higher.

As thrilling as these results are, they do not tell the whole story. One shocking statistic that Robinson included in her remarks was that 40% of children in Sub-Saharan Africa are still illiterate after five years of schooling. Indeed, a child in a poor country will, on average, learn less than 95 out of 100 children in rich countries.

Robinson makes the point that universal access does not ensure universal education, and she argues that the focus of development should shift from the former to the latter. Enacting these kinds of changes, Robinson asserts, requires the joint effort of governments, businesses, and civil society organizations.

CGP has championed public-private partnerships for some time (see CGP Director Carol Adelman‘s remarks at a 2006 panel titled “Searchers versus Planners in International Aid“), and this approach has been praised by public officials ranging from President Obama to USAID Administrator Raj Shah. In this case, collaboration would ensure that schools teach the skills required by the modern economy.

Education and Job Creation

For Robinson, post-primary education is primarily oriented around job obtainment. The second half of the Global Compact centers on this theme, and during her remarks at the release of the report, Robinson spent much of her time outlining how education must meet economic demands—teach to the job, so to speak.

School children in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya. Source: UNESCO/D. Willetts

While CGP agrees that job obtainment is certainly one of the goals and benefits of an education, Robinson’s blithe depiction of the relationship between educational attainment and economic growth is somewhat troubling. Under a section titled “Education is Essential for Development,” she mentions statistics like “one additional year of education adds 10% to a person’s earnings” and that “if all children in low-income countries left schooling knowing how to read…then 171 million people could move out of poverty.” While these statistics aren’t wrong per se, they can lead to the false impression that education is a silver bullet.

The 10% statistic, for example, comes from a 2002 World Bank Working paper in which George Psacharopoulos and Harry Anthony Patrinos write that “whereas at the micro case…it is established beyond any reasonable doubt that there are tangible and measurable returns to investment in education, such evidence is not as consistent and forthcoming in the macro literature.” For an individual, an additional year of education matters a great deal because of the  increase in skills relative to the rest of the population. If everyone stays in school for additional year, though, that relative advantage disappears and the economic effects are unclear.

Stable economic growth requires more than an educated workforce: it also takes an active private sector, supportive government policies, and opportunities for local entrepreneurs. Though education is certainly a good start, Robinson risks downplaying these other significant factors in her analysis.

Beyond this relationship between education and job creation, one final question to ask is whether Robinson’s emphasis on job creation understates other goals of education. After all, schools do more than produce workers: they also educate citizens.

Educating a citizen is different from training a worker. Citizenship requires a sense of community and demands a certain loyalty to political institutions and community values. It provides a unifying force in a fragmented society, which particularly important since many developing nations are fragile democracies.  Ultimately, strong markets and strong societies go hand in hand. Education cannot only produce the workers of today. It must produce the leaders of tomorrow.

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