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Returns on Education

lgleysteen's picture

This week I wanted to focus my blog post on the value of education.  I am currently taking an economics class at Haverford entitled Microfinance.  The first segment of the course is on poverty and this past week we have been focusing on education.  I think most people in the developed world would argue that education has value but what about the people on the other side of the world whose children have been in school through fifth grade but still cannot read a simple paragraph?  Literacy is a difficult tool to develop but some progress should be made in five years.  The majority of families around the world are educating their children but how much are they actually getting in return? How can families below the poverty line in developing countries measure this value?  How do parents decide whether or not they should send one of their 4 children to school for 15 years, or send all of their children to school but only through basic primary education?  In this class we have been looking at how literacy is defined and its cultural value.  It frustrates me that the process in which literacy is attained can be very hit or miss for children in the developing world, when parents “do what they’re supposed to do” and spend the majority of their income on education their kids despite the fact that the school that they are sending their kids to might not have teachers that even show up to class.  It creates an even larger imbalance between not just people who are in school but the quality of education across the world.  

When we go to Ghana I am interested in seeing the school but it would be really great to have something to compare it to.  From what I have heard and seen through pictures, the Titagya School seems incredibly successful.  We are going to learn from this school in Ghana about different forms of education but it would be interesting (even though most likely impossible) to visit a school that is not as successful.  I am interested in seeing the ways schools contrast and what effect those differences have on whether or not a school succeeds or fails.  The summary we read last week about School For Life shed some light on what it takes for schools to succeed in their jobs in Ghana but looking to the future, I would like to find even more answers to why schools in the developing world have such different levels of success.


Andrew Garza's picture

The Value of Literacy and School Performance

Hi, thanks for your great post, and I wanted to offer my two cents. It’s meaningful to me that the impetus for your question comes from a microfinance class, since doing a microfinance internship in Ghana was what originally led me to start Titagya Schools with my partners. You hit upon a lot of key issues that are at the heart of education in developing countries.

In terms of the returns on education, you’re absolutely right that families often make heart-wrenching decisions on which children to send to school. For instance, if a family has five children and only enough money to send two to school, the parents might think hard about which kids are likeliest to eventually get good jobs that can support the rest of the family; then they would invest in those children’s school fees. For many families, there are also trade-offs between how much they can spend on their children’s education and how much money they have for food, leisure items (e.g. a TV), etc.

How to measure educational outcomes is an issue that is at the forefront of debates on education around the world right now. We believe that the best measurement combines some form of standardized, quantifiable measurement and a more qualitative assessment of teachers’ techniques and attitudes and parents’ views.

One of the exciting things in the part of Ghana where we work is that there is an increasing recognition of the value of literacy. Literacy opens the door for children to eventually seek higher education, become professionals, start businesses that require reading and writing, etc. Parents I’ve spoken to who have grown up without the ability to read also often express regret that they have missed out on parts of life that other people take for granted, such as reading books, understanding what road signs say, and sending and receiving text messages; there is a whole side of the world that is closed off to them, and they want their children to have a different experience. There are also still of course some parents whose reasoning is that their family has always worked in farming and that their children should do that too rather than wasting their day in school.

I completely share your frustration that many children go to school without seeing tangible gains in literacy and other skills, and that’s one of the main reasons we started Titagya Schools. One of the key obstacles to greater literacy is that children begin their educations too late. We as humans are programmed to absorb language very easily and naturally if we start at a young age. However, many children begin primary school in their teens, and by that age it’s much harder to learn language. In addition, children are more likely to succeed in primary school if they already have a basic background in English and math and if they are prepared for a formal school environment. We’re helping to provide that support.

There are also a number of other factors that lead to bad literacy outcomes. As you mentioned, teacher absenteeism and tardiness is one of the biggest factors. Teachers often aren’t incentivized to come to class because they’re not paid on time, aren’t treated particularly well by their bosses, and aren’t punished for being absent. Our schools are different in that we pay our teachers every month and hold them accountable for coming to class. We also engage them in the process of designing an optimal learning environment and making sure that every child is learning; this sense of buy-in makes them excited to come to work. That excitement further feeds into our goals because it’s contagious and it helps to develop a love of learning in our students.

Another obstacle to greater literacy in northern Ghana is that the approach to teaching in most schools is based on rote memorization. From the students’ perspective, this form of learning is passive and doesn’t engage them or get them excited. In contrast, a larger portion of class-time in our schools is spent on interactive activities, such as reading children stories, having them put themselves in the shoes of the main characters, teaching math through counting Legos.

We can’t wait to host you in Dalun starting on Saturday, and I’m sure the rest of your team and you will explore these issues in much more depth while you’re there! We also look forward to your thoughts and suggestions on how we can keep improving and are excited to keep working with you even after you return to Bryn Mawr.

alesnick's picture

dialogue continues!

Dear Andrew and Lucy,

It is wonderful to read this exchange between you and to think that now it can proceed with our class having visited Titagya.  Thank you for contextualizing Lucy's great questions and observations, Andrew. A follow-up question I have is how you gain information from parents in the community -- what are the modes/settings of conversation, and research?

lgleysteen's picture

Assessing Schools

I think the idea of school report cards sounds like an excellent idea. Maybe whoever investigates and visits a school can not only interview students but test them as well. The students can be asked questions like "How much of the time is your teacher outside of the classroom" or "what did you learn today?". I think including students in the process of examining a school is key to identifying where changes need to occur. Unfortunately I feel like this happens in so many classrooms that even if a teacher is considered incompetent, there is not enough funding to replace and train new teachers. If a school is pretty terrible, it seems like there would be little motivation to use limited funds and make a huge change. Is it better just to have smaller, better, more expensive and prestigiuos schools where a limited number of children can get an education? or a larger number of schools of much lower quality that can educate everyone? It seems like in the case of Titayga, there are very few schools around, and schools like Titayga are very prestigious. I am wondering if this is the best way to educate. I have very little knowledge of this field but maybe it can be a project for me to gain a better understanding over the course of the semester. I hope in my previous comment it did not sound like I thought only schools in developing countries could fail. I meant that it is a huge sacrifice for families who have to spend money to educate children and get little return on education.  In the US, at least there is the luxury of  free public education.  I feel like it would be much easier to evaluate  schools in the United States than to evaluate schools in place like Ghana.  First of all, our evaluations might not be culturally relevant, if there could be people from each country that did evaluations it would be much more meaningful then if it was a bunch of Americans.  These steps are just ideas but I feel like they would be very successful in trying to figure out what schools need to be doing better. 

alesnick's picture

thinking about school evaluation

I really appreciate this thread and did not take you to mean that US public schools were outside of the kind of scrutiny you advocate. I see your point more clearly now about expense to families in for-fee schooling.  Your idea about culturally relevant evaluation is very rich.  In Dalun, perhaps we can talk with teachers about how they measure their impact, and also how they are evaluated externally.  It's intriguing to notice how readily we fall into a scarcity mode when thinking about educating all children.  I am yearing for a sense of an ever-expanding pie, not one we have to cut up and divvy up?

alesnick's picture

reconsidering accountability, and witness

I love the idea of visiting other schools while we are in Ghana and will be glad to explore this.  One thing I know to say is that in the North where we are going there are not so many schools, and that is one of the main rationales for Titagya's founding.  Your point about what happens when students do go to school is well taken, and not only in "developing" places but right here, too. Does learning occur? Are teachers present?  Are they highly qualified?  Are expectations high and does a culture of inquiry and attainment support them?  Of course, accountability for this has been a key theme in ed for the past decade or more, and a key driver of NCLB and high stakes testing.  These provisions allow for narrow kinds of communication with parents and other stakeholders in the ed system. Some groups have pushed for more holistic measures, "school report cards," and such.  What do you think about how to bring about richer witness, richer accountability, and are there ways to include children and youth in such processes?