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School’s Full – Time to Learn

As I head back to class on World Literacy Day (shoes all shined up and pencil case retrieved from the bottom of my drawer) I can’t help but think about the way that many groups approach education funding in development.

Education earns a spot in the MDGs, and its importance is deservedly and widely touted. “Education is the answer.” Education means that the entrepreneurs PDT supports are able to run their businesses and have the skills to begin new ventures and support their community. If there is a silver bullet (spoiler alert: there isn’t), many believe that education might be the closest thing to it. The common approach to advance education is, most basically: get kids in schools. Programs, NGOs, and fundraisers (my past self included) the world over are constructing schools and running campaigns with this goal in mind: get kids in schools. Get kids in schools, and the rest will follow.

Yay! Kids in a school!

But will it? Providing an education that will give students knowledge and opportunities is the ultimate goal, and as anyone who has ever found their eyelids fluttering during a hot afternoon class on Romeo and Juliet or advanced functions knows, true education entails far more than putting bottoms on seats. Teacher attendance, teacher performance, teacher accountability, sanitation facilities, availability of school meals, counteractive measures for cultural factors, applicability of curriculum to real-life challenges, a safe environment, space for experimentation and innovation – there are many crucially important aspects of education, most of them not attained solely through building schoolhouses and paying teachers.

This trend is not confined just to Tamasco Secondary School, but is a widespread global phenomenon. “Disciplinary actions are rarely undertaken against absent teachers: in a survey of 3,000 Indian government schools, only one principal reported a teacher having been fired for poor attendance. This may account for the extremely high rate of teacher absence in India: in schools examined by this study, teachers attended classes only 60% of the time, and much of the time when they were in class they were not teaching.” (source)

Dedicated and talented teachers who have the knowledge, skills, and passion to support and encourage their students are some of the most monumental game-changers in education and development, and yet they work in an environment bereft of accountability and lack the resources to help them do their jobs well. Not only does this put teachers at a disadvantage, it means students are essentially abandoned in classrooms. Both parties are in school, not learning.

For students whose families make incredible sacrifices in order to send them to school, this is an incredible betrayal by a system that owes them more. What is the true value in a system that pulls students away from the farm (where they’ll learn how to feed themselves and support a family) and into a teacherless classroom? Education is meant to open doors for the youth of the world, but far too many young people are investing their time and devotion in an unsupportive environment that does little to constructively prepare them for their dreams, challenges, and futures.

In funding and evaluating programs, donors need to consider more than just physical access to education services. There has been a marked and laudable increase in the amount of children attending schools in recent years, as well as an improvement in school facilities. However, while the former certainly provides opportunities for education to more children, the latter does not necessarily improve the quality of that education:

an important finding given the enormous resources invested in recent years in improving school infrastructure, was that school quality was weakly associated with literacy and numeracy levels. Children in areas with better school infrastructure did not perform better than in lower quality schools or more crowded classrooms. (source)

By contrast, many students who lack money and access to infrastructure are still able to find their way to success with the help of dedicated teachers. There is no education mold. Education – like many other issues – is multi-faceted and requires a holistic, flexible approach.

Surprise! It's complex. I did not see that one coming.

To paraphrase Chris, many of us are so worried about getting kids into school that we forget the reasons why kids should be going to school. Supporting a generation of youth destined to create change in the world and tackle the largest development issues is not achieved solely by the gift of a roof and a uniform.

If we want to see an increase in exam scores, graduation to higher education, and the ability of youth to change their societies, we need to support teacher development and accountability. People find their way to entrepreneurship, success, and stability with and without quality education, but we have to widen that field and arm our future entrepreneurs with all we’ve got. Bottoms on seats is far from the first requirement.


(Oh, and thank your teachers while you’re at it. Here’s looking at you, Sean O’Toole.)

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  1. […] post was originally written for and published on the Peace Dividend Trust blog. Check them out, they’re a great organization! (Disclaimer: the […]

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