Welcome to the September installment of The Puggle, where the Echidna Giving team highlights emerging issues and findings related to girls’ education.
This month the World Bank released the World Development Report (WDR). For the first time in its nearly forty-year history, the report focused exclusively on education. The first message of the report? Schooling is not the same as learning.
Other recent data back this up. For example, the UNESCO Institute of Statistics did an analysis of learning showing that at the end of primary school, over half of children won’t be minimally proficient in reading or math. Another study from the Center for Global Development shows the disparity between rich and poor countries. College graduates from Indonesia are less literate than high school dropouts from Denmark - and the gap has gotten bigger over time.
Inequality in learning outcomes is stark. We know that sometimes girls are especially disadvantaged, but the WDR and this Insight Paper from RISE show that gender is not the biggest driver of learning inequality. A recent study in India by Pauline Rose and Ben Alcott finds that “poverty supersedes all other characteristics as a predictor of learning disparities.” When it comes to gender disparities, they are prevalent in some states but not others. And “gender disparity is occurring primarily among children from poorer households, indicating that disadvantages associated with gender and poverty reinforce one another.”
This article explores “Why Are Middle East Girls Better in School Than Boys” and reminds us that even when girls perform better than boys they don’t necessarily have more opportunities. Indeed, a lack of opportunity may be part of what drives girls to excel. School is a potential ticket “out of...confinement.” The article also underscores how gender norms are negatively influencing boys, not just girls. “All around the globe, notions of masculinity have not kept pace with the demands of a world that rewards creativity and critical thinking above physical strength."
So yes, Gender Norms Can Harm Kids Everywhere. A recent set of studies in the Journal of Adolescent Health "concluded that between the ages of 10 and 14, children begin to fully embrace and internalize the belief that girls and boys are intrinsically different – and should act accordingly." Perhaps that’s why a role model – even in the form of a movie character – can have a big influence on exam scores.
When it comes to what students should be learning, the WDR makes a compelling case to focus on foundational skills. At the same time, students need to acquire a wider set of skills across a wider span of life. Another study out of the World Bank finds that “noncognitive entrepreneurial skills, such as the will to persevere, optimism, and passion for work play a decisive role [in economic success] – even more so in communities where women face greater constraints to their economic empowerment.” This NYTimes piece argues for changing when we teach. The sequence of “learn early, benefit for a lifetime...makes sense only in a world where the useful skills stay constant.”
The good news out of the WDR? There is nothing inevitable about low learning outcomes. Efforts are underway to figure out how to transform schooling into learning by tackling some of the proximate factors that limit learning like underprepared students and teachers, as well as to tackle the deeper system barriers to learning (since, as the WDR and this blog remind us, “Even interventions which can be proved to work “in principle” with rigorous evidence cannot be scaled up and produce ongoing overall gains unless social, political and organizational forces are aligned with learning.”)
For instance, the Center for Universal Education at Brookings has published a new report on the possibility for leapfrog innovations in education and the Education Commission is working with Pioneer Countries to enable system reforms. Governments in Ghana and the state of Karnataka in southern India are removing the immediate barrier of school fees. Liberia is experimenting with a system reform in the form of Public Private Partnerships, and preliminary evaluation results show big learning gains from more consistent teaching, but "the program has yet to demonstrate it can work in average Liberian schools, with sustainable budgets and staffing levels, and without negative side-effects on other schools."
So there is hope to ensure the next generation is a Learning Generation. And inspiration to draw from women making things happen! If you know anyone looking to make a difference in girls’ education, encourage them to apply to the Echidna Global Scholars by November 16.