SEATTLE, Washington — Education is often called “the great equalizer.” Indeed, experts believe that stronger investment in equitable educational opportunities is vital to reducing extreme income inequality in developing nations. This has lead to great strides in increasing access to education across the board. Challenges remain, however. If left unaddressed, adverse effects on students’ learning environments have the potential to unravel these hard-fought gains.
Universal Education, Universal Benefits
According to Oxfam International, universal primary and secondary education has the power to reduce extreme poverty by half. Moreover, an adult’s level of educational attainment is closely tied to social mobility. In other words, this means that well-educated children from disadvantaged families are more likely to advance economically than their peers.
Improving global education is also beneficial for the private sector. Research has found that educational funding exhibits a particularly high return-on-investment, for example, as much of the world’s talent pool resides in low-income countries and emerging market economies. By helping to fund education in the developing world, foreign governments are essentially providing training programs for potential recruits to the international workforce.
(Some) Low-Income Students Are Falling Behind
Despite the gains being made in making education more accessible across the board, however, some students are finding themselves increasingly left behind. In particular, those coming from low-income backgrounds face additional challenges that stem from the rough home environments in which they find themselves. This means less ability to take advantage of the new opportunities available to students. Thus, many are arguing that more drastic changes are needed to ensure their students’ success.
Research has demonstrated that educational enrollment in countries with emerging market economies drops nearly 51% from primary to secondary education. This difference is even starker when it comes to tertiary education; In countries like Ethiopia, India and Nigeria, college enrollment numbers decrease a further 91% from secondary education. This means that only a fraction of a fraction of those attending primary school will continue on to college.
In Nairobi, Kenya, one school has taken action to identify the reasons for its high dropout rate. The ensuing investigation revealed that poor student-parent-teacher relationships, little exposure to the outside world, as well as lack of electricity and space to do homework were among the most pressing issues to address when it comes to keeping students in school.
The Women’s Burden
Education has also a large impact on gender inequality. As women are disproportionately less educated than men, this further contributes to the worldwide gender-based disenfranchisement of women. Each additional year of schooling, for example, has the power to increase the average woman’s lifetime earnings by 20%. This is in addition to the liberating effect of having more agency over matters like marriage and pregnancy. Completing primary and secondary schooling alone can significantly scale down child marriages, maternal deaths and child deaths globally.
Although the payoff is substantial, however, “[s]tudies consistently reinforce that girls who face multiple disadvantages — such as low family income, living in remote or underserved locations, disability or belonging to a minority ethnolinguistic group — are farthest behind in terms of access to and completion of education.” Issues such as physical and sexual violence, child marriages and strict cultural norms create obstacles for women seeking to receive a full education. Addressing these issues is thus necessary to empowering women.
Improving Students’ Learning Environments Means Improving Education
As seen above, when adverse effects on a student’s environment go ignored, the student cannot prioritize school; they must instead focus on survival. That is why it is essential that schools provide safe and supportive school environments.
Following its efforts to find the root of its dropout problems, the Ngunyumu Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya has begun working to implement plans to foster a better learning environment for its students. The project, done in conjunction with the Abbas Project, has already made considerable progress. Largely, this has come in the form of better after-school opportunities, mentoring and tutoring services and community involvement programs. Additionally, the school has greatly invested in educational technology.
Although adverse effects on students’ learning environments can be difficult to combat, it is certainly not impossible. In addition to accessibility, the safety, stability, and overall well-being of students must be top priorities in any educational development plan.
– Lizt Garcia