Let's talk about the education system, Part 1

Let's talk about the education system, Part 1

Walk for 5 miles just to get to school, 70 - 80 students per classroom, a single blackboard, fewer desks than students, a lack of textbooks, a shortage of well-trained teachers, no computers...

What we have seen so far is a lack of education supply in countries like India, Indonesia, and Kenya. The delivery systems are so weak in remote villages that the kids there aren't even lucky enough to go to school. Even if there is one, they can hardly get over the barrier of the bad roads and transportation... So, before we move on to anything else, we have to identify the problems.

  • What's an education for?

"Why am I wasting my time if it doesn't worth anything to me?🥱"

In distant villages, the absence rate is incredibly high for both students (≈30%-50%) and teachers (≈25%). People can't see which part of education is valuable with its seemed low quality. But in fact, you don't have to be able to do calculus to benefit from education. Just having a minimal understanding from going through 3 years of primary can be widely beneficial. Before the 3rd grade, you learn how to socialize, read, and be more independent...

"One day, my kid will become a doctor."

In India, the key reason many parents want their daughters to become doctors is the job prospects. Men are uncomfortable with the idea of sending their wives to a male doctor. But girls can sometimes be skeptical about this. "If, at the end of the day, I'll still stay in the village, will an education help at all?" The answer is, again, yes.

Traditionally, in a male-dominated society, men have all the power under the roof; the girls are quiet; mainly responsible for serving and helping the children. The parents believe that through education, their daughters can improve their bargaining power within the family (whenever there's a conflict), have a greater sense of presence, and help the family (read the instruction on the package written in English). However, that's something only the girl's father would find attractive; certainly not for their future husband...

What stops kids from going to school...

  • The Illusory S-shape

There are some puzzles that we need to figure out. 'Do parents know that education is useful and what do they expect from it?" In a survey, parents showed a similar attitude towards the usefulness of education – they perceive education as a tunnel🚇.

Once you enter, the process of you going through the dark (the school system) doesn't give you substantial returns. Nothing spectacular happens for a long time until the light comes out (graduate from high school or college). If you manage to achieve that, a government job will be waiting for you automatically.

It is a natural but biased tendency for people to undervalue education as 'completely useless' or 'doesn't worth the cost' at the early stage and overestimate the effects of education at the top end. If their kids can successfully graduate and get the diploma, they can take the 'foreign currency' elsewhere and sell themselves (metaphorically speaking...) in the labor market. But 'good jobs' aren't enough. The chance of you winning the lottery ticket (getting a safe government job) is less than 50%.

  • Discrimination

Imagine being in a situation where you can't afford to put all three of your children through high school. How would you then invest the money? If you believe in the S-shape illusion, you will look for signals that cue which child is doing better than the others, probably through their first-grade test scores (proven to be a very poor predictor of their long-term abilities).

In Asian culture, there's a great chance that you will hear a parent say to their kids, "oh, stop playing video games. It distracts you from doing math and makes you an idiot." Literally, you hear that all the time, something you would never hear from a parent in the US. Picking the so-called 'winner' of academic competence does nothing more to kids than put more pressure on them and cause division of polarized groups.

The main reason students' attendance rate is poor is not due to work or health, but their despondency by being constantly told that 'school is not for you.' You see, it has entered a toxic stage in which children have developed self-doubt. I feel empathetic when hearing an online conversation between a kid in Africa and a Western interviewer:

'Which school do you go to?'
'Ohh, I used to go to this school in my local community, but I don't really go anymore."
"Well, I'm kind of stupid. I can't do it. But you know, my brother over there, he's really smart. He's going to a private school, and I believe he will do very well."

This false belief of thinking they are incapable of studying strikes me hard. I couldn't quite believe how the kid's been internalized by the system in the sense that 'he'll be wasting his parents' money by going to school because he's not the winner.'

  • Elite bias

"There's now a chance my oldest son can get this financial accounting job after this degree! To make sure that happens, I'm going to give up my other kids' education entirely."

Parents are susceptible to actual job opportunities that education opens. They'd do everything it takes to ensure one gets enough education to secure that job position, even if it means that others must sacrifice.

Don't fall into the trap that they are terrible parents. As parents, they try to persuade themselves that they have bet their money on the winner. The unequal treatment is not only in terms of money spent but also time. Being the bright kid, while your siblings are trying to tie up the goat, giving out food to the cows, and taking care of the younger ones during the evening hours, you don't need to do any housework; you have the freedom to study instead.

Shockingly, the harmony alone siblings remain. Other kids who lose out from the competition are actually fine with it because they believe so strongly that they do not fit into the education system. But they have not yet realized that an increase in opportunity for their older brother will broaden the inequality between them...

If People Just Don't Care...

  • Teachers

'Should students be given autonomy?' has always been a central debate around education. If too much freedom were given, the students would just mess up in class. If teachers hold an iron grip, students can easily get disengaged.

Every teacher should ask themselves two questions before teaching any class:

"What's my view on what my job is?"

"How should I teach my class?"

Teachers have the same incentives as parents. If the parents put a lack of pressure on the teachers because they think there's no point for their kids to be educated unless they are good enough to graduate from high school, then the teachers will follow – focusing on the few high performers. Even it means that the majority of students won't be able to follow what's going on. "I'm going to get paid if the parents like me. And to make that happen, I just need to have the same belief they have. It's not my goal to focus my effort on every single person in the class."

If students are not living up to their expectations, the teachers will naturally blame the students or the parents; therefore lose motivation to teach, put in minimal effort doing their job, and eventually give up on those kids who are behind... "They can't learn. Why would I care about teaching those people who won't get anything?" In that case, the kids doing less well will be discouraged from studying hard and perform awful in exams. And if the parents feel like their children are not trying hard, or the school is not teaching them valuable skills, they will withdraw them.

In worse scenarios, even if the students decide to take their education seriously and go to school, it's not guaranteed that the teachers will be teaching. Not only there's a symptom of teacher absence in rural areas, but also even if they are in school for work, they might just be drinking tea, drawing political posters, or playing chess games on their laptops... (smh😔)

  • Parents

To fix the problems with the education system and allow every child to enjoy the freedom of having an education, we have to first start with parents. The cheapest way to improve schools' attendance rate is to persuade the parents that education gives you extra returns even if they don't make it through high school. After all, the demand for education comes from the parents.

Parents are fundamental to children's early development. If you happen to be from a family who believes in your potential, even if the teacher says you're uneducable, your parents won't be influenced by the noise! "Hey, listen, what do you mean my son will fail? Everyone in our family has. Ph.D.! " Whereas, if you're a first-generation student; no one in your family has ever been educated, it's much easier for the teacher to persuade them that their children are not fit for education.

The unsolvable puzzle

  • The paradox

'Maybe the problem will be solved if we work on the material side...?'

It seems to be an obvious answer that giving textbooks to kids will help them to learn better. So, some economists decided to distribute stacks to students in some randomly selected schools in India. The results they got were disappointing. From the data, the effects of textbooks were shown to be negligible. Only a tiny minority of top students benefited; the average ones made no improvement.

Although English holds a lingua franca status in India and is viewed as a ticket to economic prosperity, the researchers did not realize at the time that the textbooks are in English, and many children don't even speak the language to a basic level! In the ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) survey, the shocking finding indicated about 35% of children between the ages of 7 and 14 could not read a grade 1 paragraph, and 60% could not read a grade 2 story. What's crazier is that since 2005 (when the first study was conducted), the results showed no sign of progress! Similar results were also found in Kenya, Pakistan, and Uganda...

  • The blind spot

Across the world, the number of girls out of primary school fell drastically from 103 million in 1999 to 73 million in 2006. Statistically, it is encouraging. But why would the literacy rates in those poorly developed countries remain stagnant for years?

One big assumption we all have made is that if kids are in school for 6 years, they will get something out of their education. But, in reality, many kids are not getting anything out of the system; they are just going through it.

Economists suggest that education drives growth. As people get more intelligent, they can be more innovative in their fields, designing new technologies and facilitating changes... But education doesn't have an instant effect like taking medicine; seeing positive changes takes years, so be patient.

Only when people can afford, become more willing to go to school without worrying about the need to do domestic work, and see the fact that they can do something with their education, can the improvement of an education system be really made👊.


The Challenge of World Poverty | Economics | MIT OpenCourseWare
This is a course for those who are interested in the challenge posed by massive and persistent world poverty, and are hopeful that economists might have something useful to say about this challenge. The questions we will take up include: Is extreme poverty a thing of the past? What is economic life…

‌     Lectures 9, 10, 11.