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Noted Economist Explores Failure of Education in Developing World

Favors Scrapping ‘Colonial’ Teaching Model for Practical Approach

Mar 7, 2012

Abhijit Banerjee

"The assumptions and beliefs that the educational system operates on are somehow distorted. What we are seeing are the consequences of a misdirected set of efforts." - Abhijit Banerjee

Contact: Joseph McLaughlin
(212) 992-7762

Educational systems in developing countries are failing because they were created to teach only the brightest students, according to a global poverty expert who spoke at NYU Gallatin.

“These systems were inherited from colonial powers, whose goal was always to recruit a small class of people to be their agents—a local elite who could be the clerks, scribes and policemen,” said Abhijit Banerjee, the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at MIT.

Though the colonial powers are gone, the vestiges of their educational ethos remain, said Banerjee, who delivered the Albert Gallatin Lecture on Feb. 28.

Programs of study in the developing world reflect a set of global standards—not the needs of local populations, he said. The problem is made worse by governments that forbid teachers from deviating from the syllabus.

An expert on the causes and contexts of worldwide poverty, Banerjee began researching the issue when he noticed that greater school enrollment did not correlate to increased learning.

“Education has been an amazing success in one dimension: There are very few countries where fewer than 85 percent of primary-school-age children are not going to school,” he said.

He then cited statistics showing that 50 percent of fifth graders in India cannot read and more than half cannot do second-grade math. Other studies found comparable results in similar countries, leading experts to fear the geopolitical consequences of failing educational systems.

“What happens when these children—who were attracted to school with the promise that education would be the next liberation—discover that they have been shortchanged?” Banerjee asked.

Speaking in the Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre for the Performing Arts, Banerjee outlined research that sought to explain the educational inadequacies.

The initial assumption was that schools are not properly equipped with basic educational materials, and that providing those inputs would lead to increased test scores.

“Yet the results have shown that inputs have almost no effect on test scores,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that schools are useless. Evidence shows that if you don’t go to school, you don’t learn at all.”

Another possible explanation was class size. Indeed, Banerjee said, there are not enough teachers. Often, 80 children from first through fifth grades occupy the same room and have but one teacher who moves from group to group trying to keep them all interested.

But a series of randomized controlled trials showed that improving the student-teacher ratio also does not increase scores.

Researchers then made a third assumption that if adding teachers doesn’t help, then the quality of their instruction must be poor. In fact, what they found were high rates of teacher absenteeism in nations ranging from Uganda to Ecuador.

“I once went to a school on a beautiful Indian winter day. All of the teachers were sitting outside enjoying the sun and reading newspapers,” he said. “The children were in the dark and slightly chilled classrooms trying to figure out their options.”

When teacher-accountability measures were enacted, however, modest educational gains were shown.

The biggest gains, however, were registered when researchers conducted experiments that simply sought to teach children what they did not know instead of doggedly adhering to a syllabus.

“According to any number of studies, if you actually teach children where they are—and you pick up on the particular deficiency that a child has—you get enormous educational gains,” he said. “These are not expensive interventions; they’re exactly the opposite.”

So if the educational model in emerging nations is faulty, why aren’t parents protesting?

“Sadly, parents collude with the distorted idea that the goal of education is to deliver a job that requires education as a criterion,” he said. “They seem to be entirely convinced that the only gains are at the top—that you have to get the certificate that entitles you to the job.”

Typically, however, parents overestimate the number of available jobs for people who have finished their secondary educations.

Still, using the notion that education is a winner-take-all lottery, parents make essentialist judgments about which child has the capacity to learn, he said. They pour resources into that child, while the others are constantly given the message—by parents and teachers alike—that they are incapable of learning.

“This helps us to understand why so many interventions don’t work,” Banerjee said. “Improving the student-teacher ratio doesn’t help because it doesn’t matter if you have 20 children or 80 children in the class if the teacher is only going to teach the top three.

“Somehow, the school systems have to recognize that their goal is to teach children and not to teach syllabi. The answer is very simple, but it’s one that needs recognition in the political system and recognition in the minds of parents.”

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