Sunday, December 25, 2005

Does schooling really matter for the poor?

There is a distinction between literacy, schooling and education that is often misunderstood. Partly, because the definition of these terms themselves involve ambiguity. Being literate is being 15 and over and the ability to read and write. It doesn't tell us much about what he can read or write. Education is more often a lifelong process of learning. You can be educated without going to school if you are self-taught. Schooling is the period of classes between kindergarten and through high school. Too often we are lazy to use the term education when we actually mean schooling.

So, can you be schooled (let us say, partly) and yet not be literate enough?

Yes, you can, as this well-opined article tells us.
Mere literacy can be achieved in months. The aim of completing six to eight years in primary school (as planned by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan) is to gain skills that translate into higher wages and less poverty. But, according to Ernesto Schiefelbein, former education minister of Chile and a renowned educator, research shows that while literacy improves income significantly, additional years of schooling contribute little extra. Why? Because in many countries with near-universal education, students cannot read simple texts or do simple sums. They may have completed school, but they are functionally illiterate. Surveys in seven Latin American countries reveal functional illiteracy of 40 per cent in Chile and over 50 per cent in other countries. Dean Nielsen of the World Bank says that surveys in Peru and Romania show that more than half school graduates are functionally illiterate.
Maria Cristina Mejia, education minister of Bolivia, says her country has greatly increased school enrolment and ended the gender gap in education, yet incomes are not rising. ...

Most teachers lack the special skills (or time, or patience) needed for teaching poor children. Quality improvement schemes tend to focus on teacher training for higher levels of learning. In itself this is a good thing, but it tends to neglect the basic skill of teaching children with a very small vocabulary and little home support from illiterate parents. So, spending billions on supposed quality improvement might not improve learning outcomes: few poorer children will reap much benefit. Are things better in India than in Latin America? Alas, no. They are probably worse. Sarva Shiksa Abhiyan may, by spending thousands of crores, get most children into school. It may finance better text books, teaching materials and teacher training. But will it ensure that poor children can read within their first two or three years in school? If not, then little will be achieved by ensuring that all children complete school. Poorer children will emerge functionally illiterate after wasting eight years in school.

Read here for the rest of the article. The article is thanks to a tip-off from Amit Varma.

I can't help pointing out two morals of the story. One, we need to know so much more schooling and education and the present structure of education does't allow us to explore those possibilities. Two, just theorising that the government can do something does not impy that it will do it, atleast in the way you desire the outcome. This moral may also apply to certain advocacy of markets.

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