Givology Staff's Blog

Addressing the Challenges of Delivering Quality Secondary Education to all Children in the Developing World

by Brent Harlow

In this installment of our series, which reviews the latest research on how to best improve education outcomes in the developing world, I turn to the state of secondary education and the unique challenges that state and non-state actors face as they try to provide young people with the post-primary education they will need in order to succeed in the dynamic, knowledge- and technology-based global economy of the twenty-first century. Given that the need for quality secondary schooling is growing faster than states are able to build up robust, inclusive, high-quality secondary education systems, there is an extremely important role for non-state actors to play in helping to meet some of this demand, especially for those students most at risk of being left behind in the “new economy.’ And given the relative scarcity of high-school graduates in some parts of the developing world, rates of return on investment in secondary education are likely to remain high. In this context, non-government programs could prove essential to the growth of more innovative and inclusive secondary education systems in developing countries as they face the new educational challenges of the twentieth century.
[b]The importance of secondary education for developing countries in the twenty-first century[/b]
The twenty-first century global economy presents a clear alternative to developed and undeveloped countries alike— train the next generation in the ability to access and navigate the high-tech information and communication networks that pervade nearly all economic activity today or remain caught in new or long-standing poverty traps with few paths of upward mobility.
There is no question that, while investments in secondary education will never be in and of themselves sufficient to modernize an economy and generate economic growth and development, they are nonetheless necessary for any country that hopes to achieve these goals. Any country hoping to achieve these things will need a robust secondary education system that prepares its youth to perform the high-tech jobs being created in the new economy and contribute to the modernization of established local industries and the creation of new ones.
In their book [url=]]Financing Secondary Education in Developing Countries: Strategies for Sustainable Growth[/url], authors Keith Lewin and Francois Caillods observe that economies throughout the developing world are changing, and they argue that “employment based on new production methods, the improvement of mature technologies, and the widespread diffusion of information and communication technologies increasingly demands workers with more than basic education,” i.e. workers with secondary education (5).
According to the Lewin and Caillods, the basic literacy and numeracy skills acquired in primary school simply do not adequately prepare young people to enter this new, dynamic, high-tech job market. In this context, a full course of secondary education with a curriculum that emphasizes more abstract analytic and problem-solving skills; interpersonal and language skills (especially English); and the ability to use information technology is essential.
In their book, entitled [url=]Beyond Basic Education: Secondary Education in the Developing World[/url] (2003), authors Benjamin Alvarez, John Gillies, and Monica Bradsher argue that education is the single most important factor determining countries’ success in the knowledge-driven economy of the twenty-first century (4). The authors argue that in the “new economy,” with more service-sector, professional, and clerical jobs, a premium is placed on broad competencies and transferable skills— human, intuitive, creative, relational, team-building, communication, thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills as well as broad traits like responsibility, confidence and integrity— that are not isolated to any one particular industry (41). Included, and essential to, this list of transferable skills would be a variety of tech skills used in virtually every post-secondary classroom or job. Basic computer skills, while receiving little or no emphasis in many primary schools, are essential to any secondary education curriculum that would prepare students to access and navigate the high-tech information and communication networks that they will need to use in their jobs of the twenty-first century (Chapter 5, “Technology in Secondary Education”).
With the forces of globalization and the creation of international labor markets functioning to create a convergence in the skills most in demand for the jobs of the twenty-first century, secondary schools everywhere are including many of these general and transferable skills and content areas in their curricula. Nonetheless, as many have argued, it is necessary that these same schools take into account not only how to align their curricula with global economic conditions; but also how to adapt instruction in response to local economic conditions. What are the countries’ established industries, growth sectors and areas of comparative advantage? What partnerships might be formed between secondary schools and local industries that stand to benefit from attracting a new generation of young, educated and tech savvy workers? Thus, secondary education will not look the same everywhere and will include both general, transferable skills, and content specifically adapted for local economic conditions, in order to create new pipelines of success and upward mobility for students in the regions where they live.
To make the challenge even greater, secondary schools in the developing world are not only struggling to provide existing students with the tools they need to be successful in the new, twenty-first century economy. They are also trying to respond to new pressures that actually grow out of the success of primary education reforms that has occurred over the last few decades.
[b]The rising demand for secondary education in the developing world [/b]
One reason for the dramatic increase in demand for post-primary education in the developing world today is that early efforts to expand access to primary education— going back to the early 1990’s— have had enormous success. The World Conference on Education, held in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, and the United Nations’ Millenium Summit, held in New York City ten years later, brought together world leaders, who made significant and sustained commitments to improving primary education in their countries. In the years since, there have been massive state-run programs set in place throughout the developing world to increase primary school enrollment and make progress toward the Millenium Development Goal of achieving universal primary school enrollment. It is precisely because these efforts were so successful that there are now such high numbers of students completing a full course of primary school, graduating, and going on to apply to and enroll in secondary institutions (See “Introduction” to Financing Secondary Education in Developing Countries: Strategies for Sustainable Growth, referenced above.)
This has resulted in an increase in both the volume and diversity of students applying and entering into secondary schools which, oftentimes, are ill-equipped to meet the needs of so large and so diverse a population of students. There are, by and large, far too few secondary schools and they are located primarily in cities and serve a more privileged student body comprised mainly of boys. This means that— precisely at a time when there are more rural, poor, and female students who have graduated primary school and are able to enroll in secondary school— these same groups are at greatest risk of dropping out, being left behind, and missing out on the skills and knowledge needed to integrate into the modern global economy. (See Beyond Primary Education, Chapter 2, “Structure and Curriculum”)
[b]Unequal access to secondary education in the developing world [/b]
Indeed, the obstacles facing these groups of students are significant. Rural students often have difficulty accessing secondary schools—which, unlike primary schools which appeared throughout the countryside in many developing countries over the last thirty years, have not been built in large numbers and tend to be located in more densely populated areas—and often suffer from a shortage of qualified secondary teachers
Poorer students, whether from rural or urban areas, often come from families that simply feel they cannot afford to send their children to secondary school. For these families, there is not only the actual cost of fees, supplies, uniforms, etc. to consider, but also the opportunity cost of sending their older children to school during the day instead of having them earn wages to help support the family. In a report entitled [url=]Expanding Access and Increasing Student Learning in Post-Primary Education in Developing Countries: A Review of the Evidence[/url], Abhijit Banerjee et al identify this as a major problem: many families simply believe that it is not in their economic interest to invest in post-primary education for many of their children, and in many cases the costs may well be prohibitive.
Girls, too, are at much greater risk of dropping out of school before reaching secondary. An earlier installment in this series looked at some of the reasons why, especially in poorer areas of the developing world, girls are still not completing primary school and going on to secondary in the same numbers as boys. Researchers have found that girls often do not expect to ever become wage earners themselves and are forced, coerced or pressured into sexual relationships at a young age with men who offer them some degree of financial security. There are myriad social and family pressures pulling girls off the path of education and economic opportunity and into traditional domestic roles in which they have less power and opportunity outside the home than they would have had if they had been able to delay pregnancy and/or marriage and continue with their education.
[b]The insufficiency of state-led solutions and the role for non-state actors to improve access to and quality of secondary education in the developing world[/b]
While developing countries have invested relatively heavily in building up primary school systems in the last several decades, they have neither built an adequate number of secondary schools (which are much more expensive than primary schools) nor trained a sufficient number of teachers to meet all of this demand and, in particular, to address the specific needs of those groups that have historically been less able to access education and its benefits.
In this context, there is a crucial role for non-state actors to come in and assist in the delivery of resources to support secondary schools and students—especially those least likely to enroll, attend, and graduate, i.e. poor, rural, and female students. NGO’s and nonprofits can test a variety of programs, see what works, and—perhaps—scale successful programs up to become enduring parts of re-imagined secondary education systems in the developing world.
While more research is needed in this area to determine which programs are most effective, numerous impact evaluations have been completed or are currently underway. There is overwhelming evidence that cost is a significant barrier to enrollment for poor families, and that cash transfer programs and scholarship programs are very effective at offsetting this cost and nudging families toward choosing to enroll their older children in secondary school (See Expanding Access and Increasing Student Learning in Developing Countries: A Review of the Evidence, by Banerjee et al, referenced above). In a recent study entitled [url=]“Returns to Secondary Schooling in Ghana,[/url]” (4) Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, and Michael Kremer find that full secondary school scholarships positively affect enrollment, educational attainment, knowledge, skills, and preventative health behaviors. It resulted, furthermore, in delaying pregnancy and marriage for girls, making such scholarships an important tool in helping girls stay in school and on the track that leads to greater social and economic empowerment.
But other supports must be put in place to help girls in particular to enroll and stay enrolled in secondary school until they graduate. Numerous researchers have pointed to the crucial period when girls transition from primary to secondary—a period which can overlap with the onset of puberty and the initiation of sexual activity—as a time when girls need a variety of health education, reproductive education, self-advocacy, life-skills, work-skills, job-seeking skills, and financial literacy training and mentoring supports in order to resist the pressures that so often lead to girls dropping out of school and starting families at such a young age. Especially in communities where there are fewer female wage earners, or few women performing a variety of leadership roles, it has been argued that it is imperative to provide these supports to girls, to help them imagine, plan, and realize life paths that depart radically from traditional gender norms.
[b]Givology partners working to improve secondary education in the developing world [/b]
[url=]The Maasai Girls Life Skills Program[/url] is currently doing great work in Tanzania to help girls raised in remote, rural areas learn how to acquire the skills they need to participate in a greater number of social and economic roles in their society. The program teaches a variety of life and employment skills—including planning, goal-setting, banking, budgeting, leadership, job-seeking, work, personal and self-advocacy skills—to help girls envision a career trajectory for themselves that starts with enrolling in secondary school (as opposed to dropping out after primary). The impact thus far is impressive—ninety-five percent of Maasai girls have been admitted to secondary school. (So far, Givology donors have raised $135 of the $840 currently being raised for the project. To learn more about the program, or to donate, follow this link Maasai Girls Life Skills Program [5])
Similarly, Starfish’s Foot in the Door program has provided numerous high-school girls from rural, indigenous Guatemala with local NGOs, small businesses, and government offices for formal internships that help them acquire skills, make contacts, and take their first steps into the formal job market that they aspire to enter after completing their formal education.
Cercle Social, whose mission is to improve access to secondary education to the most disadvantaged students in Benin, has a scholarship program—which seeks to increase enrollment among these groups, including girls—as well as a computer lab project. Cercle Social has been working in Tori Agouako, in Benin, to set up a computer lab for high school students in order to give students in rural areas a chance to acquire basic computer literacy and learn basic computer software. In three years, it has benefited over nine-hundred students. Givology donors recently helped Cercle Social raise $1500 to buy four computers and a copier for the school to offer a class designed to help students learn basic computer literacy (word processing, spreadsheet, graphics, software installation, etc.)

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