“The Economist” Discovers Gender Inequality in Education

Please excuse the cheeky title. While it does represent my first reaction to these two articles from The Economist this week, it’s an unfair representation. Being somewhat more level-headed about it, I can view both articles as sort of primers for gender inequality in education. They’re targeting people who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs; they’re very “share-able” on Facebook and Twitter; and they’re great for increasing public awareness.

But let’s go over them a little more critically anyway.

In the first, “Making room for girls,” the author discusses in broad strokes the push toward universal enrollment in primary education and closing the gender gap, driven by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. They cite the reasoning behind this push as driven by a waste of human capital: failing to educate girls limits economic growth. Definitely true, but not nearly the only reason the global community is working to get every girl and boy in primary school. Don’t forget about the agreed basic human right to education, among many other reasons.

The article makes a great point that while the primary enrollment rate in Sub-Saharan Africa has gone up significantly (though not enough to meet the relevant MDG), enrollment in secondary and tertiary education has actually fallen. Some country-specific data are also highlighted, making the point that averages hide some pretty significant differences. I’ve embedded their graph on progress toward universal education here:

The issue that the article completely skips is the issue of quality. Even if every single primary school-age child is enrolled, what does that say about the quality of the education they’re receiving? If there are 100 children in a classroom with a single teacher, or that teacher changes every other year because the pay is so low, or the curriculum they’re using is out of date, or there are inadequate study materials, how much does universal enrollment really matter?

And what does universal enrollment say about the gender equality in the classroom? Do the girls have positive role models, examples of women doctors, politicians, and businesses owners to spark their imaginations? Do they have female teachers? Do their teachers, administrators, and fellow classmates treat the girls the same as the boys? There are 1000 questions to ask about gender equality in the classroom that go beyond how many students of each gender are there.

I understand the argument that quality might come at a second stage, that once we get everyone in the classroom, we can focus on how well they’re being educated. But that is unfair to the millions of children being poorly educated right now. They might be happy that their younger siblings or even their children will be better educated. But I bet they’d also feel cheated out of a quality education because their school, community, country, and the rest of the world came together and decided that it mattered more that they were sitting at the desk than what happened on the blackboard.

Maybe I’m hard on The Economist because I think of them as above the rest – somehow superior to the usual rabble on the internet and other media. I want them to be complex, to show at least glimpses into the many sides of the story. While the first article doesn’t live up to my expectations, the second one is an improvement. It doesn’t go in too deep, but provides a look into a key difference between girls’ and boys’ education. (It might be worth noting that the first is available only on the internet, while the second was written for the print edition.)

When education dries up” redeems The Economist for me (and I know their editors are breathing easy now that they’ve regained my approval). It focuses on a lot of the same issues as the first, but raises an important note: poverty impacts girls’ and boys’ education differently. In droughts in Uganda, the article notes, girls were pulled out of school at a higher rate than boys to support the family income. The boys were kept in school because their long-term job prospects were better, and that means higher income in the future.

This ties girls’ education to not only issues of poverty, but the job market, food security, and host of others. So the second article takes a deeper look, makes the reader think, and hopefully (from my perspective) inspires a few readers to go deeper into some of the challenges facing girls’ education, all without being too technical, too boring, or too long. I guess The Economist knows what it’s doing after all.


R., C. (2013, November 5). Gender inequality: Making room for girls. The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2013/11/gender-inequality

The economics of sexual inequality: When education dries up. (2013, November 2). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21588927-new-research-hints-better-method-ensure-girls-africa-stay-school-when

Unrealistic Expectations

Global Citizen has called on all people to petition their governments to fund the Global Partnership for Education, what they call “the only multilateral partnership dedicated to putting primary-aged children into school for quality education.” From the article/press release found on Education International’s news section, we learn that a key way to raise awareness of this campaign was the Global Citizen Festival, a concert that promises a 3-step experience: “Watch Live/ Take Action/ See Impact.” I am going to be critical of the approach these organizations have taken to solving global educational inadequacies, and the public image they see as appropriate to raise the mentioned funds (which I will assume is not a misunderstanding of the issue, but an intentional simplification for fundraising reasons).

In the first article above, Global Citizen quotes a UNESCO figure of $26 billion as the cost to “put every child in school by 2015.” First of all, this is simply untrue: this figure refers to the funding gap UNESCO has identified in low-income countries only, as seen in this press release from UNESCO’s Media Services. This of course does not include middle- and even upper-income countries, where there are not-insignificant numbers of children out of school. To be fair, UNESCO itself is inconsistent with these figures: their page on “reaching out-of-school children” makes no mention of the distinction. Also, low-income countries, being most affected by a large number of out of school children, should be the focus of these efforts.

I have two main criticisms of these efforts, though I am leaving behind a host of nitpicky ones. Firstly, GC sees children’s education as important because it is “one of the biggest steps we can take toward ending extreme poverty.” This is echoed in EI’s press release when they provide a short list of world leaders who have “joined the call to end poverty.” Of course it is! Education is a powerful tool, and poverty is unquestionably undesirable. But I would have very much liked to see education touted as a human right, a window to the world, a central capability, or any of the other inherent aspects of a quality education. It is not just a doorway to an economically prosperous future, but to so much more. The author tempers this sentiment by saying that education is an investment that can bring about social change and allows people to reach their full potential, though still within an economic framework.

Secondly, in the next paragraph of that same article is this bewildering phrase: “We know what it takes and how much it will cost.” Forgive the sarcasm, but if Global Citizen knows the secret to global quality education for all and they are hiding it from everyone else, we need to call Tom Cruise and get him to rappel down into whatever secret vault they’re keeping it in. “We know what it takes?” No, we don’t. Definitely don’t. There are a thousand competing ideas about everything from how to train teachers, how to fund education, the subjects to be taught, and even the way classrooms should be laid out! This sort of hubris pervades these articles: we know how to fix this problem if only governments would step up and give us the money to do it.

So what is the connection to girls’ education, other than that girls are obviously affected by this? Firstly, they are disproportionately affected: in this video on UNESCO’s “reaching out-of-school children” page makes the point to mention that “poor, rural girls are most likely” to not be in school. Secondly, as quoted in the Education International article, GPE CEO Alice Albright is quoted as saying “Girls are being killed for going to school.” The most famous recent example is Malala Yousafzai, as covered by Laura here on ED4GIRLS. This is obviously an extreme example of how girls are intentionally kept out of school, but they fail to mention child marriage, girls’ home-based labor, and plain sexism as contributing, though less news-worthy, factors.

On Global Citizen’s About page, they use a phrase I have no problem with: “we need to learn and take action to change the rules that trap [those in extreme poverty] in broken systems.” Here it is – this is a supremely complex issue that requires systemic change across a broad range of issues, governments, cultures, and peoples. The fact that 57 million children are not in basic education programs is not one that can be solved by an injection of $26 billion, or any other amount. And certainly not in 2 years.

Education International. (2013, October 22). GPE launches campaign to get every child into school. Retrieved October 22, 2013 from http://www.ei-ie.org/en/news/news_details/2727

Global Citizen. (2013, October 2). Call on world leaders to fully fund education world-wide. Retrieved October 24, 2013 from http://www.globalcitizen.org/Content/Content.aspx?id=dc404fd0-99dc-46ef-b50e-061df4b8b088

Global Citizen. (n.d.). About Global Citizen. Retrieved October 25, 2013 from http://www.globalcitizen.org/AboutUs/AboutUs.aspx?typeId=15

UNESCO. (2013, June 5). 57 Million children out of school. Retrieved October 25, 2013 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ft5sDJG054w

UNESCO. (2013, June 10). Reaching out-of-school children. Retrieved October 25, 2013 from http://www.uis.unesco.org/Education/Pages/reaching-oosc.aspx

UNESCO Media Services. (n.d.). Funding gap for education growing, according to new figures released by UNESCO. Retrieved October 25, 2013 from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/media-services/in-focus-articles/funding-gap-for-education-growing-according-to-new-figures-released-by-unesco-study-also-proposes-ways-to-close-it

Why Girls’ Education?

Welcome to ED4GIRLS!

We’re going to be drawing your attention to global news about girls’ education, a necessary and vital component of the broader international development effort. We’re all students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, in the International Educational Development Program,* and quite passionate about equalizing and improving educational opportunities around the world, particularly among marginalized groups. Part of the reason we’re focusing on girls’ education is that they are a unique sort of minority group — they’re actually a majority in many countries (!) — and are marginalized to an extreme degree. We’ll be explaining further over the coming weeks what we’re about and how we see these issues.

To start us off, I’m going to talk about a recent article by Pauline Rose, director of UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, who laid out a few great reasons to focus global efforts on educating young girls, though I think she glossed over a really important one. She covers very well the various effects that educating young girls have on society as a whole, focusing on poverty reduction. Education is linked to raising the age at which young girls marry, reducing the number of births per mother, social empowerment, better health outcomes, and a host of others.

These are important issues, and absolutely merit the attention that Rose gives them. Also, her point that many of the negative effects she describes are mitigated by educating young girls is valid and vital. Reducing or even eradicating poverty will not happen without an adequately educated population, and that obviously includes the female half! But in her very first sentence, she glosses over something that is equally important: “Educating girls and young women is not only one of the biggest moral challenges of our generation, it is also a necessary investment for a peaceful and poverty-free world.”

Wrapped up in that “moral challenge” is the idea of education as a human right: all of the positive effects that come out of educating the world’s young women are secondary. They’re wonderful, necessary, urgently needed effects, but they are indeed secondary, at least in my view. Part of the idea of seeing a person’s education as an investment in society comes from the expectation that they will use this education to somehow better their communities and even nations. Part of it comes from the links between education and things like lower crime rates, lower youth pregnancy rates, higher rates of civic engagement — all the incidental benefits of education. Again, these are incredibly important, but come second to the recognition that education is a fundamental human right.

Now, I’m not necessarily talking about a formal classroom education in a state-run school district with all the usual trappings — the method is somewhat less important than the outcome. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights say this about education:

Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

It doesn’t say anything in there about Thomas Hardy, mitochondria, or algebra, but it provides for a broad range of culturally sensitive educational possibilities that aren’t necessarily directed at any specific society-building outcomes. Before that subsection, the simple phrase “Everyone has the right to education” sticks out.

We, meaning all the people of the world, should make sure that all girls get an education. We should do it because it will — no joke — make the world a better place. We should do it because they aren’t getting an equal education right now, and equality is important. We should do it because those educated girls turn into educated women, and we all know what educated women can do. But we should also do it because education is a fundamental human right — girls and young women around the world deserve it.

*Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not represent the University of Pennsylvania, the GSE, or the IED Program.