In 2000, United Nations member nations set eight targets for sustainable development called the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), including ending poverty and hunger, gender equality, and universal education. With respect to the latter, the objective was to ensure universal primary education by 2015. While progress has been made, with enrollment increasing from 83 percent in 2000 to 89 percent in 2008, it appears as though the goal will not be realized by 2015. While universal primary education is an admirable goal, merely measuring enrollment is not sufficient. For example, that World Bank research found teacher absenteeism to be 27 percent in Uganda and 20 percent in rural Kenya illustrates that merely having a school for children does not ensure that they will learn anything. For these reasons, educational programs in developing countries need to be rethought to ensure that they enhance the “capabilities” of the underprivileged. Two models that focus less on the easy-to-measure metrics like enrollment and more on the specific conditions that promote survival and success are School for Life and Fundacion Paraguaya.
School for life uses a two-pronged approach that combines western-style education with practical business and health knowledge. The pioneers of the model, Professor Mark J. Epstein of Rice University and Professor Kristi Yuthas of Portland State University, have recognized the inadequacy of traditional metrics of performance, such as standardized test scores, for educational institutions in the developing world. For example, the opportunity cost of attending school—in terms of money for school fees or a uniform, or time not spent working—may be a barrier to the sequential school attendance needed to learn the critical thinking skills so highly valued in the west. Given this high opportunity cost and the relatively low marginal returns from additional schooling, School for Life attempts to maximize practical learning per time spent in school. For instance, an integral part of School for Life’s pedagogy is raising awareness about the importance of hygiene and teaching students how to diagnose common maladies and diseases. While the dearth of medical facilities in developing countries is the main reason for premature death, unawareness of sanitary guidelines and illness is also a contributor. In the case that there are medical facilities, recognition of symptoms can help people decide when they really need to go to the doctor, thereby preventing sickness from progressing. Furthermore, students learn about resource allocation, money management, and other basic business skills that they can apply to their future work in order to maximize income. For both the training in health care and entrepreneurship, School for Life employs a hands-on model, in which students constantly practice what they learn. This approach inculcates in students important knowledge and skills that promote longevity and higher incomes.
Similarly, Fundacion Paraguaya focuses on building up the productive human capital of its students to allow them to flourish in the workplace. The organization’s San Francisco Agricultural School is a high school that offers two degrees to poor Paraguayan youth: one in agriculture and the other in rural tourism. Both programs aim to teach students business skills that are relevant to the local economy. Fundacion Paraguay’s motto, “learning by doing and earning,” is illustrated by the school’s seventeen on-campus enterprises, including a cheese and yogurt factory, a roadside store, and a small hotel. Students have the opportunity to apply what they learn in the classroom through these businesses, thereby acquiring the skills that will allow them to operate their own enterprises in the future. Furthermore, these activities generate income for the school, which covers all operational costs and fees for the school. Thus, Fundacion Paraguaya has found a sustainable method for educating students in areas relevant to their likely future employment.
What both of these models highlight is the need for a nuanced approach to educational programs in the developing world that considers the practical skills and needs of impoverished students. While these two models have not been tested by randomized control methods, their systems are appreciated, given the shortcomings of current measures, such as enrollment and standardized tests. That all United Nations member nations signed the Millennium Development Goals declaration demonstrates the universal belief in the power of education. However, its power can only be unleashed if programs are devised and formulated with a recognition of contextual differences.