Before We Can Teach Poor Children, We Have To Educate Their Parents

The 10 most effective ideas for improving the world.
May 10 2012 2:06 PM

To Educate Children, We Have To Teach Their Parents

We can improve education in poor countries by showing parents the importance of schooling.

A public school in India.
Nobel laureates are considering three strategies to improve education in the developing world. Here, a government school in India.

Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images.

In this series, Bjorn Lomborg explores the smartest investments to respond to global challenges—and readers get to have their say. See the earlier articles here. Be sure to vote in the poll at the bottom of each article. On Monday, Bjorn Lomborg will present the Slate reader results, showing which priorities you think are most urgent for policymakers and philanthropists. And he will reveal the findings of a panel of Nobel laureate economists that has also been considering the research.

Over the past 50 years, remarkable progress has been made ensuring that children receive basic education. More than 60 percent of adults in low-income countries can read and write, whereas in 1962, just one-third were literate. Today, nearly nine in 10 children around the world complete primary school.

However, in education—as in other developmental challenges—progress is uneven. Across sub-Saharan Africa, nearly one-quarter of primary aged children are not in school. In Equatorial Guinea, 46 percent of children are not being educated. In South Asia, progress has generally been impressive, but 34 percent of Pakistan’s primary aged children are not in school.  The worst educational outcomes occur in the nations that rank among the most poorly governed.


Copenhagen Consensus 2012 is a far-reaching project that asks expert economists to explore ways to improve the world’s biggest challenges. In this series we have taken a look at economists’ research papers that highlight ways to achieve the biggest gains most effectively.

In a research paper on education released today, Peter Orazem highlights the different ways that decision-makers could approach the challenge of providing education in developing countries.

Most children in developing countries are now already enrolled in school for at least some period, so Peter Orazem points out that we could focus on strategies that improve school quality, either by enhancing the learning that is occurring in school or increasing the number of years of schooling.

Unfortunately, there is very weak knowledge about which inputs actually generate quality schooling outcomes, and many investments are unlikely to generate the desired effects.  There is widespread acknowledgement that resources are used inefficiently, but for instance efforts to improve resource management by devolving authority to local jurisdictions are as likely to fail as succeed.

Thus, Peter Orazem considers three strategies that seem to offer the best evidence of success to date: nutrition supplements, offering information on returns to schooling, and conditional cash transfers for school attendance.  All have been shown to succeed with benefits that exceed the costs. 

It may seem surprising to focus on nutrition to achieve better schooling, but malnourished children learn poorly. Insuring proper nutrition when brain development is occurring makes a significant difference. The benefits are not just educational but also increase health and a child’s physical abilities (we saw investment in deworming recommended in the Copenhagen Consensus research on chronic disease, and nutritional interventions promoted in the paper on hunger.) Provision of nutrient supplements and anti-parasitic medicines is very inexpensive: In Kenya the cost of deworming a child can be as low as $3.50, with benefits 20 to 50 times higher.

Increasing the years a child spends in school simply by providing accurate information to kids and parents on the returns of educationschooling is another promising and relatively inexpensive intervention.

Many kids and parents, especially in rural areas, are simply unaware of the long-term benefits that may come from a better education. In Madagascar, for instance, providing children and their parents with accurate information on the value of schooling has been achieved at a cost of $2.30 per child, resulting in total benefits of possibly 600 times the cost.

Although the costs vary across countries, such an intervention could conceivably be built into the standard curriculum at relatively low cost and has the potential of increasing academic effort while in school as well as increasing years of schooling. However, because of the very few studies, the benefits from a large-scale information campaign are less certain.

Finally, Orazem argues that the most consistent evidence of success in recent years comes from making payments to underprivileged parents conditional on their children attending school.  

These programs—known as conditional cash transfers— have consistently increased child attendance, even when the transfer is modest.  Administrative costs have been lower than those of other social interventions.  In addition to positive schooling outcomes, these transfers have lowered the poverty rate, improved the nutritional status of poor households, and have increased the proportion of children receiving vaccinations and other health services. While there is great variance in performance, a dollar spent on such programs on average produces benefits of about $9.

Because the programs increase the intensity of child investment in school as well as child time in school, they help to break the cycle of poverty whereby poor parents underinvest in their children’s schooling and doom their children to poverty. 

By increasing child attendance, Orazem argues, we should even see an increase in teacher attendance, which will increase the quality of schooling offered to the poorest children.

Yet, cash-transfers programs are much more expensive than nutrition or health interventions.  That might explain why cash transfer programs are concentrated in wealthier countries while nutrition programs typically focus on the poorest countries. 

In general, the climate for all of these interventions is worse where the positive  returns are depressed by poor government institutions.  Therefore, the best places to try these interventions are countries that protect individual economic and political freedoms.   Of course, those countries would also have the better capacity to implement an intervention, whether distributing medication, transfer payments, or information on the benefits of investing in schooling.

What priority would you like policymakers and philanthropists to give these educational investments? Have your say in today’s poll:

While Slate readers have been having their say each day, a panel of Nobel laureate-level economists has been considering the research findings. After many months of reading different drafts of research papers, this panel has met to interview the researchers over the past few days.

On Monday, I’ll report on their conclusions—and, I’ll also present the final findings of Slate readers and respond to your comments and questions. Remember, there is a poll in each of the stories published to date, and until Monday you can go back and vote in all of the polls to have your say about what politicians and philanthropists should prioritize.

In this series, Bjorn Lomborg explores the smartest investments to respond to global challenges—and readers get to have their say. See the earlier articles here. Be sure to vote in the poll at the bottom of each article. On Monday, Bjorn Lomborg will present the Slate reader results, showing which priorities you think are most urgent for policy-makers and philanthropists. And he will reveal the findings of a panel of Nobel laureate economists that has also been considering the research.

Bjørn Lomborg is an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and directs the Copenhagen Consensus Center. He is the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cool It, and most recently How Much Have Global Problems Cost the World?


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