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February 1, 2013
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March 4, 2013
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Schools and nations

Today I am going to throw a weightier post at you than usual. Yeterday’s BBC website includes an article about education and mobility in the UK :http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21411251.  The news is not particularly good. While the overall quality of UK education improved slightly, “fairness”–the way that education serves economically disadvantaged kids–is shockingly low in comparison with other nations. In short, economically disadvantaged kids are much more likely to do poorly in school and presumably, less likely to have any hope of “moving up” in the world. This study comes on the heels of a 2009 finding by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) that the UK is among the most socially segregated of any industrialized country. The findings are a warning flag for a nation that needs all of its people to believe they can play a role in its future.

Before anyone gets the idea that I am lording it over the UK from this side of the Atlantic, let me be clear that we are not doing all that well at fairness either. Like many of the European nations, we take for granted that “poor” necessarily means “poor performance” for the majority of our economically disadvantaged school children. We find it easy enough to sit back in our armchairs and sigh mournfully about it, but the truth is that other countries have already proven that it can be done better. There are countries where where disadvantaged kids get pretty much the same, very good, educational results. One of them is our chilly neighbor to the North, but to Canada you can add Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Finland, Shanghai and Hong Kong (yes, I realize the latter two have a more ambiguous political definition).

My point here is not that educational questions have been solved in Japan or Canada–they haven’t–but that we in this country (and apparently in the UK, as well) all too often let our frustrations with national education slide into resignation about poverty in general. Economic disadvantage carries all sorts of ugly side effects for a student: stressed-out parents or caregivers, caregivers who work two or sometimes three jobs to keep things going, students who work at nights, greater vulnerability to medical problems and less access to care, poor nutrition, inadequate studying conditions, longer travel times to school and back, inability to afford study materials, more sleep problems.

If this list sounds eerily like the list of problems encountered by our East African students, that’s because it is the same list.

Countries that successfully educate their disadvantaged kids recognize that education is the cornerstone to economic mobility, or to put it more simply, education gives us hope when we need it most. But a cornerstone is just an impressive slab of rock if you don’t actually do the hard work of building the walls and roof it’s meant to hold up. Countries with the highest performing students and the greatest equity in school are also countries that provide access to health care, housing assistance for blue-collar and seasonal works and livable minimum wages. Whatever else you have heard, we do a lot less of all those things than we did 50 years ago.

And this (finally!) brings me back around to East Africa–a region that has not had to worry as much about mobility within its borders because its priority is mobility for the region as a whole. Thanks to a system of public boarding schools, our nonprofit has been able to address many of the obstacles on that earlier list by opening the doors to school environments where the realities of poverty can be put on hold. Our commitment to boarding schools in East Africa is a well thought out response to social and political factors that we believe we are helping to change slowly but surely. But as East Africa succeeds, their job markets get more competitive and high quality secondary and college-level education will matter more and more to a young woman’s future.

Kenya is warily gearing up for its elections next month. Uganda is in the midst of a very public struggle with how it will present itself to the world; Tanzania is maneuvering the hazards of phenomenal economic growth, and Rwanda and Burundi are each hoping to maintain a hard won peace. For the people of these countries, education will be a haven of optimism and a hotly contested resource for decades to come. If things go well, the people of East Africa will find themselves where we in the Americas and Europe are right now–looking at the cornerstone of a democracy and asking if we have the will to build and maintain a nation for all of our children.

school doors


  1. ksmithmcilwain says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Amy. Did you happen to hear the NPR interview with educators from South Korea and Finland? Extraordinarily distinct philosophies of education. Both extremely successful. I think the show was called En Pointe.

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