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  • Redefining Quality in Developing World Education
  • Marc J. Epstein (bio) and Kristi Yuthas (bio)

In the outskirts of Medellin, Colombia, impoverished rural schoolchildren have cause for hope. The Colombian Coffee Growers’ Association wants to hire them. Why? Because these children have developed the independent thinking, communication, and work skills that will make them an asset to the industry. They developed these skills in their multigrade primary schools, where children do most of their learning in competence-based groups, while the teacher functions as guide and coach.

In Kenya, a teenage boy is also celebrating. A primary school dropout who once survived outside the law, he now runs his own small business, lives on his own, and even helps support his family financially. He learned the skills he needed in a 12-week entrepreneurship program offered to youth living on the streets in the heart of one of Africa’s largest slums.

The life-changing economic opportunities now available to these children are the direct result of the unique quality of their schooling, which has had a direct and positive impact on their immediate circumstances. In other words, these children’s schooling was made relevant to their current life experiences and those they will later encounter.

Weakness of Current Practices

These children’s stories unfortunately are not common. Currently, the dominant view in both developed and developing countries is that education quality is synonymous with content mastery. A Western model of education usually dominates the content of and the approach to both primary and secondary education. School systems evaluate students’ performance based on their ability to achieve international standards in language, math, science, and social studies. As a result, although the life trajectories of students in various locations and circumstances vary dramatically, there is significant overlap across the curricula prescribed for [End Page 197] schools in elite North American and European cities and those prescribed for schools in rural African villages. It may seem obvious that, beyond basic literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills, the schooling students receive must vary according to their vastly different environments and life trajectories, but that is not the prevailing practice.

Children living in impoverished regions need knowledge and tools that will give them the best chance to escape the cycle of poverty. They need to develop daily behaviors and health habits that will help them maintain a good quality of life and ensure their ability to work. For the longer term, children need to develop the capacity to generate an income that meets their basic needs—food, shelter, health care, security. In regions where jobs are available, children must learn the basic skills that enable them to work productively for and with others. However, since impoverished regions have few paid employment opportunities, most children in the developing world must be able to generate their own livelihoods. Thus they need the marketplace and entrepreneurial skills that will enable them to identify, pursue, and produce economic opportunities successfully.

Problems in Developing World Education

Traditional perspectives assume that education plays a positive role in economic development and that universal access to primary schooling plays a critical role in breaking the cycle of poverty (Levine & Birdsall, 2005). However, the benefits of education never materialize for most children in impoverished regions. Even as access to schooling expands dramatically, few children are able to make significant changes in their life opportunities, and their communities remain impoverished. As a result, the pursuit of a higher education seems irrelevant for most children living in poverty. Statistics bear out the expectations that most impoverished children won’t reach college or even secondary school. In Rwanda, for example, in 2007, 2.15 million students were enrolled in primary school, 267,000 in secondary school, and 26,400 at the college level (EFA Report, 2008). In sub-Saharan Africa, gross enrollment rates for primary and secondary schools were 74 percent and 26 percent, respectively, and only 6 percent of students attend college, most of whom are from wealthy families (EFA Report, 2008).

Many factors contribute to this problem, two of which are well known and have been addressed extensively—the problems of access and quality. A third problem—the relevance of schooling to the lives of...


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pp. 197-211
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