New World Development Report on Education: Top 3 Takeaways

The World Bank recently released the first-ever World Development Report devoted entirely to education, “Learning to Realize Education’s Promise.” It explains why countries across the globe have succeeded at rapidly increasing the number of children in school, but have not achieved the same level of success when it comes to helping those children learn.

Because AJWS supports grantees in developing countries that educate girls and young women—particularly in India, where we’ve launched a $30M initiative to end child marriage—we were curious about the report’s findings. Read on for three of our main takeaways from the research.

1. Experts have learned a lot about how to get more girls in school around the globe. It’s often a matter of resolving specific barriers—such as concerns about a girl’s safety—or working to increase her family’s perception of the value of education for girls.

For many girls living in low-income communities, the distance from their home to the nearest school tends to predict whether they will attend. It’s especially a problem in communities where parents fear their daughters might encounter sexual harassment or violence while traveling alone. (Related research not featured in the report: AJWS partners in India have found that as girls reach puberty, their families increasingly isolate them at home—and the girls’ loss of mobility often leads to anxiety and depression.) Some girls also contend with a lack of bathroom facilities at school, which poses obvious problems if they need to relieve themselves or replace menstrual pads, tampons, etc.

Families must also make a judgment call on whether education will realistically yield significant long-term benefits for their daughters.

If parents believe that education will not make a major difference in their daughters’ prospects—in the labor market or in the marriage “market”—then they may want her to shift that time and attention to other work.

A variety of promising strategies have emerged to address these challenges. A few examples include:

  • Ensuring rural and low-income communities have access to schools that are reasonably close and relatively easy to access.
  • Building latrines at school, including some specifically reserved for girls. (This has significantly increased enrollment of adolescent girls in India.)
  • Sharing information on the many long-term benefits of education with girls and their families.
  • Creating clear pathways for educated young women to pursue desirable jobs. (In India, providing job recruiting services for women in their 20s has increased school enrollment for teenage girls.)

2. It’s no surprise that education has huge benefits for girls. But schooling is not the same as learning.

Education can profoundly transform lives. The report notes that educated individuals typically have more agency—the power to shape their futures—which leads to an array of benefits: “Increased agency manifests itself as a reduction in risky behavior, higher life satisfaction, and greater happiness.”

Research shows that simply going to school tends to change girls’ lives in positive and lasting ways, even when their income doesn’t rise significantly. For example, girls in school are less likely to become pregnant during their teenage years, in part because education tends to increase their aspirations, empowerment and agency. Over the long-term, schooling also increases adult women’s control over the number of children they bear.

Unfortunately, the quality of education varies dramatically around the world. Both girls and boys learn very little in many education systems; even after several years in school, millions of students lack basic literacy skills. In India, for example, only about 50 percent of those who complete primary school can read.

Across 51 countries, only about half of women who complete the sixth grade can read a single sentence.

These outcomes have roots in public policy. Many officials around the world have focused more on expanding enrollment and the time children spend in class, less on students’ learning experiences.

AJWS partners in India have also described this phenomenon. As Dipta Bhog, an educational expert, put it, “Today education has become like a magic wand … Development agencies are basically putting them into school. They don’t care about the quality of the education or the kinds of socialization that happen there.”

3. Education systems cannot be treated as separate from the broader economic, political and social factors that influence them—including gender inequality.

Let’s re-examine one of the earlier findings—how many low-income families tend to question the long-term value of education for girls. This is not surprising when you consider that many communities believe that women belong at home. Strict social norms around gender roles lead to severe restrictions on women’s access to economic opportunities. For example, two studies from India and Nigeria found that nearly 90 percent of women felt they needed their husband’s permission to work at all.

This section of the report brings to mind a study that one of AJWS’s partners recently released. They found that the critical tools low-income young women in Delhi needed to find a job—such as using mobile phones and visiting internet cafes—were deemed inappropriate for women by their communities. This was especially true for the unmarried women participants in the study, who said they faced social pressure to focus on securing husbands, not careers.

The World Development report notes that widespread discrimination still tends to privilege certain groups, supporting some to thrive in terms of power and income, while others struggle. Whether that discrimination is based on gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background or other factors, it often distorts the potential benefits of education.

To learn more, you can find the full World Development Report here; check out related research from AJWS’s partners on how beliefs about gender have limited the opportunities of women and girls in India; or read more about what AJWS and our grantees are doing to help.

Elizabeth DaubeElizabeth Daube is a Senior Communications Officer at AJWS.