World Views
2:47 pm
Thu August 7, 2014

Preschool, Parents, Incentives: The New Face Of Educational Development In Africa

Traditionally, educational development work in Africa has focused on building schools and training teachers.

They’ve been successful in many African countries, but University of Oklahoma economist Moussa Blimpo says they’re not enough.

“In the past 20 years, what you see, and what has been celebrated, is the growth of access to education,” Blimpo says. “A lot of kids are getting to school. More than before. But they're not necessarily learning, and the learning outcomes are extremely poor.”

Blimpo’s research in the Gambia and Benin focuses on how to change these outcomes. He says now that there is more access to education in these countries, students need preschool programs, informed parents, and concrete incentives to be more successful.

In the Gambia, Blimpo’s research on preschool programs explores whether the head start children might get justifies the investment. Blimpo says the first three years of a child’s life are crucial in terms of future social and educational success, but early schooling isn’t the only factor in play.

“Education is not just what is happening in the classroom,” Blimpo says. “What is happening at home or in the household is crucial, much more important than anything else.”

Rural parents have high aspirations for their children.

“A lot of them want their kids to be ministers, to be doctors and nurses,” Blimpo says. “But they just don't know what they need to do to accompany their child, because they don't have education themselves.”

That’s why Blimpo’s research in the Gambia also tries to empower parents.

“To go back in the villages and actually inform parents about the choices that they have, the power that they have, what they can do, you know, relative to the capacity that they have to encourage their child to pursue and work hard at school – we’re trying to promote that.”

Since many children don’t have that kind of support at home, though, Blimpo says students need extra incentives motivating them to do well. He first noticed that while doing research in Benin.

“I gave incentives to kids, very basic incentives. I'd say, ‘If you do well at the end of the year, I'll give you something. I'll give you a gift.’,” Blimpo says. “And then … there was a certification exam, I found up to 11 percent more passing rates among the group of kids who received the incentive that you will be rewarded if you do better.”

Blimpo says concrete incentives like these produce better results than simply telling children to go to school to earn a better job in 20 years, especially with disadvantaged or poor families without a strong infrastructure at home. This research could radically change educational outcomes in Africa. But if there aren’t jobs waiting for students, graduates will face new problems.

“All the growth and all the transformation that people have been talking about for the last 20 years is going to come in question because a lot of people feel like they are educated – they have bachelor's degrees, master's degrees – but they don't have jobs that correspond to that,” Blimpo says. “And that could be the next challenge.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On how development approaches have changed

For over 50 years, it was focused more on big questions: how to develop a country, how to grow a country. But we've realized over time that these are nearly unanswerable questions. Nobody was able to come up with set policies that would take the countries, or the continent as a whole, from one place to the other. As a result of that, there's been a shift to focus on smaller issues. Smaller issues where we can do very focused and narrow research, and have questions and answers that can inform policy.

On the problem of decentralizing school systems

In Gambia, we've done work in the area of decentralization. And the argument there is that the school system has grown a lot because access has been expanded, but management has become a problem. The ministries don't have the resources or the skills anymore to control all the schools. … there are so many schools, and it's just too crowded. So what we were trying in Gambia is to say, "Okay, let's give more autonomy to villages." Give them more local control of schools, and see whether that can improve learning outcomes. And we ran four-year-long research that cost over a million dollars. This project was funded by the World Bank to study that aspect. Unfortunately, what came out of this study is basically that at the local level they might know better their problems, but a lot of times they don't have the skills to manage them when it comes to the bottom line. Like, parents, they care about their kids, they know what the teachers are doing, they can monitor them. But they can't sit on curriculum and management committees. They can't actually know what teachers and head teachers are really supposed to do, because, remember, it's in the context of rural Africa where the parents don't have education themselves.

On the challenges of engaging parents in education

We evaluated in Gambia a very comprehensive program. But what we found out is that when it comes to critical things where it's important to actually go and open a book and figure out things, that's where things stop functioning. But parents come to meetings. We invite them to come and meet the teachers and discuss the problems in the villages. But what would happen a lot of times again, you have these meetings, and ultimately it's the teacher or the head teacher, who's supposed to be supervised by the community, he's the most knowledgeable person in that meeting, and leading, actually, that meeting. So it makes it very hard to work. But what this means is basically that as researchers and as policy makers we just have to have more realistic objectives for what parents can do, and then push harder for that.

On the need for young African entrepreneurs

You know, in the '60s when most of the African countries got independence, the focus was to train very quickly people and position them in public administration. And, so, back then, education translated to getting instruction and then having a job after. That mentality hasn't changed. So the higher education system needs to be reformed so that some of the students coming out of it have the mindset that they should be entrepreneurs, create jobs, and not be only job seekers.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Moussa Blimpo, welcome to World Views.

BLIMPO: Thank you, it's my pleasure to be here.

GRILLOT: Well, Moussa, you've spent a lot of time in Africa, obviously, you come from the country of Togo. And as an economist, you've spent a significant amount of time looking at development activities and the ways in which African countries in particular are able to develop, really focusing largely on education and early childhood education, for example. Tell us a little bit about that. I know some of your research, interestingly, focuses on investing in early childhood education as a way in which you can really boost socioeconomic outcomes. So tell us what you know about that.

BLIMPO: Yeah, so, to answer correctly this question, you have to understand the broader picture of the entire field of development economics, where for over 50 years, it was focused more on big questions: how to develop a country, how to grow a country. But we've realized over time that these are nearly unanswerable questions. Nobody was able to come up with set policies that would take the countries, or the continent as a whole, from one place to the other. As a result of that, there's been a shift to focus on smaller issues. Smaller issues where we can do very focused and narrow research, and have questions and answers that can inform policy. And as far as education is concerned, the reason why I'm particularly interested in early childhood investment is because the educational outcome in Africa, and now, for example in the past 20 years, what you see and what has been celebrated, is the growth of access to education. A lot of kids are getting to school. More than before. But they're not necessarily learning, and the learning outcomes are extremely poor. And people are looking at ways to improve that. And there's some research that's suggested that a lot of the time, as far as community development is concerned, the first three years of a child's life are crucial. They are crucial in terms of what they are able to learn later on. And as a result of that, many countries are trying to see if there is a way to have some components of their education system that would involve the early childhood. And that's not the case in most African countries. So we're doing some research in the Gambia, for example, in this particular area, to try to find out whether that helps, and whether any head start that kids get during that period of their lives does persist over time to justify this kind of investment.

GRILLOT: So, what's interesting is that it's not so much access anymore, I think that's an interesting point to make, but the quality of the education once they're in school. Now, when you say the first three years, are you talking about the first three years of school?

BLIMPO: No, of the child. Of their life.

GRILLOT: Okay, so the first three years of a child's life. That kind of attention to their, I guess as we might say, kind of a Head Start Program. Or preschool. You're talking about preschool access, not just early childhood in terms of elementary school, but preschool education.

BLIMPO: Yes, exactly.

GRILLOT: So then let's get to this issue of the learning outcomes themselves. So what are some of the specific things, then? Now that kids are having access, what are the recommendations, based on your research, that you've made in terms of the specific changes that can take place to effect better outcomes?

BLIMPO: So, there are many levels. So, I've done research in the area of early childhood investment, but I've done research in, and evaluated, other types of policies. So, I would talk about two particular instances. For example, in Benin, some of the research that I've done looked at the incentives of the kids themselves. When you take a seven- or 10-year-old to school, what is the incentive that they have to actually work hard and learn a lot? For most of us who come from families, well, it's not the case for me, but most of the kids who come from well-off and well-educated families, they have some incentives within the family: encouragement and parents actually following how the kid is doing and all that to motivate the kids. But for other kids who don't have that kind of support, what is needed, basically, is to say, "Okay, go to school now, and you'll get a better job 20 years down the road." Who can expect a seven-year-old or a 10-year-old to have that kind of calculus to work hard in school? So there need to be some extra incentives for those kids who come from disadvantaged or poor families, who don't necessarily have that infrastructure at home. So I gave incentives to kids, very basic incentives. I'd say, "If you do well at the end of the year, I'll give you something. I'll give you a gift." And then I found in a group of kids who received that kind of incentives that they did. And I found, like, there was a certification exam, I found up to 11% more passing rates among the group of kids who received the incentive that you will be rewarded if you do better. Then, so this says that there is room there to target students with incentives. In Gambia, we've done work in the area of decentralization. And the argument there is that the school system has grown a lot because access has been expanded, but management has become a problem. The ministries don't have the resources or the skills anymore to control all the schools. I remember when I was in primary school, every year two or three times, some guy would show up in my classroom and sit in the back and monitor my teacher. And usually he would be nice those days, and I didn't know what it was, but I learned later on these were inspectors making sure that teachers were actually teaching kids and doing what they were supposed to do. Now they can't do that because there are so many schools, and it's just too crowded. So what we were trying in Gambia is to say, "Okay, let's give more autonomy to villages." Give them more local control of schools, and see whether that can improve learning outcomes. And we ran four-year-long research that cost over a million dollars. This project was funded by the World Bank to study that aspect. Unfortunately, what came out of this study is basically that at the local level they might know better their problems, but a lot of times they don't have the skills to manage them when it comes to the bottom line. Like, parents, they care about their kids, they know what the teachers are doing, they can monitor them. But they can't sit on curriculum and management committees. They can't actually know what teachers and head teachers are really supposed to do, because, remember, it's in the context of rural Africa where the parents don't have education themselves. And if I take my own example, and coming back to the idea of early childhood investment, when I started the first grade, that was the first time I started hearing some French words. So in the first grade is some French, but I come from a family where nobody was educated. And so I spoke no word of French, and I was supposed to be able to perform among other kids who might come from parents who are working in the public sector and speak some French, and all that. So as a result of that, I had to fail the first grade. And thank God I failed the first grade. Thank god that there was some testing that you had to pass before you could go to the second grade. So, you know, I failed the first grade, and then I was able to pick up from there and move on. So these are the kind of policies that people are exploring in the developing world. As far as Africa is concerned, in many African countries you have a lot of research in this area to try to find out what kind of policies can improve learning outcomes of a child.

GRILLOT: Well, I have no doubt that the language issue is a significant one. I can't imagine just showing up in the first grade, as you said, and having to all-of-a-sudden learn in a foreign language without some sort of instruction in your native language. But I want to ask the question about parents. I mean, you've mentioned them a couple of times, you know, the fact that parental involvement, or at least parental encouragement, parental awareness of what's going on in the school, parental interest, even, in their education. But what more is it? I mean, you just made some reference to can they, you know, play a role in curriculum? How connected are they to teachers? I mean, are you seeing things like this happening? Parent-teacher-type organizations in Africa emerging where parents are becoming more involved, and that having an impact on these learning outcomes?

BLIMPO: So what we do in our research is precisely to see whether there could be mechanisms to foster that, to promote that kind of interaction. In more urban areas, you have more and more of that. In the rural areas, parents do care a lot about their kids. We ask them about the aspirations that they have for their kids. A lot of them want their kids to be ministers, to be doctors, and nurses were very popular as well. But they just don't know what they need to do to accompany their child, because they don't have education themselves. You know, most of us, people my age in Sub-Saharan Africa, are the first generation to acquire this formal, Western-style education. So, to go back in the villages and actually inform parents about the choices that they have, the power that they have, what they can do, you know, relative to the capacity that they have to encourage their child to pursue and work hard at school, is the kind of policies we are trying to evaluate. This is not to say, if fact, that would be very mistaken, to suggest that these parents care less about their kids in any way. They care a lot and they have very high aspirations for their kids. They just, our assumption is that they just don't know what they need to do. And we're trying to promote that. Again, like I said, we evaluated in Gambia a very comprehensive program. But what we found out is that when it comes to critical things where it's important to actually go and open a book and figure out things, that's where things stop functioning. But parents come to meetings. We invite them to come and meet the teachers and discuss the problems in the villages. But what would happen a lot of times again, you have these meetings, and ultimately it's the teacher or the head teacher, who's supposed to be supervised by the community, he's the most knowledgeable person in that meeting, and leading, actually, that meeting. So it makes it very hard to work. But what this means is basically that as researchers and as policy makers we just have to have more realistic objectives for what parents can do, and then push harder for that.

GRILLOT: Well, I'm curious; I have to ask about how your research in Africa and these particular countries, I mean, your own experience in Togo, your research in Benin and the Gambia, how generalizable is that across Africa? I mean, are you seeing very similar problems across the continent? And would you consider these to be very similar problems that perhaps other countries in other regions of the world face, or perhaps that even in the United States we face?

BLIMPO: Absolutely. So, you see when I talk about decentralization of school management, if I were to draw a parallel with the U.S., that would be sort of the charter schools, trying to get something a little more independent, more autonomy in the management of the school, and expect that, you know, you'll have more competition, more accountability, in particular, to improve learning outcomes. When it comes to early childhood investment, so, in fact, education as an economist, in the U.S. it's a huge debate about the minorities, for example, the African Americans. What are parts of the problems in terms of them not having higher achievements in education, the gap in the achievement measurement that people are having now? So what is emerging from that as well is that, look, education is not just what is happening in the classroom. What is happening at home or in the household is crucial, much more important than anything else. And one of, I think, Nobel Laureate James Heckman is actually one of the pioneers of this. He's showing how despite some of the highest achievement that you can get on paper, in the books, and all that, when you go back and look at how people are doing in life in general, some of the most explanatory variables come in the early-childhood part of their lives. What happened in their families in their first few years, in terms of learning manners, learning how to behave in a society, how to fit, and how to do very basic things. So, this is the motivation. So this problem is a general problem, but the prescription cannot necessarily be general. The prescription is going to be context specific. And when we're talking about Africa, when we're talking about the kind of research I'm doing, it's extremely different than the U.S. The context is very different. You don't have the infrastructure that you have here. You don't have the level of education that we have on average in the United States here, and that makes it very different. So whatever conclusion we will try there it is very unlikely that it could be generalized to other places.

GRILLOT: Same problem, different solutions. So, just to go back really quickly to the incentive, and that the job later in life is an incentive. But tell us Moussa, some of the work you're doing now has to do with youth unemployment. And that clearly is connected to this issue of education. Because even if you have access and you have a good education and you end up an educated person, in some of these countries you may not even be able to find a job. So how does that connect to all of this and what does it mean for the future of education in Africa?

BLIMPO: That is a huge problem in Africa. There's a conference that I'm invited to attend in Paris where the focus is basically on youth unemployment and secondary education. You know, in the '60s when most of the African countries got independence, the focus was to train very quickly people and position them in public administration. And, so, back then, education translated to getting instruction and then having a job after. That mentality hasn't changed. So the higher education system needs to be reformed so that some of the students coming out of it have the mindset that they should be entrepreneurs, create jobs, and not be only job seekers. And if Africa is able to make that transformation, it will be great. Otherwise, all the growth and all the transformation that people have been talking about for the last 20 years is going to come in question because a lot of people feel like they are educated – they have bachelor's degrees, master's degrees – but they don't have jobs that correspond to that. And that could be the next challenge. And that's the kind of research I'm engaging in going forward now.

GRILLOT: Really fascinating, Moussa. That you so much for being with us today and sharing your insight about this really important topic. Thank you.

BLIMPO: Thank you. It's my privilege to be invited to this show. Thank you.

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