Beyond Fourth Grade
By Mike Yankoski
June 8, 2012
Studies have shown that for every year of schooling someone has, there is a corresponding 10 percent increase in that person’s wages. In East Africa, a person with at least some secondary schooling is significantly less likely to contract HIV than someone with no formal education.
On the other hand, a lack of quality education keeps people entrenched in poverty.
Of the more than 800 million illiterate adults in our world today, approximately 70 percent live in some of the world’s most impoverished areas—namely, sub-Saharan Africa and East and South Asia. If you live in America or Western Europe, you are likely to receive five or six more years of formal schooling than the typical person living in sub-Saharan Africa. If we want to combat poverty—or we hope to see long-term, sustainable development improving the lives of those in need—then we must note the lack of education in our world.
Danae and I had the chance to connect with some missionary friends in Uganda not long ago. Over a meal one evening, they shared how they connect evangelism and development. “One without the other doesn’t really make sense,” they explained it. It’s like trying to clap with one hand.
Vocational training is part of this couple’s ministry, along with Bible training, worship services and church planting. In other words, they are educating people—empowering them with the knowledge needed to start their own businesses and improve their quality of life. One of the vocational endeavors is a baking school, where men and women learn how to create simple, nutritious bread that can be made without relying on industrial ovens.
One day during a baking class, the flour began to run low. Instead of canceling class, the students were instructed to cut the recipe in half. Unfortunately, none of the students, despite being secondary school graduates (roughly the equivalent of a high school diploma in the U.S.) knew how. Dumbfounded, the missionaries inquired further. While everyone in the class knew that “four divided by two is two,” when it came to putting that knowledge into practice, nobody knew what to do with four cups of flour. A recent UNESCO report describes this kind of situation as a failure to “master a minimum set of cognitive skills.” It has everything to do with the environment in which a person is educated. Factors beyond a child’s control—such as nutrition, the teacher’s ability and the teacher-to-pupil ratio—largely determine the outcome of the child’s education.
A friend of ours is a Peace Corps volunteer in the tiny Central American country of Belize. One of his primary tasks is helping at a primary school in a rural village. The situation is bleak. Most of the children in Belize will never progress beyond the equivalent of a fourth grade education.
Upon realizing that students were performing poorly on a standardized national examination, the government of Belize decided to test primary school teachers to see how they performed on the same test. Many of the teachers didn’t pass—not exactly a great foundation for education.
Imagine you had only received a fourth grade education—or worse yet, that you couldn’t read or write at all. Where might you go for dependable information? How would you learn about improving your child’s health? What job prospects would you have? How would you improve your family’s situation?
If you have a college degree, consider how different your life would be if you had quit your education after high school. If you didn’t go to college, consider what it would have been like if your family had run out of money for school fees when you were in the fifth grade. Consider what your job would be if you had to quit school at age 10 to support your family. Those “imagine ifs” portray the reality faced by literally millions of children who have little or no formal education.
This is not just a problem in developing countries either. Nearly a quarter of all students in the United States do not graduate from high school on time, if at all. More than two-thirds of those in the U.S. prison system do not have a high school diploma. Even in developed countries, there is much work to be done in the area of education. After-school programs, tutoring opportunities and mentoring programs can dramatically affect the education and ultimately the lives of students across the U.S.
A quality education dramatically alters a person’s life. Literacy empowers people not only to read the Scriptures, but to gain access to a world of human knowledge that includes everything from nutrition to poetry to entrepreneurial insights and cultural expression. In addition, educated parents are more likely to educate their children, thereby helping to create a better future for the next generation.
The education of women is especially important. A study done by Oxfam showed that in Pakistani homes where the mother had no education, the infant mortality rate was 60 percent higher than in homes where the mother had at least some education. When a woman becomes educated, even at a basic level, it improves her entire household’s ability to function. In the book Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson quotes an African proverb he learned while growing up in Tanzania: “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual; if you educate a girl, you educate a community.”
Despite the proven long-term impact of educating women, they still remain at a greater risk of illiteracy than men. Worldwide, there are just 88 literate women for every 100 literate men. In some countries, the disparity is much worse—62 women for every 100 men in Bangladesh, while in Pakistan the ratio is 57 to 100.
Despite the frustrating numbers, good things are happening. The number of children not attending primary school has dropped from 115 million in 2002 to roughly 93 million in 2006. Although the responsibility of educating people falls largely on the shoulders of governments, we can help bring important changes. As citizens of countries with the resources to provide aid to developing countries, advocacy plays a vital role in addressing the global need for education. Additionally, many smaller organizations work to provide alternative and supplemental educational opportunities for students. From after-school tutoring programs in the United states to providing donor-funded scholarships in developing countries, we can love others by working to provide a quality education for the next generation.