School and the Status Quo

When up in Northern Kenya, driving on a Sunday evening, my co-passengers and I saw a sight that seemed perfectly normal to them, but odd to me. There were several groups of young people, all walking alongside the road with bags. I learned that these people were students that lived in remote villages, and were walking into the main towns that night to be ready for classes the next day. Apparently the standard procedure for these youths was to head back to their villages for the weekend, and then return in time for classes Monday. It depends on the village, but some make a trek of 10-15 km every Friday and Sunday, on foot.

One of the challenges that our organization has been thinking about lately is how to encourage children to go to school. There are many organizations that have all kinds of advice to offer on the subject; some say free uniforms, scholarships, or having parents sign a pledge is the way to go. Maybe kids can’t afford to go to school, maybe they don’t see the value in it. But the explanation that I think most accurately identifies why at times children don’t go to school is simple: in many cases, sending one’s kids to school is hard work.

Every week, the children have to walk several kilometers to go to school. Maybe if the instruction is in their second or third language (English is everyone’s third language here, after the language of their tribe, and Swahili) it’s difficult to really understand the lectures, you have to pay a sizable amount to send your kids, and there is work that could also be done at home. In short, sending children to school is difficult. An appropriate analogy I’ve heard is that it’s like going to the gym in the States. Everyone sees the benefits, but it’s a lot tougher to actually get yourself to go on a repeated basis.

Compare this with the United States. When I was a student, there was a bus that came to within two blocks of my house. The classes were taught in English, my first language. It is a law that everyone has to go to school, and in most cases, the government has ways of enforcing this rule. Basically, in the States, in most areas, the status quo is that you go to school and it requires some real effort to do otherwise.

Behavioral economists focus heavily on what the “status quo” is when it comes to decision-making—what happens if the average person chooses not to make an active decision? For example, consider retirement plans with a company. Suppose you have a form that either a) allows you to opt-in to a retirement plan by checking a box, or b) assumes that you want to opt-in, but allows you to opt-out by simply checking a box. 30% more of the population will have a retirement plan in option b, simply because the status quo was to opt in.

In the context of attending school then, it’s easy to imagine how the status quo might affect people. In the States, you are “automatically enrolled” in school, and it requires some real effort to opt-out (with exceptions, to be sure). In contrast, in many developing countries, you have to actively opt-in to the school, and go through many steps to make sure your children attend. It’s perhaps no surprise given this information that school enrollment rates are much lower in developing countries. While supplying additional resources is clearly necessary, it’s also important to think about ways of making school enrollment the status quo at an institutional level.

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4 Responses to School and the Status Quo

  1. N P says:

    Too bad your insights cannot be mandatory reading for parents here in the States, as often the privilege of education is not appreciated. Some students mentally drop out early, although they continue to come to school until age 16 or so. On the bright side, many of my class last year learned a lot, some quite a bit more than they had anticipated.

    • nate0316 says:

      It’s true, and I think nowhere is the contrast more marked than when it comes to secondary education. Primary school is “free” here, but parents have to bear the costs of uniforms, tests, etc. Secondary school though is quite expensive, and often out of reach for most families. In Northern Kenya, when a child shows promise, getting them to school requires real effort. Often families will have a “harambee”, which is essentially a festival fundraiser, where they try to convince every friend and family member to contribute at least a little, to scrape the funds together to pay for fees. Quite the contrast to uninterested families and students that don’t want to go to school in the States, perhaps.

      • RB says:

        Secondary education in the US is the next bubble that is going to burst. Too many “students” attend, w/o regard to the cost, going into debt that will never be repaid.

        Is the status quo for students in Kenya to go to primary school? Or is the status quo to attend school and then drop out, failing to finish?

      • nate0316 says:

        So it’s worth noting that “secondary education” is just the term they use for what we call high school. So their education through our 8th grade level is free, except for the cost of uniforms, national tests, etc, while high school is very, very expensive, and out of the reach of many people. The “status quo” really depends on one’s wealth and the part of the country they’re from, but I would say through primary, or 8th grade, is probably fairly common.

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