what is the expected pay-off of school education in rural Africa?

from the standpoint of the children of subsistence farmers, what is the expectation and the reality of pay-off of a middle school and high school diploma? E.g. I know that in the West high school diploma traditionally was required to enter any and all skilled trades and professions. So presumably unless you learn a trade from parents/friends, you need to get a high school diploma to get a professional education to get a decent job of any kind.

Now, what do you get in return for the diploma in Africa? Presumably some high school grads will go on to college and get government jobs, but what percent of them? Would the poor village youths even afford college? If you end up just with a high school diploma, what marginal benefit do you get from it compared with somebody who just has a middle school diploma and spent the extra time in a gainful occupation? I mean, you can get an apprenticeship as farmer or artisan without a diploma, right?

Likewise, what marginal benefit do you get from middle school diploma that you don’t get from just the basic literacy and numeracy instruction in primary school? Or is it the case that people don’t really master literacy and numeracy until end of middle school there?

I don’t know about direct employment benefits, but there are indirect benefits of education such as better health and lower infection rates. The under-education of women is considered one of the biggest factors in chronic poverty in the developing world.

Many of the benefits of education tend to be indirect rather than due solely to the job training you get from education.

Wesley Clark,

do you think that such beliefs are actually in the mind of the students and their parents as they make the decision to go to school or to do something else? I am not even talking about confounding factors that would bear upon the validity of them (that is, richer people tend to get more educated and they also tend to be healthier) but just look at it from the standpoint of the people involved. They are investing money and time, and what are they getting back out of it?

Correction to the above:

oops, sorry, I do realize that you might be able to bring up a study that shows that school graduates are healthier even when controlled for wealth. Nevertheless, I think that such abstract considerations are not likely to be high on the radar of the African people themselves (heck, they wouldn’t be on MY radar in such a situation either).

You are probably losing out if you put a kid in school. He/she cannot stay home and work since they will be at school. Plus you have to pay school fees. So you lose an income (by having the kid be in school instead of working) while paying fees for his tuition, uniforms and books.

But issues of education (since they are largely funded publicly) have to be addressed from societal benefits and drawbacks.


I really don’t know what the average person thinks of primary education and how it’d directly benefit or harm them. There are so many variables, I could only guess.

Well, I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but for starters, it might put a stop to bullshit like this.

I would put that down solidly as a “step in the right direction.”

Code_Grey, you’re being pitted.

Right here

Africa is a big place, and each region has it’s own problems. I can speak a bit about my experiences as a high school teacher in Northern Cameroon.

Primary school was very useful. Even sustenance farmers benefit from being able to read and perform simple math. As a result, most Cameroonian children with access to a school spent at least several years there.

In my experience, though, the high school system was poorly adapted to local circumstances. It was created by the French and directly off of the French school system, on the still common assumption that anything European is automatically better. Because the system was based on French calendars, French grading, etc. it meant that a lot of people had trouble just getting through high school. Illness, pregnancy, financial troubles and family obligations meant that most students would miss significant amounts of time, which they system was not flexible enough to handle and could end up holding them back for years. I’d have 26 year old students who were sophomores in high school, and not for want of trying.

Like the French, Cameroon had a system of “classic” schools and “technical” schools. Technical schools, like the one I taught at, are increasing in popularity as people realize they at least offer the chance to learn job skills. However, the skills offered at my school were clearly dreamed up by some distant bureaucrat in the capital city- a place where pit latrines are the norm does not really need to turn out tons of plumbers. However the most important skill- farming- would be considered too low class to have a place at a high school.

So why did my students go, considering most of them didn’t really have a chance of graduating, much less finding a job? Honestly, I never really figured it out. I guess if you even want to have a chance at one of the few well-paid jobs (virtually all with the government) you’d need to have schooling under your belt. Many of the girls were there in hopes that they’d find a chance to marry a teacher (who were considered very well paid.) But overall, there were few direct benefits.

I think the main reason is hope. They hope things will get better. And they hope that when they do, their diplomas will become valuable.

Completely IMHO, and inappropriate to the forum, but I think that the education is the necessary first step to a better tomorrow. Basic education lays the foundation for higher education, which is necessary to change from tribal/mystic worldviews into something…else.

I’m curious about what the non-European–indigenous?–alternatives would be that should, in theory, be superior for local peoples. Woudn’t even the primary schools be patterned on essentially European models?

I can’t seem to read anything about African countries without some default assumption that Europeans screwed up the whole continent and are continuing to do so. What African-developed model for educational progress is superior and why wouldn’t they just use that? I recognize every country has its own approach, even to quantifying things like grading, but it seems to me the whole idea of higher education–perhaps even lower education–is something colonists brought to most of Africa…“French grading and calendars” might be difficult for folks already schooled in British grading (and calendars?) but I’m not understanding why a “foreign” system layered on top of nothing is a reason people had trouble just getting through high school.

What native higher education and evaluation systems are being thwarted by the dependence on foreigners? What’s constraining them not to switch? Is the assumption that a European model is “automatically” better, or just that it is better than…no system at all?

It’s not about European vs. non-European. It’s about a school system designed for a very different society being imitated in a place with vastly different circumstances without being adapted to fit those circumstances. A school system developed in urban Kenya would be equally inappropriate for rural Cameroon.

In my opinion, one of the biggest problems is that students simply cannot stay in school continuously. Every kid gets a case of malaria every year or two that puts them out for a few weeks. Most families have periods where they cannot pay school fees and the kids drop out for a while. Many high school women are married and do get pregnant. Depending on what crops your family grows, you may miss classes during the harvest and planting period. With the current system, these setbacks can nullify a whole year’s worth of work. We have students that fail year after year because of nothing more than some badly timed illness.

The French system is especially difficult because students take all of their classes together as a class group, not picking and choosing as Americans do. So if they fail too many classes, they have to repeat the entire grade- even the classes they passed. Even if you’ve passed Algebra three times, you are never going to be able to move until you also pass English.

Furthermore, in the French system students who are in the same grade level share a classes no matter what- so you have students who have mastered the materials together with students who have no clue what is even going on and desperately need remedial classes. This makes it really, really, really difficult to teach- especially when you are teaching large classes.

I believe that many people would benefit from a program that allows students to participate in independent study, or that operates one a sort of continuous study system where students can come in and out without losing the progress they’ve already made. Students should not have to make up classes they have already passed and should be able to choose their classes based on their knowledge level, not their grade level. Perhaps classes could operate on a sort of mini-unit basis and missed units could be made up at a later date. We could look at some of the programs we use in alternative schools in America for students who have lots of problems in their lives

There need to be allowances for local circumstances. Education standards are written up in the faraway capital, and are written for a best case scenario- schools where the students come in speaking French, are able to buy school books, have lab equipment, etc. But these things just aren’t a reality in much of the country. Teachers are bound to rigid guidelines and centrally-composed exam materials, so they don’t have the freedom to adapt curriculum to local circumstances. They end up teaching things way above their student’s level, or that really need unavailable materials, and the students don’t get much out of it.

For example, students who come into school not speaking French will basically never have a chance to catch up, because there is no provision for them to be taught the basics that they don’t have before they move on to more complex materials. They are immediately taught and tested all subjects in French, which means they learn absolutely nothing until their French (which is not being formally taught, since they are expected to already know French) catches up. This takes a few years, and failing kindergarten three times really gets your schooling off to a bad start.

I think in some areas it may be appropriate in some areas to use the local language as needed in primary school as students get up to speed on their French. Curriculum should be adapted to include non-book based learning and labs classes, etc. that can use locally available materials.

Curriculum-wise, there are lots of adjustments that could be made. We had students who have been cooking for a family of 15 and taking care of their siblings since they were old enough to walk taking European style home-ec classes where they learn to bake cupcakes and hold a dinner party. Instead, they should be getting health and nutrition classes focused on keeping a large family healthy using locally available materials. We had computer classes that were teaching high-theory (like hexadecimal numbers) to students who had never actually touched a computer. From my perspective, beginning computer classes are pretty worthless if they don’t actually involve computers.

Technical schools should introduce subjects that are locally appropriate- such as small-scale irrigation, beekeeping and animal husbandry, inter-cropping and other farming techniques- instead of high-prestige but ultimately useless subjects like industrial refrigeration (offered at our school- in a town without a single industrial refrigerator.) Give villages the chance to look at what kind of trained personnel their area needs and tailor the curriculum to that, instead of having it dictated a central government that has no way to provide jobs for the people graduating from the courses they dictate.

Finally, there are all kinds of minor adjustments that could help. One big problem is that as the sun began to rise later, students would start coming to class later and later because they did not own clocks. Perhaps schools could consider scheduling non-essential courses for first period. PE might be a good choice, since PE would get dangerous in the hot afternoons. A longer lunch period would allow students who cannot buy food from the street vendors to go home and eat- eliminating the hunger based fatigue that makes teaching afternoon classes so difficult. Indeed, perhaps they could consider splitting classes into morning and evening classes and eliminate the classes in the often 120 degree afternoon.

In short, Cameroon’s schools needed local control to fit local circumstances, not “let them eat cake” centrally dictated mandates that were designed to imitate a system that even France has moved beyond.

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. It makes sense that any educational system should be best implemented with the local issues in mind. What is the source of the assumption that “anything European is automatically better” ?

Better than what (and I think your suggestions offer an example of some insights, so I am not asking for a repeat), and if there is a better way, why wouldn’t it be done that better way? It seems like whenever the topic is Africa, the problem is somehow always blamed on external forces–particularly “European”–external to Africa, past or present.

So what is it that’s constraining them to a European system?

At a guess and for starters:

  1. Inertia.
  2. Lack of realism. If the people writing those curricula have had all the advantages from birth, they don’t realize, don’t really understand, what it’s like not to have them.
  3. The notion that “people don’t work unless you watch them” or that “if they don’t have a teacher watching them, students will cheat.” You know, like those bosses who are all surprised when they come back from vacation and people have actually turned out more and better work than when the boss was in.
  4. Re-creating the curriculum in each language is a lot of work. If they can’t even apply the means to distribute books, they’re not going to go through the work of translating things, adding French As A Second Language classes everywhere, etc.

As for the “Europeans/the USAmericans/every other country in the world is brighter and better than we are” it doesn’t even come from colonialism (as I’ve encountered it in the US, Spain, Italy and the UK), but I’ve encountered it often enough to develop techniques turning my “we’re too dumb for this” clients into “can do” people. It’s quite amazing what people can do when they believe they can.

My daughter just got back after teaching for two years in middle school in Namibia and the answer depends on what the student wants. If they’re content with working on a farm, then they aren’t particularly interested in anything other than primary school and being able to read and write. Those who want more for their lives, however, can move on to high school and even college and get jobs in the same sort of businesses for college graduates here. Students are taught in English (the early grades are in the local language – Afrikaans, Nama, or other native languages for that particular area, but they are taught English – the official language – and by the time the get to middle school, they know it).

Technically, the system was set up by Africans – South Africans – but, although it has a low graduation rate, it seems to be pretty well oriented to what the students in Namibia need.

I think the biggest cause of the problem in Cameroon is the school system is run by an autocratic ruler.

Autocratic African rulers have a reputation for supporting huge, expensive, pie-in-the-sky projects that will “bring prestige to their nation.” The school system is a victim of such misguided dreaming- the same dreaming that brings big worthless monuments to dirt-poor African capitals. The basic rational is that if France can have that kind of school system, they can, too. Why should they settle for being farmers when they can teach engineering? The prestige obsessed rulers don’t consider that maybe farmers are more useful than engineers at this point. The rulers are basically play-acting running a country (while robbing it blind) so they institute their own whims without regard for how it affects people.

Their desire for absolute control makes them unwilling to allow local control of the school system. It’s a centralized system and that serves them just fine. The schools support that needs of the rulers, both because of the intricate bribe system teachers have to pay into, and for propaganda (for example, my English textbooks had a chapter about “The Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline Will Make Your Life Better.”) They don’t really care if it actually serves the citizens as well. Schools are just another way of asserting control, not actual education facilities.

Additionally, there is good old inertia. The system is the one that has been in place since colonial times, and it’s what people are used to. When people picture a “school”, they picture a French style “school” and it’s no easier to change this than it would be to drastically overhaul our own system. People going to a school not based on the European model would probably fee like they were going to an inferior school. Other problems just require a lot of work and imagination to solve. There are lots of ethical questions when it comes to using local languages- in a country with 250 languages and ethnic groups that don’t always get along, there is no easy way. How can you do it? I don’t know, neither does anyone else, and nobody has devoted the time to figuring it out.