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How Do You Help Girls Thrive In School? There's A Surprising Answer

Students work on a classroom exercise at a school in Kibera, a poor neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya.
Tony Karumba
AFP via Getty Images
Students work on a classroom exercise at a school in Kibera, a poor neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya.

You'd think the best way to get girls to succeed in school would be to design programs specifically for them — offer them mental health support or free menstrual pads.

But that's not necessarily the case, according to a new study, published in May in the journal World Bank Economic Review. Researchers David Evans and Fei Yuan reviewed 267 studies of education programs from 54 low- and middle-income countries to find the most effective ways to get more girls in school and improve their learning. Globally, more than 130 million girls remain out of school, according to the World Bank, due to poverty, child marriage and violence.

Instead of only examining girls' education programs, they looked at all kinds of programs. To measure access, they analyzed enrollment rates, attendance, drop-out, graduation and completion rates, and to measure performance, they looked at test scores.

Their biggest finding is that gender-neutral programs — such as handing out cash aid to families of school-aged children — can be just as effective at improving girls' education as programs designed just for girls.

The study is among the first to look both at ways to boost girls' access to school as well as their classroom performance, says Markus Goldstein, lead economist at the World Bank's Africa Gender Innovation Lab, who did not work on the report.

We spoke with Evans, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, and Yuan, a doctoral candidate in education policy and program evaluation at Harvard University, to discuss the best ways to boost education for girls in low- and middle-income countries. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to conduct this study?

Evans: A lot of the previous work that examined this issue have focused on programs targeted to needs that are unique to girls, such as menstrual health. Those are worthy interventions, but if we only focus on programs that target girls, we might miss programs that benefit girls a lot but happen to help boys as well.

That's why we decided to look at all of the interventions we know of to identify the ones that are most effective at improving outcomes for girls, regardless of whether they're specifically for girls or not.

You found that the most effective programs for getting more girls into school cut the cost of education for students, regardless of gender, and their families. What are some examples of programs that worked well?

Evans: A lot of the most effective programs are ones that either eliminate school fees, provide scholarships or provide families a cash transfer to cover the other costs of having their daughter in school.

For example, in Ghana, lots of girls and boys pass their secondary school entrance exam, but they don't have the money to pay school fees. So, a program there provided scholarships to students who had already passed the entrance exam. It dramatically increased the high-school graduation rate of girls by 66%.

But the most effective interventions are those that address costs related to specific obstacles that girls face in a particular setting. In Afghanistan, for example, a [non-gendered] program built schools in rural communities. It decreased [the cost of] travel to school for both girls and boys and led to a more than 50% increase in girls' participation in primary school. That's dramatic.

Which programs were the most helpful for improving a girl's school performance, as opposed to just getting them into the classroom?

Evans: The most effective interventions to increase learning were programs that improved the quality of teaching. But it's not just throwing teachers into a conference room and giving them some lecture. It's also not about throwing fancy technology, like laptops or tablets, at classrooms. Hardware doesn't work. It's distracting for teachers and students.

Instead, a literacy program – which included coaching teachers, providing them with detailed teachers' guides and providing students with books – had a big impact on girls' education [in terms of test scores] in Kenya. So did another program in Kenya that helped teachers to teach children in a language they spoke at home (rather than English).

Were there any other types of programs that helped girls learn better in the classroom?

Yuan: Another intervention worth mentioning is called Teaching at the Right Level, based in India. The idea is that students in the same classroom may have many different reading levels. But because of constraints like large class sizes, teachers may not be able to tailor their teaching to the right level for every student. This leaves some students behind.

Teaching at the Right Level facilitated summer camps in which children were grouped by reading level, instead of age or grade. This allowed teachers to target their teaching to the specific levels of these students. In one region, after 50 days of focused teaching in these camps, children at the lowest achievement levels in India were able to catch up to the learning level of the third-highest achieving state in the country.

Many of the high-impact interventions you're referencing don't target girls specifically. Are you saying that girls' programs aren't necessary?

Evans: Not at all! We particularly focused on how to increase access to education and improve quality of learning. Some [girl-focused] programs have other goals – such as reducing violence against girls, improving girls' psychological and emotional wellbeing, reducing adolescent pregnancy or helping girls to transition from school to the workforce.

But when teaching is of bad quality, we just need to help schools improve the teaching. That's not necessarily a gender-specific problem.

Wouldn't it be more cost-effective to just offer scholarships or cash transfers to girls only instead of both genders, especially if far fewer girls are attending school than boys?

Evans: Sure, if you don't have the budget to waive school fees for everyone, eliminating school fees for girls is an effective way to do a girl-targeted program. That's what The Gambia did. But sometimes general, non-targeted interventions are more politically palatable for governments, since constituents have both daughters and sons.

Were you concerned that some of the gender-neutral programs might benefit boys more than girls?

Evans: That was something we were worried about – increasing inequality. But we found that overall, the impact of gender-neutral programs tends to be slightly larger on girls than boys both in terms of access and learning. These differences, for the most part, were not statistically significant. They were small. But it does mean that these general, non-targeted interventions are not increasing inequality between boys and girls. If anything, they're likely to decrease it.

What changes do you hope to see in how we work on girls' education around the world?

Evans: We want to make sure that people who care about girls' education draw on the full toolbox of programs that can improve girls' education. That includes girl-targeted programs. It also includes general programs.

We don't want anyone to walk away from this and say, 'Oh, we don't need to worry about girls.' Instead, it means that if we are worried about girls, we have a broader array of tools to help them.

Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers global poverty and inequity. Her work has appeared in Humanosphere, The Guardian, Global Washington and War is Boring. Follow her on Twitter: @joannelu

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanne Lu