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Opinion | Sounding the Wrong School Alarm in Iran


06 Jun 2012 02:34Comments

The real issue isn't access, it's the questionable benefits of formal schooling for the average Iranian child.

[ education ] In an item posted on his blog Monday, Prof. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani rebuts recent claims that millions of Iranian children are "deprived of access" to primary and secondary schooling. His full analysis -- which shows that the problem of access is largely limited to rural high schools -- is available here. In his view, the misplaced focus on the issue of school access obscures much deeper problems with the Iranian education system, which he describes in the following excerpt. -- The Editors


Djavad Salehi-Isfahani is a professor of economics at Virginia Tech and a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. His research has been in demographic economics, energy economics, and the economics of the Middle East.

Iran has very serious education problems, but lack of access to school is not one of them. The quality of education is poor and returns to formal schooling below the university level are low, prompting discouraged youth to leave schools after age 14 at alarming rates. At the same time, 99% of children are enrolled in school by age 7 and persist at a high rate until age 14 (first year of high school). This is when the realization sinks in that staying in school will not earn them a place in a good public university or the school officials tell them they are not fit for academic work and must choose between two losing options: vocational education or kardanesh. Why waste three more years of studying when the end result is a high school diploma that has not been of any value for several decades? Trying to get these kids to stay in school, as a series of articles in Donyaye Eghtesad (May 9, 2012), Iran's largest circulation private daily paper, seem to prescribe, without doing something about job prospects after graduation serves no individual or social purpose. The problem for these kids is not lack of schools, or even boring classes: it is lack of purpose. The education system on its own cannot deal with this problem; it is a problem for the larger economic system. [...]

[There is a] large drop-off in enrollment rates that occurs after middle school, at ages 15-17, which is partly a question of access but for the most part reflects choice. There is clearly a problem of access to high school for youth living in small rural areas, which is understandable because building a high school for a small community is not economical. Either the kids living in smaller rural areas have to commute to a nearby town where there is a high school or quit school. We don't know what proportion of the rural boys and girls in the 15-17 age range who in 2010 attended school at 68% and 56% rates, respectively, were constrained in this way. Perhaps if they had better access they would have enrollment rates closer to their urban counterparts (84% for boys and 86% for girls). There are no easy answers to this problem.

Like Iran, other countries of the Middle East are famous for high enrollment rates, but not for teaching their students a whole lot (see, for example, this paper of mine). According to international data, such as World Development Indicators, Iran has generally higher secondary enrollment rates than the more economically advanced Turkey (84% compared to 78%) and compares well with Egypt and Jordan, two countries that, like Iran, are obsessed with the quantity of education instead of its quality. [...]

Iran is not facing a major enrollment or "access" problem at present. [There are] pockets of deprivation -- for example, children of Afghan immigrants without proper identification or children living in poor households whose parents force them to work as peddlers and street vendors. These are real problems that need to be addressed, but building more schools is not the answer. Parents in these households need to be persuaded to send their kids to school. Many countries have successfully experimented with cash payments (Bangladesh and Mexico come to mind) to induce families to send their kids to school. Iran, which has recently embarked on a program of uniform -- some would say untargeted -- cash payments to all families in return for the removal of subsidies, would do well to look into their programs. The uniform cash payments can be better targeted -- be made conditional on behavior -- to make sure that their children not only enroll but actually attend school and get good grades. But this should not extend beyond age 14, when the benefits of formal schooling as it is administered presently in Iran decline rapidly for the average child.

The larger problem of low enrollment rates at the high school level requires a different approach. This is not the place to give a full overview of youth education and employment problems in Iran, about which I have written elsewhere (here, here, and here). The short version is that Iran's educators -- families and schools -- are too absorbed in a high stakes competition for university admission to be able to help their children discover their talents and develop them. The fault is not entirely with them, however. Iran's formal labor markets, where educated youth aim to go, are stifled by regulation and are under pressure from competition from abroad, which the rush of oil money in the last decade intensified. The winners of the schooling competition -- those who pass the dreaded concour and graduate from a decent university -- have such a hard time finding a job in Iran's weak economy that the losers, with only a high school diploma at hand -- the consolation prize -- have little reason to engage in the risky investment of high school education. Why would one encourage students below the median (or even the 75% percentile) to stay in the race to the university? Aren't they making a rational decision by stopping the formal schooling charade before they finish high school and their failure to enter a university is obvious to all?

Let me illustrate the problem with an example. Put yourself in the place of a rural boy, age 14 with average grades who faces a difficult choice. One option, the one that family and friends as well as education experts prescribe, is to leave home to attend high school in a nearby town, staying with relatives and imposing a high cost on his parents who live on their modest farm income. His second option is to stay home, learn the farming skills that his parents have inherited from their ancestors, combine it with the knowledge of modern cultivation and produce marketing, and get ready for when his father retires from farm work. (Maybe he can even take advantage of the high fresh produce prices that the city dwellers so complain about!)

Any honest observer half aware of the low odds that an average kid faces in entering a public university, not to mention making a living after graduation, would urge this rural youth to at least consider the second option seriously. That would be a good place to start. The policy question in this case is whether the right thing to do by this young boy is to build a high school in his village at great cost so he can continue his education without leaving his family, or to expand free university education, at even greater cost, so his chances of getting into a university is not so dismal, or to find a way so he can pursue a farming career if he is so inclined.

How to do the last part is not an easy question to answer. But if the answer is not obvious is it not better to wait, explore, and ask more questions than head fast in the wrong direction?

Copyright © 2012

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