To keep more girls in school, stop focusing on just girls

Are we asking the right questions?
Are we asking the right questions?
Image: Reuters/Mohammed Salem
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s a deeply unfortunate reality that in a number of countries, girls are much less likely than their male peers to complete primary school. In Pakistan, more than three quarters of boys finish school, but fewer than two thirds of girls do. Similar disparities are evident in Angola, Chad, Niger, Pakistan, and Yemen, to name a few.

Even once in school, girls around the world aren’t learning as much as they could be due to poorly managed schools, poorly prepared teachers, and poorly equipped classrooms.

We know that girls who are educated generally have access to more jobs and more opportunities to choose the size and timing of their own future families. Let’s say you want to change this reality. How would you do it?

The intuitive response would be to set up programs that target girls to help them improve. But our recent comparison of more than 250 education interventions showed something surprising: Programs that specifically target girls and programs that target communities more broadly have similar outcomes for girls. Shouldn’t we therefore be focusing on programs that improve communities as a whole, girls included?

What’s good for girls is good for everyone

To improve learning for girls, many of the most effective interventions simply helped teachers to improve their teaching. Two of the most effective programs to increase girls’ learning were one that helped teachers to teach each student at their current level of ability in India, and another that helped teachers to evaluate their students regularly, and then adapt their teaching based on those evaluations in Liberia.

This shows that programs with a wider target focus bring up the whole community, not just girls. Private-school subsidies for girls in Pakistan increased girls’ participation in school at a similar rate to constructing village schools for all children in Afghanistan. Cash-transfer programs improved access for girls whether or not they were targeted exclusively at girls.

To illustrate this more clearly, let’s take a look at two other interventions. In rural Kenya, one program provided scholarships to the highest-scoring sixth-grade girls on a regional exam. The winners were awarded with two years of school tuition paid in full, along with a grant for school supplies. As a result, girls’ test scores rose in participating schools—even for girls with such low scores that they were unlikely to win the scholarships. In some schools, even boys’ learning rose. The drive for learning was infectious.

The second, a program in rural Bangladesh, facilitated monthly parent-teacher conferences in which parents received a report card of their child’s performance, and advice on how to help their child improve in the classroom. In rural areas, where many parents have little schooling of their own, these conferences were a novel opportunity for parents to learn how to support their children in school. As a result, students behaved better, teachers improved their teaching practices, and students learned more. Girls and boys improved equally.

Both of these interventions helped girls to learn more in school. But one of the interventions was explicitly targeted to girls: the girls’ scholarship program in Kenya. The parent-teacher conference intervention in Bangladesh was not. And one of the interventions increased girls’ learning about 25 % more than the other: the parent-teacher conference intervention in Bangladesh.

How to help girls succeed in school

That said, at certain junctures in life, girls face markedly different challenges from boys. For example, teenage pregnancies are more likely to a derail education for a girl than for a boy. As girls grow older, public transportation to school may be more dangerous for girls due to risks of sexual violence. In an attempt to overcome that challenge, an intervention that provided girls in Indian secondary schools with bicycles increased the chances that they’d sit for their final exam, and that they’d pass it.

If we want to help girls succeed in school, we also need to help them overcome the specific problems holding them back. Most of the interventions that we studied focus on primary school, and many of the challenges that girls face in primary school may be similar to those boys face. But when the challenges differ between boys and girls, the interventions may need to differ as well. But those interventions need to be better tested.

For years, advocates argued that a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products was a major barrier to girls’ schooling in low-income environments around the world. But that’s not a blanket statement. A study in Nepal found that girls were actually missing less than half a day of school per year due to menstruation; providing sanitary products had little effect on school attendance for them. That’s just one country, of course—new evidence from a program in Kenya showed that distributing sanitary pads had a positive impact on girls’ school attendance.

Where girls fit into the politics

The point is that girl-targeted interventions may make sense for overcoming girl-specific challenges. But we must trial and test to tell us how widespread the challenges are, how effective the solutions are, and where it makes most sense for us to direct our focus.

More interventions are being subjected to careful evaluation these days. Often, policy makers face political pressure to invest in programs that benefit all children. Among other reasons, since more than half of babies born in the world are boys, at least half of the world’s voters have sons.

If policy makers want to help girls—and if donors want to encourage them to do so—our research shows that it’s still possible to help girls without targeting them explicitly. Many of these general interventions benefit girls at least as much as boys, despite not being targeted at them. When schools are poorly managed and teachers are poorly trained, all children suffer.