Redefining Education in the Developing World

A new approach that builds relevant marketplace, entrepreneurship, and health care skills is needed.


(Illustration by Shannon May) 

In most developing countries, few children graduate from secondary school and many don’t even finish primary school. In Ghana, for example, only 50 percent of children complete grade 5, and of those, less than half can comprehend a simple paragraph. The UNESCO program Education for All, which as part of the Millennium Development Goals aims to provide free, universal access to primary schooling, has been successful in dramatically increasing enrollment. But, according to annual Education for All reports, many kids drop out before finishing school. Why don’t they stay?

There are numerous reasons, including the difficulty of getting to school and the cost of schooling. Even when tuition is free, there are often expenses for lunch, uniforms, and examination fees. And because the quality of education is often poor, parents are forced to pay for additional tutoring to enable their children to pass tests. Opportunity costs may be even larger—while they are in school, children forgo opportunities to produce income working on the family farm or selling in the marketplace. It is not surprising that when education investments do not result in adequate learning, or even basic literacy and numeracy, parents do not keep their children in school.

Even when learning outcomes are adequate, very few students continue on to secondary school. Job prospects for most people in the developing world are poor, and staying in school past grade 5, or even through grade 10, does not improve them significantly. In impoverished regions, the vast majority will not secure formal employment and will be supported primarily through subsistence level agriculture and trading. Health outcomes in these regions are also dire. Millions of children die every year from controllable diseases such as diarrhea, respiratory infections, and malaria.

Educational programs typically adopt traditional Western models of education, with an emphasis on math, science, language, and social studies. These programs allocate scarce resources to topics like Greek mythology, prime numbers, or tectonic plate movement—topics that may provide intellectual stimulation, but have little relevance in the lives of impoverished children. Highperforming students in less developed regions face a much different future from their counterparts’ in wealthier areas. There are no higher levels of schooling or professional job opportunities awaiting most of these children; they will likely end up working on family or neighborhood farms or starting their own small enterprises.

Schooling provides neither the financial literacy students will need to manage the meager resources under their control, nor the guidance needed to create opportunities for securing a livelihood or building wealth. In addition, schooling provides little assistance to promote the physical health needed for economic stability and quality of life. Life expectancy is low in impoverished regions, and not just because of lack of quality medical care. The devastation preventable disease wreaks on well-being and financial stability in poor regions can be dramatically mitigated through instruction on basic health behaviors, such as hand washing.

We fervently believe that what students in impoverished regions need are not more academic skills, but rather life skills that enable them to improve their financial prospects and well-being. These include financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills; health maintenance and management skills; and administrative capabilities, such as teamwork, problem solving, and project management.

Over the last five years, we have done extensive work on the state of education in developing countries. We have visited many government, nongovernment, and private schools and teacher training programs in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, and we have talked extensively with teachers, students, headmasters, school owners, and government officials. We have visited innovative educational programs that are among the world’s largest and most successful, including BRAC, an NGO in Bangladesh that owns and operates 32,000 primary schools; Pratham, which provides literacy and other educational support programs, teaching 33 million children in India; and Escuela Nueva, the Colombian program of mono- and multigrade teaching that has grown to 20,000 schools. We have implemented training for illiterate adults in developing countries and have tested that training effectively over the last few years, applying the best of our experience to improving organizations like Opportunity International, a large microfinance institution.

These experiences have convinced us that the time is right to redefine quality education in the developing world.


We have developed a robust educational model that combines traditional content with critically important financial, health, and administrative skills, which can be delivered via existing school systems and teachers.

Our model, which we call “school for life,” shifts the goal of schooling away from the achievement of standardized learning outcomes toward making a positive impact on the economic and social well-being of students and their communities. The model requires significant changes in both content and pedagogy. First, entrepreneurship and health modules are mandatory curriculum components for all primary grade students. Second, student-centered learning methods are used that require students to work in groups to solve complex problems and manage projects on their own.

This approach is inspired by models of adult education in developing countries that focus on self-efficacy as a critical foundation of positive livelihood and health-seeking behaviors, along with active-learning pedagogies used in progressive schools throughout the world. The health curriculum draws on the work of the World Health Organization and focuses on preventing disease, caring for sick children, and obtaining medical care. The entrepreneurship curriculum is informed by our work with adult entrepreneurs in developing countries, and it draws ideas from a broad range of financial and entrepreneurial programs developed by organizations like the International Labour Organization, Junior Achievement, and Aflatoun.

Conceptual knowledge is put into practice at school through activities that empower children to use what they have learned. For example, students practice routine health behaviors, such as hand washing and wearing shoes near latrines—and, to the extent feasible, gain exposure to other important behaviors, such as boiling drinking water and using malaria nets. They practice routine market-like transactions by earning points for schoolwork and budgeting those points to obtain valuable prizes, such as sitting in a favorite chair or being first in line.

Students also develop higher order skills as they work in committees to develop and execute complex projects. Health-related projects can range from planning and carrying out an athletic activity to be played during recess, to practicing diagnostic skills when classmates are ill—helping to decide, for example, when a cold has turned into a respiratory infection that requires antibiotics. Entrepreneurship projects include identifying and exploiting market opportunities through business ideas like school gardens or community recycling that create real value. Students learn and practice workplace skills and attitudes like delegation, negotiation, collaboration, and planning—opportunities that are rarely available to them outside their families.

Some school systems, especially at the secondary level, have begun to include entrepreneurship and health topics in their curricular requirements. But including information in basic lectures is not enough. Schools must simultaneously adopt action-oriented pedagogical approaches that hone critical thinking skills and enable children to identify problems, seek out and evaluate relevant information and resources, and design and carry out plans for solving these problems. This involves tackling real problems that require and empower students to take the initiative and responsibility for their own learning.

A full implementation of this new school for life approach has not yet been adopted by any major organization, but a pilot is currently being developed by Escuela Nueva in Colombia. Escuela Nueva was the pioneer in adapting student-centered approaches for use in impoverished rural environments, which often use multigrade classrooms. Escuela Nueva develops classroom materials and pedagogical approaches in which students work in self-directed teams to learn, discuss, and actively practice, using the basic content included in standard governmental curricula.

Through this unique combination of relevant content, practical implementation, and student empowerment, children develop a body of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will enable them to succeed and thrive when they leave school, whether they are headed toward college or remain in their communities.


The traditional definition of school quality in the developing world is based on content mastery. But using traditional schooling approaches during the few precious years most children will spend in school leads to wasted resources and forgone opportunities for individuals and communities. Governmental agencies and organizations that support and promote quality education for all children must move beyond traditional models to help children develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are relevant to their lives and that can lift them out of poverty.

For too long, governments and organizations investing in developing-world education have operated under the unquestioned assumption that improved test scores were clear evidence that their investments have paid off. But if, as we argue here, mastery of the basic primary school curriculum is not the best means for improving life chances and alleviating poverty in developing countries, that model is broken. Investing in interventions that produce the highest test scores is no longer a valid approach for allocating scarce educational dollars or the scarce time available for the development of young minds. It is time to seek out the interventions that lead to the greatest social and economic impact for the poor.

Marc J. Epstein is Distinguished Research Professor of Management at Rice University.

Kristi Yuthas is Swigert Endowed Information Systems Management Chair at Portland State University.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • Lisa DiCarlo's avatar

    BY Lisa DiCarlo

    ON February 9, 2012 11:48 AM

    Thank you to the authors for sharing this approach. I would add that investing in interventions that produce the highest test scores is no longer - and never really was - a valid approach for education anywhere.

  • BY Peter Laugharn, Firelight Foundation

    ON February 9, 2012 02:05 PM

    I agree with the authors that we have a long way to go.  But let’s also recognize that the commitment that Ghanaian and other African governments took on at independence - to provide quality education to all children, linked to future livelihoods - was brave and massively ambitious.  We’ve gone from 7% enrollment rates in sub-Saharan Africa at independence to 80% or more today.  Schooling is still the most reliable route out of poverty.  Of the three elements of that original promise, there has been great progress on giving all children access to school.  The authors are correct in pointing out that quality levels are often unacceptably low, and that the linkage between being educated and being able to earn a living has become weaker, not stronger, over time.  The approaches that the authors outline can be helpful in making good on the education promise.  But let’s not forget that updating this “education promise” for the twenty-first century is as much a question of political will and economic skill as it is matter of designing new curricula.

  • BY Cornelio B. Reformina Jr.

    ON February 10, 2012 02:32 AM

    This article supports the work my family education foundation is doing to a rural school in Albay, Philippines.

  • I absolutely agree about the need of a whole redefinition of education in developing world. The focus must be in developing skills not in achieving standards, wich at the end ist just having information. I think the challenge is to create innovative and effective pedagogical approaches with their own evaluation methods.
    I’m glad to see that there are more people in the world working on this direction.

  • BY Val Kalende

    ON February 10, 2012 05:13 AM

    I wonder how the discussion on the effects of homophobia on education in Africa and countries like Uganda can be addressed. A number of children lose the opportunity to continue their education when their families learn of their sexual orientation. Schools flank students when they learn that students are gay. Such children need alternative scholarship funds that will give them the opportunity to stay in school and become useful to their countries. Can we begin to talk about creating an inclusive, nondiscriminatory model for schools? How often do we even talk about children with disabilities as discriminated and bullied in schools?

  • Bishnaga Dorosella's avatar

    BY Bishnaga Dorosella

    ON February 10, 2012 05:37 AM

    I agree with the author on the need for a dramatic change . Seeking out the interventions that lead to the greatest social and economic impact for the poor are critical at this stage. Education in most of developing countries, Tanzania in particular has not been reliably preparing youth for a positive life transformations, that’s why we see a high graduate unemployment in the country. Graduates are uncritical, even the best graduates who scores very handsome grades can not real transform their lives, the lives of their families even communities. Developing Joint Strategic Interventions between Institutions of education at all levels, harmonizing education policies and laws, engaging key stakeholders (parents, students, teachers) are key to deliberate on the way forward for education improvement, both in quality and quality. The community now than ever before requires that education prepares youth for poverty reduction and better livelihood for the whole society and not to an individual who has just attained a good degree.

  • BY Timothy R.W. Kubik, Ph.D.

    ON February 10, 2012 10:32 AM

    A change is certainly needed, as training for colonial bureaucracies hasn’t been relevant for over 50 years. 

    That said, I take issue with the list:  “financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills; health maintenance and management skills; and administrative capabilities, such as teamwork, problem solving, and project management.”  What do these “skills” represent, other than training for multinational corporate bureaucracies?  Why should we replace the colonial status of sub-altern with a new, post-colonial version? 

    “School for life” makes sense, but let’s make sure the conversation includes visions of “life” that are shared by those in all the “worlds,” rather than imposed on them from the 1st.  I want to know what those in the developing world might contribute to changing, and improving, “life” in global civil society.  That’s a “project” I could get behind!

  • BY david a french, Orbis Institute

    ON February 10, 2012 07:54 PM

    I tbink the conversation on education in developing countries should have a very strong vocational component at the high school level. Even in America, youth are most concerned about “how to make a living in a meaningful job.” Each country is so different. The “school for life” is valid, but must also be dedicated to what type of employment can be gained after schooling. Entreprenuership should be at the forefront.

  • BY Idris Bello

    ON February 13, 2012 03:40 AM

    Great article and approach by Prof Epstein and team. This is part of the inspiration for my work in Global Health

  • John Gaustad's avatar

    BY John Gaustad

    ON February 15, 2012 08:19 AM

    I read this article with great interest. For three years in the mid-sixties I was a Lecturer (my first teaching job)  at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and I saw the results of the still existent colonial system of education on our incoming students. They did not see the point of learning anything that wasn’t going to be on a test, nor did they understand that memorization was not the point, but learning how to think and develop their analytical skills was. And I was appalled by their notion that science (I am a scientist myself) was something you did in a room called a laboratory which had nothing to do with the natural world they had grown up in. Although I’m sure things have changed in the past 45 years, this article suggests that much more is needed, and I would agree.

    I applaud much of the new educational model the authors describe, which introduces development of practical skills useful in everyday life, but also includes development of higher level skills such as problem solving, project management, entrepreneurship, etc.

    But I would also argue that another purpose of education, particularly early in life, is the development of character and ethical behavior. I don’t know much about how this can be done at school level, but I do know of one institution which has successfully integrated such ideas into its educational model at university level, namely Ashesi University College in Ghana ( or Its founder and president, Dr. Patrick Awuah,  has done a marvelous job in developing a curriculum that combines business and technology programs with a rigorous liberal arts core, preparing students who are committed to becoming the ethical leaders (with emphasis on the word “ethical”) of a new generation in Africa . I recommend to the authors of this paper, and to the readers of this comment, Awuah’s talk about his motivation in founding this new university, which can be found at

    Perhaps Ashesi’s model for university education, and the lessons that have been learned there, can be translated to the school level as well.


  • BY Fred Mednick

    ON February 15, 2012 05:36 PM

    I appreciate the spirit of the article—highlighting gaps and pointing the way to new approaches.  But there is scant attention to teachers: their role, support for and amongst them, their professional development.  Teachers are, in the end, the glue that holds a society together and the catalyst for sustainable change. At 59 million, teachers are the largest professionally trained group in the world.  It follows that the solutions for education must be grounded in the community of teachers, not done for, around, or instead of them.  Though not a new concept, the solutions posed in the article—connecting curriculum to active problem solving for social welfare, health, and entrepreneurship—are all important, indeed. But let’s be careful to listen attentively to the voice of the teacher. They are the ones who make it possible to connect the rubber with the road.

  • “We fervently believe that what students in impoverished regions need are not more academic skills, but rather life skills that enable them to improve their financial prospects and well-being.” - So do you mean that it is not equally true for children from so-called developed countries? Well, I have a problem with this labeling of developing and developed country. Till the time the developed countries keep looting the developing and under-developed countries, whatever model you suggest, it’s not going to work. But then that’s a separate point of discussion. Coming back to my original query, don’t you think, as writers, you are deciding the fate of a child just because he/she is born in certain geography? Who gave you that right?

    Though I personally believe that life skills and cognitive development is far more important than academic development, I really feel sad the way you have presented it. It has a tone of a colonizer and a preacher. Moreover, what you have said in the article has been said 100 times by many educational philosophers be it Gandhi, Tagore, Freire and such. You are not proposing anything new!

    Watch Zeitgeist, it may add to your perspective and give you more dimensions to ponder over, before you propose a workable model, that is, if you people, sincerely wish to.

  • I believe that education in developing countries is a huge issue and needs to be addressed now. Children in other countries need education in order to be successful in life.



    ON October 7, 2014 07:09 AM

    As the founder of Teach children build India foundation i have been grooming/teaching about 300 very disadvantaged poor tribal children in remote villages in Keonjhar District of india for last 5 years near their homes in groups of 25 children by 25 voluntary teachers . We have seen great positive changes in these children. Our mission is to groom them upto employable level&also; make them worthy citizens of India with good character. After teaching the children personally for 5 years I feel the present pattern of education will not prepare the children for a fruitful employment & a good living. I feel a drastic change has to come in the syllabus & pattern of studies right from primary school level. 
    I am learning & I appreciate your ideas which needs lots of refining before we can implement. The biggest problem will be the orthodox mindset of Govt in less developed countries to adopt such a change but we have to bring in the change.

  • Nowhere on this Earth should it be appropriate to stop anyone from trying to get ahead in life through learning. We have our brains from a reason, and that is to learn and retain information. Millions of children in third world countries are not allowed an education due to many factors. Lack of funding for schools, teaches, and supplies, no internet, and religious beliefs all keep children from attending school. None of these factors should be a topic of discussion. According to globalissues,org, “Based on enrollment data, about 72 million children of primary school age in the developing world were not in school in 2005; 57 per cent of them were girls. And these are regarded as optimistic numbers.” The fact that a little over half of children not attending school in these countries are all girls should appall people. As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I think that Mr. Mandela would not be happy to hear that nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their name ( As one planet, we need to bring funding and volunteers to these countries, and try everything we can to get these kids an education so that they can succeed. Through education there is power, and if we want to make for a better future, we need to follow in the footsteps of Malala Yousafzai and stand up for free education for everyone.

  • BY Stephen Gnanaraja

    ON January 13, 2015 09:40 AM

    Glad to see this website and the information about Education for poor kids in 3rd world countries. I am from India and we have a proposal to start a Nursery / Tuition center for about 25 poor kids in South India. We would like to send our proposal out to you by email.

    Waiting to hear from you.

  • Marie Ginette Prosper's avatar

    BY Marie Ginette Prosper

    ON January 26, 2015 09:09 AM

    Thank you for sharing this balanced analysis of the education challenge in poorer countries. I would like to complete the Research on Escuela nueva in Columbia by adding to it an aspect that is not included in the current one:  I would create the same experience in Haiti , using another documented skill, already documented in the research… I would have the children also work in the school enterprise created by the children and in which the children work to ensure a smooth transition to life, make up for the loss of income when they go to school,and further integrate them in their communities.

  • Sarah Hamilton's avatar

    BY Sarah Hamilton

    ON March 16, 2015 03:03 AM

    Education is essential nowadays and it will be more necessary for upcoming world because world develop it self more and more. In past, it is hard to get define education but currently it is so simple as ABC. You just find out the most suitable custom paper writing service from online resources and get complete assistance from them.

  • Elizabeth Bakare 's avatar

    BY Elizabeth Bakare

    ON June 23, 2015 05:40 PM

    I think the Africa region must redesign its curriculum, the leaders of each country must be ready to sacrifice a lot to develop the region. We are at a time in the world were the quest for knowledge and solution to many unanswered questions and problem are sort after.
    The region must come up with a vision for its continent and have a plan of how it hopes to solve the numerlus problems before it: proverty, unemployment, diseases etc. The curriculum must be developmental in structure, in line with global trends and standards, but deliberately structured for growth. Critical thinking skills must be developed in our region from early years.
    The region must develop its own curriculum and retrain and awaken its educators to see the larger picture and vision. The educators must be given all they need to achieve the set goals and move Africa forward

  • BY Tammy Corbett

    ON August 26, 2015 12:13 PM

    Every child deserves an education. It’s a tragedy, but one we can all address and begin to change. If we all join together and donate to the building of schools we can offer these children hope and a chance at a better life.

  • Kirshan Kumar's avatar

    BY Kirshan Kumar

    ON September 23, 2015 01:23 AM

    nice stuff to learn valued topics

  • nice article

  • BY สกอร์บอล

    ON November 1, 2015 12:59 PM

    What’s up, after reading this amazing post i am too happy to share my familiarity
    hhere with colleagues.

  • Holger Reichert 's avatar

    BY Holger Reichert

    ON December 2, 2015 02:32 AM

    I am very thankful for the notion that things need to chance with regard to educational approaches which is not a new insight after all. I´d like to know what practical experiences and tools are available for users to implement curriculae that fit these standards. Does anybody know?
    We started a small primary school in the Darjeeling district near Siliguri in northeast India almost three years ago based on a small NGO called empowerment4all e.V. in Germany. I would be more than happy to use insights in our project.

  • trinityVoilet's avatar

    BY trinityVoilet

    ON December 7, 2015 11:23 PM

    A lot more kids enlist in institution nowadays than the usual few years ago, an accomplishment introduced about by authority and plan adjustments at the worldwide and country’s ranges. But the assurance of better enrollments might not repay. Write my assignment for me UK

  • Well the thoughts shared in the article are appreciated and welcome. The proposed new model of education for the developing world sounds fantastic but how to integrate financial literacy with our education system is a bigger challenge. This has been in discussion for quite sometimes now and is identified as crucial life skill for pupils to progress, make decisions and solve problem.

    I believe there is awareness among educators and to some extent policy makers that integrative approach to education is inevitable in 21st century education context but what we are not sure what path will lead to such a place. Anyhow what we can do is keep our fingers cross but take practical steps, for instance revisiting assessments and systems of evaluating the learning.

    Asa far as the proposed system is concerned, it will ease into the system if assessment is more focused on learning, rather accountability, marginalizing students on the basis of grades, language proficiency or skills, socio-economic status to name a few.

  • johnengle's avatar

    BY johnengle, Haiti Partners

    ON January 3, 2016 11:29 AM

    I’m interested in receiving updates on how this is going and would love to learn more about curriculum. I’m an American that has spent most of the last 25 years in Haiti.

  • BY Samantha

    ON March 17, 2016 04:42 AM

    It`s such a pity that in our modern, technologically advanced world there is too little interest for children from developing countries!

  • Archana khadka's avatar

    BY Archana khadka

    ON May 10, 2016 06:35 AM

    why developing countries should spend large money for develpoment of education

  • BY Rohan Singh

    ON May 14, 2016 12:08 AM

    It’s such a informative.School Admissions is crucial to make education simple and adaptable. It is a methods by which to concentrate autonomously without constraint of time. In this quick paced life, understudies are exceptionally bustling on account of their different errands.

    See More for more info:-

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.

Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

By Paul Tough

Building on his previous work about the importance of personal traits such as perseverance in student success, Paul Tough focuses Helping Children Succeed on how educators, policymakers, and parents can help children develop those attributes.