Skills Training and Civics Education to Make ‘Better’ Citizens

04/27/2017 12:08 pm ET

Nations have a short opportunity during which they can impart skills to any child, to prepare him or her for adulthood. What is better: to teach a trade in the hope of providing greater economic security, or to teach civic education with the goal of making a ‘better’ citizen?

This is one question prompted by a new research paper, published as part of Haiti Priorise. In this research project, dozens of experts look at different ways to respond to developmental, environmental, and economic challenges. Their research focuses just on Haiti. It is the result of extensive dialogue with Haitian civil society, bureaucrats, politicians, youths, business leaders and sector experts.

We present these findings without any agenda other than to help inform the policy debate. Next week, an Eminent Panel of economists and development experts will meet in Port-au-Prince, review the research, and identify priorities for action.

There are many ways of improving education. We have already released research on scholarships designed to keep young girls in school for longer. Other new research papers focus on teaching children in Creole as well as French, building more schools, providing more teachers, and improving early childhood education.

Georgetown University Professor George Psacharopoulos has studied vocational training and civic education.

Vocational training certainly sounds like it should be a high priority. If students learn a particular trade, they can make money from this trade after graduation. Every economy needs plumbers, carpenters or electricians. This logic dominated the approach to education in the 1960s and 1970s in most countries.

However, Professor Psacharopoulos finds that many studies have demonstrated that this did not really work. Sometimes, the problem was that graduates did not find relevant employment. Vocational training is more expensive than general education, but both often have a similar impact on future earnings. Many countries and donors have moved away from vocational training.

In Haiti, vocational training would be relatively expensive. Overseas evidence suggests it would be about 50 percent more expensive than general education. Professor Psacharopoulos estimates that providing three years of vocational training after secondary school would cost around 440,000 gourdes ($6,370) per student per year. Training 1,000 students would cost 440 million gourdes ($6.3 million). There is also a cost to the students themselves, who could have earned money in the workforce instead of training.

But once they graduate, vocational education graduates can earn around 50% more than their counterparts who dropped out after primary school. The Institut Haitien de Statistique et Informatique (IHSI) at the Ministere de l'Economie et des Finances conducted an Enquête sur les Conditions de Vie des Ménages après Séisme, which found that the annual mean income of an adult with primary school education is around 110,000 gourdes (about $1500), and someone with lower secondary school training is around 127,000 gourdes ($1800). Professor Psacharopoulos finds that vocational training would lead to an average income of about 161,000 gourdes ($2300). This lift in income occurs across his or her entire working life.

When we compare the rather costly extra vocational training and the lost wages during training with the higher productivity of the graduates for the rest of their lives, we find that every gourde spent on vocational training will generate returns to Haiti worth around two gourdes. This is quite a respectable return.

Introducing civics education classes, similarly, sounds like a worthwhile investment. It has been established that improving civic behavior leads to a more coherent society, more stability, less conflict, and better participation in voting. A lot of evidence shows that more education means lower crime rates.

Professor Psacharopoulos assumes that adding a two-year civics course to the curriculum would increase the cost of secondary education by about half of the cost of general education each year. For each student, this would mean an annual expense of around 19,500 gourdes ($280).

There is little information on the efficiency of civics education generally, and none from Haiti. However, studies in the UK indicate that civics education enhances earnings by between 1% and 6%. Thus, Professor Psacharopoulos suggests there could be a 3% earnings boost in Haiti. Taking this into account, every gourde spent on civics education would achieve about 5 gourdes worth of good.

A third option would be to create one year of compulsory vocational and civics training for 15-year olds who drop out of secondary school but don’t go on to upper secondary school. Professor Psacharopoulos estimates every gourde spent would achieve about three gourdes worth of benefits to Haiti.

Studies have found that increased societal trust – which civics education could contribute to – improves economic growth. So there could be additional benefits to these investments that are difficult to estimate but nonetheless should be considered when making priorities for education.

But even with this caveat, Professor Psacharopoulos points out that other education interventions might bring higher returns to society relative to vocational and civics training. Based on rigorous international research, these might include improving the education of girls, improving basic education, and especially increasing early childhood education access.

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