Sounding the wrong school alarm in Iran
A series of articles published three weeks ago (Wednesday May 9, 2012) in Donyayeh Eghtesad (DE) reported on a “shockingly” large number of Iranian children who are “deprived of access to school”. 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 the articles in DE 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.
But before searching for remedies, we must have the right diagnosis, and I will limit my scope in this post to just that. I will argue that the DE articles misdiagnose Iran’s education problem as low enrollment, in part because they use faulty statistics and in part because they confuse enrollment with education and skill formation.
The DE articles speak of 3-7 million children out of school. Seven million out of school is more than half of all the school-age population (6-17 year olds numbered less than 14 million in 2011-2012), and it would indeed be very shocking if it weren’t false. The origin of the claim of 7 million deprived kids is an article published in the Shargh newspaper, which commits a simple error: it uses the census figures from 1385 (2006) for children aged 6-17 (about 19 million) to calculate the school-age population five years later, in 1390, when the size of this age group had shrunk by nearly 30% because of the well-known changes in the age structure of Iran’s population. The 6 to 17 year olds (grades 1 through 11, the last year of high school) of 1390 (2010) were 1-12 years old in 1385, and totaled only 13.6 million. The Ministry of Education does not offer hard facts about total enrollments that I know, but two numbers that have been reported by Iranian online news sources — 11.9 and 12.3 million — suggest that the number of kids out of school in 2011 is at most 2 million and not 7.
The DE articles refer to a more serious study published by the Majles Research Center that, while critical of low enrollment rates, does not botch its numbers. Still, this study also overestimates the extent of lack of access to primary school, when access is really critical. The study focuses too much on 6 year olds, not all of whom can be in school in any given year. Each year about a third to one half of 6 year olds are counted in the census in November, when the census is conducted, but are not yet enrolled in school because September 20 (the beginning of the school year) arrives before their sixth birthday, or their parents may think they should wait a year to be more ready for school. Another difficulty with the Research Center study is that it lumps young and older kids together. So, for example, the 17 year olds in 1385 who never attended school reflect lack of access 12 years earlier, in 1363, not today. The best measure of lack of access is the enrollment rate of 7-10 year olds.
We can avoid these difficulties by examining the data from the 2% sample of the 1385 (2006) census, which have been publicly released by the Statistical Center of Iran (see Table 1). We notice a big jump in the enrollment rate between ages 6 and 7, from 74% to 96% for boys and 74 to 95% for girls. Furthermore, in 1385 about 95% of children 7-10 years of age were in school. The same enrollment rates estimated from the 1389 Household Expenditures and Incomes Survey (HEIS) of the Statistical Center of Iran (Table 2) show a marked improvement, raising the figure to 99%. (The high enrollment rates of the 6 year-olds in 1389 are probably due to the way the survey, which is collected throughout the year, deals with the enrollment question. Unlike the census, the survey also excludes kids living in institutional settings, like dormitories or military barracks.) These are hardly any signs of lack of access in these numbers, but there are falling enrollment rates at higher ages.
Table 1. Enrollment rates from census data, 1385 (2006)
|7 to 10||94.7||96.8||96.0||92.7||96.4||95.0|
|11 to 14||86.6||94.2||91.2||75.8||93.4||86.5|
|15 to 17||56.5||74.4||67.8||47.3||77.3||66.0|
|19 to 22||13.8||31.2||25.1||11.9||30.2||23.7|
Source: The 2% sample of the 1385 (2006) census
Table 2. Enrollment rates from survey data 1389 (2010)
|7 to 10||99.7||99.2||99.3||99.3||99.2||99.3|
|11 to 14||93.6||97.2||96.0||84.8||97.0||92.8|
|15 to 17||68.2||83.7||78.3||56.3||85.6||75.3|
|19 to 22||21.7||40.2||34.5||20.2||43.8||36.7|
Source: HEIS data files, 1389.
These tables show the 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.
Comparison with other countries of the Middle East
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. I happen to have comparable survey data for these two countries so I can provide below a more detailed comparison between them and Iran. The graphs below show enrollment rates by age for your groups of children and youth, by gender and place of residence.
Figure. Enrollment rates by age, Iran, Egypt and Jordan
Sources: Iran, HEIS; Egypt, ELMPS 2006; Jordan, JLMPS 2010.
Enrollment rates in Iran are close to those of Egypt and Jordan until age 14, but fall below Jordan for older children.
Iran’s real enrollment problem
This evidence speaks clearly to the major argument of the articles in DE and by the Majles Research Center, showing that Iran is not facing a major enrollment or “access” problem at present. These articles correctly point to 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?