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LOST IN TRANSLATION: International Improvements in Access to Primary Education Fall Short at the Secondary Level

"The push for secondary schools in Kenya and elsewhere among the poorer countries of the world follows a widespread move toward free basic education for all."

When Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki assumed power in 2003, he made the institution of free primary education across the country one of his first acts. That year, the number of primary students rose by 1.5 million. However, according to an article in Education Week, that good news did not translate into success at the secondary level. Less than half of the children who complete primary school in Kenya enroll in secondary school.

“The push for secondary schools in Kenya and elsewhere among the poorer countries of the world follows a widespread move toward free basic education for all,” the article reads. “Policymakers in poor and middle-income countries generally believe the chance to compete vigorously in a global economy is linked to secondary education, in which students get advanced information skills.”

In order to increase participation at the secondary level, many of these countries must clear several roadblocks that block their progress. The first hurdle is often one of access. In Kenya, many of the nation’s roughly four thousand secondary schools are already bursting at the seams and cannot accommodate any more students. In addition, in a country where the average annual family income is about US$400, the $275 public boarding high school fee is too extravagant for most families.

According to the Education Week article, many families are taking the access problem into their own hands-literally-and are building secondary schools alongside the primary schools their forebears built. These efforts “not only open more seats,” they also “put the cost of secondary school within more parents’ reach,” with the new homegrown schools costing only a third as much as public boarding high schools.

At the secondary level, education costs several times more on average than primary education, because secondary teachers earn more and materials and equipment are more expensive. In addition to paying higher tuition, parents must also decide whether they can both forgo an older child’s labor for that time and pay other fees often associated with secondary education.

The article adds that, as is often the case in poorer countries, corruption is always an issue. In addition, a certain degree of “inefficiency”-with high rates of dropping out and repeating grades-is associated with secondary schooling. “But increasing efficiency often means going against deeply held views, as well as special interests,” the article notes. Jacob Bregman, an education specialist for the World Bank, speaking in a personal capacity, told Education Week that teachers in West Africa “must often be convinced that student failure harms rather than helps the system. ‘They think a healthy dose of repetition and dropping out is improving the quality of those that last,’ he explained.” Without improvements in these two areas, international donors are reluctant to make up the gap between what countries have and what countries need.

“Next Up for Developing Nations: Secondary Schooling” is available at


Japanese College Students Lack Basic Skills


More than 60 percent of teachers at private universities and junior colleges in Japan think that their students’ basic academic abilities are insufficient, according to a survey by the Japan Universities Association for Computer Education. In a similar study six years ago, only 40 percent of teachers thought their students were underprepared, according to results published in the Japanese newspaper the Daily Yomiuri.

“The association, an incorporated body under the control of the Education, Science and Technology Ministry, expressed its concerns because the number of applicants for places at universities and junior colleges will equal the number of places available in two years’ time-meaning anybody wanting to enter higher education institutions can enroll if they have no specific preference,” the article reads.

Similar to attitudes in the United States, the most concerns were around the math and science disciplines. Among Japanese teachers of science and technology, the “sense of crisis” over the slippage in college students’ preparedness was much higher than their peers in other disciplines. Among natural science lecturers, 74.8 percent at four-year universities and 72.5 percent at junior colleges cited the problem.

Many university lecturers said some of their students “could not solve linear simultaneous equations that are taught in middle school, and some medical students did not take biology as a subject in high school.” “It’s not unusual for university students to be unable to calculate fractional and decimal numbers,” said Professor Mitsuo Yoshizawa of the Tokyo University of Science.

In the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment, which compares international results in science and math every three years, Japanese fifteen-year-olds placed fourth. This raises a disturbing question for educators in the United States: If Japanese college students are less well prepared than their peers were six years earlier, what does that mean for American fifteen-year-olds, who scored twenty-fourth out of the twenty-nine countries?

“60 Percent of University Teachers Say Students Lack Basic Abilities” is available at


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.