By Anastasia Moloney
In Latin America and the Caribbean, nearly one in two students drops out of high school before graduating.
It’s widely believed that kids drop out because they have to work to support their families, to look after their siblings or because their parents can’t afford to pay for uniforms, transport and textbooks.
But the conventional wisdom is on the whole wrong, according to latest research from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
The number one reason why kids drop out is that they don’t find school interesting. Classes are boring and seem pointless and irrelevant.
The reasons usually given for the high dropout rates - especially in rural areas and among indigenous groups - are still important factors, but not leading causes, the IDB research shows.
According to a recent IDB household survey in eight Latin American countries, many students who were not attending school cited ‘lack of interest’, above economic constraints, access to school, or family problems as their main reason for dropping out.
“Our surprise was that a lack of interest in school came up as the main reason,” Gador Manzano, a senior education specialist at the IDB in Washington, tells me. “Ten years ago the issue used to be a lack of access to schools and a strong economic component. But we found kids are deciding not to go to school because it’s not something they value.”
The IDB survey showed that 44.31 % of children in Costa Rica aged 13 to 15 who were not attending school cited ‘lack of interest’ as the main reason why they dropped out, followed by 36.74 % of children in El Salvador and 35.53% in Chile.
It’s also widely believed that more girls drop out of school than boys in Latin America and the Caribbean. Not so, the IDB says.
“There’s only a slight difference between the numbers of girls and boys dropping out. There are in fact more countries where more boys drop out of school than girls,” Manzano says.
Because families are getting smaller and more people are moving from rural to urban areas across the region, the jobs once usually done by girls, such as fetching water and looking after siblings, are becoming less of an issue, which means more girls can attend school and for longer, Manzano explains.
Conventional wisdom also has it that pregnancy is the main reason why teenage girls drop out of school.
Teenage mothers in Latin America and the Caribbean have 1.8 to 2.8 fewer years of education than other girls and are 14 times more likely to drop out of school, according to IDB figures.
But getting pregnant is not the overriding reason, Manzano says.
A 2011 study by Manzano and Emma Näslund-Hadley called, “Quality Education—An Effective Form of Birth Control?” looked at why teenagers get pregnant and the links between teen pregnancy and school dropout rates.
The study focused on six Latin American countries and included interviews with 118 teen mothers and adult mothers in Peru and Paraguay.
Its findings also went against conventional wisdom.
“The qualitative interviews did not suggest that pregnancy was the principal reason for dropping out of school. It wasn’t the defining factor," says Manzano. "Girls say my future is to be a mum, that’s what I will do in 10 years time. It’s what their mothers and grandmothers did. They all knew they would be mums so they saw no reason to wait and continue in school.”
This suggests a key reason why pregnant girls drop out of school is because they don’t believe school will improve their lives.
“They thought education was not going to change their lives. They had very low expectations of school and themselves. They did not see how the education they were getting would affect their future,” Manzano says.
IMPACT ON POLICY
These findings could impact on social policy in the region. For example, providing crèches at schools may not prevent pregnant girls from leaving school because, IDB research suggests, they are going to drop out of school anyway because they see little value and point in staying there.
“We may have to think about different social policies. We have to make school a bit more attractive to kids. Schools are competing with gangs, video games and the internet,” Manzano says.
Latin American education ministers need to focus on making lessons more engaging and relevant, and ensuring teachers help raise pupils’ low self-esteem and expectations, if they want to reduce teen pregnancy and school dropout rates.
This means adapting school curriculums to pupils’ needs and interests and improving the quality of teaching and teacher training. Teachers in the region tend to be poorly paid, have low status, and are poorly qualified in rural areas.
“In recent years, access to education has improved significantly in Latin America,” says Manzano. “Now we’re not talking about ‘Is there a school for the kid to go to?’ but the quality of teaching and what kids are doing in school and what they’re learning.”