Girls' Education: The World's Best Investment

When it comes to improving education, the evidence is pouring in: reaching girls is key.

That is the conclusion of a new book by President Obama's former National Economic Adviser Gene Sperling and the director of Brookings' Center for Universal Education Rebecca Winthrop. "Educating girls in particular can kick-start a virtuous circle of development," they write in What Works in Girls' Education: Evidence for the World's Best Investment. "More educated girls, for example, have healthier children, help reduce infant mortality, and play more active roles in leading their communities and countries."

There have been, as they note, major global advances over the past two decades when it comes to girls' education. The number of girls not attending primary school has been cut in half. And today female students spend an average of seven years in school, compared with only five years in 1990.

This is welcome progress, but girls still face major challenges. More than 60 million girls around the world are still shut off from primary and secondary education. While many countries have been improving education access, a huge chunk of the world - around eighty countries - has seen no progress in this realm at all.

At the same time, those that have seen expanded access still grapple with the issue of education quality, for both girls and boys. There are at least thirty countries that have successfully expanded access, but not quality, for both genders. Then there are the countries that have improved both access and quality - but where the gender gap has been maintained or widened. "No one," as Sperling and Winthrop write, "would be satisfied with achieving 'gender equity' if it simply meant that both boys and girls were stuck at an equal level of low and inferior education."

Latin America is one region where access is improving even as girls are falling behind in learning outcomes. "Latin American countries suffer from one of the biggest education gender gaps," says Inter-American Development Bank education specialist Marina Bassi. "Colombia and Chile are both among the worst, with girls and boys aptitudes separated by the equivalent of over half a school year."

For "emerging" regions like Latin America, the book comes at a time when the UN has redefined its "Post-2015" development goals with a renewed focus on these issues. Goal 4 - ensuring inclusive and quality education for all - and Goal 5 - achieving gender equality - are increasingly being recognized as intertwined issues.

By linking girls education to sustainable development, the UN goals concur with Sperling and Winthrop that the issue is not just one of fairness - but rather, it is a central component of economic competitiveness for all nations. "Girls' education will never be solved if it is seen as just a gender issue," the authors argue. Instead, "At the national levels, mean and women in leadership positions must see this as an economic, health, and moral imperative."

Most impressively, What Works in Girls' Education is a book defined by an unprecedented analysis of real world experiences and hard evidence. It addresses understudied issues like how to improve the school to work transition, with examples of programs like Jovenes en Accion (Youth in Action) in Colombia, or the Economic Empowerment of Adolescent Girls and Young Women (EPAG) program in Liberia. It also takes a hard look at apprenticeship programs in places like Malawi and Goldman Sach's 10,000 Women initiative to train female entrepreneurs.

Indeed, there are a plethora of fascinating programs, both nonprofit and for profit, that are recognizing the power of entrepreneurs. And here the book could have gone further. Too often, analyses of private sector contributions to education focus simply on philanthropic donations, rather than the kind of dynamism that can deliver innovative solutions, attract investments in social causes, and bring the best and brightest of human capital to the sector.

Another area in which the authors could have pushed further is in addressing the political leadership necessary to bring difficult reforms to fruition. Both Mr. Sperling and Ms. Winthrop are quite familiar with the inner workings of domestic and international politics, and the relationships between multilateral organizations, donors, and national governments. Readers could have benefited from their insights into how to build coalitions, engage political opponents, and navigate an often unforgiving media.

At the end of the day, however, their excellent book is an encouraging sign that there is a growing consensus on the need to address the tragedy of so many millions of girls being left behind. Despite improvements, we are still moving too slowly. Women and men alike in positions of leadership should take the data presented here to heart, and act on it - as quickly as possible.