Enough has been written about the poor state of education in South Africa. (If you need reminding, The Economist is a good start.) Truisms abound: Quality education remains the bedrock of a productive labour force. Our high unemployment rate is to a large extent the result of bad past and current education outcomes. Apartheid education, especially the low quality of mathematics and science, has resulted in several generations of South Africans missing out on the opportunities of tertiary education, and a more fulfilled life.
But less has been written about solutions for the challenges of the education sector, not because no-one has thought to do so, but because answers remain elusive. High inputs do not translate into high outputs; economists have been unable to pin down the exact sources of failure or, even more importantly, devise novel strategies to improve outcomes. Teacher quality is bad, yes, but so are absenteeism rates, management practices, the curriculum, infrastructure, criminality, or, as many would say “the culture of education”. Where to begin?
Breakfast. At least, that is the argument by two American economists, Imberman and Kugler, investigating an in-class breakfast program in US schools. They show, using an innovative difference-in-difference approach, that in-class breakfast increases both math and reading achievement by about one-tenth of a standard deviation relative to providing breakfast in the cafeteria. They find that these effects are most pronounced for low performing, free-lunch eligible, Hispanic, and low body mass index students, i.e. the poorest of the poor.
School feeding programmes, of course, are nothing new and have been used across the world as ways to incentivise students to, firstly, attend school, and secondly, perform better. But these are usually concerned with providing a (free) lunch. Instead, there are clearly many medical benefits to eating breakfast, especially for kids. According to WebMD, “when kids skip breakfast, they can end up going for as long as eighteen hours without food, and this period of semistarvation can create a lot of physical, intellectual, and behavioral problems for them”. Math scores, especially, seem to suffer. Perhaps, then, in search of education fixes, we need to remember another truism: Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.