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The Reading Crisis among the World’s Poorest Schoolchildren

Crossposted from The Brookings Institution.

Written by: David Barth, Director of the Office of Education for the United States Agency for International Development, and Rebecca Winthrop, Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Universal Education, The Brookings Institution

Editor’s note: On September 8, the Brookings Institution and International Reading Association co-sponsored an event entitled, “Early Reading: Igniting Education for All.”  Panelist David Barth and host and moderator Rebecca Winthrop offer comments on considerations going forward.

The International Literacy Day event at Brookings on the crisis in early reading should be a wake-up call to all who are concerned about the future of education in the developing world. Recent data on the literacy skills of students in the early grades are stark. Children around the world may be going to school, but many of them are not acquiring even the most basic of reading and writing skills. Many children find themselves passing through two, three, four or more years of education and are still unable to read even a single word in their native languages. These alarming findings are softened, if only a bit, by the potential range of solutions. Between special assessments, targeted teacher training, relevant and appropriate materials, and support for students, teachers and parents, this trend can be reversed. As a matter of fact, we can achieve dramatic gains in literacy when the proper package of interventions is implemented.

Among the most interesting findings discussed yesterday was the fact that transparency and accountability seem to have a powerful effect on learning outcomes. Rapid reading assessments in the early grades generate the kinds of data that can be highly influential in community and national policy level dialogue. The development of persuasive data sets is most valuable when that data is placed in the hands of demanding consumers (parents and care-givers), as well as concerned service providers (government, teachers unions and sometimes the private sector).

When the permanent secretary of education in the Gambia became aware of the low level of reading attained by students in his system, he was provoked to action. He partnered with international donors and NGOs to train teachers and to ensure that the right materials were made available to his students. In Liberia, the simple act of releasing assessment data to teachers, parents and administrators seems to have been the catalyst behind a 29 percent gain in words per minute over baseline in literacy after only three and half months. One interesting effect of a similar experiment in Kenya is that teachers who were part of the control group not being provided additional training sought out independently to learn “the tricks” of teaching reading that was being provided in other schools. Their hunger to excel at work and their desire to get the most current and effective methodologies in the classroom moved those teachers to extend themselves to acquire new tools. That’s a powerful thing.

Rapid assessments of reading and math in the early grades provide direct and nearly immediate measures of education quality. Results can be easily reported and interpreted by teachers, parents and school administrators — people who are in a position to change their behavior to achieve better results. This raised awareness and changed behavior in turn will contribute to improving institutional effectiveness and opportunities for multitudes of learners. Linking this type of information about school-level learning outcomes with how schools and education systems are financed through national education accounts would be one possible strategy for how to use education resources more effectively to ensure the children are learning.

Another important conclusion from yesterday’s event on early reading was that there is still more to learn. USAID will be looking to work with the Center for Universal Education at Brookings and other concerned actors to delve more deeply into the connection between transparency, accountability and educational achievement. For many years, educators have repeated the mantra, “knowledge is power.” In the case of the crisis in early grade reading, wide-spread knowledge of the quality of performance of a school system may be the most powerful tool for reform.

USAID Provides New Schools to Earthquake Affected Communities in Haiti

School children at the Leogane School Opening.

School children at the Leogane School opening. Photo credit: Janice Laurente

In Léogâne, the town that was the epicenter of the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, you see signs of recovery and life resuming.  People have returned to markets to sell their crops and wares, rubble is being removed from key thorough fares, and schools are being rebuilt.

On August 25, USAID and the Digicel Foundation inaugurated École Louis de Borno, the first school built under a new public-private partnership to construct new schools for people affected by the earthquake.  Approximately 50 schools are planned that benefit up to 30,000 children.

“Immediately after the earthquake, 4,800 schools were damaged or destroyed.  USAID is proud to play a role in helping children return to school through a number of our projects,” said USAID Haiti Mission Director Carleene Dei.  “This new partnership with Digicel illustrates USAID’s commitment of exploring new and innovative approaches meet the educational, economic development and job-training needs of Haitian communities.”

Under the USAID partnership, some of the schools will be constructed with U.S. military shipping containers which are being converted into school campuses.  USAID procured about 100 shipping containers that had been used as part of the Joint Task Force-Haiti’s humanitarian mission in the aftermath of the earthquake.

The project is also employing youth for the construction of the schools through the USAID-funded IDEJEN livelihood initiative.  IDEJEN provides out-of-school youth ages 15-24 with basic, non-formal education and vocational training.  This effort, which will employ up to 100 people at a pre-fabrication plan in addition to those on site assembly will serve to get money to Haitian families in need, stimulate the economy and help develop a workforce able to participate in upcoming reconstruction efforts.

Higher Engineering Education Program Announced

Submitted by Richard Nyberg – USAID/Vietnam

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has joined forces with American universities and the private sector in efforts to enhance the quality of engineering education at Vietnam’s top technical universities. In collaboration with the Government of Vietnam, USAID is working with Arizona State University, Portland State University, and Intel Corporation as part of the new Higher Engineering Education Alliance Program valued at $2.5 million. Intel’s anticipated contribution to the program totals $1.5 million.  “This program will result in a more highly educated and motivated faculty using cutting edge curricula,” said U.S. Ambassador Michael W. Michalak. “They will train bright and successful engineers who will help Vietnam reach its rightful place in the global economy.” The three-year public-private partnership will work closely with the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) and technical universities in Vietnam to advance their electrical and mechanical engineering curricula and instruction leading to a highly-skilled technical workforce to strengthen the emerging high-tech manufacturing sector in Vietnam.

 

The Importance of Mobile Literacy Programs

Anthony Bloome, Education Technology Specialist, for USAID’s Office of Education interviews Sara Chamberlain, Director of Interactive for BBC World Service Trust, and Matthew Kam, Director of Carnegie Mellon’s MILLEE Project about using mobile phones for literacy. This blog follows a USAID-organized International Literacy Day, September 8th, “virtual” conference with Sara and Matt on Using Mobile Phones for Literacy – Promising Practices and Research.

According to the ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report 2010, the mobile cellular networks already cover close to 90 per cent of the world population and the number of mobile subscribers is likely to reach the 5 billion mark this year. The opportunity to utilize mobiles for development is enormously exciting for development practitioners, particularly for those of us looking at innovative ways to promote global literacy.

AB: With specific reference to your initiatives, BBC’s Janala and MILLEE, can you briefly tell us how mobile phones are being used in these literacy efforts?

SC: BBC Janala aims to provide millions of people in Bangladesh with access to low-cost English language tuition through mobile phones. By dialing 3000, audiences can choose from a menu of bi-lingual audio lessons. Lessons are organised into series, and according to level of difficulty.

MK:   It is challenging to deliver high quality literacy learning through public schools in underdeveloped rural areas, for reasons that include teacher training, teacher absenteeism and child labor that impact school attendance rates. MILLEE aims to use cellphones, which are increasingly prevalent in the developing world, even rural areas, as platforms that children can use to access high-quality literacy learning resources in places and times more convenient than schools.

AB: What key lessons have you learned that you would share with others considering similar programs?

MK: Content development is complex and requires careful attention. Pay attention to local practices and knowledge. For example, our current game designs draw on the rules and mechanics in traditional Indian village games. In our earliest pilots back in 2007, we observed that rural children struggled to understand the rules of the games we designed. Those games had subconsciously drawn on our video-gaming experiences, which were situated in Western cultural contexts. Those games also did not match rural children’s understanding or expectations of what constitute games. We subsequently studied 28 of their traditional games, took apart the rules and mechanics in these games, and analyzed how these mechanics differed systematically from the mechanics in Western video-games. Since then, we have drawn on this cross-cultural design knowledge to inform our game designs.

AB: Do you have a brief example that shows how your program has benefited its intended beneficiaries?

SC: Here is a case study of 26 year old Noor-e-Alam Siddiquione of BBC Janala’s regular users:

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Improving Access to Education for Girls in Sudan

Submitted by Angela Stephens, USAID/LPA

Following more than two decades of civil war, Southern Sudan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world.  The areas in Sudan’s north-south border zone also suffered greatly during the war, including Blue Nile state, bordering Ethiopia.  Girls have been disproportionately affected, with lower rates of literacy and school attendance than boys.  To help alleviate these challenges, USAID this year opened the Granville-Abbas Girls’ Secondary School in the Blue Nile town of Kurmuk.  The school is named in honor of John Granville, an American diplomat who worked on democracy programs for USAID in Sudan, and his Sudanese colleague Abdelrahman Abbas Rahama. They were assassinated in Khartoum on January 1, 2008.  The school, which can accommodate 120 female students, has three sets of classrooms, a library, theater, cafeteria, dormitories, and teachers’ offices.  A USAID-supported learning center attached to the school provides students with Internet access and computer training.  Watch this two-part video of the school dedication ceremony and tribute to Granville and Rahama.

To see PART TWO, click here.

Administrator Shah and Secretary Duncan on International Literacy Day

Check out USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discussing education on International Literacy Day.

Visit our Education page for more information and updates on USAID’s literacy and education programs around the world.

Celebrating Literacy in Liberia

Submitted by Justin Prudhomme – USAID/Liberia

How do you celebrate International Literacy Day in a country where half the population cannot read and literacy is often viewed with suspicion?

This was what the staff of USAID’s mission in Liberia wrestled with as we prepared to acknowledge International Literacy Day on September 8th.

Beneficiaries of the Ambassador's Girl's Scholarship Program in Liberia Photo Credit: USAID/Liberia

During the civil conflict years, Liberia’s education system quickly deteriorated as fighting erupted throughout the country. Rebel factions frequently targeted schools as places to recruit soldiers, taking children who should have been getting an education and plying them with drugs and guns, and conscripting them into combat units to fight in one of Africa’s most brutal conflicts.

Today substantial progress has been made in rebuilding the education system thanks in part to USAID’s Core Educational Skills for Liberian Youth (CESLY) project, implemented by Education Development Centers (EDC) and Research Triangle Institute (RTI).

Yet there is still work to be done and challenges to face, including limited resources, few qualified teachers, and a negative stigma attached to education, evidenced by a recent politician who announced his candidacy for president by promising to exclude ‘book people’ from his administration.

However, USAID/Liberia and our partners understand that in order to achieve real success, we need to change the way Liberians view education.  By ensuring that children have engaging materials to read and unlocking their passion for learning, we can teach the next generation the value of education so that they to can become advocates in their own communities. And so, to celebrate International Literacy Day CESLY is launching a writing contest across all 266 schools they support.

Students in the USAID Accelerated Learning Program Plus in Liberia Photo Credit: Creative Associates International Inc

Students will compete to write short, original stories about their lives, their communities, and the traditions of their elders.  CESLY is inviting students and guests to read stories aloud in schools, and will present each site with a new dictionary.  The winning stories will be published and distributed to students across the country to show the importance of literature by Liberian authors.

Literacy in Liberia can improve and involving young Liberians is the best way to do that.

A Word from Representative Lowey on Education

Submitted by Congresswoman Nita Lowey (NY-18)

As we recognize the vital role education plays worldwide during Education Week at USAID, we must commit to redouble our efforts to ensure a quality education for all children. Basic education is not a luxury we can afford to do without in tough times, but rather an essential part of the solution to the global recession, a core underpinning of long-term sustainable growth and increased stability.

No country has reached sustained economic growth without achieving near universal primary education.  The benefits of basic education have been proven time and again. Education lays the foundation for sound governance and strong institutions.  Investing in girls’ education, in particular, increases women’s incomes, delays the start of sexual activity, reduces infant mortality, increases women’s political participation and stabilizes societies.

Today more than ever, the potential exists to put every boy and girl into school and create a world that is more tolerant, peaceful and prepared to confront the challenges of the twenty-first century. However, we are still woefully short of achieving our goals, with 72 million children not enrolled in school and millions more dropping out each year.

I am confident USAID’s capable and dedicated staff will overcome many of these challenges to help developing countries improve their own education systems as we bolster our own programs around the world. Together, we will continue the hard word of laying this essential foundation for a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Focus on Literacy and Learning: The Global Community’s Failing Grade

Submitted by: Rebecca Winthrop
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Universal Education, The Brookings Institution

On the occasion of International Literacy Day and USAID’s Education Week, I wanted to address the fact that so many school children in developing countries are not learning to read in the vital first few years of primary school.  Failing to acquire basic literacy skills in the early grades holds them back from staying at and succeeding in school. Tragically, there are even a number of children, who spend four, five, or even six years in school and cannot read simple sentences. While this is clearly a crisis for the families whose children are struggling to acquire even the most basic literacy skills in the classroom, collectively it also spells a major crisis for the ability of the world’s poorest countries to improve economically and provide a better quality of life for its citizens.

Conventional wisdom in international development held that increasing a population’s average years of schooling would spur economic growth.  We now know that increasing economic growth has much less to do with just the number of years spent in school and much more to do with the knowledge acquired and skills developed while in school.  And while it took the work of several skilled economists to develop the evidence base for this claim, we should not be surprised by their insight.  It is not rocket science to understand that a student who spends four years in school learning to read, calculate, and problem-solve is in the end going to be more valuable in the labor market than someone who spends six years in school not learning to do any of those things.

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USAID Macedonia Education Week Highlights

Students participate in activity time at the Roma Education Center in Skopje. Photo Credit: Foundation for Open Society Institute Macedonia and USAID Macedonia

Submitted by  Lela Jakovlevski and Alexander Woods, USAID/Macedonia

Roma Education Project

The five Roma Education Centers in Skopje, Kumanovo, and Prilep are always buzzing with activity. Each day, four groups of children arrive for two hours at a time for after-school lessons, educational games, and important socializing. The younger children focus on literacy, numeracy, and Macedonian practice while the older groups get homework assistance, English lessons, and preparing for graduation exams.  All eagerly express their happiness for the help, fun environment, and how they feel much more confident when they go to school.

The overall condition and situation of the Roma community in Macedonia is considered better compared to other European countries, as there is a Minister for Roma issues in government and Roma MPs in Parliament, a Roma mayor, and Roma print and broadcast media in country. However, many of the chilling statistics remain: extremely high unemployment, low level of education participation and attainment, pervasive poverty and considerable community health risks. In education, achievement rates are low due to a number of factors such as household financial constraints, lack of community role models, and systemic exclusion from mainstream opportunities. The biggest problem these children face is discrimination and stigma simply based on where they are from.

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