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Education: The Most Powerful Weapon for Changing the World

School girls in Sana’a gather for their lesson.

School girls in Sana’a gather for their lesson / Clinton Doggett, USAID

As Nelson Mandela says, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Education is the key to eliminating gender inequality, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, to preventing needless deaths and illness, and to fostering peace. And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity.

Education is an investment, and one of the most critical investments we can make. This is true not only for the United States, but for countries around the world.

Arne Duncan serves as U.S. Secretary of Education

The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of providing universal primary education to all and eliminating gender inequities, has propelled many nations and multi-governmental organizations to boost educational spending. But the work is not easy, and many countries are falling short of achieving these goals, particularly the 2015 target date that was set when the goals were adopted in 2000.

Today, around the globe, an estimated 61 million primary-aged children are out of school, almost half of them in conflict-affected poor countries. Too often, even those students who do go to school finish without basic literacy and numeracy skills: it is estimated that 250 million children cannot read, write or count well.

Expanding educational access for girls is not just an urgent economic and social need. In many cases, it is literally a matter of life and death. A mother who can read can better protect her children from chronic illnesses, from AIDS, and from dying young. A child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past age five. And in Africa’s poorest states, UNESCO projects that the lives of 1.8 million children could have been saved if their mothers had at least a secondary education.

In announcing his Global Education First initiative, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded us that, “We cannot afford to waste the talents of a generation.” He related this to his own experience growing up in the Republic of Korea as it recovered from war. “People today often ask about my country’s transformation from poverty to prosperity. Without hesitation, I answer that education was the key.”

USAID supports the Haitian Government's plan to get 1.5 million students in school by 2016, improve curricula, train teachers, and set standards for schools. / Kendra Helmer, USAID

USAID supports the Haitian Government’s plan to get 1.5 million students in school by 2016, improve curricula, train teachers, and set standards for schools / Kendra Helmer, USAID

The Global Education First initiative, along with the Learning for All Ministerial event in Washington, D.C. last week with the UN, World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education, USAID and others, are building momentum around the global movement for education: to put every child in school, to improve the quality of learning, and to foster global citizenship. With roughly 1,000 days to the 2015 MDG deadline, the pressure is on to accelerate progress to expand access, improve equity and boost student achievement.

Education is the foundation of peace and prosperity. I can’t imagine a better world without a global commitment to providing better education for women and youth and I urge all of us to reinvigorate our efforts to accelerate progress in improving access, quality and student achievement worldwide.

Video of the Week: Education in Ghana

In Ghana, most children attend school but the quality of education is very poor. Many schools have no classroom buildings, so many classes are held under a tree or some other makeshift space. This is a problem in rainy season when children are sent home until the skies clear. Also, rain brings mud and mud brings illness.

Many teachers are poorly trained, if they have any training at all. Many students don’t have enough books, and children often walk long distances to the nearest school. Some children even bring their own desks and chair to school every day.

To address these issues, USAID’s education program is building 69 new latrines, 118 kindergarten, elementary and junior high schools and rehabilitating over 100 schools. Funding is also training teachers, supporting students with necessary school supplies, like pens, pencils and notebooks. The schools are also working with their communities to support the students and the school administration.

The impact of USAID’s investments is dramatic. For example, at the Suhyen school, three new classroom blocks are in place and the community is stepping up to support the teachers, the students and the administration.

Ghana is committed to cutting illiteracy in half in the next 5 years.

Educate Girls, Develop Nations

This blog is part of a series focused on USAID’s innovative approach to reaching Millennium Development Goal #2: Achieve universal primary education. The theme “Room to Learn” highlights programs and priority countries where access to education is now a reality.

As President Obama said, if a country is educating its girls, if women have equal rights, that country is going to move forward. Education is a silver bullet for empowering women and girls worldwide.

When girls are educated, their families are healthier, they have fewer children, they wed later, and they have more opportunities to generate income. One extra year of primary school boosts a girl’s future wage 10 to 20 percent and an extra year of secondary school increases that earning potential by 15 to 25 percent. Education also helps moms take better care of their kids.  According to the World Bank (PDF), each additional year of female education reduces child mortality by 18 per thousand births.

A young female student in Alma Village, southern Ethiopia. Photo credit: Susan Liebold

These are amazing statistics but I’ve also been fortunate enough to see for myself the high returns to investing in education. While in Kabul I met with an incredible group of young women who were educated entirely in post-Taliban Afghanistan. They reminded me how critically important education is to peace, prosperity and empowerment.

Those young women represent the future for a country that had virtually no girls in school less than 15 years ago.

Today, Afghan girls are more than a third of the students. I am proud that USAID is supporting community-based schools in Afghanistan and that our literacy effort is playing an instrumental role in ensuring these girls get an education; it is an investment that will pay dividends for generations to come.

Globally, enormous progress has been made in closing the gender gap in primary education over the last 20 years. In most of the world today, a similar percentage of girls and boys attend primary schools. Yet disparities endure—there are 3.6 million more girls out of school compared to boys around the world. Women still comprise the majority (two-thirds) of the illiterate. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, obtaining an education remains particularly tough for women and girls. The World Bank estimates that half of the out-of-school girls in the world live in Sub-Saharan Africa and one quarter of them live in South Asia.

But it’s not just about access. Compounding the problem is a lack of quality education. For example, in Malawi robust primary school enrollment and matriculation rates are reported. However, a closer inspection of the educational system reveals that many students finish their schooling without being able to read. Therefore, a focus on both the quality of education and enrollment rates is needed.

We know that educating women and girls has tremendous multiplying effects for families, communities, and societies.  That is why USAID launched five leadership partnerships involving universities in the U.S. and in Armenia, Paraguay, Rwanda and South Sudan to promote gender equality and women’s leadership. These programs will promote and develop curricula and opportunities for women in business, agriculture, and education in order to increase women’s access to higher education and advanced degrees, strengthen institutional capacity in research and education on women’s leadership, and promote women’s leadership through higher education extension and outreach to underserved communities.

We are very excited to be collaborating with academic institutions in the United States and abroad to advance women’s leadership. These partnerships offer a meaningful and important opportunity to ensure women are empowered, ultimately advancing economies and societies globally.

New Learn-to-Read Method in Yemen Shows Early Promise

This blog is part of a series focused on USAID’s innovative approach to reaching Millennium Development Goal #2: Achieve universal primary education. The theme “Room to Learn” highlights programs and priority countries where access to education is now a reality.

A teacher points to clearly-drawn Arabic characters on a blackboard and the third-grade girls at Aisha School gleefully make the corresponding sounds. A few minutes later the room grows quieter as the girls focus to simultaneously pronounce and write the letter corresponding to its sound. At a nearby school, first-grade boys stumble over themselves to get to the blackboard in time to point at the character that matches the sound their teacher just pronounced.

The students in schools in the Amran govenorate, just outside Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a, are learning to read using a phonics method developed by the Yemeni Ministry of Education with USAID support.  In less than one year, students, parents and teachers alike have embraced the Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach, or YEGRA. “It’s a miracle, the teaching of reading is suddently demystified,” said the principal of a school.

Students at the Aisha School. Photo credit: Emily Walker, USAID

YEGRA focuses on intensive teacher training in a method that teaches first- through third-graders to read using phonics. Each lesson is 70 minutes long, and follows a set procedure, which includes reviewing a familiar story, reading stories aloud, focusing on the sounds that make up words, and writing. The program has also produced brand-new grade-appropriate teaching materials, including readers that children can take home to practice with their parents, and handbooks that help both literate and illiterate parents to support their children’s learning.

Until last year, Yemeni children were taught to read using word recognition and corresponding pictures, but the technique was clearly not effective; when USAID tested young students in 2011, it found that fewer than one-third of third-graders were able to read.

After just eight weeks of the YEGRA method, which has been implemented in 380 of Yemen’s schools, first graders could decipher 10 words per minute – the goal in first grade is to identify 30 words per minute. And, an informal analysis in the governorate of Taizz found that first-grade students could read just six words per minute prior to YEGRA, but after nearly three months of YEGRA lessons, 97 percent of the first-grade students were able to read 20 words a minute.

Ministry of Education and USAID teams visited three Amran schools in March and saw YEGRA’s dynamism firsthand – students were eagerly answering questions and following along in the lessons. They also attended a teacher training, where teachers for grades one through three throughout the region learned interactive teaching techniques and methods for futher engaging students in reading. By next school year, at least an additional 3,000 to 5,000 teachers will be using the YEGRA method.

USAID, in partnership with Yemen’s Ministry of Education and local governments, is also making education more accessible to Yemeni children, and especially girls, by rehabilitating schools to  improve sanitary conditions and make it safer to go to school. USAID has rehabiliated more than 200 schools throughout the country since November 2011, with a particular focus on those in conflict-affected areas. An estimated 280,000 students were unable to go to school during the recent conflict in the southern governorate of Abyan and its aftermath. Together with the Ministry of Education and the Governor of Abyan, USAID completed a major rehabilitation of 10 schools in Abyan, and will rehabilitate and furnish a total of eighteen over the coming months. Next school year, students in Abyan will not only be back in school but they will for the first time learn how to read and write at grade level with YEGRA.

One-third of out-of-school girls in the entire Middle East and North Africa region reside in Yemen and only 53 percent of girls who begin primary school complete basic schooling. Our early education programs in Yemen target both boys and girls, and the Ministry of Education is convinced  that these educational improvements will not only ensure that students can read with comprehension and go on to learn other subjects, but will also increase enrollment and lower dropout rates, especially for girls.

After the success of the first year of YEGRA, the Ministry has initiated reforms to its educational curriculum and is committed to taking the program nationwide with the continued support of USAID and other donors. As this generation of boys and girls learns to read and goes on to master other subjects, the increase in girls’ enrollment should continue to grow. Better access to schools and higher literacy rates will provide greater opportunities for Yemen’s girls. Read more about our work to improve girls’ enrollment and educational opportunities in Yemen.

Improving Education in South Sudan

This blog is part of a series focused on USAID’s innovative approach to reaching Millennium Development Goal #2: Achieve universal primary education. The theme “Room to Learn” highlights programs and priority countries where access to education is now a reality.

After emerging from decades of conflict, South Sudan faces significant challenges in its education sector. Only 27 percent of South Sudanese adults today are literate, one of the lowest rates in the world. Other challenges include inadequate schools; teachers who have had insufficient training; a shortage of teachers, particularly women; lack of a standard curriculum; and a legislative and policy framework on education that is still in development.

Despite these many roadblocks, impressive gains in education have been achieved since 2005. With USAID assistance, primary school enrollment in South Sudan has increased from approximately 300,000 students in 2000 to 1.4 million in 2012. USAID has supported the construction or rehabilitation of 140 primary schools and five secondary schools. To improve teachers’ skills, the Agency helped to rehabilitate four regional teacher training institutes and is encouraging women to become teachers. To address lower literacy and school attendance among girls, USAID has awarded over 9,000 scholarships in the past five years to girls and disadvantaged boys who are unable to pay school fees to complete secondary school.

Sylvain Sumurye, a USAID scholarship recipient, now teaches at Kiri Primary School, Kajo-keji County, Central Equatoria state. Photo credit: Joseph Ayela, Winrock International

Sylvain Sumurye of Kajo-Keji County in Central Equatoria State received one of these scholarships. She had dropped out of school due to an early pregnancy and then was abandoned by her husband. With the USAID-funded scholarship Sylvain completed secondary school and attended Kajo-Keji Teacher Training College. After graduation she was hired as a fifth grade teacher and with the money she earns can support her family and pay her daughter’s school fees. More importantly, Sylvain is now one of the few qualified teachers in South Sudan. Only about 4,000 teachers out of a total of 26,000 teachers are qualified, a shortage that USAID’s South Sudan Teacher Education Program is helping to address through in-service training and development of core teacher professional development frameworks including a curriculum, teacher professional standards, an accreditation system and an affirmative action policy. It expected that this foundational work will support future teacher training activities to improve the quality of teaching in the country. Quality teaching is an important prerequisite for improved learning.

A group of students. Photo credit: Karl Grobl, Education Development Center

In early 2012, USAID embarked on efforts to further solidify improvements in education in South Sudan. The Agency provided technical assistance to the Government of the Republic of South Sudan to help with the drafting and passage of a General Education Bill that will establish a national framework for education. This assistance included the organization of expert panels and public hearings that have enabled citizens and specialists in the field of education to provide input to the drafts. Involving local citizens in the development of this legislation has proven invaluable. Public input has helped provide flexibility in the school calendar so that areas of South Sudan that face challenges remaining open during the rainy season can meet the requirement of being open nine months per year without having to adhere to fixed dates. Other issues discussed in the public hearings included community and parental involvement, the role of women in educational leadership, inclusion of all students, standardized exams, a teachers’ code of conduct, compulsory attendance, and the need to eliminate corporal punishment. USAID’s oversight in ensuring that international norms were being observed in the analysis was crucial to the attainment of a sound legislative framework. The bill was passed by the National Legislative Assembly in July and has become a frequent basis for progressive reform. In the words of Samson Ezekiel Ndukpo, a National Legislative Assembly member who is Chair of the Assembly’s Specialized Committee of Education, Research, Science and Technology, “The bill is very important – it concerns everybody. The bill provides for compulsory and free education for all citizens of the country through primary level, according to the constitution.”

In Congo, Helping Children Catch Up in the Classroom

This originally appeared on The IRC Blog.

This blog is part of a series focused on USAID’s innovative approach to reaching Millennium Development Goal #2: Achieve universal primary education. The theme “Room to Learn” highlights programs and priority countries where access to education is now a reality.

For Fatuma Kitete, a 40-year-old mother of seven, every day comes with a heavy burden. From dawn to dusk, she relentlessly carries plastic canisters filled with sand balanced on her head from the shores of Lake Tanganyika to the town of Kalemie. For her grueling efforts, the construction company, which hires her by the day, pays her roughly $2. That sum buys just one nutrient-poor manioc meal for her large family.

A widow for several years, Fatuma has no help raising her children. She did everything she could to care for them and tried several times to send the elder ones to school, but she could not keep up the monthly educational fee of $2.50 per child, and besides, she needed them to help her carry sand. Her eldest son, now aged 15, was registered only for a couple of semesters eight years ago; her next two daughters, Leontina and Ester, aged 12 and 11 respectively, have been out-of-school for more than four years.

“I saw them often looking at other kids go to school and crying that they could not go as well,” Fatuma recalls. “But what could I do? Luckily we have some old textbooks at home, and they kept reading through them time and again.”

Leontina and Ester during their first week of school in more than four years. Photo credit: Sinziana Demian, IRC

It was this fall and the beginning of the new school year that Fatuma was finally presented with a long-lasting solution: Her children could attend a three-year accelerated learning program, for free, in order to make up for the lost time and eventually be reintegrated in the regular school system. The program, run by the International Rescue Committee with USAID funding, is helping 1,100 boys and girls catch up on their studies at the primary level and work toward the standardized national exam that admits them to secondary school.

Fatuma didn’t think twice: Leontina and Ester would start right away. She borrowed money to buy them new blue-and-white uniforms and proudly walked them the eight kilometers to the learning center on the first morning.

“It was a like a holiday in my family,” Fatuma says. “My girls were finally going to school!”

In Congo today, an estimated 7.6 million children do not attend school. Dropout rates have reached 50%, with girls much more likely than boys to leave primary school. Most families opt to register their sons and keep the girls at home.

For Fatuma, the choice was different. Her eldest son earns a living working odd jobs. “He would have been ashamed to come back to school at his age, with much younger classmates,” she admits. Instead, Leontina and Ester, who with their matching hairstyles share a striking resemblance, now study with several dozen other “accelerated beginners,” practicing simple computations and learning French, the official language of Congo (a country with as many as 250 ethnic groups and more than 240 languages).

“We also drew the human body,” says Ester, timidly, after class. “School is so interesting.”

The center, located on the main road to downtown Kalemie, consists of several reed-walled classrooms arranged around a large, sandy courtyard. Last year, of the 550 students accepted into the program, 99 took and successfully passed the national exams in math, French and general culture. It was by far the best result of any school in the district, and one of the best in the entire Katanga province. Building on this successful experience, the center has doubled the number of students, who will study in two daily shifts.

“This program is a blessing for our children,” says Rebeca Putu, a mother who is also a member of the parents committee. “Most families in Kalemie and surrounding villages would never send their children to school otherwise.”

The IRC is supporting the accelerated learning program as part of a major education effort in three provinces in eastern Congo. In a comprehensive approach aimed at improving access to quality education for 500,000 children and youngsters people, the IRC trains primary school teachers in new methods, runs vocational trainings and literacy classes for youth, and builds, renovates and equips schools and classrooms.

Increasing Access to Education in Northern Nigeria

This blog is part of a series focused on USAID’s innovative approach to reaching Millennium Development Goal #2: Achieve universal primary education. The theme “Room to Learn” highlights programs and priority countries where access to education is now a reality.

Fourteen year-old Ammar Muhammed, born to nomadic parents in Northern Nigeria, is going to school. Not just any school, but a school for gifted children owing to his participation in a USAID-funded basic literacy program at his non-formal school in Nigeria’s northern Bauchi State two years ago.

Ammar in front of his school. Photo Credit: USAID

Forty-two percent of primary-age children in this country, about 10.5 million, are out of school. Less than a third of primary school children proceed to junior secondary school and even fewer go on to complete secondary school. The situation is worse in predominantly Muslim Northern Nigeria where primary school attendance and academic achievement are far below national averages. A recent USAID-funded assessment of reading skills in Hausa, the local language, in the Northern States of Bauchi and Sokoto found that about 70 percent of  P3 (third grade) pupils could not read a single word of a simple narrative text. In this region many students attend non-formal religious schools where the focus is on learning the Quran and Islamic values with no training in basic reading and math skills. In some schools male children (referred to as “Almajiri”) often leave very poor families to attend school and are encouraged to beg on the streets to pay for their care and instruction.

Through its Northern Education Initiative (NEI), USAID is working in the Nigerian States of Bauchi and Sokoto to strengthen state and local governments’ capacity to deliver basic education services by addressing key management, sustainability and oversight issues. To demonstrate to state governments that basic education systems can be strengthened through improvements in teacher training and instructional delivery, the NEI developed new activity-based training manuals, trained about 3,500 teachers, and monitored the delivery of reading and math instruction. Two hundred pilot schools were selected to participate in the program, 80 of which were non-formal Amajiri schools—40 from each state.

Children outside of school in Nigeria. Photo Credit: USAID/Nigeria

Ammar’s school was selected to participate in the pilot. He diligently applied himself to his studies and was one of 200 students from NEI’s 40 demonstration schools in Bauchi State to pass exams for entry to formal schools in 2011. Once admitted to Central Primary School, Gwaram, he was reassessed and placed in Class Five. His teachers were surprised to learn he was a student from an Almajiri school.  “He performed better than other pupils that had spent six years in school and took first position in his class examination,” said Malam Usman Khalifa, head teacher at Central Primary School.

In 2012 Ammar took the Bauchi State Special Secondary School Examination for entry into one of the state’s three schools for gifted children. He passed with flying colors and is now a student at the Special Science Secondary School in Toro. He has now set a new target: to earn university admission. “I want to be a doctor, to help my people,” said Ammar.

 

 

 

Photo of the Week: Learning in South Sudan

Learning in South Sudan. Photo Credit: Ezra Simon

Students in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal State of South Sudan in a temporary classroom set up so they can continue to learn while they wait for a permanent school to be built.  Since the Consolidated Peace Agreement (PCA), the number of classrooms in the country has increased but school infrastructure remains an overwhelming need. Despite recent investments by a few key donors 70% of learning is done under tents, in the open air, or in semi-permanent structures. New efforts by USAID seek to address this problem.

1,000 Days to Reach the Millennium Development Goals

This blog is part of a series focused on USAID’s innovative approach to reaching Millennium Development Goal #2: Achieve universal primary education. The theme “Room to Learn” highlights programs and priority countries where access to education is now a reality.

Increasing access to primary education in developing countries. Reaching the nearly 61 million still out-of-school children and getting as many of them as we can into safe learning environments. Improving the quality of education by making sure that children are not only in school, but also that they are learning. And just 1,000 days to get it done.

It’s a daunting task but just the kind of challenge I love. After 38 years as a teacher, 8 years advocating for education, literacy and libraries as Iowa’s first lady, 12 years as president of my own literacy foundation, a few years working to assure young women have access to reproductive health, and two years running for Congress, I have found the perfect capstone to my career in the USAID Education Strategy (PDF) and Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2.  Friday, April 6 started the countdown of 1,000 days to reach MDG2, by 2015:

Schoolchildren in Aqaba, Jordan, who are beneficiaries of the Jordan Schools Program and Education Reform Support Program, both funded by USAID to improve the quality of education in the country. Photo credit: Jill Meeks, Creative Associates International

“Ensure that by 2015 children everywhere, boys and girls alike will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”

The best part of this challenge is that I join a committed team of experienced and passionate USAID education and foreign-service professionals who have already spent the past two years creating a focused strategy which includes access to education but also quality and accountability. We are led by a visionary, Administrator Rajiv Shah, who is determined to produce results we can measure. Thus, the big numbers. The numbers, while hard to compile in countries subject to coups, civil wars, earthquakes, drought and corruption, are important in creating a report card for Americans who want to help but who also want quantifiable results. The numbers are important because they will help us to do “good” well. Even more important, I recognize that USAID is just one organization in the global community committed to literacy and learning.  What an opportunity to join this growing collection of education champions!

Last weekend someone asked what I’d learned from two weeks of briefings that I found most valuable. First, I am convinced of the commitment of my colleagues and I learned that we are not without partners worldwide who are also resolute about literacy. More surprising and not without irony, this language arts and journalism teacher learned that reaching our millennium goals is partly about getting the numbers right.

Sixty-one million children still don’t have access to basic primary education. I talk with folks on Main Street who wonder why it matters if a child in Africa knows how to read. For every child or youth who has room to learn—a safe place to learn and a trained teacher—the world will be a safer, more productive place for all of us.

I’m going to do everything in my power to tell the USAID education story to anyone who will listen—elected officials, other public servants, business leaders, those supporting non-profits, civic organizations, and faith-based organizations, the wider education community at home and abroad, my family, my hairdresser, the person sitting next to me at dinner and on the Metro. I’m going to ask all of them and you, to help us, or at least, to support our efforts.

The children who learn to read in Afghanistan, the teachers who learn to teach reading in South Sudan, the ministers of education who have data to show results in Pakistan, Haiti and Nigeria, the parents who will learn to demand quality as well as access in the Democratic Republic of Congo, over time will help knit the fabric of an education system that underpins every strong democracy. Those children will become teachers, start businesses, engage in trade, heal the sick, build roads, write novels and make scientific discoveries.  One thousand days to reach MDG2. There’s no time to lose. Let’s get busy.

Here’s how you can help :

Video of the Week: Education in Kenya

Education is an important component of reducing poverty, promoting peace, and empowering individuals to participate in democratic institutions. Since 2003, primary school enrollment has increased more than 50 percent in Kenya. In recognition of USAID’s 50th anniversary working in partnership with Kenya, this video provides an overview of USAID’s education programs and particularly focuses on efforts to reach vulnerable, marginalized children.

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