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Sparking the Love of Reading in Central Asia

When my daughter was younger, each night as I put her to bed, I read her a story. Some of our favorites included Make Way for DucklingsPing, and Ferdinand the Bull. Now that she is older and reading on her own, her appetite for books has become voracious.  Evenings find our family’s noses buried in books strewn about the house. When, like many Americans, I think about how reading and literacy has impacted my life, I also think about my love of reading outside of school – my favorite books as a small kid, my mom walking us to the library over the summer, and rereading my all-time favorites so often that they became worn-out friends on my nightstand.

A young student in Turkmenistan learns new vocabulary. Photo Credit: USAID Quality Learning Project

USAID wants to spark the love of  reading throughout Central Asia, and foster it throughout families everywhere.

Over the last 5-10 years, growing evidence indicates that literacy levels in Central Asia are declining. As one Ministry of Education’s national strategy frankly and astutely points out, the level of education of older generations is higher than that of its youth, in part due to declining budgets and major reorganizations after the collapse of the Soviet Union. USAID anticipates continuing to work with Ministries of Education and international partners in Central Asia to improve children’s reading abilities, by fine-tuning educators’ reading instruction skills, involving communities, and increasing the use of local language reading materials. How can a family create a culture of reading at home amid a major shortage of books currently published in local languages? This is the type of change we are working on together.

Literacy is a cornerstone of a developed society, and a well-educated population is paramount to a developed nation. I hope that my daughter grows up in a world where everyone makes reading a part of family life, has access to an abundance of reading material, and has the time to learn to read “just for fun.”

 

Ask the Expert: Literacy in Latin America

We interviewed Karen Towers from our Latin America and Caribbean Bureau to discuss the state of education in the region.

1)     It seems that Latin America and the Caribbean is doing better in education – is that true?

Yes and no. While it is true that access has increased, education quality is still a serious issue.  In the early 1960s, one out of every five children in Latin America and the Caribbean was enrolled in the first grade, now 95% of nine years olds are enrolled in school.  The problem is that children are not learning.  UNESCO tests indicate that more than 1/3 of third graders cannot read at grade level.  By the time these students reach the 6th grade,  20% will still be functionally illiterate.

Girls reading in Peru. Photo Credit: USAID

1)     Why are these literacy rates so low?

Many factors contribute to the low literacy rates, but primarily disorganized schools and poorly trained teachers. Teachers often only receive the barest guidance on what to teach and little or no training on how to teach it.  In addition, there is almost a complete lack of accountability. Often there are no independent evaluations of schools and teachers have no clear standards against which to measure student’s performance.  This video from Peru demonstrates some of problems with school performance for an average student in a public school in the region.

2)     Why is early-grade literacy important to development in the region?

When children cannot read, it limits their ability to learn other subjects such as math or science and also impacts their ability to participate in society in the long run. Studies have shown a correlation between literacy and voter participation and citizen security.   In addition, learning outcomes have a directly impact a country’s economic growth. A 10% increase in the share of students reaching basic literacy translates into a 0.3 percentage point higher annual growth rate for that country.

3)     What is USAID doing to improve early-grade literacy rates?

USAID’s new Global Education Strategy has made literacy a top development priority. By 2015, USAID aims to improve reading outcomes for some 100 million children across the globe. USAID programs include helping to develop teacher skills, introducing new technologies that facilitate learning, and improving tools to measure and assess children’s reading skills.

Percentage of 3rd graders with the lowest reading achievement level on UNESCO Tests Source: Ganimian, Alejandro. How Much Are Latin American Children Learning? PREAL, 2009

4)     Where are USAID’s programs located in LAC?

USAID has education programs in 10 Latin American and Caribbean countries: Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Eastern Caribbean, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru.

5)     What are the focus of these programs?

USAID programs are focused on improving reading by improving the 5 T’s:

  1. Teacher Technique – teaching teachers how to teach reading.
  2. Time Use – maximizing instructional time in the classroom.
  3. Texts – put appropriate books in the hands of children.
  4. Tongue – implement appropriate language policies and provide mother-tongue based instruction.
  5. Test – measure reading skills against a common standard.

    Percentage of 6th graders with the lowest reading achievement level on UNESCO TestsSource: Ganimian, Alejandro. How Much Are Latin American Children Learning? PREAL, 2009

     

Infographic: The Impact of Literacy

Ever think about the impact literacy can have on the developing world? Check out this great infographic that spells out the impact of literacy on future generations. Read about the effect of education on health, economic growth, and stability. Don’t miss International Literacy Day which we will livestream on Friday, September 7th at 9:15 am EST.

Photo of the Week: USAID in Yemen

Yemeni school girls wave the Yemen flag last autumn after USAID efforts helped return children to classes following the 2011 Yemen uprising. Photo Credit: USAID

This week, Administrator Shah is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for the Yemen Donor Conference. Learn about the work USAID is already doing in Yemen.

Technology Partnerships set Young Kenyans up for Academic Success

The classes were very quiet as we entered; students were all glued to their laptops, barely noticing us entering their classroom.  Finally, they all stand to greet us, still with one of their hands on either the keyboard or mouse. As acting Permanent Secretary from the Ministry of Education I visited several schools where the Ministry is piloting the Accelerating 21st Century Education (ACE) program in partnership with USAID, Microsoft, Intel and Cisco. I wanted to see for myself how our Kenyan students are benefiting from the use of information and communications technology (ICT), and hear for myself the opinions of students and teachers on the integration of ICT in their curricula.
ACE was designed to advance the Ministry of Education’s efforts to improve the quality of education through the use of ICT in both the training of teachers and as part of classroom curricula. The project trained 296 teachers, college tutors, head teachers, principals, and education managers in ICT competencies, and more than 1,000 laptops and other ICT equipment has been deployed to selected learning institutions.

Stephen Otoro, a student at Mwijabu primary school was quick to tell me how laptops have helped him and fellow students to stay in school. “Before, classes were boring and by 4:00 PM, we all left school to play. Since the laptops came, we stay in school until 6:00 PM because it is now interesting to learn. We even come on Saturday because we enjoy,” he says.

Michael Pascal from Mtomodoni primary school is determined to become a surgeon and is happy that the computers are helping him learn about science, which is his best subject. “I have promised my parents that they will have a surgeon in the family,” he says proudly while holding his laptop tightly in his arms.

Madam Grace, a teacher from Mwijabu primary school, used to spend a lot of time searching for information for her students but now she is able to access student assignments and grade performance from the server and send the information to the head teacher. “We are also happy to see that students no longer carry heavy bags full of books since most of their school work is stored in laptops,” she says with a smile.

Seeing students from Kibarani School for the Deaf in Kilifi using laptops to learn, with assisting software like Multimedia Instruction, was a confirmation that ICT is a fruitful tool for all the children in Kenya.

I thank USAID, Intel, Cisco and Microsoft first for joining me on this trip. The robust pilot introduction of ICT into 23 schools and three teachers’ training institutes has provided valuable lessons that inform the Government of Kenya’s planning for rolling out the use of ICT to ensure that all children in Kenya have access to quality education.  Thank you.

See more comments from  Professor Godia, students, and teachers.

The Path to Peace Starts with Embracing Diversity for Sudan’s Youth

Sudan is often described as a country rich with many different ethnic groups, languages, religions, and tribal affiliations.  I recently witnessed how true this is when I attended a USAID-sponsored session for young women from different areas of Sudan, held at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.

The students visiting the temple at Naqa, a ruined ancient city of the Kush Kingdom, north of Khartoum. The exchange included field trips to great Sudanese historical sites to teach the students about their common identity and culture. Photo Credit: USAID/Sudan

The session focused on the options available for graduate study in the United States, but I took a different message away.  As I listened to where these women came from and what they were studying, I realized how different they all were in background, and yet how similar they were in their aspirations, hopes, and desires.

These young women are students at several Khartoum universities, as well as Assalam University in Babanusa, Southern Kordofan state.  They were brought together as part of a USAID program that is enabling Sudanese to tackle issues of identity, history, and culture in their country.  The exchange was designed to help these young women leaders explore and better understand the rich cultural plurality in Sudan and to engender a sense of strength from the diversity in Sudanese culture.  Issues of identity and ethnicity have proved highly divisive in Sudan over the last two decades, and still pervade Sudanese society in the post-war era.

Over the course of the week-long exchange, students began to grow a greater appreciation for the many cultures present in Sudan.  They discussed common history and identity across different groups and got to touch their history first-hand through trips to local historical sites and museums.

Throughout the exchange, the students became increasingly aware of their own tendencies to stereotype certain groups.  One young woman stated that she and others once “unconsciously, practice[ed] social exclusion,” but after the 5-day training, she now “knows what it is and will stop.” Another participant commented, “I used to hate history. After visiting the historical sites and knowing how great my history is, I now love it.”

The students concluded the workshop determined to carry what they learned back to their communities. Several participants stated that they would hold discussions with their peers at their universities on both the commonalities that exist between cultures in Sudan and the rich diversity that they represent. By the last day of training, the participants, most of whom met only five short days earlier, were referring to one another as friends.  The students from Babanusa even hope to host the Khartoum students at their university for future events to foster further understanding.

Some of the most important work that USAID does in Sudan, in my opinion, works to address intolerance and exclusion in a country with such strength through diversity.  I hope that many more Sudanese will get to experience the diverse cultures within their own society, as these young women did.  Such experiences will very likely be the foundation of healing in a country that has had a painful past.

 

Expanding Access to Quality Education and Improved Health Care in the West Bank’s “Area C”

I recently had the opportunity to visit a construction site in Jalazone, just outside of Ramallah in the West Bank, where the U.S. Government is partnering with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in cooperation with Palestinian and Israeli officials, to build a school that will provide a safe and vastly improved learning environment for more than 1,100 girls.

Once completed, the school will provide an enhanced learning environment for more than 1,100 girls. Photo Credit: Lubna Rifi

Jalazone is located in what is known as “Area C,” an area that comprises approximately 60 percent of the West Bank and is under Israeli administrative and security control, in accordance with the terms of the Oslo Accords. The expansion work on the Jalazone School, which includes building 23 new modern classrooms, science labs, vocational training rooms, and all the facilities of a functioning school, is part of U.S. efforts, underway for some time, working closely with the Palestinian Authority and Israeli officials, to improve access to essential services for Palestinians living in “Area C.”

While visiting the construction site, UNRWA’s West Bank Field Director Felipe Sanchez and I spoke with the Principal at the school, Sana Bayyari. She explained how much she and her students and teachers are looking forward to moving from the current school’s overcrowded and run-down classrooms to what will effectively be a fully renovated school by March 2013. These renovations will significantly improve the educational environment at the school, originally built in the 1950s. Principal Bayyari also noted that they are especially excited that they will no longer have to attend school in double shifts as they have been doing for years to accommodate all of the students.

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New Tool to Assess Literacy

A free electronic tool is now available to quickly and accurately measure the reading progress of young children in the developing world. An adaptation of USAID’s paper-based Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA), the new tool called eEGRA runs in Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet software, available free on most computers. The new tool was demonstrated for international literacy experts and policymakers March 13th, at the Washington offices of Education Development Center (EDC) which developed eEGRA.

eEGRA puts valid, reliable reading results into the hands of teachers. Photo Credit: Rojessa Tiamson-Saceda

One of the benefits of eEGRA is that results are available immediately after a student has completed a test, instantly providing the classroom teacher or headmaster with a snapshot of the student’s reading progress. By comparison, data from the paper test can take six months to analyze, and because it is developed at the national or district level, is rarely seen or used by teachers.

In addition, the electronic test automates time calculations and restricts data entry mistakes by eliminating the need to interpret hand-written scores. It also standardizes the delivery of test instructions via audio playback, ensuring all students receive the same information. Because it is in electronic format, eEGRA uses less paper and comes with the capability to back up and save data.

“We are already finding that eEGRA is revolutionizing how we assess the reading skills of young children,” said EDC Vice President Nancy Devine. “It allows teachers to identify whether students have developed key skills for their grade level, and this in turn allows them to identify what remediation efforts, if any, are required. eEGRA directly links assessment and classroom practice.”

First conceptualized in 2009, eEGRA was developed for an Excel platform in the spring of 2010, and then field tested in the Philippines. That field study established that eEGRA scores learners as accurately as its paper-based counterpart and the use of a laptop does not inhibit testing. eEGRA was first presented at USAID’s M4Ed4Dev conference in August 2010 and has been available free and in open-source format since that time. To date, it has been used by development partners to assess student learning in three countries, in three languages.

“We continue to refine the tool with new features and improved performance,” said EDC’s Helen Boyle. “Our ultimate goal is to put reliable, valid reading assessments into the hands of teachers around the globe, enabling them to deliver more effective instruction to their students.”

Click here to learn more or download and begin using the free assessment tool.

Launch of Pakistan’s National Reading Program

This week in Pakistan, I joined Ambassador Cameron Munter, Senior Minister Pir Mazhar-Ul-Haq of the Government of Sindh Education and Literacy Department and local leaders in launching a National Reading Program.

The program will help improve reading and math skills for nearly seven million children, mobilize communities to strengthen school management and support the development of three and a half million new readers. That means improving educational assessments so that schools and parents can clearly track student progress.  And it means strengthening teach professional development, so that teachers have the opportunity to grow, share their experiences and learn about new approaches.

This support will help Pakistan accelerate progress towards full primary enrollment, which it would not achieve until 2050 at its current pact. Today, seven million Pakistani children including four million girls are not enrolled.  And in Sindh, only 40 percent of children who have completed primary school can read a simple sentence in their native language.

Administrator Shaw at the launch of the National Reading Program in Karachi, Pakistan with Pakistani students. Photo Credit: USAID/Pakistan

The program would not have been possible without Pakistan’s groundbreaking effort to establish a National Education Policy, which provides a roadmap for ensuring every child receives a quality education. In 2010, Pakistan’s Constitution made education compulsory and required the government to provide education without cost to parents.  The provincial governments have also made fundamental reforms key to this effort, including providing scholarships for girls to attend middle school and sending teachers where they are needed most, even if it isn’t where they’d like to go.

We’ve also made key changes in our approach to education. Instead of measuring success by the number of children we help enroll or the number of teachers we train, we’re going to measure it by the number of children who can read and add by the time they leave school. And instead of measuring success based on anecdotes, we’re going to work with the government to ensure sophisticated monitoring and evaluation mechanisms that hold all of us accountable.

We’ve also launched All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge in Development to generate breakthroughs in childhood literacy, whether they are mobile apps that help measure student progress or affordable e-reads that bring the world’s libraries to mudbrick schools and rural villages. Before long, these cutting-edge proposals will help transform the way children learn from Pakistan to Ghana.

Building on a long-standing history of cooperation between our two peoples, we’re committed to helping the students of Pakistan, and easing their path as they become the world’s next generation of scientists, teachers, engineers and entrepreneurs.

U.S. – Afghan Women’s Council – Celebrating 10 Years of Progress

This week we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the U.S. – Afghan Women’s Council (USAWC). Created during the Bush Administration, the Council has stimulated an extraordinary array of public-private partnerships to elevate the status of Afghan women and girls. As I listened to commemorative remarks by Secretary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush, I recalled my own visit to Afghanistan in December 2011.

While in Kabul, I had the enormous pleasure of speaking with a group of female students and recent university graduates currently working in USAID-supported internships. These women are among the first generation of girls who were educated in post-Taliban Afghanistan; many of them represented the astonishing 25% of Kabul University female graduates.

Similarly inspiring was my visit to the American University of Afghanistan (AUAf), where a beautiful campus hosts a student body that is approximately 22% female, enrolled in undergraduate programs such as Business, IT, and Political Science.  There’s also been a dramatic increase in female enrollment.  While the Senior class is only 6% female, the Freshman class is over half.  Even more heartening is the 36% of women now enrolled in a college prep program.

The American University of Afghanistan is one of many critical efforts USAID has proudly supported as a U.S. – Afghan Women’s Council partner. The Agency’s assistance has actually supported myriad efforts of the Council. In addition to AUAf, USAID has worked with the Ministry of Education, the International School of Kabul and the Women’s Teacher Training Institute. But support has not been limited to the education sector. In partnership with USAWC partners, USAID has developed and implemented programs for children, women’s leadership, women’s entrepreneurship and women’s health care.

The results of the U.S. Government’s support for Afghanistan’s women are visible and impressive. Programs like the REACH are offering midwifery training have helped lower child and maternal mortality rates by over 20%  in the last ten years; over 3000 midwives have been trained, about half of them with U.S. support. Additionally, I’m thrilled to say that today over three million Afghan girls are in school; almost no girls were being educated while the Taliban were in power.

The US-Afghan Women’s Council should be applauded. It has delivered concrete results for development while maintaining crucial support in the U.S. for the needs of Afghan women. The Council has stimulated a dazzling set of projects and programs involving an impressive set of partners from the private sector, foundations and NGOs committed to ensuring expanded opportunities for women in Afghanistan..   As we mark a decade of progress through the Council, I’m reminded of Secretary Clinton’s remarks on Wednesday when she said, “The women of Afghanistan are a valuable and irreplaceable resource, and their rights must be protected, and their opportunities for them to contribute must be preserved.”

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