The start of September is always a time that we once again turn our thoughts to education.  Our children get ready for school, are excited at the prospect of seeing their friends, meeting their new teacher, and learning new skills. For others it is a time to return to university and continue their education, be it at a college, university, or to learn a technical trade. It is a time to remember the promise that education can bring, and the optimism it gives us for the future of our children, our community, and our nation.

However, as millions of children in the United States return to school this week, it is a good time to remember that there are an estimated 70 million children in the world who do not have access to even a primary level education, who don’t have the same hope of learning new skills, and who are missing out on what may be their only chance at learning how to read and write.  Most of these children live in developing countries, and those that can’t attend school are disproportionally girls.

However, even children who do manage to attend school in lower income countries face almost insurmountable obstacles to learning.  They often have to walk very long distances to reach schools that are poorly furnished or equipped.  Electricity and water supply are frequently lacking.  Teachers are ill-prepared to teach and lack textbooks and other teaching materials. School systems are underfunded, poorly managed and there is no accountability for ensuring that children learn.

With all these challenges it is not surprising that there is mounting evidence that many children in low income countries are spending years in school without even learning to read.  In fact, approximately half of the children in lowest-income countries cannot read anything at the end of grade 2.  Yet, learning to read in early grades is essential to success in future grades.  Children who do not learn to read in primary grades face limited economic and life opportunities.  A recent UNESCO report points out that 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low income countries left school with basic reading skills—equivalent to a 12 percent cut in global poverty.

This year USAID embarked upon a new, more focused, Education Strategy.  Goal One of the strategy is: Improved reading skills for 100 million children in primary grades by 2015.  Given limited resources, USAID believes that the most strategic and lasting impact it can make in basic education is to improve early grade reading skills, opening doors to better opportunities later in life.  USAID will also intensify efforts to measure its program outcomes to make sure it is on the right track. Without evidence that identifies what works and what does not work we will not be able improve program performance and outcomes and target resources to the most effective program approaches.

Goal Three of the Education Strategy looks to provide equitable access to 15 million children and young adults that cannot attend school due to conflict and crisis. Armed conflict and natural disasters often disrupt education systems. Schools are destroyed, governments are unable to function, and it can be too dangerous to attend school. USAID is working to provide safe and equitable access in these environments so that critical years of education are not missed, and opportunities are not forever lost.

In working to improve early grade literacy skills and provide access in conflict and crises environments, USAID is strengthening its collaboration with an ever-growing number of development actors – U.S. agencies, international donors, host country governments, NGOs, and the private sector – to create a shared vision. Working together to identify the most innovative and effective ways to support education, we hope to achieve these ambitious goals.