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International Education Week: Partnering to Improve World Literacy

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

Today, the global community faces an economic crisis that has many people around the world feeling tenuous about the future. World leaders are grappling with how to handle rising debt and shrinking funds. Yet despite this uncertainty, one thing is certain: education is still the light shining on our path that shows us the way forward. Education, now more than ever, is critical to eliminating gender inequity, reducing starvation, sustaining our planet, and restoring world peace.

As countries improve the education of their citizens, they experience huge multiplier effects: better health, growing economies, and reduced poverty. The data show us that a child born to an educated mother is two times more likely to survive to age 5 . . . that educated mothers are fifty percent more likely to immunize their children and three times less likely to contract HIV/AIDS. Every year that a child spends in school increases his or her future productivity by 10-30%.

When we think of how much a country gains in terms of goods and services by investing in 6, 12, or even 14 years of education for its workforce, how can we all not make that investment?

As part of this investment, I am pleased to announce today that the U.S. Department of Education will be joining USAID, World Vision and AustraliaAID in the All Children Reading initiative as well. As a new partner, we will collaborate with the founding partners as they work to dramatically improve world literacy. We are joining this work because we also believe that enhancing the education of all people, both at home and abroad, is a path to solving our world’s economic, social, and health problems.

The All Children Reading Challenge’s focus on improving literacy could not come at a better time. If education is the answer, then literacy is the foundation upon which we must build our countries’ well being. Not only are reading and writing critical to learning all other subjects, but literacy is what enables people to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. Literacy opens doors to better living conditions, improved health, and expanded opportunities. It empowers people to build more secure futures for their families.

To get serious about literacy, we have to realize that the challenges of achieving an educated citizenry cut across geographical and political boundaries. Educators everywhere, including in the U.S., are concerned about the growing achievement gaps that exist for the poorest of our children, including those with learning disabilities and speakers of other languages.

Working together and collaborating to solve our common problems is critical. In our global economy, the tired old “survival of the fittest” philosophy that pits countries against one another no longer applies. Instead, we have to recognize that the battle is not between our countries, but with complacency.

I look forward to seeing what innovative programs and practices come out of this All Children Reading Challenge. I couldn’t be happier to see these organizations make an investment in the literacy of the children of the world, and I am hopeful that we in the U.S. will learn some innovative strategies that can make a difference for us here.

International Education Week: Somali Soap Opera Teaches Young People to Take Control of Their Finances

A young woman in Somalia. Photo Credit: USAID/Somalia

A young woman in Somalia who has benefited from the program. Photo Credit: USAID/Somalia

Somali youth are learning from the USAID sponsored soap opera Dab iyo Dahab that being good at math is not the same as knowing how to manage a household budget or run a business. In English, the title means “Fire and Gold.”

The innovative collaboration between USAID and the Education Development Center (EDC) proves positive things do happen for youth when technology, education, and culture come together.

Fire and Gold, created by young Somalis in the EDC team, is a soap opera that weaves the traditional Somali art of story-telling with interactive audio instruction, educating young people how to manage their finances. Currently, 1,850 Somali youth are learning financial literacy skills through the program.

Fatima, a young woman from Hargeisa, Somaliland, said of her training, “I succeeded to be recruited as an administrative assistant as a result of the USAID and EDC program.”

The lessons are broadcast through low-cost MP3-enabled devices that deliver high quality audio education on demand. Somali youth are like any other young people, and technology – in this case, MP3 devices – is very popular. Learning to be financially literate, it turns out, is also in high demand.

The MP3 device chosen, the Nokia 5310 cell phone, is capable of supporting a listening group of 30 students through a docking station without compromising learning and audio quality.

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International Education Week: Early Education Sets Young Nicaraguans on the Path the Academic Success

Identifying problems in early-grade reading is crucial for development in parts of the world where the stakes are high for kids that get behind the learning curve at a young age.

Nicaragua is one country that has identified early-reading as a major area for improvement and made widespread efforts to address it. The ministry of education there has incorporated EGRA into its national assessment system, and has begun training all first-grade teachers in its implementation, and is developing tools for assisting teachers in the provision of remedial programs for students that fall behind.

Despite gender equality in access to schooling in Nicaragua, boys have higher drop-out rates than girls. Because of economic reasons, especially in rural areas, the chances of a dropout returning to school are minimal. Photo Credit: USAID

Identifying problems in reading and promoting early grade reading is crucial for development in parts of the world where the stakes are high for kids that get behind the learning curve early. While reading is one of many skills that young students must master to thrive today, it is the foundation of all other learning activities in the classroom. It also is increasingly understood as a science, not something that kids simply learn “naturally,” particularly if their homes are devoid of reading opportunities. USAID has made this one of its central concerns through its new Global Education Strategy (2011 – 2015), and is building on prior work that has aimed to set the standards for learning as well as useful measures for assessing it.

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International Education Week: USAID and Peace Corps Expand Reach in Global Education

To mark both agencies’ 50th anniversaries, USAID and the Peace Corps signed the Global Education Framework (GEF) agreement to encourage and enhance collaboration in global education activities.

GEF gives both agencies a flexible way to implement joint education initiatives at the local, national, regional, and global levels in basic education, higher education, youth development, and workforce development.

“The partnership builds on the work of Peace Corps volunteers who have been leaders in education and youth projects for 50 years,” said Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams. “We will utilize the agreement to support efforts to enhance the contributions our volunteers are making around the world with local communities at the grassroots level every day.”

The agreement allows USAID missions around the world and bureaus and offices in Washington to contribute funds that support education initiatives being implemented by the Peace Corps and its volunteers. Since the agreement’s inception, USAID has provided nearly $1.8 million in support of seven activities (see box). The collaboration under this agreement has been aimed at providing resources for the Peace Corps to enhance its technical training of volunteers and their host country counterparts.

USAID and the Peace Corps have three global framework agreements that allow this type of collaboration. The USAID/Peace Corps Small Project Assistance Agreement was implemented in 1983; and in July 2011, the agencies signed the Global Food Security Agreement.

The agreement creates a framework under which interested offices and field staff from both agencies can design a wide range of education, gender, and youth programs. For example, USAID support is enabling the development of new training modules for volunteers and staff positions to support common areas of interest such as promoting literacy and reading.

“The Global Education Framework Agreement demonstrates how we are effectively and efficiently programming every development dollar to deliver meaningful results in education,” says USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. “By working together, we strengthen our organizations to better assist the countries and people we serve.”

The first strategic goal outlined in the new USAID Education Strategy—improving early grade reading—also reflects a Peace Corps focus area in education. Additionally, the three primary crosscutting issues in the strategy—youth programming, gender equality, and learners with disabilities—are all key programming areas for the Peace Corps.

“This important collaboration helps USAID meet its education goals while helping support Peace Corps and its local partners to reach greater numbers of learners both in and out of school,” says Richard Whelden, director of USAID’s Education Office and a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in Chad from 1974 to 1978. “We also recognize that today’s volunteers are increasingly connected and bring valuable knowledge and other tech-savvy skills and expertise to the communities where they are serving.”

Over 200,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers since 1961, working in 139 counties to promote world peace and friendship. Currently, there are 8,655 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 76 countries worldwide. Approximately 40 percent of all volunteers today are assigned in either education or youth sectors, and over 60 percent of all volunteers report working with youth in their primary assignments.

New Teaching Methods and Resources Transform Indonesian School

The facilities were impeccable, the students were learning from enthusiastic teachers, and the school had the strong support of parents and its surrounding community.  This is not a school in the United States, but rather the school I’m describing is the Sedati Gede 2 primary school, located in Sidoarjo district in the Indonesian province of East Java, where the Indonesian government has partnered with USAID.  The school has 30 teachers and serves 746 students between the ages of 6 and 12.

Children interact with Assistant Administrator Biswal in a classroom at Sedati Gede 2 primary school. (Photo: USAID)

As part of its Decentralized Basic Education Program, USAID has partnered with the Indonesian government to help improve the school facilities, strengthen school management and accountability (for example, by bolstering parent committees), and enhance the teaching/learning process—all of which contribute to improved student learning.

Education has become a priority in the partnership between the U.S. and Indonesia governments.  USAID’s Decentralized Basic Education Program began in 2005, and since that time has benefitted approximately 1,500 schools, 57,400 educators, and 480,000 students.  Tools and approaches have been replicated by local government and donor agencies, greatly expanding the impact we have had with this program.  By the end of 2011, there will be 26,170 schools replicating best practices from the program.

My first stop on this visit was the kindergarten facility.  Principal Nur Abda’u and local education officials greeted me and led me to a cheerfully decorated classroom, where a USAID-supported Interactive Audio Instruction lesson was in progress. As part of their lesson, the children were excitedly playing an interactive game with a ball.  I remarked to the principal that this is just the kind of nurturing, stimulating school that I would love to send my own children to.

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Picture of the Week

As universal access to primary education takes shape in South Sudan, families are eager to send their children to school as long as qualified teachers are present. School girls in Nagagwu, Western Equatoria State of South Sudan on September 8, 2011. Photo Credit: Ezra Simon/USAID

Empowering Women in Iraq through Literacy Program

To commemorate International Literacy Day, USAID/Iraq, through its Community Action Program,  handed out 1,200 certificates to the graduates of women literacy program called “Women’s Awareness and Inclusion Program (WAI)”.

USAID’s Women’s Awareness and Inclusion (WAI) program, implemented across the southern provinces of Basra, Dhi Qar, Muthanna and Mayson, empowers women through literacy and social inclusion programs. With over 23,000 participants since 2005, USAID supports women in shaping Iraq’s future by providing one-year basic literacy and numeracy trainings which are supplemented with educational modules on cultural and social awareness topics, such as democracy and governance, human and women’s rights, needs identification and prioritization – vital tools for women, as they work to become powerful advocates and leaders in their communities.

Elderly student takes her final literacy exam to qualify for graduation. Photo Credit: Mercy Corps

Many women in Iraq are unable to independently read and complete forms, do basic arithmetic and money management, help their children with schoolwork, and participate meaningfully in basic household and community decision-making.  The official government statistics say that 29.2% of Iraqi women living in rural areas, between the ages of 15-49, have never received any basic education and are unable to read and write.  This statistic does not reflect the number of women and girls who were unable to attend school in the last six years due to violence and insecurity in their communities, or those who received some schooling, but dropped out due to cultural, economic or security restraints.

As a result of their lack of education, Iraqi women struggle to engage meaningfully with their communities, advocate for their needs and those of their families, obtain employment, utilize public services and participate in the governance process. Their voices are often lost in elections,  and in conversations about social and political issues and they are practically excluded from helping to shape today’s Iraq. In order to truly engage in community and in national decision-making, Iraqi women need the knowledge and skills learned through basic education.

To begin responding to this need, USAID, together with its implementing partner Mercy Corps, piloted its Women’s Awareness and Inclusion Program (WAI) in Maysan governorate of south Iraq in 2005, as part of its Community Action Program (CAP). Beginning as a “Literacy Campaign for Women”, the small program was met by increasing demand from women and community leaders and continued to expand in response to this overwhelming level of interest.

Today, over 10,000 women and teenage girls are enrolled in the program through 226 WAI centers across the southern governorates of Basra, Maysan, Muthanna and Thi Qar. The WAI program provides women with the basic literacy and numeracy skills they need to become involved in their communities and engaged in the governance process. Community support for the program has been strong, and provincial-level Departments of Education have contributed to the initiative through the donation of school facilities, textbooks and supplies.

In addition to empowering beneficiary women, this program provides an opportunity to work with and build the capacity of women-led and women-focused NGOs in South Iraq, helping them to provide quality services to women.

Benefits cited by participants include the ability to read and write without assistance, negotiate better prices in the markets and assist their children with schoolwork. Participants also reported higher levels of self-confidence and independence as well as an increased ability to participate in household decision-making. This information has been obtained through beneficiary interviews, small-scale surveys and periodic focus group discussions with participating women.

50 Years of Achieving Real Results in Childhood Literacy

For the past 50 years, USAID and a growing number of partners have been working to improve the quality of education in developing countries with an emphasis on boosting child literacy.  In February of 2011, USAID launched its evidence-based education strategy – shifting the focus of global education toward achieving real results in childhood literacy, higher education and equitable access to schooling for children in conflict and crisis environments.

From the USAID photo archives, the following image shows Salvadoran children playing in the schoolyard of a newly constructed school in 1969.  In close coordination with the Office of Planning and School Construction, USAID financed the construction of hundreds of schools in El Salvador during the 1960s.

In the second image, taken this year, Markoli confidently grips her notebook as other students gather behind her outside of a schoolhouse in Geia village.  While the school provides primary education up to grade level 3, the age range of students varies greatly as this is the first school for the Bodi people of Geia in the remote area of South Omo, in southern Ethiopia. This school was built by the local community with funding from the USAID Teach program.  The villagers provided the labor, and USAID funding provided the materials and funding for a teacher.

Putting Pupils on the Path to Education

On September 1st, I participated in the opening ceremony of the new school year in Kalys-Ordo School # 86, located in a new settlement close to Bishkek in the Kyrgyz Republic. USAID has supported early learning activities in this community, to help more than 1,350 school-aged children participate in a 100-hour state-operated training course. The course prepares the children for school, and introduces the children to learning and a classroom environment. USAID also helps families with school registration, which can be such a hurdle that it actually prevents some kids from starting school.  Seeing the pupils on their first day of school, excited and nervous at the same time, made me feel proud that the United States is investing in the future of this country through its children.

USAID supports early learning activities in Kyrgyzstan, which prepares children by familiarizing them to learning and the classroom environment. Photo Credit: USAID

Youth represent the future in every country, and that is certainly true in Kyrgyzstan, a nation in the midst of dynamic change in Central Asia. Among USAID’s programs in the Kyrgyz Republic, we are investing in strong schools, healthy students, and modern education systems across the Kyrgyz Republic.

USAID Kyrgyzstan has been working on different educational projects in the Kyrgyz Republic since the country gained independence 20 years ago. Since then, with USAID assistance, students in Kyrgyzstan are able to have equal and transparent access to higher education and government scholarships. USAID has supported National Testing since 2002, a standardized exam that is used to award scholarships and is completely merit based. More than 240,000 students have taken the test and more than 44,000 scholarships have been awarded through 92 test centers across Kyrgyzstan. It is widely accepted that this national testing system has reduced corruption in the admission process to universities and has increased the overall quality of the students. USAID also supports access to quality higher education through a program that guarantees student loans in partnership with private financial institutions.

I am delighted and honored to work in an American program which engages both the government and society in Kyrgyzstan, to help bring about quality education for children and young people in this beautiful country.

NASA Congratulates USAID on Education Strategy with Video from Space for International Literacy Day

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