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The Urgency of Education in South Sudan

Young boys sit with their rifles at a Feb. 10 ceremony of the child soldiers disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Pibor overseen by UNICEF and partners. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

Young boys sit with their rifles at a Feb. 10 ceremony of the child soldiers disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Pibor overseen by UNICEF and partners. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

While South Sudan’s warring parties have failed to make necessary compromises for peace after nearly 15 months of conflict, the people of South Sudan continue to suffer, including millions of children.

In addition to the many hardships South Sudan’s children are facing since civil war erupted in December 2013, the re-emergence of forced recruitment of child soldiers threatens to rob another generation of their potential after decades of war and lost opportunities.

UNICEF’s announcement that dozens of South Sudanese boys—some as young as 13—were abducted by an armed group while taking school exams sparked outrage. Hundreds may have been forcibly recruited as soldiers, constituting one of the gravest examples of the tragic toll this man-made crisis has had on civilians.

The children in Pibor, Jonglei State, surrendered their weapons and uniforms in a Feb. 10 ceremony overseen by the South Sudan National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, and the Cobra Faction and supported by UNICEF. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

The children in Pibor, Jonglei State, surrendered their weapons and uniforms in a Feb. 10 ceremony overseen by the South Sudan National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, and the Cobra Faction and supported by UNICEF. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

Recruitment of child soldiers is a tragic legacy of conflict that has gripped South Sudan since before Sudan’s independence in 1956. As of 2009, only 27 percent of the population and 16 percent of girls and women ages 15 and older were literate—despite the aspirations South Sudanese have long expressed for education and opportunities for youth

When I visited South Sudan in January, citizens pointed to education as a critical investment in the country’s future, even in the midst of violence. A 2013 public opinion poll found 68 percent of those surveyed across South Sudan weren’t satisfied with their government’s performance in providing education.

Yet the South Sudanese people’s hopes for greater investment in and protection of their children’s education are undermined by poor investments and continuing crises.  Thirty-five percent of teachers in South Sudan have only a primary level of education. And while South Sudan’s Ministry of Education recently reopened five teacher training institutes, officially 42 percent of the national budget goes to military and security sector costs.

An unidentified South Sudan armed group has abducted at least 89 boys, some as young as 13, from their homes in the north of the country, a UNICEF statement said on Feb. 21. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

An unidentified South Sudan armed group has abducted at least 89 boys, some as young as 13, from their homes in the north of the country, a UNICEF statement said on Feb. 21. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

USAID began building schools in southern Sudan in the late 1950s, not long after Sudan’s independence. Our support for education services in South Sudan started in 2002—despite the ongoing 1983-2005 civil war. This early efforthelped make learning possible in southern Sudan after two decades of war and displacement. Since then, USAID has supported more than a dozen substantial education projects in an independent South Sudan. Our current support includes six multi-year education projects with a total budget of more than $165 million.

Our assistance has included building or rehabilitating 140 primary schools and four secondary schools; awarding more than 9,000 scholarships to girls and disadvantaged boys; and providing radio literacy programs that have reached more than half a million children and older students who had missed out on formal schooling. We’ve helped train teachers and created policies regarding long-term education planning and delivery. Our determined commitment to support the South Sudanese in providing education has resulted in major progress: school enrollment more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2010, from 300,000 pupils to more than 1.4 million.

Despite these efforts and measurable progress, less than half of school-aged children in South Sudan were enrolled in school before the conflict erupted in December 2013. Since then, more than 2 million South Sudanese have been displaced by conflict, and some 400,000 students have dropped out of school. An estimated 70 percent of schools in the most conflict-affected states (Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity) were closed as of November 2014, and some 89 schools are currently occupied by fighting forces or internally displaced persons.

Given these developments, we refocused our educational activities to assist people wherever they are—educating children who have been displaced  as well as communities receiving large numbers of displaced children, establishing community schools in remote areas lacking educational access, increasing school security and safety and helping children who live in cattle camps overseeing their family livestock become literate in their mother tongue.

South Sudan will not be able to reach its potential until the country’s leaders end the conflict and commit to ensuring that their nation’s children have the opportunity to learn, protected from this senseless violence.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Linda Etim is deputy assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Africa

A Thank You to our Partners in Literacy

Students using tablets during a lesson at a classroom in the Ban San Kong school of Mae Chan, a town located in Thailand's northern province of Chiang Rai. / AFP, Christophe Archambault

Students using tablets during a lesson at a classroom in the Ban San Kong school of Mae Chan, a town located in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Rai. / AFP, Christophe Archambault

We partner because we recognize that none of us can reach our goals alone. But, building and maintaining partnerships requires hard work. Partnerships require focusing on common goals while allowing give and take, different strengths and weaknesses, and attention to equity and fairness, especially in contractual partnerships like marriage or a business.

I know because I’ve been married for 41 years and my husband engaged in a law practice with my father and brother for over three decades. In my personal and professional life in education, I’ve had the opportunity to work collaboratively with talented, strong-minded family and colleagues. Such partnerships are simultaneously challenging and stimulating.

At USAID we work in partnership with host country governments, as well as non-governmental and civil society organizations who implement many of our education development programs on the ground. As a bilateral donor we enter into partnership agreements with other donors, and contribute to the Global Partnership for Education, a growing multilateral donor organization. More and more, through our Agency’s ambitious reform agenda, USAID Forward, we create innovative partnerships with the private sector and work in tandem with governments and ministries to identify barriers to education and to remove them. We work across cultures, languages, and communicate through time zones.

We also partner with advocacy groups, civil society and with universities whose students and faculties share our passion for making the world a safer, more prosperous place. Through the Let Girls Learn campaign, we even partnered with Hollywood celebrities to send out a common message that young girls everywhere have the right to an education and a safe learning environment. Let Girls Learn has a ripple effect. The more people who learn about our work, the more partners we have to get it done.

As education partners, we have common goals driven by the Education for All movement and the Millennium Development Goals. As a sector, we are ready to re-commit to ambitious global goals, along with goals specific to our organizations. We all want more children in schools–particularly girls—and want quality learning to happen once a child gets there.

A Pakistani school girl attends class in Mingora, a town in Swat valley, on October 9, 2013, the first anniversary of the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban. /AFP, A. Majeed

A Pakistani school girl attends class in Mingora, a town in Swat valley, on Oct. 9, 2013, the first anniversary of the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban. / AFP, A. Majeed

We all want children to stay in school and agree that it’s important to provide opportunity for meaningful employment that will build prosperity and security around the world. Some of us may focus on early childhood or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), some may invest in technology or higher education, but in the end we all want the next generation to fare better than this generation and those that came before us.

We divvy up responsibilities. We maintain mutual respect for people of all nationalities, religions, races, ages and gender identities. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we revise. Together we keep trying to make each program a little better.

International Literacy Day highlights the work the world community is doing to give the next generation a chance at opportunity through education. Those of us at USAID within the Office of Education would like to take time on this day to thank the people within our partner organizations who help us to do our jobs better to improve opportunities for children.

I, for instance need to thank Ed Gragert and the folks at the Global Coalition for Education for helping introduce me to contacts at the colleges and universities I visited in April. I need to thank my husband, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for agreeing to partner with USAID on aligning school feeding programs in countries where USDA and USAID work. I thank Maureen McLaughlin from the Department of Education who helped coordinate a trip for Secretary Duncan to travel to Haiti to visit our reading programs and announce additional resources. I thank April Mora from the Basic Education Coalition who worked with me to create messages that the education sector can use to educate Main Street audiences. I thank former Prime Minister Gordon and Sarah Brown for bringing Malala Yousafzai to the United Nations a year ago to inspire the global education community.

If you receive thanks on this International Literacy Day from an education officer overseas or a program director here at the Ronald Reagan Building in D.C., please know that it is heartfelt and personal. Thank you for all that you do!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for International Education. Follow her @ChristieVilsack

In Zambia, a Refuge to Learn

If you want to see a community at work, check out the Lubuto Library on a Saturday morning in Lusaka, Zambia. Architect Eleni Coromvli has created traditional thatched structures to form the library garden compound. She explains that a Zambian home is not just one building but several with a covered outdoor space for family and friends to socialize.

The U.S. public libraries that I know, refer to clusters of computers as “the campfires of the 21st Century”, or the new places to tell our stories. In the Lubuto Library sturdy laptops line the circular walls. The children working there are often recruited off the streets by Kenny Hau, who was once a street child himself.

As outreach coordinator, he listens to the stories of traumatized children, counsels them and connects them to additional services as needed. The library stands next to a neighborhood school, so it’s difficult to tell whether the children working at the computers are homeless, out-of-school orphans or are children who attend school daily but hunger for more books and access to technology and the arts.

The Lubuto Library Project, a USAID All Children Reading Grand Challenge winner, is pioneering a program creating high-quality mother-tongue materials to teach children to read using an accessible, low-cost digital platform.  Here, a young boy tries out the program on a laptop. / Robert Kent, USAID

The Lubuto Library Project, a USAID All Children Reading Grand Challenge winner, is pioneering a program creating high-quality mother-tongue materials to teach children to read using an accessible, low-cost digital platform. Here, a young boy tries out the program on a laptop. / Robert Kent, USAID

On the Saturday morning I visited the library, a professional artist offered some pointers to older children bent over detailed pencil sketches. Two older boys explain to guests how they created the graphics to illustrate 100 lessons designed by librarians and teachers that are aligned with the national reading curriculum.

These reading lessons help those who know the basics practice; and help those who don’t start the process of learning to read. With help from a $300,000 USAID All Children Reading Grand Challenge  grant, the Lubuto Library has worked with experts like Dr. Joseph Mwansa from the University of Zambia to align these lessons with the new Zambian reading curriculum, entitled the Primary Literacy Program. Let’s Read, Zambia is the national media awareness and community outreach program in support of the new reading curriculum for Zambia.

In the main reading room, children sit elbow to elbow listening as two volunteers read aloud, “That’s Not My Hat” and “The Giving Tree.” I tried my hand at a participatory story that I’ve been telling since I was the same age as these volunteers and a volunteer myself at Saturday morning story hours in small town Iowa. In the picture you can see us ‘searching’ for elephants. The children slapped their legs and swished their hands as we went looking for an elephant to capture on film with our imaginary cameras.

At the Lubuto Library in Zambia, a boy works on an illustration for a lesson designed by librarians and teachers as a part of the country’s Primary Reading Program. / Robert Kent, USAID

At the Lubuto Library in Zambia, a boy works on an illustration for a lesson designed by librarians and teachers as a part of the country’s Primary Reading Program. / Robert Kent, USAID

Thomas Mukonde, the Library Services Advisor, took me on a tour of the stacks. He’s going to school to get his degree in library science. There are easy reading books in local languages like Bemba and Tonga as well as biographies of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela. When they were told about the original texts of Zambian books in U.S. libraries, they arranged to download them into the Lubuto database so anyone can see and read them. They plan to connect to the Internet with the help of some private partners.

Outside the Library the children presented a play about a grandfather who tricks his grandchildren into digging his garden.The actors turned into tomato plants, then became the hawkers at the local market selling the tomatoes. A crowd of more than 50 children gathered to watch.

The director of the play is a local high school student and volunteer at the library. This is Lusaka’s second Lubuto Library. A third is operating in the south and they are looking for space in the northern province as well.  No matter what country, a free library is the soul of a community. It protects the past, preserves the present and assures the future. In order to teach a million Zambian children to read better, they need to practice. Lubuto gives them a place to do just that.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for International Education

A Tale of Two Teachers

It took about two minutes to realize that I was in the presence of a good teacher. To keep their attention, she asked the children questions about the story she was reading, pointing out details of the illustrations. She spoke the local language Tonga, so I couldn’t understand her, but her face was alight, animated, engaging. These Zambian second graders hardly noticed the Americans standing in their Mwandi Community School classroom.

Children vied for the chance to practice the lower case “c” at the chalkboard. Then she asked them to make it backwards and eventually combined them to make the letter “s.” The lesson was part science, part art. Lavis Nzabula, young and inexperienced, is a volunteer teacher in this rural community school. In villages too far from public schools for their children to walk, parents in rural Zambia took action about 15 years ago and started their own schools. Now there are about 4,000 of them.

A volunteer teacher helps her second-grade students to practice letters in a community school in rural Zambia. Because long walks often limit a student’s ability to go to school there are now over 4,000 community schools in Zambia. /  Robert Kent, USAID

A volunteer teacher helps her second-grade students to practice letters in a community school in rural Zambia. Because long walks often limit a student’s ability to go to school there are now over 4,000 community schools in Zambia. / Robert Kent, USAID

Mwandi was launched under a tree, but with donor support it now has rudimentary classrooms. Community school teachers usually have about six years of primary school education. If they’re lucky, the local parent group can afford to give them a hut, but more likely they’re paid with a bag or two of maize meal each month. In contrast, public school teachers in Zambia make a modest $300-$400 a month.

Since 2010 when USAID committed to getting 100 million more children reading and learning — 1 million in Zambia — we’ve helped the Zambian Ministry of Education provide the community volunteer teachers with in-service training in the 5-step process of teaching reading. In some cases the community schools are out-performing the public schools.

Wick Powers, USAID Zambia’s Education Officer, attributes this to “motivation, attitude, time-on-task and more effective pedagogical approaches to teaching reading through a child-centered learning environment as opposed to teacher ‘chalk and talk’ lecturing.”

When finances allow, the ministry has started to send trained head teachers — about 800 last year — to community schools to provide support and build capacity among the local teacher corps.

Private partners are sponsoring boxes of supplemental reading materials for children to check out and take home just like they do for the public schools. Education officials increasingly listen to the PTA’s who manage the community schools and monitor the teachers. Many community schools in Zambia upgrade their operational standards to meet the established criteria to convert or be mainstreamed as public schools in order to receive ministry-trained teachers, funding, and other benefits.

In some cases, the communities don’t want that. The volunteer teachers are friends and neighbors, young people who have potential but no access to further education. They have a vested interest in teaching the village kids to read. With the help of weekend trainings, watching experienced teachers via cell phone videos, and coaching by head teachers, these novice teachers are improving. Some of them will earn the credentials that will qualify them for salaried positions.

In Twabuka, another nearby school, a young man, Akapelwa Muimui, is doing his best to teach the children gathered around him how to read in the local language of Tonga even though he is a native Bemba speaker. The two languages aren’t that different, and he’s doing a credible job according to the experts who are with me. The closer I move to his chair at the front of the room, the easier it is to see his hands shaking, but the children don’t notice. A visit to such schools from foreigners is rare, enervating, and perhaps even exhilarating for both teachers and children alike. Later when I ask a few of them to read words from their notebooks, they sound them out phonetically just as their teacher has taught them.

A teacher in Zambia reads and engages students with critical thinking questions as he goes through the story. With the help of weekend trainings, watching experienced teachers via cell phone videos, and coaching by head teachers, novice teachers are improving their methods and ensuring their students are learning.  / Robert Kent, USAID

A teacher in Zambia reads and engages students with critical thinking questions as he goes through the story. With the help of weekend trainings, watching experienced teachers via cell phone videos, and coaching by head teachers, novice teachers are improving their methods and ensuring their students are learning. / Robert Kent, USAID

The intense teacher training and curriculum changes (Zambia rolled out an entirely new national curriculum in 2014) were largely triggered by simple comprehensive tests that USAID has helped develop and administer in countries around the world. The Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) has shown that children in grades 1-3 have not been learning to read. The evidence has forced government officials in many countries, including Zambia (which has some of the lowest scores in Africa) to take a hard look at the curriculum, the materials, training for principals and teachers, and their management and assessment systems.

The Zambian Government made a significant commitment to substantial changes that include switching to teaching reading in the seven local languages that children are born to and grow up hearing in their neighborhoods. The change has caused some controversy and a healthy public debate, but the evidence shows that children learn to read best in their first language. Once they master the process of reading, it’s easier to learn other languages including English. The government is investing in a USAID-supported public outreach campaign, Let’s Read Zambia, to educate parents and communities about the new reading curriculum, and they’re gaining the support of many parents who can more easily help their children practice reading at home or monitor their progress by checking homework on a daily basis.

As a veteran teacher myself, it’s encouraging to see the investment in teacher education — helping experienced teachers understand the need to change their tactics and helping teachers with no formal education to understand the step-by-step process of learning to read so children can eventually read to learn.

It may take a few years for the exam scores to reflect the changes and the commitment of the Zambian people and their government to their children, but the informal evaluations that teachers are taught to deliver along the way are proof enough for now that children are learning.Their parents recognize it too, and parent workshops are teaching them to take a more active role. As a parent said to me, “I used to get angry when the teacher sent homework and expected me to help. I thought she wanted me to do her job. Now I know I’m also my child’s teacher.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for International Education

Martha Learns to Read

Martha, a first grader at Makombe Primary School in Malawi, takes the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) to test her ability to read. / Christie Vilsack/USAID

Martha, a first grader at Makombe Primary School in Malawi, takes the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) to test her ability to read. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

“How will Martha’s life be different because she’s learning to read?” I asked Dr. Mike Nkhoma, a Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Specialist in Malawi, as we were leaving the Mikombe Primary school. I had just watched this tiny first grade girl in a pink sweater struggle with the sounds that letters make in Chichewa, her national language.

Mikombe Primary is now funded by Malawi’s Early Grade Reading Activity, a government-backed program supported by USAID to improve reading for over a million Malawian children in 11 districts. This is an important commitment for a country that is the 17th poorest country on earth.

During my visit, I saw thousands of Malawian children in crowded classrooms and under trees. It’s not easy keeping hundreds of children focused and learning while they sit on the dirt or on cement shaping their letters with fingers in the air or with a nub of chalk on the floor. But their teachers have been energized by recent training in techniques for teaching reading and classroom management. As a veteran teacher myself, I was impressed with the results of teacher training that the program provides during vacation time and on weekends.

Part of the training involves coaching from Primary Education Advisors who observe classes and make concrete recommendations. The advisors might suggest a song to transition between lessons or instruct the teacher in more clearly pronouncing letter sounds unfamiliar to them. Teachers also learn to use impromptu day-to-day assessments that give them real-time feedback on what’s working. Reading instruction is closely tied to the Early Grade Reading Assessment, a test developed by USAID and used in the field globally to provide data to local ministries about learning outcomes.

A second-grade girl at Mphanje School in Malawi demonstrates skills learned through USAID’s Early Grade Reading Activity by reading aloud from her school textbook. / Oris Chimenya/USAID

A second-grade girl at Mphanje School in Malawi demonstrates skills learned through USAID’s Early Grade Reading Activity by reading aloud from her school textbook. / Oris Chimenya, USAID

So the U.S. is making an investment in Malawi–almost $100 million dollars over five years. But how is this going to change day-to-day life for a girl like Martha?

I asked Dr. Nkhoma about this. If Martha learns to read, he explained, she will be a more informed adult. If she goes into farming, which is likely because her village is surrounded by small corn fields, she will be able to learn about better agricultural practices. “If she can’t read, she’ll stick to the old ways of doing things,” says Dr. Nkhoma.

As a farmer, Martha might need credit, inputs, and price information—things that many smallholder farmers need but are unable to access.  Women constitute 70 percent of the agricultural labor force and produce 80 percent of household food but they have poorer access to extension services than men.  Reading is the first step in narrowing this gap and preparing girls for productive farming careers.

Martha will probably be a mother someday. Malawi’s population is growing more rapidly than most other developing nations, and 47 percent of children under 5 are stunted. We know that women who know how to read choose to space their children, have fewer of them, and are better able to understand nutritional needs. The result: children of literate women have a better chance of living past five years old.

Martha is one person. But as Dr. Nkhoma explains, “this one person sets an example for her daughters and her neighbors.

My father was the only person who had schooling in my whole community. He insisted that we had to go to school even if our friends weren’t going…When all the daughters in other families were getting married people laughed at my father for sending my sisters to school. My sisters ignored what people were saying…In the end the outcome of school was a better living. Parents whose children went to school are getting support from their children. The others saw this and said to my father, ‘I think you were doing the right thing.’ Then they wanted to send their children and grandchildren to school. It spreads out from one person and changes the community.”

When Dr. Nkhoma’s sisters were Martha’s age, they were the exception. At Martha’s school today, there are as many girls as boys attending through 4th grade. It’s our collective challenge to teach them to read and to keep them in school as long as possible. An investment in early grade reading means there’s hope for Martha and hope for Malawi.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for International Education

On the Road to Innovation in the West Bank

Recently I spent two action-packed days visiting the West Bank where I saw the tremendous impact that the USAID West Bank and Gaza Mission’s work has in many sectors and witnessed several innovative projects.

Students at the Al Haffasi Coeducational Elementary School in Kafr Al Labad. USAID recently renovated the school adding three floors and six new classrooms.

Students at the Al Haffasi Coeducational Elementary School in Kafr Al Labad.
USAID recently renovated the school adding three floors and six new classrooms.

The work we are doing in the education sector and with youth is among the most exciting. USAID is currently partnering with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education on a national reading campaign to raise the public’s awareness of the importance of reading and to encourage everyone to read. I told students at the Al Haffasi coeducational elementary school in Kafr Al Labad, in the Tulkarem Governorate what a gift reading is. The slogan for our campaign “Today’s Readers Tomorrow’s Leaders,” rings true and I encouraged all of the students to grab a book and spend time reading, dreaming and learning. At the school we distributed dozens of books to the students, including popular works of American fiction and non-fiction like “Colors in the Desert” and “Mystery at the Museum” translated into Arabic that I am certain the students will enjoy.

A Palestinian entrepreneur taking part in a mini-MBA program offered by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Tel Aviv University’s Recanati School of Management with support from USAID.

A Palestinian entrepreneur taking part in a mini-MBA program offered by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Tel Aviv University’s Recanati School of Management with support from USAID.

The ingenuity and creativity of young Palestinian entrepreneurs I met was very impressive. While these youth face many challenges, ranging from finding jobs to starting businesses, I am certain that they will find and seize opportunities for success. I told them about a USAID initiative that will provide support to early stage businesses to create and sustain jobs, encourage increased equity investment in early stage businesses, and advance and develop the investment environment. The young entrepreneurs I met specialize in fields ranging from software to agribusiness to energy, and so many things in between. They were passionate about their ideas and I am certain that they will help lead the Palestinian economy forward.

During my two-day stay, the USAID West Bank and Gaza Mission reached 100,000 likes on Facebook, an impressive milestone and a testament to the open channel of communication that the Mission has cultivated with its fans, most of whom are based in the West Bank and Gaza.  Check out the site – USAID West Bank/Gaza.  The Mission posts fantastic photos of its highly important activities and loves to hear from its fans.

While in the West Bank I also visited an innovative pilot project where wastewater is treated and then reused to irrigate crops. This initiative is extremely resourceful and I look forward to seeing the data on crop yields and freshwater resources saved. I hope that the success of this pilot program can be emulated at other locations in the West Bank. I also got a glimpse of the challenges that the mission faces, particularly with environmental issues. Visiting a polluted stream, a tannery, and a landfill, I saw the complexities of the proper disposal of waste and sewage.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Romanowski briefed at Beit Fajjar in the West Bank on environmental issues and proper disposal of waste and sewage.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Romanowski briefed at Beit Fajjar in the West Bank
on environmental issues and proper disposal of waste and sewage.

I was pleased to see that the mission’s implementation of the High Impact Micro Infrastructure Initiative, a $100 million initiative announced by Secretary of State John Kerry in November 2013, is advancing according to schedule, with more than 40 infrastructure activities underway, and more scheduled to begin in the near future. These infrastructure projects are coordinated with the Palestinian Authority and municipal authorities to support Palestinian national priorities and include construction or renovation of health clinics, road repairs, construction of community centers and school, and other similar projects.  This initiative aims to provide Palestinians with quick, tangible infrastructure improvements in dozens of communities throughout the West Bank.

The range of people and projects that I saw over the course of two days was impressive.  While the challenges that numerous people and communities face are serious, their innovation and ingenuity are incredible and inspiring.

250 Million Children In The World Cannot Read And USAID Is Doing Something About It

Two hundred and fifty million children in the world cannot read according to the recently released Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All; 130 million of them are in primary school. That’s equal to more than a third of the population of the United States. If these children do not learn to read they will have fewer opportunities and struggle with learning for the rest of their lives. Learning to read in the early grades is critical and hard work. It is not a skill that can be “picked up.” With the help of teachers trained specifically to teach reading, children learn to read over time by practicing and honing their skills. Strong readers perform better in all subjects, so children who learn to read in the early grades have a better chance of graduating from high school and getting a job or pursuing a college education.

At the State of the Union the other night, I was sitting in the gallery listening to President Obama say, “One of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is a world class education.” I was on my feet applauding. His words ring true here at home and in developing countries around the world.

In Malawi, USAID partners developed a phonics-based reading program in the Chichewa language

In Malawi, USAID partners developed a phonics-based reading program in the Chichewa language.

I’m visiting Zambia and Malawi over the next two weeks where USAID is working hard with our partners to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies by investing in new, results-based reading programs that start with building capacity in the existing teacher corps and in training new teachers in the best practices of teaching reading.

In Malawi, USAID partners developed a phonics-based reading program in the Chichewa language, and provided Chichewa readers to students and accompanying scripted lesson plans to their teachers. Teachers received training on the use of the materials and extensive on-site coaching to help them use them every day in their classrooms. In 2012, after two years of the implementation of this program, the proportion of 2nd graders who could read at least one word in Chichewa had risen from 5.3 to 16.8 percent. The program is now in the process of being scaled up to all districts in the nation of Malawi.

Malawi and Zambia aren’t the only countries where we’re making an impact. In Kenya, USAID is sponsoring an initiative to improve reading outcomes in Kiswahili and English in 500 primary schools. The program has introduced innovative teaching methods, new, phonics-based reading materials for mother tongue instruction, and professional development to build the skills of educators and improve student literacy outcomes. In a recent study we found that children enrolled in schools using the USAID-funded program were up to 27 times more likely to read than students in schools outside the program. This program, too, is in the process of being scaled up to reach more schools in the future so that more children in Kenya will have access to a high quality education.

Children in class in Kenya. Credit: Derek Brown

Children in class in Kenya / Derek Brown

In the Philippines, USAID is supporting a program known as the Improved Collection and Use of Student Reading Performance Data. Each time a teacher participating in the program conducts a reading test (in either Tagalog or English), he/she submits the test results via SMS to a Department-of-Education administered database. Teacher supervisors from the department then use this information to provide timely feedback to the teachers on their reading instruction, based on the student results. This USAID program is heightening transparency about student outcomes and tightening the feedback between teachers and their coaches, leading to an increased likelihood that teachers will identify and assist children who are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading.

Through these programs children are learning to read and will have better lives thanks to the support of the American people, and USAID will continue to do more to get all children reading and access to quality education.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for International Education

In Morocco, Perseverance and Good Luck Ensure Three Young Boys a Quality Education

By Dr. Helen Boyle, Associate Professor in Educational Leadership and Policy at Florida State University

In early December education leaders, donors and partners met to discuss and plan for the future of early grade education in the Middle East and North Africa at the All Children Learning Workshop in Rabat, Morocco.

Youssef, Moustafa and Redouan were lucky boys.  In the late 1970s, school was not a given for all children in Chefchaouen, Morocco. Their five older siblings never attended school. The advocacy of their mother and older siblings ensured that these younger boys would get a formal education. It was a privilege to go to school in this world, not a right, and they had to do very well indeed to maintain that privilege.

Every evening, when they came back from the kuttab (Quranic school) and later from elementary school, they would all sit down with their older sisters and review everything they did at school. They would review all the letters—the sounds, the letter shape and the letter name—with their sisters. They reviewed and read the verses of the Qur’an that they learned that day and would take their booklets and read aloud anything they wrote down.

Youssef reflected, “I remember we spent countless hours doing that. For example, we would open the book and look at the letters that we wrote that day and say ‘lam, l + a = la, l + o = lo,’ or, we would explain the vowel markings to them—‘the line on top of the letter makes an “a” sound and the one below makes an “e” sound and the one above with the curl makes a “u” sound.’ “  In turn and as the boys grew older, the girls would quiz them, asking them questions after they read a passage aloud.  Redouan said, “The thought was that they were doing this to help us succeed, but we were also teaching them indirectly.” Indeed, the sisters are literate and “read better than some who have been to school,” said Moustafa.

This story is inspiring for many reasons as it demonstrates family love and loyalty and the power of perseverance.  However, one of its most critical messages is less obvious and needs to be brought to light. These were indeed lucky boys as they had a teacher in primary school, Umm Kalthoum, who knew how to teach reading.  It is almost certain, in those days, that she received minimal training, but she understood the importance of teaching reading skills.  Under her guidance, the boys—and their sisters—developed phonological awareness, knew the name of each letter, understood that each letter made a sound; understood what the vowel markings (diacritics) were for and did segmenting and blending activities in class and at home. They developed vocabulary in Modern Standard Arabic and then listening and eventually reading comprehension skills in a language which was in many ways different from the dialect they spoke in their home and in everyday life.

Thanks to Umm Kalthoum, with whom they all studied in the early grades, these boys learned the foundational skills of reading and were able to pass them on to their sisters; these boys all went on to professional careers and great success.

USAID is working with Morocco’s Ministry of Education to leave behind a teacher training program that will support the continuous professional development of teachers.

USAID is working with Morocco’s Ministry of Education to leave behind a teacher training program that will support the continuous professional development of teachers.

Today, despite higher rates of school enrollment than ever, many Moroccan children are not as lucky as these three boys were over 30 years ago. Educational quality has not kept pace with the growing number of children seeking an education in Morocco. Indeed, Morocco’s PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and EGRA (Early Grade Reading Assessment) scores indicate that there is significant room to improve reading instruction and reading levels in Morocco.

In early December USAID co-funded a workshop in Rabat, Morocco to mobilize education leaders and advocates to improve early grade learning in the Middle East and North Africa. Other donors included the Global Partnership for Education, German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), the Islamic Development Bank, and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Country teams, including representatives from Ministries of Education, civil society and local donor organizations, gathered to discuss innovative solutions to give all children a chance to learn. At the All Children Reading workshop, delegations created action plans that will provide clear and concise goals for initiating or scaling up existing early grade learning programs at the country level. Opportunities were provided for country teams to network and to build mechanisms for support and accountability to push planning into practice. Global literacy leaders’ and advocates’ discussions during this workshop focused on key thematic areas in early grade learning, including large scale learning assessments, teacher training and supervision, curriculum and lesson plans, assessment tools  and impact evaluations, and reading materials.

On the PIRLS test, a score of 500 corresponds to the mean of the overall reading achievement distribution across the 45 countries. Morocco scored a 310, which was the lowest score of the 45 countries that took the PIRLS in 2011.Indeed, in 2011, all of the Arabic-speaking countries that took the test were below the 500 average with scores ranging from 439 to 310 for 4th graders (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Drucker 2012). This points to an issue with how reading is taught in a rich and complex language like Arabic, a language with many spoken variations, not just in Morocco but across Arabic-speaking countries.

Good teaching focused on the foundational skills of reading can make an enormous difference, as we see in the example of the three boys and their sisters. Supporting teachers to develop skills and strategies to teach reading will ensure that the success that these children experienced in learning to read can be replicated in every early-grade classroom in Morocco.

Building the Foundation for a Two-State Solution

Last month I visited USAID’s West Bank and Gaza Mission and witnessed how our diverse programs bring tangible benefits to the lives of Palestinians. I came away from another whirlwind visit certain that USAID’s work helps build the foundation for peace.

The Palestinian hi-tech industry, for example, now consists of more than 250 mostly small-sized companies, where few existed only a couple of years ago. USAID helped spur this growth by holding competitions, seeking prototype solutions, and awarding subcontracts to help innovative entrepreneurs develop their startups and products. The “Hi-Tech Hub” event I attended in Ramallah showcased newly developed gaming and tourism apps under a USAID competition. The innovative spirit on display during that event was electrifying, and I look forward to seeing which final products will go forward to be developed. I also met with Palestinian students enrolled in a mini-MBA program offered jointly by Northwestern and Tel Aviv Universities. Not only does the program impart the exceptionally bright students with tools that will help them build their businesses and the Palestinian economy, it also builds bridges between Israeli and Palestinian academics and future entrepreneurs.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Romanowski and Administrator Rajiv Shah play soccer with a student at the Az Zeer school in Harmala.  Click to view more photos from their visit to the Middle East

Deputy Assistant Administrator Romanowski and Administrator Rajiv Shah play soccer with a student at the Az Zeer school in Harmala.

During my visit, I also met with a range of businesspeople, including Palestinian business leaders. We discussed the Palestinian economy, focusing on which sectors are ready for expansion and investment. They stressed the need for a business enabling environment with proper regulations. I also met with representatives from global hi-tech companies, including Cisco, Qualcomm, iMesh and Amital. I encouraged them to develop and expand partnerships with Palestinian tech firms to take advantage of the untapped potential within that sector, thus increasing employment, exports and revenues.

One of the highlights of my trip was accompanying Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Bethlehem, which reminded everyone that the city has tremendous potential as a tourism center. We toured a USAID road renovation project that will not only enhance driver and pedestrian safety, but will also link Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity to the city of Bethlehem itself. It was during our visit to Manger Square that Secretary Kerry announced an additional $75 million in support to the Palestinian Authority’s High Impact Micro-Infrastructure Initiative (HIMII), bringing the total U.S. Government commitment to $100 million. USAID’s role in implementing HIMII will be critical, as we continue to create jobs, upgrade basic infrastructure, and deliver tangible improvements in the lives of Palestinians.

While at Manger Square, I also saw the positive outcomes of USAID’s engagement with youth. I spoke with representatives from USAID-sponsored Youth Shadow Local Councils and learned about their experiences working in their local communities on projects ranging from job fairs to providing food assistance and beautifying parks and roads. I also visited students at the Az Zeer Elementary School in Harmala, near Bethlehem. There, I saw how hundreds of students are benefiting from a USAID school renovation project that provided students with access to more facilities and classrooms.

My visit also reconfirmed the importance of agriculture to Palestinian society. During a meeting with Palestinian agribusiness representatives, I learned about the challenges they face and the ways in which USAID is helping them overcome obstacles to export their products. If the olive oil, dates and vegetables I sampled were an indication of excellent food products, we would all stand to benefit from greater access to these products in our own grocery stores and markets.

My interactions highlighted the importance of our activities in building the future for the Palestinian people. With all our partners and government counterparts working together, we continue to move forward to implement sustainable development projects that benefit the Palestinian people and promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

View photos from Deputy Assistant Administrator Alina Romanowski’s recent visit to the Middle East on USAID’s Flickr site

Helping Bright Ideas Shine Through Spotlight: Brian Gitta, Makerere University, Uganda, ResilientAfrica Network

USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) – a multidisciplinary research and development effort led by seven universities working to evaluate and strengthen real-world innovations in development – recently spotlighted young academics and their creative approaches to development challenges during TechCon 2013, the first annual HESN meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. As part of a contest, more than 40 students and researchers presented innovations designed to help communities in developing countries.  

Winner Brian Gitta, from Makarere University in Uganda, invented  a tool that can diagnose malaria without the need for blood samples and a laboratory. This is the story of that innovation.

Brian Gitta wasn’t in the mood to get stuck by another needle – he was already getting injections three times a day to fight off a foodborne illness. But as his fever spiked and the pain in his joints worsened, he suspected he was suffering yet another occurrence of malaria, the disease he’d contracted as a child and currently kills one child every minute in the developing world.

A nurse at a local clinic confirmed his suspicion by drawing blood using a needle and syringe. “I hated the needles and kept thinking of ways people could be diagnosed without pain,” Gitta recalled.

Brian Gitta, from Makerere University in Uganda pitches his winning idea that uses cell phones and light – not needles and blood samples to test for malaria. Photo Credit: Cynthia Kao-Johnson/USAID

Brian Gitta, from Makerere University in Uganda pitches his winning idea that uses cell phones and light – not needles and blood samples to test for malaria. Photo Credit: Cynthia Kao-Johnson/USAID

That puzzle was still on Gitta’s mind weeks later as he began his studies in Computer Science at Makerere University and started thinking about ways technology could be used to improve malaria detection. The standard method of determining whether someone has malaria is drawing blood and viewing it under a microscope, which requires health workers and facilities that are scarce in many low-income communities.  For Brian, the goal wasn’t just to alleviate momentary pain; eliminating needles and the need for a lab would not only limit the risk of infection but allow for diagnosis in communities that had no medical centers.

Gitta shared the idea with his friend Joshua Businge and they began researching new ways to detect malaria.  They learned that for years, light sensors have been used to read the blood’s oxygen content through the skin. This seemed like a promising avenue to explore, so the pair recruited Josiah Kavuma and Simon Lubambo, students skilled in engineering hardware.  Together, the team designed a prototype that plugs into a smartphone and can detect malaria using only light. Results are available in seconds and the smartphone can email them and map them for epidemiological purposes.  They named the device Matibabu, Swahili for medical center.

By coincidence, Makerere University was launching an initiative called the ResilientAfrica Network (RAN) as part of HESN and an upcoming launch event in Uganda would give local innovators an opportunity to demonstrate concepts for solving public problems.  The team demonstrated their prototype to Alex Dehgan, director of USAID’s Office of Science and Technology, RAN director William Bazeyo, and Deborah Elzie from RAN partner Tulane University.  “I was very impressed,” Elzie said. “When we talk about innovation, people are often just improving on something that’s already out there…These guys really found a whole new way of looking at how to determine if someone has malaria.”

RAN searches for creative minds like Gitta’s and helps them overcome obstacles that often keep bright ideas from making it to the marketplace.  RAN gave Gitta’s team a workspace, training on writing business proposals, mentoring, and the resources needed to make a better prototype.

They teams hopes to a commercially viable product and plans to partner with an established organization working against malaria.

Reflecting on his innovation, Gitta noted, “as long as you put your mind and hard work to it, you can accomplish anything at any age.”

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