17 September 2012

Africa: Our Unfinished Agenda - Quality Education for All

Photo: Joseph Kanyi
Kenya Certificate of Primary Education candidates of Moi Nyeri Complex School fill papers during examination rehearsals

"Our responsibility doesn't end when a young girl or boy walks through the doors of a classroom. In fact, it's at that moment our greatest responsibilities begin."

For the first time since the world rallied around the idea of universal access to education, the global community is coming together to confront the reality that we're still far from our goal of achieving quality education for all. Even as we have seen record numbers of children enter classrooms, education continues to be out of reach for many. Sixty-one million boys and girls remain out of school, nearly half of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa.

For children who are able to access education, schooling does not always translate into learning. Learning assessments across a number of sub-Saharan countries found that the majority of children in Grade 2 could not read a single word. In sub-Saharan Africa, a child has a 40 percent chance of being illiterate after five years of schooling. Poor learning outcomes early in life translate into long-term loss of opportunity and serve as roadblocks for economic growth and development. Whether education takes place in a classroom, a refugee camp, or an accelerated learning center for out-of-school youth, quality should not be compromised.

The United Nations Secretary-General's critically important initiative, Education First, looks to refocus the world's attention on the unfinished agenda of quality education for all. Because we know that, today, the global community has the tools and the knowledge to get nearly all children learning in their classrooms within a generation. As children survive and thrive, they help their nations unlock long-term prosperity and progress. A child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past age 5.

Each additional year of schooling increases an individual's income by 10 percent. And globally, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low-income countries gained basic reading skills.

But if we're going to be successful, knowledge about what works to improve the quality of education cannot remain the exclusive domain of academics, donors, and international agencies. We have to continue to engage broadly, working closely with partner governments and local communities to improve transparency and strengthen evaluation and research.

We are beginning to see this approach at work across the globe. Community-based assessments of literacy and numeracy, such as ASER inIndiaand Uwezo inEast Africa, have emerged as powerful initiatives for increasing accountability and mobilizing communities. Open data policies being adopted by governments across sub-SaharanAfricawill deliver unprecedented access to information for citizens. In July, theUK's Department for International Development announced its Open and Enhanced Access Policy that will make its funded research available online.

USAID's Education Strategy, coupled with our increased commitment to evaluation and learning, sets the stage for more focused, evidence-based programming in strong collaboration with our host-country partners. Our work with the Global Partnership for Education, focused on ensuring all children receive a quality education, engages in-country stakeholders across the education spectrum to share practices and galvanise support to achieve unfinished education goals.

USAID launched the All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development initiative with partners AusAID and World Vision to support innovative projects that are grounded in evidence and hold promise for transformative change. The September 7th DevelopmentXChange brought together over 25 Grand Challenge Nominees, half of whom were from developing countries, to share knowledge and create a new platform for collaboration across countries.

These are all steps in the right direction, but much remains to be done. Together, we should look to create innovative ways to develop evidence, rethink our sources of knowledge, and identify new pathways for communities and families to become central to this effort. As the Secretary-General's initiative recognises, our responsibility doesn't end when a young girl or boy walks through the doors of a classroom. In fact, it's at that moment our greatest responsibilities begin.

Dr Rajiv Shah is the Administrator of USAID

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