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USAID Revamps Education Strategy

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The federal agency that helps underwrite schooling in developing countries released a new education strategy May 25 that broadens the agency’s traditional focus on increasing access to paying more attention to the quality of schooling.

The strategy provides a framework for the U.S. Agency for International Development to become more involved with informal education, secondary education, workforce development, and higher education.

“We want to discipline ourselves to say, ‘It’s not just the number of classes and kids,’ but rather, ‘Are they really learning?’ ” John Grayzel, the director of the office of education in the USAID’s bureau for economic growth, agriculture, and trade, said in an interview. “They have to be learning what’s truly relevant to their lives.”

Mr. Grayzel said the strategy would be followed indefinitely—for at least five years. He and other USAID officials publicly released a report outlining the strategy during a daylong meeting and forum here at the National Press Club. The Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid, which is made up of leaders of international-development organizations, hosted the meeting.

The 21-page education strategy includes two objectives for the USAID’s education projects: continued promotion of equal access to a high-quality basic education, and help for countries in moving beyond basic education to equip people with specific job skills. Under the new strategy, for example, the USAID may support more projects like the kind it subsidized in Egypt. In that North African country, the federal agency helped companies identify the skills needed in the tourist industry and then provided training for those skills.

Influencing the Curriculum

The game plan doesn’t clarify the extent to which the USAID will get involved in influencing education curricula in other countries, which has been a particularly sensitive issue in the Muslim world.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told reporters during her visit to Jordan this week that the United States was not trying to “influence or interfere” in curricula in Middle Eastern countries, according to a May 24 article in the Jordan Times.

USAID officials announced last school year that the agency would not take part in writing a curriculum for Iraq. At the Washington gathering this week, they gave a less definitive answer than Ms. Spellings did about U.S. policy on curriculum development in other countries.

The decision to “not get involved in curriculum development is specifically for Iraq,” said Norman Rifkin, a USAID official. He was responding to a reporter’s question about whether the USAID decides to steer clear of involvement in writing curricula in all countries.

Two panelists at the meeting, Stephen F. Moseley, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Academy for Educational Development, which operates education programs abroad, and James Wile, the director of the international division of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association, said they didn’t think Americans should be writing curricula for other countries. But, they said, it is appropriate for the United States to help countries improve their curricula in other ways, such as through teacher training.

Short Shrift?

Those same panelists embraced the shift in the USAID education strategy, while also pointing out aspects of education development that they believe have been given short shrift.

Mr. Moseley said the report should have talked more about how to measure learning achievement.

“We’ve been very good at measuring inputs,” he said, noting that the USAID provides statistics on how many girls are enrolled in schools and on graduation rates. “We haven’t been good at measuring the learning gains in schools.”

Mr. Moseley said the report also should have devoted more attention to how schools can include people with disabilities. “That’s something this country is good at,” he said. Although Mr. Moseley doesn’t usually advocate transplanting U.S. strategies to other countries, in the case of special education, he said, it might be worthwhile.

Mr. Wile said the new strategy doesn’t address “research and design” of education projects. “It’s unfortunate that the majority of research in literacy happens outside the developing world,” he said. Mr. Wile said he advocates conducting and circulating research in developing countries.

Also, he said, the strategy doesn’t talk about how the USAID can support the availability of reading material in poor countries.

“We can invest a lot of money in teachers and in helping people to become literate, but they have nothing to read. … The United States could provide support for printing.”

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