School Climate & Safety

U.S. Turns to Classrooms To Fight Terrorism

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 09, 2004 11 min read
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The war on terrorism has fueled an expansion of the U.S. government’s work to improve schools overseas.

Signs of that expansion include the growth of federally sponsored education development in countries with large Muslim populations, forthcoming legislation that has the war on terrorism as a rationale for increasing education foreign aid, and a higher profile for education development in the United States’ national-security strategy.

The aid goes beyond the U.S. Agency for International Development’s involvement in rebuilding education in Iraq, which has cost at least $144 million so far. It includes, for instance, the start of a $60 million USAID education project in Pakistan after the agency established a mission there in 2002.

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Read the accompanying story, “New Iraqi Education Minister Named.”

“As far as geography is concerned, it’s very easy to track what’s happening,” said Joshua Muskin, the senior education adviser for the Washington-based World Learning for International Development, which carries out some education projects for the USAID. “They are really targeting the Muslim region.”

Since 2001, the number of countries with USAID-sponsored education projects has risen from 25 to 43. The number of countries with such agency initiatives has stayed the same in Latin America and the Caribbean, but jumped from five to 15 in Asia and the Near East. In the past few years, the USAID has started education projects in five countries with large Muslim populations in Europe and Eurasia as well: Macedonia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. An education project in Sudan, also home to many Muslims, has been added to the Africa list.

Fighting the war on terror was a motive for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to draft a bill this spring calling for a dramatic increase in foreign education aid, according to her deputy press secretary, Amy Bonitatibus.

“We need to do more to combat the influence of hatred and bias, and, for example, I think, with respect to education, we are doing far too little around the world,” Sen. Clinton, a New York Democrat, said in a Feb. 25 speech about fighting terror.

In a recent press release about her proposed bill, which the former first lady hopes to introduce by the end of next month, she said: “This isn’t just about being generous; it’s about being smart. Because in today’s world, we are all more secure when children and adults around the world are taught math and science—instead of hate.”

Development Pillar

The higher profile for education development overseas results from a shift in the thinking of U.S. leaders after the terrorist attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, development experts say.

President Bush cited development, along with diplomacy and defense, as an important tenet of the country’s national-security strategy. That same document from September 2002 called literacy and learning “the foundation of democracy and development.”

In 2003, for the first time, the USAID and the Department of State produced a joint strategic plan, spanning 2004 to 2009, indicating that U.S. leaders are trying to more closely align foreign policy and development goals.

“It’s just wonderful that in the last couple of years, the development community has broken out beyond the choir—beyond itself,” said George M. Ingram, the executive director of the Basic Education Coalition in Washington, an umbrella organization for nonprofit groups and companies engaged in international education development.

Added Stephen F. Moseley, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Academy for Educational Development: “The education develop- ment that AID has practiced for a long time is becoming more front and center to AID and other agencies, including the Congress, now that people recognize that the long-term well-being of people’s capacity is important in fighting terrorism.”

But others say that the attention given by the nation’s makers of foreign policy to international development—and education improvements abroad—remains unimpressive.

The defense part of the national-security strategy is getting 40 times the amount of funding that development is, pointed out Frederic D. Barton, the co-director of the postconflict-reconstruction project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s a huge imbalance,” he said. “If the development pillar is going to be that central to the strategy, it really should be a Cabinet office as well.”

More Funding

The most obvious change in education development since the 2001 attacks by terrorists from Arab countries is that Congress is providing more money for it. The funding for basic education through the USAID, which Mr. Ingram estimates administers about 80 percent of the federal government’s foreign aid for education, tripled from $103 million in fiscal 2001 to $326 million in fiscal 2004. That doesn’t count what the USAID has spent on education in Iraq since the U.S.-led defeat of the regime there.

Development experts don’t consider $326 million a large sum, given that the USAID is spending that money in 43 different countries. Maine has budgeted more than twice that amount, for instance, to run its K-12 system in fiscal 2005.

But more money for education may be in the pipeline if Sen. Clinton gains support for her bill for universal education in developing countries. Rep. Nita Lowry, D-N.Y., is drafting a similar bill.

Sen. Clinton’s proposal calls for the United States to spend $500 million for education foreign aid in fiscal 2005, which begins Oct. 1. It spells out a gradual increase until spending reaches $2.5 billion a year in 2009.

The money would go to help countries achieve the goals of “Education for All,” the international campaign to ensure that children worldwide have access to a good-quality basic education by 2015.

Mr. Ingram and Frank Method, a former senior education adviser for the USAID who now directs international education for RTI International, a nonprofit research and development organization in Research Triangle Park, N.C., say passage of such a bill would be significant. Mr. Ingram’s group has been asking federal legislators to consider a similar level of funding for education overseas for the past year and a half.

Mr. Method said Sen. Clinton’s proposal is a sign of a rising consensus among people in the federal government to “treat education not just as a sectoral kind of activity, but a major driver for large-scale reform efforts.”

Also since the 2001 attacks, the Bush administration has authorized two new development funds outside the USAID—one that has an education component and another that could be a significant source of education funding.

One, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, is administered by the State Department and provides support for projects in Arab countries for economic, education, and political reform. In fiscal 2002 and 2003, the initiative gave away a total of $38.9 million for education, and $43.5 million was appropriated for education in fiscal 2004.

Raj Wadhwani, an education analyst for the partnership initiative, views its education work as being linked to the U.S. war on terrorism.

“When you look at a lot of the school systems in the Middle East,” he said, “they don’t produce graduates that are able to contribute to their economies. After 9/11, you saw lots of articles about madrassas [Islamic religious schools]. Young men went to schools and weren’t learning math or history. They were learning the Quran. There were no avenues for those students.”

The U.S. government’s contributions to school projects through the partnership are meant to produce graduates who can improve their countries’ economies, Mr. Wadhwani said.

Money has not yet started to flow from the second fund set up by Mr. Bush, the Millennium Challenge Account, which is run by a new agency called the Millennium Challenge Corp. The federal fund has a proposed budget of $1 billion for fiscal 2005 and will give aid to countries that are poor but have policies deemed good by the United States. The corporation announced last month that 16 countries—none in the Middle East— would be eligible to apply for the money. Whether any of the money goes to education depends on what kinds of development projects the countries propose.

Susan G. Foster, an education communication specialist for the USAID, declined to comment on whether the USAID’s education development work has become increasingly linked to national-security interests since Sept. 11, 2001.

The USAID’s joint-strategy plan with the State Department, however, says that the agency “will promote improved education globally, with a particular focus on the Muslim world.”

A June 2003 issue paper, “Strengthening Education in the Muslim World,” published by the USAID, says that since the 2001 attacks, the agency has redoubled efforts to understand how to support “educational needs and aspirations of the Muslim world” in ways that build on its strengths.

The paper adds: “Many researchers, educators, and practitioners believe that improving the educational systems in these countries is one way to bring about development advances that will help more Muslim children grow up to be productive members of their societies and may help diminish their vulnerability to recruitment efforts by extremist Islamic groups.”

Content Unchanged

Still, Ms. Foster emphasized that the content of USAID education projects hasn’t been affected by national-security interests since 2001.

“How do you change content when it’s basic skills—learning to read and write—and providing the skills that will make you a participating and functioning individual?” she said.

The USAID is poised to release three reports that will give more insight into its recent education activities. One report, expected to include descriptions of how education money was used, is required by law and was scheduled for delivery to Congress last week. Another will describe in more detail the agency’s education programs in 2002 and 2003. And a third report, also expected to be released this summer, will spell out the USAID’s education strategy for the future.

A common thread in all USAID education projects, Ms. Foster said, is to help learners gain general skills and basic knowledge. She said projects have tended to focus on primary schooling rather than secondary. The agency has also put a strong emphasis on the inclusion of girls in education.

For the most part, the people carrying out education projects agree with Ms. Foster that their substance has not changed dramatically since September 2001.

In Pakistan, for instance, Mr. Method said, the $60 million project that RTI International is implementing for the USAID supports education reform by the Pakistani government that was already being considered before the attacks on the United States. RTI International is helping the Pakistani government to decentralize education planning and administration.

Again, though, the USAID Web site says the agency’s work in Pakistan “is focused on strengthening Pakistan’s capacity to combat terrorism.”

Mr. Method said that by supporting deep and comprehensive education reform, the program addresses conditions that could lead to political instability and terrorism, but that it doesn’t have elements that are specifically geared to counter terrorism.

One American involved in another USAID-sponsored project in Pakistan believes that participants were selected from targeted regions of the country because of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

This spring, Jack Levy, a professor of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., directed the training of 14 teacher-trainers from Pakistan in child-centered teaching methods. The training was part of a $5 million, three-year project that is being carried out by the Academy for Educational Development.

Mr. Levy interpreted the project as linked to the war on terrorism because the Pakistani teachers chosen to study at George Mason came mostly from rural regions near Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups are active. “It’s the soft side of the war on terrorism—trying to win the hearts and minds of people in those regions,” he said.

International-development experts say it’s reasonable for the United States to align its education development work with strategies for protecting national security. At the same time, they caution that doing so will not be effective if the scope is too narrow.

The risk, said Mr. Method, is that instead of systematically addressing basic needs, the U.S. government “will target resources on particular populations and address issues of content directly, and will cause the broad agenda of Education for All to be misunderstood as a counterterrorism strategy.”

Mr. Ingram said he’s concerned the U.S. government might get involved in improving education in particular countries for only a short time.

“We need to be involved in these countries for the long term—for the seven years or 15 years it takes to develop an effective education system,” he said. “By nature, U.S. foreign-policy priorities shift every five to seven years.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2004 edition of Education Week as U.S. Turns to Classrooms To Fight Terrorism

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