Although the number of children enrolled in primary schools in developing countries has increased by more than 85 million in the past 15 years, there are still 250 million children who are unable to read even after four years of education.
This reading gap prompted the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to refocus its work with ministries of education around the globe, shifting from not just getting students into school, but ensuring they receive a quality education, and most importantly, learn to read. Studies have shown that children who do not learn to read at an early age will likely make limited educational progress throughout their lives, and will have reduced economic opportunities as a result.
Leading this effort is Natasha de Marcken, who has helped reshape the way USAID manages its $800 million annual investment in 140 basic education programs in more than 40 countries.
To increase USAID’s focus on learning outcomes, de Marcken coordinated with other donors and foreign governments to advance a new strategy that prioritizes early grade learning. Through this approach, USAID programs are providing 30 million students with the foundational skills they need to learn to read.
“If you can’t read, you can’t do anything else. Every major donor has been focused on getting kids into schools and building schools, but not helping to make sure once they are in the front door, they will learn,” said Eric Postel, the USAID assistant administrator for Africa. “Natasha is leading a team on a global level that is singlehandedly forging the path for a huge number of donors to follow and changing how countries are doing business.”
As director of USAID’s Office of Education, de Marcken said success is too often measured by how much is invested in teacher training and materials. She said the agency’s emphasis now is on “measuring our effect on student learning.”
“We’ve done widespread testing of children to see where their reading skills are before and after a program, and what improvement we can demonstrate. This changes how we design our programs and how we partner with countries,” said de Marcken.
In some cases, de Marcken and her USAID team have encountered resistance to the new emphasis on reading, but they have managed to overcome such obstacles by using learning data on students to inform local education officials.
In Jordan, for example, officials argued reading was not the primary education issue in their country. USAID conducted an assessment that showed such a low level of reading ability that government officials agreed to expand reading activities nationwide. As a result, USAID has helped train more than 8,000 teachers, with an emphasis on early reading skills, and established 67 community-parent school committees to involve parents with their children’s learning.
“We were able to transform the curriculum,” said Charles North, senior deputy assistant administrator at USAID. “Using this data, we have a better understanding of where we need to focus our resources and help countries make those decisions. This methodology did not exist before and we’re just now seeing what this could do for the worldwide community.”
Another example of the new strategy occurred in Ghana. Using an early grade reading assessment, USAID determined that by third grade, 60 percent of students could not read a single word. After pinpointing this problem, USAID worked closely with community programs in Ghana to recruit and train volunteers to teach reading skills, and they have implemented a national report card to improve accountability in school districts.
“The initial results were devastating, but they were able to use that data to go out to communities around the country and explain what was going on,” North said. “People then knew their children weren’t learning in school. They’ve been able to galvanize community support and help foster new opportunities outside of school to support continued learning.”
While still in the early stages, USAID’s goal by the end of 2015 is to improve reading proficiency for at least two million Ghanaian children upon completion of primary school.
North said that “changes like this don’t just happen” without someone like de Marcken “working with missions, getting them on board and helping people through the process.”
Christie Vilsack, senior USAID advisor for international education, said getting education ministries to assess early grade learning and then to take action has been “a huge pivot.” She said de Marcken has been the “general” who has “made sure we carry out this strategy.”
In addition to this initiative, de Marcken leads USAID education activities to ensure that children in crisis or conflict zones have access to education.
After 275 girls were kidnapped in Nigeria by the extremist group Boko Haram, for example, de Marcken deployed a team to design a crisis-response program to provide secure learning opportunities for displaced and out-of-school children in the conflict-affected region.
Helping improve the quality of education and providing children in developing nations with greater opportunities to succeed is “the most compelling thing I can imagine,” said de Marcken.