What It Takes to Beat the Odds

In May, I had the chance to return to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Having previously worked on an ex-combatant reintegration project in the DRC from 2004 to 2006, I was eager to see the progress the country had made in recovering from its protracted civil war.

I went to the DRC with Chemonics President and CEO Susi Mudge to visit our early grade reading project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), ACCELERE! 1, which is co-funded by USAID and DFID. These site visits serve as a valuable opportunity to get to know our beneficiaries and the impact of our work, as well as to express appreciation to our field teams for their work and to USAID for their partnership.

While the security situation in the DRC is still precarious after the war, and the opportunities for political transition have stagnated, it was refreshing to see the potential for transformative change in the education sector. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is visiting development projects under implementation in the field.

A visit to a primary school in Lubumbashi in southwest DRC presented a powerful example of the impact of our work. A first-grade teacher expressed her appreciation for the learning materials ACCELERE! 1 had provided in the students’ mother tongue of Kiswahili, as well as the accompanying teacher training. The teacher shared that her students’ literacy had improved dramatically as a result of these interventions, and they were now able to read and write basic sentences. I was curious to see the evidence behind the teachers’ remarks, so we asked a few students to demonstrate their newfound knowledge. The teacher asked us to come up with a random sentence. Susi offered “The chicken crossed the road,” which I translated into French and the teacher translated into Kiswahili. In short order, the students were able to write “Kuka ana vuka ji…” on the blackboard for all to see.

While this may sound like a simple thing, in a country where one quarter of the population is illiterate and more than five million children were out of school during the civil war, these students are beating the odds. As a development professional who started my career as an English teacher with the Peace Corps in Benin, this was a defining moment. Development takes time, and we are not always able to see immediate impact, but this was a concrete example of what progress looks like.

In 2011, USAID initiated an ambitious education strategy that shifted its focus toward measuring results rather than counting inputs and outputs. Goal 1 of this strategy is to improve reading skills for 100 million children, focusing on measuring early grade literacy results as opposed to only tracking numbers of teachers trained. Goal 1 is based on the premise and research that "early grade reading competency is critical for continued retention and success in future grades. Children who do not attain reading skills at the primary level are on a lifetime trajectory of limited educational progress and therefore limited economic and developmental opportunity.” Research also indicates that if children learn to read and write in their native language first, it will be easier for them to transition to other languages in subsequent years.

Until recently, children in the DRC had been taught from grade one on in French, even though the majority of students speak another language at home. The government of the DRC recently revised its policy to prioritize one of four national languages (depending on the region) as the language of instruction in grades one and two, transitioning to French in grades three and four.

With the DRC government’s renewed focus on teaching reading in national languages in the early grades, the ACCELERE! 1 project expects to see significant improvement in reading skills, particularly among students for whom these languages are either a first language or a familiar language.

Preliminary feedback from teachers and school directors suggest early positive results. They are finding it easier to teach literacy in mother tongues than in French, and project staff have personally witnessed children reading with greater ease. Parents, though reticent at first, are now embracing the mother tongue approach based on these improved outcomes. ACCELERE! 1 will administer its first early grade reading test in November 2017 to substantiate these findings.

Rhett Gurian is the senior vice president of Chemonics’ West and Central Africa and Haiti Division.

Posted in: Education and Youth
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