Tag Archives: Education

Education and Violent Extremism in Africa: The Importance of Evidence-based Interventions for National Security

The international development sector, especially in the United States, is facing an uncertain future. Long considered to be both a virtuous endeavor and a crucial mechanism for achieving US foreign policy aims, development assistance is struggling to remain relevant. Both politicians and citizens are skeptical of development aid and are increasingly focused on more traditional strategies to ensure national security, particularly in the face of the growing threats of terrorism and violent extremism. Shifts in spending priorities call into question the longevity of US investments in education and women’s empowerment, as well as the continued existence of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and State Department in their current forms.

Education, Workforce Development, and Violent Extremism in Africa

However, as US military leaders have argued, development assistance can be just as important as defense spending to ensuring our national security. Clear connections can be drawn between expanding access to education and workforce development—areas in which USAID has built expertise—and countering violent extremism (CVE), a top foreign policy priority of the Trump administration. Violent extremist groups often recruit from the young, poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized populations of a society, which include many of the same individuals targeted by education and workforce development programs.

These connections are especially clear in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa’s youth population is growing far more quickly than the number of jobs available, leading to high rates of youth unemployment across the continent. Ten to twelve million African youth enter the workforce each year, but governments struggle to create opportunities for them in economies that are often still largely agricultural. Between 2000 and 2007, the working-age population in Africa grew by 96 million; only 63 million jobs were created during the same period.

In the absence of quality education and gainful employment, African youth may be more susceptible to recruitment by the extremist organizations gaining influence on the continent. Helping African governments figure out how to break the link between unemployed youth and extremist organizations will be a crucial policy issue for the US government as Africa’s power and population grow.

A  constructed classroom by USAID.
Abdulaziz Bashir, USAID (2017)

Education and Violent Extremism: The Evidence

 It is easy to imagine increased US support for education and workforce development programs in Africa as one solution to this problem – if African youth have access to education and jobs, courtesy of USAID-funded programs, they will be less susceptible to recruitment by extremist groups. However, reliable evidence on the relationship between education and violent extremism is actually quite scarce.  An evaluation published last year by US-based NGO MercyCorps of the impact of access to education and civic engagement programs on political violence in Somalia suggests the story is more complicated than it might seem.

The MercyCorps-led impact evaluation, which examined the effects of a USAID-funded program in Somaliland called the Somali Youth Leaders Initiative (SYLI), suggested that education can make youth either more or less likely to become involved in political violence, depending on both education quality and the larger context. It found that while increased access to secondary education reduced youth participation in political violence by 16%, it increased youth support for political violence by 11%. However, when access to education was combined with opportunities for youth to become more civically engaged in their community, participation and support for political violence dropped by 14% and 20%, respectively.

Impact of Youth Leader Initiative on Stability
Mercy Corps (2016)

While additional evaluations are necessary to confirm these results, the story they tell makes sense. Educated youth living under repressive or inept governments with no access to meaningful work opportunities may become increasingly frustrated with their situations. They may then be more likely to turn to political violence as a way to affect change. However, if youth are given positive strategies for changing their lives and communities along with access to education, and see their education as linked to a better future, they may become less likely to resort to violence than their uneducated peers.

The Impact of Education Quality

 Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the relationship between education and violence is further complicated by the question of the quality of education youth can access. Over the past decade African governments (with support from funders like USAID) have successfully increased the percentage of African children enrolled in school. However, in many cases this increased access has come with lower quality; children are now attending school, but are not learning.

MercyCorps’ study shows evidence of this trend. It found that youth with access to education had a much less favorable view of government performance in providing education – probably because they were receiving low-quality education. African governments, and their international partners like USAID, need to be worried not just about whether youth are in school and engaged in their communities, but also about whether poor-quality education is adding fuel to the fire.

Implications for Funding and Policy

As MercyCorps’ research illustrates, US policymakers concerned about the rise of extremism in Africa should think twice before abandoning US investments in education on the continent. While proposed budget cuts to USAID have yet to be approved by Congress, general consensus within the Agency is that education, environment, and gender programs are likely to be scaled back, while spending on health is likely to be maintained. Advocates for education within USAID, the State Department, and their partner organizations need to focus their message to ensure elected officials and the public understand the links between education and extremism and continue funding education interventions.

More research is needed to fully understand the relationship among education, civic engagement, and violence. However, evidence from the MercyCorps study suggests that even if funding for education is cut, prioritizing education quality, workforce development, and civic engagement will maximize the effect of US education spending on violent extremism. USAID and its partners should prioritize these strategies now, but especially if anticipated budget cuts come to pass. While the international education sector needs to tailor its advocacy message to align with the US government focus on CVE to minimize budgetary impacts on its work, it should also focus on incorporating empirical evidence like MercyCorps’ study into project design to improve learning outcomes and decrease violence.

Increasing access to quality education in Africa should be a central component of the US government’s CVE efforts on the continent. However, evidence also suggests that USAID must consider the larger context in which education takes place to ensure their programs actually increase the opportunities available for youth, rather than just their frustrations.

Sarah Maniates is a second year MPP student at Sanford concentrating in international development and education policy. She spent the summer interning with USAID’s Bureau for Africa.

Research Sheds Light on Risk Factors for Hispanic Students in North Carolina

With North Carolina’s changing demographics come changing classrooms. Research from three Duke professors shows special risk factors for Hispanic children in the state.

Empty school hallway

The number of people migrating to the U.S. doubled between 1990 and 2008. By 2009, 38.5 million people in the US were foreign-born (around 12.5% of the total population). Most of the new migrants came from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. During this period, the destination of the families also switched from traditional places, like Texas and California, to new destinations—among them, North Carolina.

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Learning from Disappointment

A recent paper by Duke graduate student Peter McElroy surveys the literature on the Annenberg Challenge, a huge philanthropic school-reform initiative of the late 1990s, and reflects on whether, why, and how it failed.

A couple of weeks ago, when the new mayor of Newark was elected on a platform of opposition to a privately-sponsored school reform, I pointed out that public education has long been a minefield for philanthropy. Like many people who make that sort of observation, I cited the Annenberg Challenge (1995-2000), a half-billion-dollar bundle of grants to overhaul schools in 15 metropolitan areas, along with special initiatives for rural schools and arts education. Matching contributions brought the total cost of the program to $1.2 billion.

desks in classroom

Flickr user Geoff Llerena

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Closing Problematic Schools

By: Lucas Westmaas


School closure is increasingly being wielded as the ultimate punishment for traditional public schools that do not achieve results acceptable to society.  In the public discourse, it is generally assumed that charter schools also face closure if they fail to meet similar standards.  This is the spirit as well as the letter of the law; in awarding grants to states, the Department of Education is supposed to give preference to states that “ensure accountability of public charter schools for reaching clear and measurable objectives.”  In reality, it is relatively rare for charter schools to actually face closure, even though their mean test results are statistically indistinguishable from those of traditional public schools.  This ought to be deeply troubling to the education community. The problem with traditional public schools is supposedly that, in the absence of market pressures, they have little incentive to work towards improved educational outcomes.  If charter schools do not face market pressures like the threat of closure, we haven’t actually addressed that problem – we’ve only dressed it in new clothes.

The U.S. Department of Education is charged with maintaining the Public Charter Schools Program and as such is responsible for overseeing charter schools in the states. The main instrument through which the Department of Education influences charter schools is through grants issued by its Public Charter Schools Program.  The program grants funds to local charter-issuing agencies, which subsequently make sub-grants to charter schools.  According to the mostrecent report from the Department of Education, 100% of states with charter laws use PCSP grants to help fund start-up costs.  The department could use the threat of removing this funding to persuade states to come up with more effective practices for holding charter schools accountable.

However, the department has shown little will to address the issue.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has described himself as “the biggest champion for highperforming charter schools.” At a speech to theNational Alliance of Public Charter Schools in July 2010, he noted that some charter schools are performing at “unacceptable” levels.  But Duncan stopped far short of suggesting the department would pursue punitive measures.  Instead, he recommended that the organization should be “much more proactive in [self-regulation], not that you have the ability to close them down, but you should not be tolerating in your family academic failure.”  He went on to criticize “the silence, the lack of courage, the lack of leadership, on both individual schools and on authorizers,” without mentioning that his department could easily punish states with lax standards by refusing to issue them new grants.  There is a stark contrast between this toothless chiding and Secretary Duncan’s 2009 pledge to close and overhaul 1,000 failing traditional public schools per year.

The underlying rationale of the school choice movement is that schools must be held accountable when they fail.  There are good charter schools and bad ones.  In order for market-based reforms to make an impact, bad charter schools must face closure. Secretary Duncan’s Department of Education is either unwilling or unable to confront that reality.

Improving Urban Schools Through Access

By: Lucas Westmass


Among the proposals thrown out by Mitt Romney at the first Presidential debate was an interesting take on school choice that would allow students to cross city and county lines in search of better public schools, taking their federal funding with them.

It’s hard to see a proposal like this flying in suburban districts, but as a former teacher I can see a politically palatable solution lurking just behind it: ending ability segregation in urban schools.

Many urban school districts around the country maintain a tiered system of magnet and neighborhood schools that separates high-achieving students from those playing catch-up.  If your scores are high, you get sent to a magnet school, no matter where you live.  If not, you’re going to the school down the street.

The system is meant to provide an advanced education to kids at the top, but in the process it severely damages the prospects of kids at the bottom.

Kids need great teachers to succeed, but they learn just as much if not more from the students around them – everything from material to study techniques to work habits.  High-achieving students take more active roles in a school’s extracurricular life, improving the quality of programs outside the classroom.  They encourage schools to offer more advanced courses, which neighborhood schools often lack.  Their very presence forces teachers to set expectations higher, and all students benefit as a result.

Studies have shown that separating kids based on previous academic achievement has a serious affect on the academic future of kids on the bubble of success.  A study in Trinidad and Tobago, where test scores are strictly enforced as a barrier to entry in some schools, compared students who just missed the cutoff score to students who squeaked in.

The result?  Even though their scores were virtually identical, students who barely qualified for advanced schools fared significantly better than the students just below the threshold.

The evidence is clear: When you take away student role models, lower-performing students fall further behind.

This fact is often glossed over in the ritual wringing of hands over failing public schools.  We should not be surprised that it’s more challenging to teach in a classroom where every student needs special assistance.  We should certainly not be shocked when schools that we’ve filled with high-need students don’t meet testing standards.

How can we end ability segregation?  One way is to restructure enrollment, starting with ending admissions requirements.  Any student could attend any school, which would allow schools to specialize in subjects or skills and allow students to leave schools that did not suit their needs.  Open enrollment poses a challenge for policy designers, but it is one that can be overcome.

It is true that pursuing this course of action would reduce the number of remarkable schools, the institutions that are head-and-shoulders above the others.  However, it would not be reduce the number of remarkable students – it would simply spread them out.

High-level students will still have the opportunity to pursue high-level coursework within their schools – but so will all other students.  They’ll push each other and their peers, making everyone better off.  They’ll lead extra-curricular clubs, opening up participation opportunities that don’t currently exist in many neighborhood schools.

The plan has the added benefit of ending the system of perverse incentives that discourages lower-performing students from maintaining high levels of effort.  As it stands, if a student matriculates into an underperforming high school, their chances of success are severely hampered no matter what they do in their four high school years.  That means students in neighborhood schools have less incentive to strive for success.

Moving academic judgment day to the end of high school gives students four extra years to find their scholastic selves.  And that can be crucial.  Every high school teacher has seen “bad” students reinvent themselves over the course of their four years – I’ve seen students grow two entire letter grades between their first and fourth-quarter report cards.

Ability-segregated schools are built on the myth that kids are on a set intellectual path by the time they’re 14 years old.  Transformations like this give the lie to that outdated idea.

You want to improve urban schools? Open them to everybody.

Charter Schools: Proceed With Caution

By Jessie Maxwell


“Guess what? I won the lottery!” My nine-year-old nephew grinned from ear-to-ear as he told me the news. You see, my nephew’s name was drawn in a local charter school admissions lottery this past spring. He had “won” the chance to go to a safer, more academically rigorous school.

In this instance, the charter school option was a welcome surprise. It offered more rigorous academics, orderly classrooms, ample time for music, art, dance, and other often-overlooked (or cut) courses. Even better, now that my nephew was in, his younger brother will automatically be admitted when he starts Kindergarten. As a former public school teacher studying education policy, I know my nephew is very lucky. I also know that attending a charter school that really is better than regular public schools is very unusual. While I was excited for my nephew, I couldn’t help but feel renewed disappointment in the direction of our public education is headed.

Is it fair that you have to be lucky (or able to gather information about school alternatives, read and fill out the forms, and provide transportation in the mornings and afternoons for your child to get to and from school) to have access to a good education? Alternatively, how many charter schools actually provide this golden standard of education, anyway? The more I thought about it, the more I came to conclude that charter schools put up a good front, but they’re not our educational saving grace. My nephew may have won the lottery, but his story is by no means the norm.

The idea of charter schools is so appealing: Less bureaucracy, room for innovation, curriculum flexibility, and parents’ ability to choose what school they want their child to attend. Even government likes the idea. Recent bipartisan legislation aims to amend the No Child Left Behind Act to create additional funding and encourage more charter schools to open. Great, right? Maybe not.

When we push these shiny new promises to the side, we uncover an ugly underbelly of the charter school movement: large class sizes, limited diversity, less accountability, for-profit corporate ownership, and hidden financial barriers such as transportation and the cost of lunch. In addition, many studies have concluded that very few charter schools (only 17%) perform significantly better than their traditional public school counterparts. 46% perform just the same and 37% perform worse. Despite this data, Congress hopes to increase the number of charter schools across the country. The House of Representatives passed the Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act in 2011. This piece of legislation increases funding for and incentivizes the development of new charter schools.

Charter schools have somehow garnered overwhelming public support. Many assume that charter schools are better than traditional public schools. If we are going to move forward and promote a charter school growth spurt, we need to make sure that we are not reinforcing the same educational issues under a different name. We need to be more aware of Congressional actions with regards to public education. We must demand that every charter school meets strict and specific quality criteria. States must be provided with the tools and resources to evaluate and monitor charter school quality and progress. Furthermore, we must continue to support traditional public school reform.

We cannot be satisfied with the idea that a child has to be lucky to get a shot at a good education. The charter school movement does not and fundamentally cannot address the primary issue: equal access to exemplary education. Maybe you can win the lottery, but is it right to willingly leave education up to chance?