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A perspective on Literacy Development in Underserved Communities Across the World - Notably Africa.

Yvonne Cao

Yvonne Cao is a Principal Research Analyst at NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent non-profit research organization with main offices in Chicago and the DC area, where she supports and manages the design, implementation, and analysis of several impact evaluations throughout Africa. She is working or has worked on projects such as the evaluation of the USAID/Uganda School Health and Reading Project, the evaluation of Millennium Challenge Corporation funded projects in Morocco and Namibia, as well as the monitoring, program and impact evaluation of DEG/GIZ cotton and cashew agricultural assistance programs in Benin, Burkina, Cote d’Ivoire, Malawi, Ghana, and Zambia. She is also working on the impact evaluation of the biggest USAID-funded youth program in the world, Yes Youth Can, in Kenya. She also participates in the development of survey instruments, and has managed large data collection efforts in support of evaluations. Prior to joining NORC, Yvonne Cao was a Research Fellow at Save the Children, and worked with the Monitoring and Evaluation Team of Mercy Corps in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. She has lived in Japan where she was a technical staff for the Language Development Lab at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute. In that capacity, she had the chance to conduct language
experiments on hundreds of babies. She received her B.A. in Psychology and Linguistics from Duke University, and her Masters in International Education Policy from Harvard University.

Q: Tell us about your work, and how it relates to education.

Cao: I am a Principal Research Analyst at NORC at the University of Chicago, a non-profit research organization headquartered in Chicago and with offices in the DC area, Atlanta, Boston and the Bay area. I work in the International Projects (INPRO) department where I manage and support evaluations of development projects and associated data collections. To be more precise, we specialize in impact evaluations, i.e. evaluations that assess whether or not a particular project or intervention has had an impact on its beneficiaries.
My main interest in education relates to literacy development. Currently I am working on the impact evaluation of a USAID-funded project in Uganda, called the School Health and Reading Program (SHRP) which aims to increase literacy skills amongst primary school students and HIV/AIDS awareness amongst upper primary and secondary school students. We will also soon be starting a number of new impact evaluations related to literacy and access to education in conflict and crisis affected environments.

Q: In your opinion, what aspects of the educational systems within underserved communities need the most attention today? How does this need change across different regions around the world?

Cao: There have been great strides in improving access to education across the world and especially in Africa where more countries are now advocating for universal primary education but education quality is still subpar in many places. Classrooms are overcrowded, materials are lacking and teachers don't have the right qualifications and skills. This means that even though a lot more kids go to school, many of them don't learn. For instance, many literacy assessments have found that even after a few years of primary school, children do not know how to read basic words and cannot comprehend short reading passages.
Another problem is that many countries are extremely diverse with a multitude of ethnic groups that speak different languages. It is widely believed that children learn to read better when it is in their native tongue, yet this rarely happens even when countries have a special policy that stipulates children should start learning to read in their mother tongue. The problem is that teachers don't always speak the same language as their students and also that some of these languages are just oral languages without a written orthography. So teaching students how to read in multi-ethnic multi-lingual countries is a very big challenge.

Q: In your experience, what are the most promising methods for spurring real and tangible improvements in the effectiveness of educational programs for young students, particularly in underserved communities?

Cao: In terms of getting children to attend school, health interventions are typically quite successful (especially deworming) as has been shown in Africa (mostly Kenya) and India. They are also cost-effective. In terms of learning and specifically learning how to read, literacy experts now believe that we should focus on the five T's: Time use (time devoted to reading), Texts (better textbooks that are more adapted to children's level), Techniques (specific teaching techniques that focus on things such as phonemic awareness), Tongue (teaching in mother tongue first) and Test (constant testing and monitoring to track students' progress).
Another component that is not mentioned in the five T's but that I believe is also quite important is what's happening at home and outside the school. For instance, the home literacy environment and whether children have access to books and read at home is important. Additionally, parental involvement in the form of school committee can also spur real improvement. I believe that these are things that we should focus on first, before spending lots of money on other things such as better technology (unless the technology is specifically adapted to the student's learning level).

Q: What inspired you to choose your current career path?

Cao: My parents were refugees from Cambodia and had never attended school beyond middle school. They worked very hard so that I could get the best education possible, believing that education can change one's life. So I always wanted to work in the field of education to be able to give back to others but wasn't sure in what capacity. My first job out of college was in psychology research but the research was too theoretical for me, so I thought perhaps I could apply my research skills to another field, which led me to working in the field of research and evaluation in international development. This is a great match as I'm able to utilize my technical skills to help understand how development projects impact people.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far in your career?

Cao: Making that shift from doing basic research to more applied research was definitely one of the biggest challenges. It's not easy to break into the world of international development, especially if you don't have much field experience. So one of the first things I did out of grad school was to look for field opportunities in order to strengthen my work experience and be more competitive in the job market.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give those who seek to contribute to the improvement in the current state of education, either locally or on a more global scale?

Cao: I think every bit counts. We're often not able to see the direct impact of our actions over the long term but whether we're tutoring special needs children at our local school, or helping to develop education policies that might affect thousands of students, we can all contribute to improving the state of education.

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)