Conflicts of Interest
What happens to learning when a hurricane devastates your city or a civil war tears apart your country.
Imagine a school in a refugee camp in one of the most desolate locations on earth. It has no roof, walls, desks; no chalkboards or books. There is just one teacher, but she is not paid, and she stands in front of 100 students who are traumatized, sick, and hungry. She herself barely finished primary school. She has no teaching materials. Many of her students are too distressed to learn, or they find school pointless when they're worried about survival. Girls, especially, may face fierce opposition from their families or find school too frightening to attend.
For Catie Corbin, Ed.M.'10, schools like this are an everyday experience.
Over the past five years, as an expert in "education in emergencies," Corbin has visited schools in conflict zones from northern Uganda to Sudan, from Pakistan to Libya, trying to improve the educational experience for those in the direst of circumstances. Currently, in her work with an NGO called Creative Associates, she is in South Sudan, where decades of war and neglect by the former government means tens of thousands of school-aged children are on the brink of becoming a lost generation. And the immediate trouble isn't even over.
"The border areas continue to be bombed," Corbin explains, "which displaces our target beneficiaries again and moves them south into overcrowded city schools where there are already limited resources. Teacher-student ratios are as high as 300:1 in these areas. They have no textbooks, and they don't even speak the same language."
From refugee camps in Africa to abandoned schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, the problems of educating children in post-conflict and post-disaster zones are daunting and urgent: school buildings damaged by disaster or commandeered as shelters, or no place for schoolrooms at all. No electricity, books, materials. No teachers, few teachers, undertrained teachers, teachers themselves traumatized by conflict or disaster. Children too emotionally damaged or terrified to learn. Ongoing issues of physical safety, including unsafe buildings or routes to school that put teachers and children, particularly girls, in harm's way.
Unfortunately, these situations aren't unusual at all. Of the 75 million children worldwide who are out of school, more than half are living in situations of conflict and millions more live in areas affected by natural disasters, according to Faryal Khan, Ed.D.'05, who leads the education program for the Gulf states and Yemen for the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) located in Doha, Qatar. These situations are broadly termed as "education in emergencies," a wide umbrella that refers to education for populations affected by wars, disease, displacement, natural disasters, and other catastrophic events.
Over the past decade or so, the prevalence of emergency education scenarios — and the incredible challenges they present — has led to a new focus and commitment by the international community. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights posits education as a fundamental human right essential for the exercise of all other rights, and today, education is no longer seen (at least by major humanitarian organizations and most governments) as a secondary consideration in stabilizing populations after disaster, but a basic emergency service.
"Just like water, food, medicine, clothing, and shelter are lifesaving, we feel education is also lifesaving," says Ann Horwitz, Ed.M.'09, who worked for UNESCO headquarters in Paris in the Education in Post-Conflict and Post-Disaster Situations section, along with Jane Kalista, Ed.M.'08, and Vimonmas (Pam) Vachatimanont, Ed.M.'09. "So, in addition to meeting those classic humanitarian needs, we were trying to create a space where people made sure education did not fall by the wayside."
This new focus has been brewing since the 1990s. About 10 years ago, the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) was established. In 2004, INEE issued an influential set of guidelines, Minimum Standards for Education in Emergencies.
"Since then, there has been a recognition of education as part of core humanitarian work in emergencies," says Vidur Chopra, a current doctoral student who is doing related research. With the standards in place, the work turns to advocacy.
Last year, a UNESCO annual report laid out the extent of the problem and emphasized the critical role that education plays in re-establishing order and normalcy in disaster zones. And, last September, the UN secretary general announced the Education First Initiative, an unprecedented effort to get all children into school, including those in emergency situations.
"There's a lot of high-powered energy behind this movement," says Assistant Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson, Ed.D.'09.
There is also rapidly growing interest among educators. Many Ed School graduates are specializing in this niche and immersing themselves in the often dangerous but essential fieldwork that informs their research. Demand is so high among Ed School students that this spring, Dryden-Peterson started teaching a course on education in situations of armed conflict.
"There's a pretty strong drive now in international development for disaster-preparedness education, and for helping administrators and teachers and students understand how to be prepared for risks," says Horowitz, who is working on a related Ph.D. With UN agencies and other heavy hitters throwing their heft behind the issue, there is more help available than ever.
But there is much work to be done, unfortunately. She adds, "Some parts of the world are slower catching on than others."
The profound importance of providing education to children in emergency situations is clear to those who've worked in the field. Some benefits are obvious: In addition to education, schools provide structure, stability, and, in the best cases, safety. Without adult supervision and a focus to their days, children in war zones can be vulnerable to recruitment as soldiers or prostitutes.
"A lot of the time, students have witnessed really horrific things, have lost family members," Horowitz says. "One of the reasons we believe education is lifesaving is because it can restore a sense of normalcy and routine and community that can help students overcome that trauma — and not just students, but also teachers and administrators, where every person in the educational process has endured severe psychological trauma."
In New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, the schools that opened first offered some students their only contact with caring adults.
"Many kids, especially the adolescents, their parents let them come back without them. They were wandering the streets. It was terribly important to get them back and scheduled," recalls Barbara MacPhee, M.A.T.'68, founding principal of New Orleans Charter Science & Mathematics High School, one of the first schools to reopen after the hurricane.
In a strange way, a disaster can also be an opportunity to prioritize education in a way it has not been before. Yemen, which has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, has about 500,000 Yeminis displaced by social unrest and is hosting another 215,000 refugees from the Horn of Africa, Khan says. By reaching out-of-school children in Yemen, she says, "we can change world literacy rates."
This can be very difficult, of course. Basic services like electricity and transportation are scarce. Security is a still a serious issue. Establishing educational systems can seem precipitous when people are simply trying to survive.
"People will say, 'We don't know what's happening tomorrow, so why think about the long-term training of teachers?'" says Dryden-Peterson. Yet it's very clear that establishing functional institutions, especially in education, is essential; for one thing, most conflict situations are not short-lived. "Refugees, on average, are in exile for 20 years," she says. "Education needs to be thought of as part of the long-term plan as opposed to just an emergency endeavor. I think it's easy from the outside to say, 'How come you are thinking about education when people are starving and need medical care?' But it's not one without the other. It's a holistic approach."
In war zones, education is the linchpin to efforts in changing the culture that created the conflict in the first place, so that future wars are avoided. While there are many barriers to getting these children to school, they, and their parents, often are desperate for educational opportunities.
"The thing I hear over and over again from refugees is that education is one of the most important things for them in the camps," Corbin says. "They can't always carry things with them on their backs, but they say you can always carry things with you in your mind." In situations where so little is predictable, that counts for a lot.
There is also great awareness that education means a chance to influence their futures when they can't control the present. So important is education to the refugees in Uganda, Dryden-Peterson says, that they worked hard to convince UN agencies and other NGOs to increase teacher salaries, so they wouldn't leave. Remarkably, refugees even donated their own food rations to the teachers "because it's that important to the community that teachers stay and the children continue to have opportunities to study," Dryden-Peterson says.
And some parents, even though desperately poor, are willing to pay for private school. Last summer, Chopra worked at a refugee camp on the border of Ethiopia and Somalia that held about 100,000 kids and 50,000 adults driven there by the drought in the Horn of Africa and instability in Somalia. Only 30 percent of the children were in school. But many families were eager to see their kids become educated. Some even scraped together money to send their children to private learning centers. Since the private school teachers tend to have a year or so more formal education than free schools provided by NGOs, there is some community perception that they are better, although this may not be the case at all, he notes.
The question then becomes, how do you provide quality education in disaster situations? The INEE guidelines have been invaluable in setting basic standards that NGOs and governments can follow. Still, those who work in the field say that hands-on experience, flexibility, creativity, and cultural sensitivity, are irreplaceable in finding strategies that work in any given situation, since the needs vary depending on location, culture, and nature of the disaster. For example, in some situations of political conflict, parents often worry about the curriculum and the version of history that will be taught to their children. Outside groups may pressure or threaten parents not to send their kids to school. Indeed, over the past three years, the number of reported bombings and burnings of schools, and attacks on teachers and staff, has risen dramatically, Khan says.
"Sitting at a desk in D.C., you can theorize all you want about how this training will shape the mind of a teacher or how this intervention will encourage the children to learn something better," says Corbin. "But until you can deeply understand the culture and the way people think in that particular context, you will constantly be shocked at the norms that are created after decades of conflict."
Erin Hayba, Ed.M.'09, is calling from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, on the Somalia border, the largest refugee camp in the world, where she works for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. As a community services officer, her focus on education is in technology, girls, and children with disabilities. More than 20 years old, the camp has amassed nearly half a million residents, many there for their entire lives, as well as a group of more than 150,000 that arrived last year fleeing the famine in Somalia. Educating the more than 200,000 school-age children in the camp is an enormous undertaking: There are 27 primary schools, seven high schools, and four vocational schools, and great demand to build more, although the scarcity of land makes that a touchy subject within the host community. The challenges are many, including basic safety. In the last year, terrorists kidnapped two groups of aid workers. Explosive devices have already claimed the lives of several, Hayba says.
Today, only 42 percent of the younger children and 8 percent of high school-age children attend school. Although the schools are free and most want to go, many remain out of school for various reasons.
"The majority of the refugees are Muslim, and their religious education is often valued more than formal learning," she says. Getting girls to school is especially hard; with few female teachers and cultural barriers, school is seen as a male-dominated environment. While this perspective is changing among girls who've grown up in the camp, "for the brand-new arrivals who've just came from isolated locations in Somalia, who've never been to school, who've grown up in a nomadic community, this is a new way of thinking."
Hayba has been working on increasing female enrollment, and she points to strategies that work: One principal has been very successful by emphasizing that the Koran supports education and by getting parents to sign a pledge not to marry off their daughters until they finish high school. All elementary schoolchildren receive free lunch, she says, but girls who have an 80 percent or better attendance rate in a given month get an incentive: an extra sugar ration, a commodity in the camp.
One of the biggest problems is teacher quality, which, in Dadaab, has thorny political implications. Kenyan teachers are trained and certified, but they don't typically speak the mother tongue of their students — a problem faced in other countries, Hayba says (see sidebar) — and they are much more expensive than teachers culled from the ranks of the Somalia refugees.
"Most of the refugee teachers went to school in the camps and as a result, often teachers have only have a little more education than their students," she says.
Teacher training is all the more important because the children they are teaching often are deeply traumatized and need specialized strategies. There is little data on the effect of war on learning. Professor Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program, applied for a grant from the Templeton Foundation last year to study child soldiers and other children traumatized by conflict in Uganda, but it was not funded.
"It was a surprise," Fischer says. "We thought it would be a very high priority research project." Still, it's clear that physiological changes in people under extreme stress, including elevated levels of cortisol, put such children at a huge disadvantage in school, he says. In a high-stress situation, "you go into a hormone-induced emergency reaction, which is not a good situation for learning — except to learn how to get away."
While Adjunct Lecturer Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Ed.M.'07, hasn't studied education in emergency contexts, she has done research on creating the best possible learning environment for kids under stress. It's essential, she says, that teachers learn how to create an environment in which students feel safe, first, before they move onto to actual classwork.
However, because corporal punishment is a cultural norm in some conflict environments, teachers may react to disruptive kids by beating them, especially those who display their trauma by acting out violently, Corbin says. Unless teachers are trained with the psychosocial skills to engage traumatized children, they may not know how to deal with them appropriately.
Helping kids succeed under such circumstances takes creativity and perseverance. Hayba recently received a grant from Microsoft to put 20 computers in the Dadaab schools, but there is no electricity. The Kenyan Ministry of Energy then installed solar power in some of the high schools, so four of the seven are now ready for the computers. Hayba also worked with the parent-teacher association to get a community commitment to care for the computers. Not everyone is a fan.
"I've gotten comments from some people — not refugees, but others — that the refugees need books and a place so sit, so why am I pushing computers and technology," Hayba says. But even in such a location, everyone wants to connect to the Internet, and, moreover, there is enormous potential for e-learning in a refugee camp, where resources are hard to come by. Hayba also wants to provide training via the Internet and offer all refugees the chance to use the computers on weekends and evenings.
In that way, the disaster can actually be an impetus for educational progress, which was also the case for MacPhee at her school in New Orleans, which initially ran a half-day program to supplement other public schools. When the city was evacuated in August 2005 after Katrina, MacPhee's faculty and students, primarily low-income, were flung throughout the United States. MacPhee returned to New Orleans about a month later to find the first floor of the building flooded; she and some of her teachers salvaged equipment and found an elementary school that wasn't planning to reopen. They pushed forward with applying for a full charter.
In January 2006, when the city was still a disaster zone, New Orleans Charter Science & Mathematics High School was the first high school to reopen on the damaged side of the river. It held classes in the city zoo while its new building was being renovated, with six teachers and only 120 kids to start — many of them living in cars or sleeping on couches at friends' houses. By August 2006, the school was fully in its new building, with 350 students. MacPhee, now retired, looks back on the way the teachers, volunteers, the community, and students pulled together to make sure the school got back on its feet.
"The kids were amazingly resilient and patient," she says. "Why? Maybe they saw this as the anchor in their lives."
— Elaine McArdles's last piece for Ed. looked at financial incentives.
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