Focus on learning for security, prosperity in Central America

Focus on learning for security, prosperity in Central America
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El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are facing turbulent times.

These three countries form the Northern Triangle region of Central America, which has seen a 9 percent dip in its population in recent years. This is  mostly a product of people fleeing to other countries like the United States to escape the high rates of violence and abject poverty that plague their home countries.

Working with governments in the Northern Triangle so their people have more opportunities to thrive in their home countries is a pressing issue, and it is one that requires the U.S. to invest in the region in a way that cultivates long-term prosperity. It requires investing holistically in a way that addresses immediate security and economic development needs, while also strengthening the foundations of society, including basic education.

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Congress recognizes this fact. A House appropriations bill and report language released this month — for the first time ever — includes language explicitly recognizing the need for an emphasis on basic education programs in the Western Hemisphere. This was spearheaded by Reps. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyTrump officials say aid to Puerto Rico was knowingly stalled after Hurricane Maria McConnell tees up government funding votes amid stalemate Dem committee chairs blast Trump G-7 announcement MORE (D-N.Y.) and Hal RogersHarold (Hal) Dallas RogersTrump says he'll decide on foreign aid cuts within a week Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid MORE (D-Ky.), who is the chairman the subcommittee that controls appropriations for the State Department and U.S. Agency of International Development.

Meanwhile, on May 22, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously adopted text authored by Reps. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse Republicans 'demand the release of the rules' on impeachment Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Trump insists Turkey wants cease-fire | Fighting continues in Syrian town | Pentagon chief headed to Mideast | Mattis responds to criticism from Trump Testimony from GOP diplomat complicates Trump defense MORE (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Trump insists Turkey wants cease-fire | Fighting continues in Syrian town | Pentagon chief headed to Mideast | Mattis responds to criticism from Trump Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe House Foreign Affairs leaders introduce Turkey sanctions bill MORE (R-Texas) that directs the secretary of State to prioritize economic development in the Northern Triangle. This includes  addressing the underlying causes of poverty and inequality, one of which is undoubtedly a lack of access to basic education.   

These legislative efforts in the House are a great first step in the right direction, but more must be done. A sober look at the facts on the ground shows clearly that greater investment in basic education, which spans early childhood through high school, is desperately needed.

In El Salvador, half of the population with no formal education is unemployed and 42 percent of young people have seriously considered leaving the country. In Guatemala, more than 2 million out-of-school youth between the ages of 15 and 24 do not have basic life or vocational skills to enter the workforce. Honduras is facing similar issues.

Furthermore, nearly 70 percent of migrants surveyed on their travel through Mexico reported having primary education or less, with one in five reporting no formal education.

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The Northern Triangle also has rates of violence above the averages for Central America and Latin America. El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the world for youth under the age of 19 and young people in all three countries are surrounded by high crime rates and gang violence.

Strong basic education would set the stage for students to succeed in the classroom over the long term and enter the workforce with better economic prospects. It would also foster social cohesion, or, in other words, a supportive and inclusive society. Social cohesion is necessary for spurring economic development and reducing violence. And no society can advance on shaky foundations. 

Some work to improve basic education in the Northern Triangle is already underway.

In El Salvador, the U.S. government recently provided policymakers with information about the reading performance of students enrolled in public elementary schools. The report found that 49 percent of second-graders were at risk of developing later reading difficulties. If not corrected, these early skills gaps could lead to grade repetition and potentially school failure. The authors concluded that future investment should focus on establishing standards for early reading and math skills, providing more training for teachers, and supplying students with more quality books and texts, among other priorities.

In Guatemala and Honduras, multi-year efforts following similar recommendations have yielded important gains in early learning, though program coverage is limited. 

The importance of making an investment in the Northern Triangle, and specifically one in basic education, is indisputable. Doing so is a necessary step to providing the people of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras a chance to bloom where they are planted: at home.

Amber Gove, PhD, is director of research for the International Education Division at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute. She co-authored the 2018 El Salvador Early Grade Reading Assessment.