The United Nations is singling out Ethiopia for exceptional progress in providing children access to primary education. Ethiopian schools are struggling to cope with a 500 percent increase in enrollment in the past 20 years.
Principal Aklilu Dawit sits in an empty classroom at Addis Ababa's Urael school, wondering how to handle the expected rush of students this week when doors open for the new academic year.
The Ethiopian government's emphasis on primary education for all has been both a blessing and a curse. One the one hand, the increased demand has stretched the system far beyond capacity. On the other hand, Aklilu says simply having children in class is a victory.
"Quality is one question, but the access to education is one big achievement for the society. Other things may improve later," said Aklilu. "Achievement in education is growing, and many students get different kinds of technical skills to lead their lives. They are creating their own jobs, and have their own visions, they are not dependent on other things, so that makes great change through education."
Fifteen years ago, only about 25 percent of Ethiopian boys and 20 percent of girls ever saw the inside of a classroom. Today the figure in most regions of the country is close to 90 percent for both boys and girls. The numbers of children in schools has gone from 3.5 million in 1990 to about 16 million this year.
Three of the keys have been building more schools in rural areas, training more teachers, and giving local communities a freer hand in deciding how to educate their children.
Principal Aklilu Dawit says though levels of learning are basic, he sees a shift in public attitudes about education.
"Most of the parents did not get a chance to go school before. Nowadays this government is trying to get the children to go to school and advising and consulting the parents to send their children to the school," said Aklilu. "Through education they gain many things instead of passing their time on the streets or other places, they learn how to behave, [and] how to live in society."
A study by the U.S. Agency for International Development, concludes Ethiopia's explosive growth in education capacity is in many ways unprecedented in any country. But getting children into classrooms is just the first step. USAID's Allison Wainer says the bigger job ahead for the government and its development partners will be raising achievement levels.
"Due to the nature of enrollment rates going so high, achievement has been suffering. So USAID continues to work with the government on achievement and quality at the student level," she said. "The system is set up, structures in place, and now, how can we best address the quality issue?"
Raising achievement levels is complicated in an impoverished nation where there are few books, millions of people are nomadic pastoralists, and more than 60 languages are spoken. USAID's Wainer says Ethiopia deserves high marks for policies aimed at addressing its unique challenges.
"In certain areas such as language policy Ethiopia is doing better than other countries, so children are allowed to learn in their mother tongue for primary school, which is a big accomplishment," added Wainer. "Many other African countries do not recognize that as a proper way for children to learn, but Ethiopia did recognize that and the benefits are showing."
By secondary school, most Ethiopian classes are taught in English. But the dropout rate is unacceptably high. From 90 percent in first grade, enrollment falls to 25 percent by secondary school.
And books remain scarce. Wainer says Ethiopia, with financial support from international partners, is using an ingenious method of boosting achievement among high schoolers.
"The Ethiopian government has invested in secondary school, though enrollment levels are low and they are trying to use ICT, information communication technology to help bridge some of the gaps of lack of textbooks, so they have developed a very interesting plasma TV curriculum, supplementary curriculum that teachers can use in high schools," she said. "Research has shown that using those technologies in primary education will also pay off."
The United Nations this week is recognizing Ethiopia's great strides in access to education since development goals were set. But these are the first steps on a long road. Experts say a lot of work is needed before countries such as Ethiopia can stop the 'brain drain', the flight abroad of its most educated in search of opportunity not available in their home countries.