By Saaim W. Naame
Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest school enrollment in the world. Yet even in this context, Liberia’s education indicators are shocking: Less than half of 15- to 24-year-olds are literate, less than half of young children attend primary school, and about a third of children who start primary school do not finish.
Looking at Liberia’s recent history, it’s easy to see why improving these statistics is challenging. Two civil wars and the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus caused massive harm to our entire education system.
But now the government is turning the situation around. The Ministry for Education launched Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL), a scheme designed to quickly change low-performing public schools into high-performing public schools.
One year ago the government started with about 100 primary schools in the PSL initiative, which is managed by eight independent partners. The plan wasn’t just to form partnerships, but to redesign the framework Liberia uses to deliver primary education. It tackled teacher literacy and attendance, reduced the size of overcrowded classes, replaced (or provided) learning materials, and restructured the school day. This government-designed overhaul was meant to create conditions where children could learn by working with organizations that have experience managing schools.
Now, one year into the scheme, an independent assessment of PSL has demonstrated that the average improvement in learning gains for pupils has been 60 percent, compared to traditional primary schools. Some operators, such as Bridge International Academies, have seen a 100 percent increase. After one school year, test scores among students in PSL public schools, compared to those outside the program, were equivalent to 0.56 extra years of schooling in English and 0.66 years in mathematics.
The government has declared these results to indicate strong early success, and I agree, based on a measurement of academic achievement. Children are attending the same public schools as before, for free, but under new management—and they are learning more.
Seeing this outcome, governments, academics, and policymakers in countries like Nigeria and Kenya are paying close attention, and are now considering how they can apply these lessons to improve education for their own children. A new World Bank report on education points to the progress made by the Liberia program, saying “early grade reading improved substantially within a very short time thanks to focused efforts based on evidence.”
There has been some criticism of PSL, from groups such as Brussels-based Education International. Pointing to three main issues—financial sustainability, the removal of illiterate teachers, and the reduction of class sizes—they argue that the investment in education by some of the operators is too high, that no teachers should be removed from pilot schools, and that large class sizes should be permitted.
I will address each in turn.
The program aims to spend $50 per student by 2020, and the current school operators believe they are on track to achieve this. It is designed to be scaled up, so the first-year costs do not necessarily reflect costs moving forward. The operator most criticized in this regard was Bridge International Academies, which, according to the RCT report, spent about $300 per pupil in the first year, and is forecasted to spend around $200 in the upcoming academic year, making progress toward the goal of long-term financial sustainability.
The program will largely rely on international donors, such as social investment capital or philanthropy, until 2020. Because of this support, the government has not had to divert funds from other initiatives in the initial stage of the program.
Beyond concerns of financial sustainability, teacher literacy and absenteeism are major problems, not just in Liberia but across Africa. To confront this, the Liberian Ministry of Education decided to test teachers for literacy, and replace any illiterate teachers in PSL with literate ones. Unsurprisingly, a large number of illiterate teachers were found in the first year of this program. Many operators rightly requested that the Ministry replace them. Some were more diligent in replacing illiterate teachers than others. The Ministry is now training hundreds of new, literate teachers, and it is expected that this problem will be less widespread in the coming years.
There is also a phenomenon in Liberia known as “ghost teachers.” These names are listed on the government payroll as teachers, but may have died or may not ever have existed, and are certainly not teaching students in classrooms. Often, these are people who register as teachers under assumed names and receive compensation without actually being teachers. Methodically expunging these so-called “teachers” from the system has been a key component of the reforms undertaken by the Ministry of Education. Many people have been hit financially as a result, but the real effect is not a widespread purge of legitimate teachers, as those unfamiliar with this aspect of the Liberian system may see when they look at the numbers.
The Ministry also decided to put in place class-size limits, which meant that some children had to leave overcrowded classrooms and attend nearby schools not in the pilot program. In many countries class limits are standard practice—you will not see a classroom in the U.K. or U.S. with 100 children taught by one teacher. A shortage of classrooms, schools, and teachers in Liberia meant that classes were often badly overcrowded, making it almost impossible for children to learn even if they were in school. But there is no future for Liberia or our children if we consider mere presence in school to be a sufficient outcome. Children need to be in class and learning. Ensuring class sizes are conductive to learning is key in delivering education reform, and more students will be admitted into PSL as the program expands. This year, it will grow from 100 to 200 schools, reaching a total of about 70,000 children.
As an academic, I find critics’ focus on Ministry policy decisions, rather than the learning gains made, incongruous. To achieve 60 percent improvement in learning in one year is almost unheard of. The starting point was low, but we should celebrate this achievement. This is the first year of an innovative reform unprecedented in Africa, and it is certainly not perfect. But learning gains are the most important consideration, and we must ensure our children can read and write. In that respect, this program has delivered results.
In Liberia we do not have the luxury of time. We need better schools today. Many who focus on sustainability and scalability do so having never visited Liberia. They have not seen the reality on the ground, and they debate the theory of reform rather than understanding its practical implications. It is not their children, their country, or their future that will suffer if we do not expand our education system now. We cannot wait; we must serve the needs of our children today.
Dr. Saaim Naame is the secretary general for the Association of Liberian Universities. Formerly professor of education and research methods at the Cuttington University Graduate School in Liberia, he is now professor of education at the University of Liberia.