Reforming Liberian Schools in Five Easy Steps (Part II)

By Elliott Wreh-Wilson, Ph.D

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 15, 2016


We want a building, reads a placard of the protesting students of Cape Palmas High School

On December 16, 2015 I called for re-starting the conversation on reforming our schools. See the 12/15/15. There, I listed 5 provisional steps to reforming our schools. Now, taking into account the reactions to my invitation to fellow Liberians to join the conversation, I want to expand briefly on the first step, which calls for a reduction in class size. This time, however, I hope we can join the conversation without the invectives and name-calling.

Whether we have public schools or private schools, reducing class size to manageable levels is a no-brainer. Teachers and people in the school business agree that an essential requirement for effective teaching is when teachers are able to spend quality classroom time with their students on a daily basis. The way to satisfy this requirement is to reduce class size. Sadly in Liberia, the classrooms are most often overcrowded. The outcome is that teachers are generally overwhelmed, thereby defeating the purpose of assembling both students and teachers in a classroom.

Even where the schools make a concerted effort to limit class size, and this seldom happens in our public schools, the number of students assigned to a classroom very often exceeds 50 students. In fact, a majority of our schools in urban areas do run from 50 to 70 students.

In a country where we constantly worry about the performance of our students on standardized tests like the WAEC (West African Exam Council), this ought to demand our attention.

For example, many of the schools in Harper and Pleebo, not far from the Tubman University campus where I live, many of the public school are overcrowded. Cape Palmas high is a big offender, given that they now hold classes in an abandoned warehouse left behind by the departing UN peace-keeping troops. The same is true for most high schools and junior high schools in large towns and cities across Liberia. From my personal experience, this is due also to the lack of teachers. (So, my next piece will address this issue.) But no one believes any teacher - let alone students - can benefit from such an arrangement. Consequently, we must consider building more classrooms. Not only will this decrease class size, it will also improve teacher and student performance.

Indeed, I realize that all this will require funding. In a country where people struggle to meet their basic needs, building more classrooms will be secondary to meeting basic needs. But our people can be creative. We do live in mud brick homes, so we can educate our children in mud brick schools - if that is what it will take to expand existing structures. Local communities can pull their resources to appropriate land where it may be necessary to relocate schools just so we can have more space to build larger structures. This does not exempt the government, including local businesses to lend a hand. Yes, we can begin to think about school choice and a voucher system for students needing to enter the right schools, but Liberia is not at that point yet. Besides, most children live in towns and cities where school choice is not an issue.

I appreciate very much the reactions to my earlier invitation. Some suggested privatizing our schools while others called for abolishing the Ministry of Education. In either case, we will still have a need to reduce class size. The goal is to improve instruction and student performance. Teachers need ample time to interact with students and conduct fair and accurate assessment of student work…and this calls for smaller classes.

Part III to follow.

Related Articles:
Reforming Liberian Schools in Five Easy Steps
Confronting The Liberian Education Challenge
Reforming The Liberian Education System: A Worthy National Debate
Issues in Transforming the University of Liberia
The Proliferation of Thousands of Graduates Amidst massive Unemployment: What Is The Essence?

The Author: Elliott Wreh-Wilson, Ph.D., Tubman University, Harper, Liberia

Theodore Hodge

Thanks again for your thoughts on a serious subject. I similarly share your concerns that some readers obviously overlooked the seriousness of the matter at hand and decided instead to settle personal scores. Keep trying; perhaps one day we shall learn to listen.
Theodore Hodge at 07:34PM, 2016/01/17.
martin scott
Dr. Wreh-Wilson----Supposed our government abolishes its US$84 million Ministry of Education and give some of that money (in form of school voucher) to parents in Plebo to pay for their children K-12 education...

do you think it would be necessary to ask "local communities to pull their resources" together to build more mud hut schools in Plebo to reduce class size?

I don't think so! Why? Because I have no doubt that there would be a proliferation of private and parochial schools in Plebo, competing for educational dollars (vouchers) to educate poor people children! So there would be no need to ask local communities to pull their resources together..

Even the semi-illiterates among us know that private and parochial schools outperform government schools on the WAEC exams, so why can't our educational dollars (vouchers) be given to poor parents to be used solely for their children primary education (Milton Friedman's idea) to a school of their choice???

Look, I will never forget those women (mothers) from West Point, with little or no schooling, who just a good education for their children. Even though government schools were free, they toiled under the hot, hot sun----selling used clothing (doe-ka-fleh), pepper and bitter balls just to send their kids to parochial schools because they knew that a good education was the key to get their children out of poverty!

Instead of obsessing over class size (more than 24 is a zoo!), it would be better to focus on getting poor children out of our rotten government schools! For many of these poor children, a good education is their ONE big chance to escape poverty.

To leave these children in government schools is a form of child abuse!
martin scott at 10:46PM, 2016/01/17.
Theodore Hodge

Mr. Scott,I'm a little lost here. First it seems you are of the conviction that the government system is not working effectively. It is your observation that the government schools are failing our students; they horribly fail public exams after attending government schools. On the other hand, you are proposing that the same government should fund private and parochial schools so that the students can be more successful. If you agree that the government school system is operating under a massive corrupt system, spending $84 million on heavy bureaucracy and achieving nothing... How are these same bureaucrats expected to sacrifice and forego this massive ministry in order to improve the system? Is it realistic to expect the government to close down its Ministry of Education?
Theodore Hodge at 08:00AM, 2016/01/18.
martin scott
Mr. Hodge—since you're lost, let me explain myself. I believe that if we want to solve the educational mess in Liberia, we should give poor parents school vouchers!

You do that by abolishing our US$84 million Ministry of Education (MOE) and using that money (in form of school voucher) to help poor parents who want to take their kids out of our poor performing government schools!

As you can see from above, I am proposing abolishing MOE and giving that money (in form of school voucher) to poor parents to spend on their children k-12 education.

Does that mean the government is “funding” private and parochial schools”? In a sense, yes! But the “funding” goes from the government to the taxpayer parent, then finally, to the private and parochial school.

In return, private and parochial schools provide poor kids with math, science and other solid skills that will give them a shot at a better life! Wouldn't you love to see these poor kids given the tools to escape poverty? I do..

But as far as expecting the government to close down the Ministry of Education and giving the money to poor parents to send their children to private schools-- the odds of that happening is around 1 in 84,000,000!

Not bad, right? Oh wait, here are 10 things that are more likely to happen than the Ministry of Education being abolished..

1. Alex Cummings becoming the next President of Liberia (1 in 50,000)
2. Wokie Parker convicted of stealing (1 in 3.5 million)
3. Finding out that Edwin Snowe is a born rogue ( 1 in 5)
4. Class size reduced to 24 in Cape Palmas (1 in 6 million)
5. Alex Tyler disclosing his Food Budget to the Liberian people (1 in 1 million)
6. Liberian government official getting struck by lightening for looting (1 in 2)
7. Another Ebola outbreak in West Point (1 in 1,000)
8. Roland Worwee proposes to Mary Broh, thought she was a Victoria Secret model (1 in 250,000)
9. Joe Boakai caught sleeping on the couch at the UN (1 in 115)
10. Theodore Hodge suffers a devastating kick in the nuts from Dr. Duke (1 in 5)

martin scott at 10:45PM, 2016/01/18.
All of you are just talking and no common sense. Teacher quality is the number goal. 98% of the teachers havr a fake degree or certificate. You can get the class size to zero, abolish the Education Ministry and distribute all the money to parents, with fake credentials and unprepared teachers you will continue to see the mess. Now everyone has an online PhD or Teaching Certificate from unknown and superficial institutions. Your disagree?

By the way, how will you distribute the voucher. You will have ghost children, just as you have ghost workers. The whole system is doomed and corrupted.
smith at 04:11AM, 2016/01/19.
Kpanneh Doe
Smaller class size has been much discussed in the field of education, and have been embraced as an antidote to the learning deficit and poor performance of public schools. This debate has been occurring mostly in the United States, and have both proponents and opponents due to its varied outcomes, suggesting that there is no consensus as to whether having a reduced class size contributes to high learning outcomes or vice versa. [Billionaires Bill Gates & Elijah Broad have been champions of this issue, pouring millions into public schools located in poor, urban black neighborhoods but with with limited outcomes]. The idea is relevant when one considers the student: teacher ratio. Should we have 1 teacher to 24 students, or 1 to 50? In our particular context, the Liberian/African context, I am not aware of any studies done that suggest that having it one way or the other would produce better outcomes. I can only draw on anecdotal and experiential evidence to evaluate this approach. I know when I was in elementary and high school 36 years ago (Monrovia Demonstration Elementary School & Saint Patrick's High School), I don't recall sitting in a class that was less than 30 or 40 students. Maybe others have a different experience which they can share. What I remember was that the Women who taught me at Demonstration commanded respect and had a mastery of classroom management and techniques. This was the same with the Catholic brothers at Saint Patrick's. Both were public and private schools. It was obvious that the kids were eager to learn and there was higher expectations.

I will return to Martin's provocative comments in a later post about our mothers in 'West Point' who sacrificed to send their children to some of the best schools. What did they know that we don't know today? I will also be provocative by raising the issue as to whether the 'Classroom" should be the only site for learning amidst the changing nature of education today.
Kpanneh Doe at 10:46AM, 2016/01/19.
Kpanneh Doe
I wanted to elaborate on the topic of classroom size by sharing another perspective that aligns with the necessity for school reform in Liberia today.

The "Classroom" has always been with us, and would continue to be with us,but it is not the only place that learning can take place. Soon, perhaps in the space of 20-30 years, the classroom as we know it--that is, its four-square walls with the Learned Professor or Sage standing before his subjects or students, would eventually become obsolete due to the radical shift from a teacher-centered learning approach to a student-centered, self-directed, independent learning approach. Already, we can see occurring before our own eyes the rise of the internet and computer technology that is gradually being leveraged to replace the classroom as the central place of learning. With the rise in Liberia's school-age population, we have to begin to think beyond the traditional classroom and explore creative ways of facilitating learning. Further, imposing economic constraints and limited resources, the solution to the so-called "Overcrowding" in schools cannot always be to build, build, and build our way out of a problem. We have to be creative and farsighted in our thinking. We have to look at success stories in other countries and see how we can learn and smartly apply some of those examples. For example, we have to explore a variety of learning approaches, ie, cooperative learning, peer learning(children can learn from each other), group learning, etc. including community and parental involvement, especially involving "Mothers" who have a deeper, better, and appreciable sense regarding the education and future of their children.

[I couldn't agree with Martin more that our unlettered mothers in West Point, Kru Town, and various parts of the country knew more about education than the experts we have today. Yet despite the numerous conferences on education being held, no attempt has been made to incorporate their wealth of knowledge into the educational planning process. Someone at the MOE needs to ask our unlettered mothers(and fathers) to share their knowledge about what education is]. There are also great examples of the role of the South Korean and Chinese mothers in the education of their children.

Yes, I agree we need to utilize our local resources, ie. mud house, tatch house, etc. facilitate learning. But one thing that should always be available is good Nutrition and Playground for the children. We can also ask Bill Gates and other billionaires who cared about education and children in poverty -stricken countries to provide us wit 100,000 computers, tablets, ipads, etc. and see the revolution thi
Kpanneh Doe at 02:56PM, 2016/01/21.
Theodore Hodge

Mr. Scott, you proposed that the government of Liberia closes its Ministry of Education and spend its allotted budget to "fund" public schools by providing cash vouchers to parents to send their kids to private and parochial schools. I asked whether you believe it is a realistic proposition that the government actually shuts down its Ministry of Education. You countered by saying that your proposition has a 1 in 84,000,0000 chance of success. 1 in 84,000,000! The question is, if you are convinced that that is most unlikely to occur, why entertain the thought as a workable solution in the first place?
Theodore Hodge at 07:37AM, 2016/01/22.
martin scott
Mr. Hodge—do you play Powerball (American lottery)?? If so, think of the odds of abolishing the Ministry of Education and giving that money (in form of school voucher) to poor parents to spend on their children k-12 education similar to you playing Powerball.

Why? Because the odds of you winning the Powerball Jackpot is as remote (or even more remote) as the odds of abolishing the Ministry of Education and giving that money (in form of school voucher) to poor parents to spend on their children k-12 education

Assuming that the odds of abolishing the Ministry of Education and giving that money (in form of school voucher) to poor parents to spend on their children k-12 education is 1 in 84,000,000)....

And the odds of winning the Powerball is 1 in 292,201,338, why did you and others, buy $650,000,000 worth of powerball tickets, hoping to win the largest lottery in history....US$1.5 billion (not a typo error)!??

Hey, I'm assuming that you're counting on winning the lottery as a wealth building strategy to fund your retirement accounts, right!? In retirement, I can see you living like a monarch in Monrovia! Hahaha

By the way, if you know that your chances of winning the big lottery is "most unlikely to occur" (1 in 292,201,338), why "entertain the thought" of winning the lottery to fund your retirement in the first place? That was a rhetorical question, Theo.

But look. Even though odds of abolishing the Ministry of Education and giving that money (in form of school voucher) to poor parents to spend on their children k-12 education is 1 in 84,000,000), they say you can't win if you don't play!

In other words, to give poor kids that ONE big chance of winning (escaping poverty), let's start the conversation about abolishing the Ministry of Education and giving that money (in form of school voucher) to poor parents to spend on their children k-12 education! It's time to get poor kids out of our Soviet-style school system!

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