By Chris Tokpah holds, Ph.D
Education Minister Werner
This statement is not intended to score political points or bring our appointed officials (some of whom we consider as friends and peers) into disrepute; we ask that all readers refrain from using it for that purpose. We are drawing from our years of education and experience in the fields of education, program evaluation, public administration and public policy to discuss a very serious issue that has the propensity to affect the future of Liberia and its future leaders; we hope that all will consider this discussion within this context and resist the urge to subscribe to name-calling and other unprofessional gimmicks.
Our attention is drawn to a recent statement from the Ministry of Education, in which Minister Werner announced the introduction of Public Private Partnership (PPP) as one of the ways to improve the attainment of learning outcomes at the primary level in government-run schools. Minster Werner, in the statement, identified two major challenges facing the educational sector: limited access to quality education for students and the lack of resources and expertise to provide ongoing training for existing teachers. He suggested that the PPP is an attempt by his Ministry to help in mitigating the problem.
In the same release the Minister indicated that “Last week I convened a meeting of more than 30 non-government educators to discuss an exciting new pilot project…This new project, launching in September, aims to bring lessons from elsewhere in the world, including South Africa, Kenya, the US and UK, to Liberia… The project is called Partnership Schools for Liberia. The Ministry of Education will contract operators from within and outside of Liberia to run public primary schools. The schools will remain within the public sector, owned, financed, regulated and quality assured by government, with support from external donors.” We are not surprised that NGO’s working in the educational sector and the National Teachers Association of Liberia subsequently issued a release questioning the move and expressing outrage given the fact that these stakeholders were hearing about a seismic shift in educational policy “last week” after all major decisions had been made without their input.
Anyone who closely follows activities in the education sector in Liberia (and we have done this religiously) can easily point out to a large number of changes in policy that have occurred over the last 14 years; there seems to be an absence of a clear educational goal with each set of new political appointees bringing in their own changes that phase out within a few years (sometimes months). While implementation of our educational laws could produce reasonable paths for improvement, those laws appear to be mere suggestions. In a society such as ours, where resources are limited and some of our past and current leaders have used government jobs for pecuniary gains, change must be pursued carefully and collaboratively if it will lead to results that benefit society. If this is not done, change agents limit future opportunities of introducing new innovations since those innovations will be viewed with suspicion and reluctance. There are many unanswered questions about the PPP, and while we do agree there is an urgency to try something new and bold to assist in reforming the educational sector, acting boldly without proper planning and/or buy-in could lead to squandering of our already meagre resources (both financial and manpower) without the necessary return on investment.
Minister Werner touts the success of PPP in the US via charter schools and indicated that “Our first inspiration for Partnership Schools came from an unlikely place: New Orleans, in Louisiana, USA. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, New Orleans’ education system lay in tatters. The city government made the bold decision not to rebuild the monopoly of public sector provision. Instead they partnered with non-government operators to create a diverse ecosystem with a range of school operators, known as “charter schools”. And it worked. Despite huge economic and social challenges in New Orleans, charter schools have delivered higher completion rates and better learning outcomes.”
While it is true there has been a minor increase (2 points) in students’ attainment scores in New Orleans over the last 10 years, “Most of the class of 2014 graduating from the 100%-charter New Orleans Recovery School District scored so low on the national ACT test that they didn’t meet the minimum requirements for Louisiana’s colleges… The class average is now 16.4, one of the lowest in Louisiana. The minimum requirement for a scholarship to a two-year Louisiana college is 17, while a high school graduate must score a 20 to be eligible for a four-year college scholarship” (see http://thinkprogress.org/education /2015/02/ 09/3620799/nola-bobby-jindal-school-plan/). A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that “Participating [charter] schools had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores either a year or two years after students applied, other measures of academic progress (such as attendance or grade promotion), or student conduct within or outside of school.” (http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20104029/pdf/20104030.pdf). Evaluation results of the success, or lack thereof, of PPP (or charter schools) have been mixed (just the same as the evaluation results of the success of public schools): some have been successful while others have not. Moving to a PPP model does not guarantee success; proper administration, monitoring and accountability measures must be put in place to evaluate success and improve or weed out underperforming schools.
One nagging question concerning the PPP is why did the Ministry of Education decide to focus on the primary level? The press release suggested that many students are leaving school without mastery of numeracy or literacy. We know that data is available about students’ performance on nationwide exams at the junior and senior high levels but we have not seen any performance data about the primary level (the MOE website seems to describe primary school as 1st grade to 6th grade). Is there an exam that is given to students at this level (we carefully researched the MOE website and did not find this information)? If so, what were the exam results and how do we know that this is our area of greatest need? Is it possible that students complete primary school with the needed skills but that the problem could lie between 7th grade and 9th grade (we get a first glimpse of students’ performance when they sit the 9th grade exam)? Without a baseline, how do we measure if the PPP has led to improvement in students learning outcomes? How are we able to weed out schools who are awarded PPP contracts but fail to meet performance standards at an acceptable level? How do we set targets if we don’t even know what the baseline is (it seems logical that PPP school operators and the public need to be aware of the criteria by which success will be judged)? How do we decide which counties, cities or schools to target when we don’t know which primary schools are underperforming and which aren’t? Without baseline measurement, isn’t it possible we could classify some high performing schools as underperforming (thus misusing resources needed to assist underperforming schools) and low performing schools as high performing? If we proceed without addressing these issues, it would appear as though we already have a solution and we are now looking for a problem to fit the solution (as opposed to the reverse).
Another set of questions that remain unanswered is how funding will be allocated to PPP schools? It is no secret that one of the problems plaguing public schools is the lack of adequate resources. In some instances, principals do receive resources but it is long after they are needed. Will the same amount per student that is given to Bridge Academies (an international partner that will be given 70 schools to run under the PPP) be given to local PPP operators? Should we include a few public schools in the pilot and explore whether, if they were given direct resources a priori (void of our government bureaucratic processes), they might be able to deliver equivalent or better results than private operators? How do we ensure that the curriculum introduced by international entrants like Bridge Academies is culturally relevant (Remember reading “Jack and Jill running up the hill to fetch a pail of water”? My dad, who was out of high school, had no idea what a “pail” was)? Also, the plan calls for private partners to use existing teachers who work for the schools or Ministry of Education. Given that the pilot plan is for 120 schools, it might be possible that a partner is given a school in which few of the teachers do not possess the requisite skills to be in the classroom and are not amenable to training. What happens in that instance? Will the partner hire individuals who might be able to deliver on the task? Can we ask a partner to produce results but not allow that organization to hire the type of individuals it would need to accomplish that goal? Wouldn’t the excuse, “I could not produce the results because I don’t have the right people” be a reasonable one?
Given Minister Werner’s honest admission about the lack of capacity within the education ministry, it seems like an error in judgment to commit 120 schools to a pilot. Even if there are resources, piloting with 120 schools can be a significant challenge. The risk is that, if you stretch yourself too thin, it is possible to get poor results which may not be necessarily due to the intervention but to the lack of resources for proper implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
A major criticism of donor-funded projects is that, most often than not, donors bring in lofty foreign ideas without considering local context and fail to account for the sustainability of their program impact in local communities or countries once funding runs out. And to be fair, the government is primarily responsible for ensuring that social programs are implemented holistically. What is the sustainability plan for this project? Can the government of Liberia provide the same level of funding for this project when donor fatigue sets in (and it will)? Do we intend to expand PPP to our remaining schools (including Jr. high, Sr. high school -after all we do have sufficient evidence based national exam scores that these schools are underperforming) or are we addressing one side of the problem without a system-wide consideration? What’s to stop the next government, which will be elected in two years, or even the next Minister, who could be appointed 2 days from now, from scrapping this entire idea (based on our history, this would come as no surprise)? Should the concept of a PPP be legislated so that if we elect a future government that is inclined to obey the laws, at least we have something on the books to spur continuity? Shouldn’t parents, students, educators, civil and elected officials have a say in this major paradigm shift in our education sector? If we claim to be a democratic society, we must listen to the opinion of all stakeholders (even if there are voices of dissent) and make every effort to address their concerns. After all, they too have a stake in deciding how we proceed with education in Liberia; let’s remember this IS (or should be) a government of the people. American politicians often say, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.”
On another note, whatever happened to the idea of decentralizing education? Shouldn’t we be piloting decentralization in a few counties, evaluating those pilots, and expanding to other counties based on lessons learned? At least, that is already something that has undergone scrutiny from all stakeholders and has been passed into law.
We do agree with Minister Werner that it’s tough to make a change and commend the effort (of the Minister and his team) of thinking outside the box; too often we criticize our officials without recognizing their sacrifices. Unlike some who criticized the PPP, in principle, we are not opposed to the idea of trying something new to improve education in Liberia- we all know that the problem is herculean. Change must be carefully planned and sold to stakeholders; their participation is important for success and sustainability. If this is not done, we set ourselves up for failure before we even begin, and the next time one wants to make a real change, it will be viewed with suspicion. Our elders have often said “He who thinks he is leading and has no one following is only taking a walk.” Before proceeding with a pilot, the questions raised above must be addressed and we must listen to the concerns and criticisms of stakeholders. If we listen carefully, we just might find out they have legitimate concerns and that they love Liberia just as much, if not more, than we do. We suggest a one year hiatus to study and respond to these issues before a decision can be made about whether this is the way forward. By proceeding along the proposed path, we risk following the popular saying “in order to be sure of hitting the target, just aim and call whatever you hit the target.”