Confronting The Liberian Education Challenge

Introduction and Definition

The Liberian education system is seriously ill with the condition worsening by the day. What exact illness is it suffering from? I use the disease model as a metaphor to highlight how grave the issue is and suggest bold, yet practical paths to its recovery. Three steps are typically necessary when one uses the disease framework: description of the problem, a diagnosis of the cause, and a prescription of the remedy.

The term education system here refers to the collection of individual institutions that are involved in delivering formal education – public, private, non-profit, onsite, and/or virtual instruction at primary, secondary, higher education, and vocational education levels. It embraces faculties, students, physical infrastructure, resources, rules, and regulations. Also included are the institutions directly involved in financing, managing, and operating or regulating such institutions: government ministries, regulatory agencies, accreditation bodies, and the legislature. Rules and regulations that govern the sector and even watchdog institutions, which engage in education advocacy or independent think tanks, which conduct research and assessments are also included. It also involves providers of internship and employment as well as the families of students and non-formal education providers. This inclusive definition aims to bridge the supply and demand sides, while enabling stakeholders to demand enhanced planning, delivery, and monitoring of the other stakeholders within education system.

This essaydiscusses the imperative for education system reform in Liberia, and articulate why the window of opportunity between now and the end of the Johnson-Sirleaf administration is critical for stakeholders: government, civil society, parents included, and donors to accelerate reforms; if not, investments made in post-war nation building and post-Ebola recovery face serious dangers.

Problem and Context
The Liberian education system faces protracted problems in access, quality, and equal opportunity at all levels. The problem is that the disease facing the education system is so advanced and widespread that we cannot waste much time on diagnosis. We have reached a point where an emergency procedure, perhaps a vital organ transplant is required or else, the patient, meaning, the social fabric, will implode as it did during the warring years. Noteworthy, while it is true that there has been a recent trend of rapid spread of private institutions across the primary, secondary, vocational and higher education spectrums, systemic reforms have remained difficult to achieve. Successive governments have found it difficult to reform the education system, resulting in severe constraints on the economy and social development.

Consider thata large segment of the children and youth population ages 5-21 are possibly not attending school. And if they are, that group is getting undereducated due to the poor quality. Worse, at least hundreds of thousands of other children constituting a new cohort is added every year.Sadly, no clearnational strategy exists to address the needs of the out-of-school population. This means that the scale and scope of the problem is increasing every single day and not decreasing. Furthermore, the larger Liberian public has rising expectations, disappointed by the many educational systems failures and the diminishing opportunity for the society to provide productive employment for its “educated” populace. The post-war generation is acutely aware of its disadvantages in a globally connected world, where their peers are seen advancing, thus, leading to mounting unfulfilled prospects and opportunities. Indeed, nothing threatens the future of the country more than the rising economic insecurity that the bulging youth population faces. Emerging democratic norms risk being interrupted prematurely, if these conditions prevail into the new government.

The risks are heightened by the extremely politicized nature of the youth development and education sectors, hence, being fiercely contested venues. Politicians of all stripesare using the children and youth as pawns on whom they exert significant negative ideological influences. The economic rent which some acquire through corruption is used to sway these children to exhibit behaviors that threaten the youth’s own security or livelihood chances, especially since the democratic space has widened unprecedentedly under this government. In addition, as the current government’s time in office is waning and the youth population is increasing rapidly, the education challenge could pose variety of problems for the new government come 2017: economic, social, and most importantly, security. UNMIL departure only exacerbates these threats.

Interventions and Implications
What kinds of changes will result in durable and significant reforms? It will be daunting to do wholesale change right away by a government that is winding down its term in office. Hence, the intervention must be strategic and targeted, focused on the factors that contribute the most to students’ academic growth –teacher qualifications (subject matter knowledge), characteristics, and classroom practices; which will improve student learning alongside mentoring support from family and community. Teacher qualifications refer to ‘training, knowledge, and experiences teachers bring with them when they enter the classroom. Teacher characteristics refer to attitudes that teachers bring with them when they enter the classroom, including expectations for students, collegiality or collaborative nature, etc. Teacher practices pertain to the ways in which teachers interact with the students and their teaching strategies used to accomplish specific teaching tasks: aligning instruction with student assessment, communicating clear learning objectives and expectations for student performance, etc.’
Need exists to introduce school improvement measures focused on such variables as the quality of teaching, changes in the ways assessments are done, how learning supports are provided to students, and how communication is provided to parents from the school. We could also use student grades in key academic subjects as measures alongside critical thinking skills. The point here is that we must identify factor, which drive school improvement and then use them as anchors for change within the education sector and not just talk of improving school quality in generic terms.

Simply, the work of the current administration in its waning years should be on assessing the performance of teachers and students and passing the data to the next administration so that empirically-rooted intervention strategies can be formulated.

Once we take the existing grades of students and assess them with an eye toward knowing their learning needs alongside the instructional needs of teachers, we can now formulate a national reporting system – a School Report Card. The School Report Card must be based on factors that drive school improvement: teacher quality and student achievement indicators. Are our teachers and principals properly trained? Investments in teacher quality has to be just as investments in our doctors. This article does not suggestthat one is better than the other in the Liberian landscape. There is much to be desired on both sides in terms of quality. Ebola taught us a hard life lesson on the quality of our healthcare system a topic for another day.

Another area is the organization of our schools. Liberian schools need to be reorganized to support teacher effectiveness. To accomplish this, there has to be clear and consistent standards about what teachers should be teaching and how each will be assessed in terms of their effectiveness. Moreover, as a society, we should identify our best teachers and administrators locally and nationally and empower them to serve as examples to and trainers of other colleagues. Instead of being the problem identifying society that we have become, let us start a tradition of problem solving. If great teachers and administrators are hailed and lauded, we might begin a process of retaining good teachers and the multiplier effect of giving our teachers the prominence and stature they truly deserve, especially good ones. We need more teachers and more classrooms, and if that is true, then the ways in which current teachers are treated will attract more young people to the profession.

We must radically rethink the place that teachers are assigned in Liberian society and catapult them to respectability as the key pillar of a knowledge building culture.We must also rethink what would make Liberian teachers teach more effectively and have meaningful effects on student achievement. Tailoring instruction to each student’s learning needs will break that old tradition of one teacher telling a whole classroom full of students “the same thing at the same time.” Students must be allowed to work in small groups and even independently at an early age, while being allowed to set personal goals, whose achievement can be facilitated by the teacher and other educational stakeholders.

Clearly, to change our education system requires an investment of resources and innovations, although money being no exception. Those investments must be targeted and driven by a singular rationale – improving teacher quality and student achievement. Being in a technological age as we are now, learning cannot be impactful, if it does not involve technology. Both teachers and students must learn how to use technology, and that can only happen if they have access to things like computers, IPADS, projectors, etc.

A critical lynchpin of education improvement is the involvement of the family systems, not just parents and guardians, but whole communities. We are a communal society, and no resource is more invaluable to us than the family system, although that too is facing its own unique set of challenges, which may be undermining the education system. Our education system will only be effective if it has an outreach component focused on the family system, enjoining them as major contributors to the students’ learning and livelihood. Finally, in a society where poverty and inequality are endemic, the concentration of poor children in poor schools defeats our educational reform efforts. We cannot solve the education catastrophe without a pro-poor economic policies attached intricately to our education reform efforts. Until these steps are taken, education reform will remain a mere catchword, tag, slogan, and/or motto.
In 2017, when the new government takes over, the following immediate steps are recommended. Government should establish36 Gifted and Talented Student Academies (GTSA) – (boarding schools) – 2 per each small county and 4 per each large county: Montserrado, Lofa and Nimba. These schools should enroll only gifted and talented children, selected on the basis of tests that discounts the advantages of social and economic status. This, would hopefully fast track the most promising young human capital who are advanced academically for their chronological ages. The schools, an investment in the future of the country, should be fully subsidized by government or some form of philanthropic resources so that it eliminates the negative psychology of distinctions between children and initiate a process of social integration. This channel of upward mobility without stigmatizing poor children who will attend these schools. These schools should be of high quality that middle class and elite parents would also enroll their children in them, thus leading to cross-class socioeconomic integration.

A natural upshot would be upgrading a selected number of Teacher Training Institutes to build capacity for staffing the GTSAs. The current administration should start identifying talented teachers and upgrading the TTIs in preparation for the opening of the GTSAs come 2017, when the new government takes office. In addition, a group of education systems auditors should also be trained so that they are ready to be associated with the program to monitor the initiative and provide public disclosure of progress at the moment when the project starts. These auditors will have access to information about school budgets, timelines, and interim milestones.

A take away message from this article is that the current government should focus on hiring assessment professionals to collect and analyze data, which would measureteacher quality and student achievement. By this, we can link the two variables and find out the constraints on their effectiveness. Nothing will guide future education policy development and implementation than these two indicators. With respect to building GTSAs, much prescribed details cannot be provided on how it will be implemented given the need for detailed empirical evidence on the number of gifted and talented students in our society.

However, this change will move us away from the deficit model. We will identify the “smart” students in our society and give them requisite resources and opportunities to thrive. This article essentially suggests radical, but feasible new dynamic in our education system to trigger more informed debates amongst Liberians and friends of our country. Collective deliberation should help to shape education reform into a package that would ensure ownership by all those interested in the future of good education system in Liberia.

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About the Author: Emmanuel Dolo is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Liberia’s Future – an independent public policy think tank based in Duazon, Liberia. Ideas expressed here came from reading a variety of sources on education reform alongside discussions with several colleagues on the topic. They are not exclusively new, but contextualized to address the Liberian education challenge, at least, in part. .
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