Over the last twenty years, the people of Africa’s first modern republic, Liberia, have been through two civil wars and a major virus epidemic. The wars caused the death and displacement of more than a million people. The Ebola epidemic only ended two years ago. Our turbulent history is one of the reasons why 85% of our population now live below the international poverty line. Despite these major challenges, we are committed to giving our children a better future. The foundation of that must be a better education.
For decades, our education system had been failing, notably in 2013 every single candidate failed the admission test to the University of Liberia, 25,000 students. As President Sirleaf said: ‘Rapid change required a departure from traditional structures’. We are significantly behind most other countries in the region on most education statistics. In Liberia, 42% of primary aged children are currently out of school and it is even higher for the poorest. More than half of young adults are illiterate. Over two-thirds of girls do not have basic reading skills.
All this must change now, and the change must be large scale and sustainable. In my role as Professor of Education at Cuttington University and now as Dean at the University of Liberia, I have been working with the Liberian Government to radically transform our education system. We challenged the status quo and sought truly innovative and sustainable interventions. All because we are committed to giving Liberian children the best possible life chances.
That is why the government launched Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL), an initiative that sought to re-imagine primary education delivery in Liberia through adopting both domestic and international private partners. Never a single source program, PSL was a private program run by the Liberian Ministry of Education and selected non-state school operators, including international NGOs, private school operators, and Liberian organizations.
Students at the Bridge partnership school in Kollita Wolah With the initiative and support of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the Government decided to research, prepare and launch the PSL initiative in 2016 with 94 pilot schools and eight different school operating partners.
Bridge is one of the eight providers who are helping us to run this pilot. They currently run 25 of the 94 pilot schools. Although it has been recently announced that they have been awarded another 43 schools after being given an ‘A’ rating by the ministry, based on ‘significant quality of implementation’. This will mean that in September 2017 they will be managing 68 schools across Liberia, many in the South East.
As with all academics, I anxiously awaited evidence of learning gains and I am excited that it has been released. New analysis of the pupils in Bridge schools shows that the children there are making significantly more gains than their peers in traditional public schools. Students can read almost 7 more words per minute, answer 6% more questions correctly about a story, and solve 2.6 more maths problems in a minute. The data for this was gathered at the beginning of this year, so this is a visible achievement after only four months. These students made more progress toward achieving national literacy benchmarks. In just 4 months, 17 percent of second graders met the reading fluency benchmark for the first time, compared to only 4 percent of second graders at traditional public schools. Bridge PSL public school students also outperformed their traditional public school peers on the reading comprehension benchmark by a similar margin; 15 percent met this standard for the first time, compared to 4% of students attending traditional public schools.
Bridge accomplished in 4 months what a very successful early grade reading intervention in Liberia achieved in 18 months. In math, results were quite strong as well, outperforming traditional public school students by an equivalent of 50% more learning over the initial four months.
These are only interim results half way through the pilot, but the signs are very encouraging. Importantly, the entire pilot program is being independently evaluated by the Center for Global Development in a randomized control trial (RCT) that will compare the 94 PSL schools with 94 traditional government-run schools. The full first year results will be out in August, however, the measurable, positive, and statistically significant academic gains recently evidenced are a positive indication of what’s to come.
But the gains are not just in tests. Bridge schools have nearly 90% teacher attendance, which is up from less than 60% in our public schools last year. Enrolment is up dramatically at Bridge schools and with better gender parity. The school day has been extended to seven hours of instruction and students now have access to world-class curricular materials and lesson plans aligned to the Liberian national standards. Bridge’s use of technology, such as teacher computers and Academy Manager smart phones, allows staff to track student attendance, academic performance, and growth over time, even in schools without access to reliable power. Moreover, the data is available to the Ministry of Education on a dashboard which shows near real-time data, offering transparency and accountability for both public funds and the enormous amount of philanthropic support, particularly from Bridge, that underpins the program.
Everyone involved in PSL has made clear that scale up of the pilot will be based on evidence and it is why the publication of the first evidence from 4 of the eight providers is so important and so exciting. There has been push back, even surprisingly from the government’s own western advisors. But, as the Education Minister said ‘patience towards progress is a luxury that no post-conflict country can afford.’ In focusing on learning gains, the PSL initiative has enabled the Government to confront and tackle some key issues including thousands of ‘ghost teachers’ on the Government payroll, high rates of teacher absenteeism and classrooms that lacked not only teaching resources but even desks.
I recognise the Liberian approach to change is controversial and some people will strongly disagree with our initiative. Disruption is often unwelcome and unsettling. But I speak for all Liberians when I say that our education decision making always prioritises the needs of Liberian children. We will not put other factors above the service of their learning and growth. The opportunity is profound – we really are creating a brighter future for our children – in partnership with academics, operators, sponsors, and of course our teachers.
By: Dr. Saaim W. Naame, Dean of Education at the University of Liberia.