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Special Feature

Smashing Criticism into Pragmatism: Time to Tackle the Mess

For almost a decade since the ascendency of a Harvard educated public administrator and Africa’s first female democratically elected president; Liberia’s education system has been inundated with disparagement emanating from the power that be, members of the ruling establishment as well as scores of Liberians and foreigners alike.  Take for instance; President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf branded the entire education system as “a mess”.  Moreover, in the words of President Sirleaf as expressed in the 2012 Annual Message to the National Legislature: “Our sixth and ninth graders are below average in math and reading, and our twelfth graders rank near the bottom.  Many of our students graduating from high school and college are reading and writing at the junior high or elementary school level”.  

Despondently, Madam President admitted in her recent State of the Nation Address that the quality of education has declined even further citing the failure of students in the entrance exam of the state-run University of Liberia and in the substandard WAEC exams.  More to the point, the President neglectfully expatiated in an address delivered on December 19, 2012 marking the commencement convocation of the University of Liberia that universities in Liberia are not producing the desire human resource capacity much needed to develop the country.  Let’s face it; perhaps, no president in the history of Liberia has so generically criticized, belittled and degraded the education system like Madam President.

Of course, it is an obvious fact that after years of intermittent civil conflict, the education system is faced with enormous challenges and in dire need of reform, recovery, and renewal.  Howbeit, the incessant denigration of the education system for far too long without workable or tangible or realistic or holistic solution further delineates the utmost gravity for which the problem still persist. 

Blame Shaping Game

Many Liberians from all walks of life have begun raising eyebrows and questioning the truest motive behind the unceasing censure on the education system. Some have queried the length of time it will take to fix the educational mess.  While others have pin pointed if the WAEC exams and University of Liberia placement tests could be used as the only yardsticks and criteria to assess the entire education system.  Several people are yet to comprehend who is responsible for the disgusting, disheartening, and disappointing education system, inasmuch as President Sirleaf shapes blame on the failure of students in WAEC and University of Liberia entrance exams. 

On the other hand, most students complain about the lack of qualified teachers, inadequate textbooks, absence of libraries, unequipped laboratories, and skyrocketing tuitions and other fees in the midst of extreme poverty.  Every so often, competent teachers express discontentment about salaries and accompanying benefits as well as research incentive and overall welfare.  School administrators raise a ruckus on the high cost of operation.  A number of educational activists go off the deep end concerning academic malpractices, briberies, sex for grades, unavailability of textbooks, unrefined curriculum to commensurate with present day realities, inadequate furniture in most public schools coupled with compounded students’ attitude towards acquiring education.   Furthermore, a large number of parents and guardians have highlighted the need for the Government of Liberia to take its responsibilities serious and begin the work of ensuring every citizen has access to topnotch education.

Fragmentary Progress

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Be that as it may, the government under the watchful eye of President Sirleaf has constructed more public schools, renovated dilapidated school buildings, and provided additional subsidies to institutions of learning.  Undeniably, several schools have been constructed or renovated without adequate or qualified instructional staffs while in other parts of the country and even along a two-mile road that leads to the historic City of Marshall; there is completely no public school.  Irrefutably, a number of schools have been erected across the country; however, many are without furniture, library, and laboratory let alone recreational centers.  Indisputably, the government has unevenly provided subsidies to tertiary institutions and selected secondary schools, yet tuitions and other fees continue to go through the ceiling.  Undoubtedly, the government has passed a brilliant Education Reform Act of 2010 which speaks of the establishment of County School Board charged with the responsibility of regulating academic activities in the county as well as the provision of free education from primary to junior high in all public schools among other things; nonetheless, the County School Board including the free elementary and junior public school education and the free and compulsory primary education have so far proven to be impracticable.  Hence, many people cogitate if the President recent pronouncement to provide free education for girls in secondary school could even be achievable.  Unquestionably, the salaries and wages of public school teachers double most private school teachers, but bribery, collusion and academic malpractices remain customary. 

In spite of the glaring fact that the Government of Liberia with support from international partners and friendly nations had revamped the entire teacher training institutes across the country and provided tuition free programs for the Medical, Agriculture, and Teachers Colleges at the University of Liberia along with monthly stipends for students; many illustrious students are not fascinated about the manners and forms in which teachers are being treated.  Thus, only a handful of young people choose to seek admission in the Teachers College.  Likewise, some patient, passionate, and perseverant students who opt to study medicine and agriculture in order to significantly contribute to the healthcare delivery system and food production of the country are too often denied the chance to achieve their full potential and measure of happiness due to the constant threats and intimidations stemming from professors or instructors.

Above and beyond, the Government has developed a revised Technical Vocational Education Training (TVET) policy and continues to expand technical and vocational training opportunities through the advancement of Booker Washington Institute (BWI), strengthened partnership with the Liberia Opportunities Industrialization Center (LOIC) together with the Liberian National Red Cross alongside other local partners, and diligently sought support from the People’s Republic of China to upgrade the Monrovia Vocational Training Center (MVTC).  Then again, the inadequate hands-on and minds-on training as well as decent and quality jobs for graduates of these institutions are all too often not forth coming due to lackadaisical comportment on the part of the government. 

More than ever before the government has prioritized politicizing and boasting about the construction of community colleges in certain parts of the country with little or no trained professional staffers, lack of basic logistics, and inappropriate programs.   To a greater extent, most of the community colleges are not even functional, but only meant to proffer thrives for tertiary education. 

Cleaning the Mess

In this 21st Century when most nations are significantly advancing in all aspects of education, Liberia’s education system which was once upon a time in the limelight of excellence and citadel of topnotch education shouldn’t be about perpetual criticism or blame shaping or continuous excuses. 

Now is the time to ensure accessible, affordable, effective, efficient, and state-of-the-art education for all irrespective of creed, status, gender, and affiliation.  With education for all, young minds will be developed to build new roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals across the country.  Education for all will ensure the construction of factories to produce goods with the inscription “Made in Liberia”; on top of other basic infrastructural facilities to better the standards of living and improve clean energy and water.  Besides, education for all will fill the knowledge gap through the development of human resource capacity of young people thereby yielding more medical practitioners, engineers, business tycoons, entrepreneurs, lawyers, social workers, educationalists, scientists, and other specialists to tackle the difficulties now and future challenges that lie ahead.  Investment in the development of human resource capacity within the public sector will decrease government’s expenditure on consultancy and provide employment opportunities that boost the economy.

The time has come for President Sirleaf to stop utilizing WAEC exams and University of Liberia placement tests as benchmark and assessment framework to evaluate the education system.  The President and hierarchies at the Ministry of Education should retooled the assessment of the education system instead of using the old-fashioned and repetitious WAEC exams and University of Liberia entrance exams to appraise the education system. The time has come for President Sirleaf, member of the ruling establishment, and key decision makers to ensure that there is dignity and worth in earning Liberian education.  The time has come for President Sirleaf to stop the overgeneralization of the education system and respect those who meritoriously acquired Liberian education and as well create a broad and level playing field, where people are allowed to compete despite school of origin.  This would help to inspire many Liberians to strive for academic excellence and excel beyond imagination, because they would definitely have role models.  After all, many scholars and researchers have theorized that it is not the school one graduates from that matters most, but rather it is the ability to prove oneself. 

In so doing, President Sirleaf should contemplate on providing an enabling environment, where competition would exist, instead of continuously vouching that Western or foreign educated Liberians have the requisite skills and technical know-how it takes to get the job done.  Absolutely, a lot of people  do appreciate the tremendous contributions of most Western or foreign educated Liberians, but the fact remains that there are some who have got bogus academic credentials with very poor performance while others are using the country as an intermittent earning destination at the detriment of the already poverty-stricken Liberians.  

With an ambitious plan to create middle income class in 2030, the government needs to focus on investing in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) education as developed by Youth Exploring Solutions, an accredited nonprofit, passionate and leading voluntary grassroots youth-led development organization.  The government should also begin to invest in research so as to provide grant opportunities to institutions of learning and individuals to undertake various projects ranging from science and technology, to food and agriculture, to business and finance, to education and health.  With resources available for research, professors will begin to write Liberian text books in different disciplines and field of studies.  This would also breed Liberia’s next generation of scientists, engineers, inventors, authors, and innovators that will rebuild the broken fabrics of their war-torn country.  In addition, the government should think about providing subsidies to all educational institutions so as to improve the standard of learning.  Notwithstanding, school authorities should stop being only keen towards collecting tuitions and other fees; instead, they should concentrate on providing quality education above everything else and also put into place various strategies to demand students’ credentials and conduct background check to ascertain the students’ academic records in previous school attended.

The government as a regulatory and a service provider in the educational sector should ensure reduction of tuitions and other fees among every private institution in the country rather than finding flimsy excuses.  As a matter of fact, the government has the statutory responsibility to regulate and grant operational license to all institutions of learning and ensure that schools are in conformity with established standards.  Therefore, it beats one imagination to comprehend why the government will articulate that it does not have regulating power to reduce skyrocketing tuitions and other fees in private institutions.

In the midst of the deadly Ebola, despite massive reduction in the number of persons being infected; the government and its partners including international nongovernmental organizations, civil society and community based organizations need to put into place school safety protocols, provide anti-Ebola materials, conduct training workshops for teachers and other faculty, ensure the provision of psychosocial therapists and hygiene instructors, and provide spacious and limited number of students per class so that students don’t contract the Ebola virus disease.  

It is on to every Liberian to set their sight higher and begin the work of fixing the educational mess through our own imagination, creativity, culture and a sense of national pride.  It is on to us to begin teaching every child to learn how to read.  It is on to us to put aside petty jealous, partisanship, corruption, greed for power and wealth in reshaping Liberia’s education system for the betterment of our country and its people.  It is on to us to take collective, decisive, and proactive actions in swinging the educational pendulum of Liberia from criticism to pragmatism.  Together, we can work overtime to tackle the long-standing education challenges.

About the author:  Mr.  Stephen B. Lavalah is an advocate and the Founder & Executive Director of Youth Exploring Solutions (YES), a passionate, non-profit and voluntary grassroots youth-led development organization. For more information about YES’ work in Liberia, please visit http://www.liberiayes.org.  The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent YES.

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