By Chris Tokpah, Ph.D
Liberian Educational System
The Ministry of Education (MOE) recently announced a public private partnership (PPP) affecting 120 elementary public schools in Liberia. 50 schools have been contracted to Bridge International Academies (BIA) (an international for-profit company) to run while local non-governmental operators are being invited to bid for the opportunity to manage 70 schools. In an earlier statement, we questioned the decision to move towards privatization considering the questions and concerns being raised by stakeholders in the educational sector (including the National Teachers Association of Liberia). We also raised several questions about the implementation and sustainability of the PPP.
Since our last statement was released, we have come across additional information including the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Liberian government (GOL) and BIA. In principle, we are not diametrically opposed to the idea of piloting a PPP; however, the agreement with BIA has the propensity to create a two-tier public school system (BIA “public “schools and other public schools) and violate our education law that guarantees access to free public education at the primary school level (primary is operationally defined as kindergarten to 6th grade).
Two-Tier Public School System
To provide a context, BIA is operating a series of for-profit schools in various parts of Africa-including Kenya and Uganda. In their arrangements with these countries, they went in like any other foreign school operator or faith-based institution (e.g. the Catholic Church), opened a school and charged fees for services. Parents who can afford the cost are free to choose whether or not to send their kids to BIA operated schools while those who prefer the public school system have that as an option. Unlike this configuration, the GOL is turning public schools over to BIA to run. Parents may be constrained to send their kids to BIA operated public schools (operational costs will be covered by donors – at least for the period under contract - so parents incur no tuition costs-like in other public schools) if they cannot afford private school tuition and/or transportation costs to other public schools.
Under the MOU with BIA, “the pilot will assess existing civil teachers, certified but unemployed teachers, and other candidates that meet the requirements will be part of the pilot. Preference will be given to teachers in the school they are taking over and will test them first” (1.8.2 of the MOU). “Every principal [and] teacher will be subjected to a rigorous selection, testing and interview process, which will result in some teachers being offered a role and others not being offered” (220.127.116.11 of the MOU). For principals and teachers from the existing school who are not offered a role in the pilot project at that school, the GOL will place or staff them in an alternate location that is not part of the pilot project” (18.104.22.168 of the MOU).
If one of the goals of the PPP is to upgrade the skills of existing teachers (this is one of the main justifications that the Ministry of Education has offered), why is BIA not retaining all of the teachers at a given location and providing them with in-service training to upgrade their skills? As we have not seen the test being administered to teachers and principals, we are unable to comment on whether it is valid (measures what it is supposed to measure), reliable (produce consistent results over time) and has been adjusted for cultural context (we believe these professionals have the right to this information before sitting the exam). For simplicity, let’s assume that these conditions have been met. If teachers and principals who took the tests are not deemed “qualified” to teach or supervise in the “public” schools run by BIA, why are they qualified to be placed at an alternate location? Doesn’t this create a two-tier public educational system where we placed all “qualified” staff in one school but say the other schools can have those who are unqualified?
Under section 22.214.171.124 of the MOU with BIA, “All pupils (including those already studying at selected locations) will be required to take placement examinations. These placement examinations will be needed to in order to ensure that pupils can be placed in the right class and not for selection in the pilot schools…Such class placements may be different than their previous class placement before the pilot project began.“
Imagine this situation: Tarkpor Gono and Yei Sennie are attending the Martha Tubman Elementary School in Sanniquellie, Nimba County. Both of them are in the 5th grade this year. At the end of the academic year, the MOE certifies (through their agent who is the school principal) that both students have satisfactorily completed the requirements of the class and are promoted to the 6th grade. BIA takes over the school next year and Tarkpor scores low on the placement exam and is placed in the 4th grade. So while the government promoted Tarkpor to the 6th grade, the BIA “public” school insists he is not 6th grade material. Meanwhile, Yei Sennie’s parents find a job in Ganta and she goes to the public school (not under BIA) as a 6th grade student. Since our primary focus is the learner, and it should be, is this not an irony that the same school that promoted Tarkpor now says he belongs 2 classes below? What does that do to his confidence and self-esteem? Assuming the placement test is a true measure of Tarkpor’s performance, why not keep him the class he was promoted to and offer other forms of remediation, such as after-school program or Saturday class, to correct for his deficiencies? If Tarkpor belongs in the 4th grade then why not Yei? Is this not a two-tier public school system? Does this not expose the principal, teachers, and even the MOE to public ridicule? Are we now naming and shaming the very educational professionals whose support we need to reform the system?
Guaranteed Access to Free Primary Education
Access is the ability to get to something without hindrance. Getting back to the example above, let’s assume that Tarkpor’s parent insists (and rightly so) that he must be placed in the class that the MOE promoted him to. “The parents of children in the pilot school will have to ‘opt-in’” (8.6.3 of the MOU). If Martha Tubman is the only elementary school in Sanniquellie, Tarkpor’s parents have two choices: sign an agreement for him to attend the BIA “public” school and be placed in the 4th grade (if there was another public elementary school close by, not operated by BIA, he could go there and be a 6th grade student) or send him to a private school. If Tarkpor’s parents don’t have the money, isn’t their son being denied access to free public primary education? Is the BIA “public” school not restricting access by putting in place a hindrance?
As stated in our earlier release, there are many unanswered questions about the PPP and the public has a right to know these answers before proceeding. The education system cannot run without teachers who are the fulcrum of the system. As of the writing of this article, public teachers were already threatening a nation-wide strike. Teachers will not be satisfied until they know that they work in a system that supports them and appreciate the work that they do. What becomes of the teachers who don’t pass the test being administered? Is there a remediation plan in place? If so what will happen and by when? How does this affect their salaries? Will someone who is assigned at a public school in Ganta unceremoniously find out that s/he is being transferred to Mano River in Cape Mount and told to report within a certain timeframe or lose their job? These are genuine concerns that could affect the lives of individuals who have dedicated their entire careers to teaching our kids for meagre incomes. These fears need to be allayed via a comprehensive plan; it’s our kids who ultimately become the victims if this is not done. If we really care about the education of our kids (we are convinced that we all do), we should suspend this pilot and work with stakeholders to address these questions and concerns and then proceed when we have a comprehensive solution.
We know, for some, battle lines have been drawn and pride is at stake. Let’s put away our pride for the sake of our country; it gets us nowhere. No one knows everything and we will do well to learn from each other. In business, strategy is often not the problem but execution is; it accounts for about 70% of all failures. Our forefathers told us “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. We should not ignore their wisdom.
About the Author: Chris Tokpah holds a Ph.D in Program Evaluation and Measurement. He is an educator and a senior administrator in Higher Education. He lives in Pennsylvania and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.