By Elliott Wreh-Wilson, Ph.D.
Liberian Educational System
Charter schools have been embraced in many parts of the world, including the United States to supplement government efforts to fix failing schools. They have also been used to provide choices for families wanting to remove their children from failing schools. But the experiment has not been without controversy. Rather than fund government schools where we find most poor children, the opponents say charter schools instead takes money away from public schools in order fund charter schools. Supporters like charter schools because they believe charter schools place the focus on school reform and student success. By the way, charter schools tend to be operated by not-for-profit organizations.
The charter school discussion recently became a big issue in Liberia when the Government of Liberia proposed what is now known as the Public Private Partnership or PPP experiment in which a for-profit private agency will oversee what is taught in select pilot schools in Liberia. The PPP is now law, and like it or not, Liberians need to find a way to make it work—for the good of our children. And, this brings me back to my topic, which I put off quite recently to focus on matters pertaining to my primary duties here at Tubman University.
To start, Liberian schools have failed not because of the PPP. The PPP was conceived to fix our failing schools. So, how does the PPP propose to fix our failing schools? Will it train more teachers? Will it reduce class size? Will it foster accountability and responsibility on the part of school administrators? Will it produce better students than we have come to know in recent times? Will it improve test scores? In the end, how will we know that it succeeded or failed to accomplish its stated goals?
Our schools have had a bucket load of problems over these many years. The problems grew more acute as a consequence of school neglect during the war years. Despite complaints about low salaries for teachers, the real problem is that we have never made teacher training a national priority. The quality of teachers, especially at the elementary and pre-school levels has never received serious attention. But will the PPP remedy this problem? What percentage of teachers and school age children has access to a computer?
Discussion of technology in our schools is not new to Liberians. Ever since the computer was first introduced in Liberia, equipping schools with computers has been a popular topic. Our case now is to embrace the computer, making it not just commonplace in our classrooms, but also equipping our teachers with the know-how to help students make good use of the computer. Of course the PPP could support our schools by absorbing willing teachers and providing them with the technical skills they will need to be integrated into the pilot schools identified for by the PPP experiment. More importantly, the PPP could use this phase of the experiment to avail Liberian teachers of professional development opportunities which will enable them to continue where the PPP will leave off?
The trained teacher is indispensable to any school system. And, no one, not even a person with the script of an approved lesson can substitute for a trained teacher. Similarly, no parent will want to send her child to a classroom where there are no trained teachers but only individuals reading scripts of approved lessons. I certainly do not want to believe the PPP would countenance such a practice—one where just any individual, not trained teachers, can read scripts to school children.
Scripts are meaningless if those reading them have no training in pedagogy, assessment, classroom management and critical thinking. Consequently, a script reader must be exceptionally familiar with the content of the prepared script. Imagine you contract a college graduate - only because he or she is a college graduate - and you commission him or her to go into a classroom full of 9 to 10 year-old fourth graders; and, all he or she has to do is read from a prepared script. What happens to the child who does not follow or understand the script? What if the child’s question is not addressed in the script? How does the script reader deviate from the script, as it so often happens in the classroom, in order to answer a question not anticipated in the script?
This is why we insist on training teachers. In addition to mastering course content, we also train them in pedagogy, i.e. teaching methods/styles, classroom management, assessment and critical thinking. These are very useful for delivering course content. So, not only should the PPP strive to fix the problem(s) it envisages, it should also plan to train teachers who will be equipped to read scripts based on their knowledge of pedagogy, assessment, classroom management and critical thinking. Script reading should be the least of our concerns when it comes to fixing our failing schools.
Fortunately, our universities appear prepared to provide in-service teacher training. Tubman University, for example, is not only admitting freshmen into baccalaureate degree programs, the University’s College of Education also has room for teachers seeking advanced training in pedagogy, assessment, classroom management and critical thinking. One would have expected the PPP to tap into such a valuable resource, I mean Tubman University, which is funded by the Government of Liberia. To date, Tubman University has graduated dozens of students trained a pedagogy, assessment, content, and so forth.
One practical value of relying on government funded institutions to lead ventures such as the PPP is that these institutions are accountable to government. Their funding depends largely on the quality of their performance. This is why groups such as USAID and other US based foundations often contract academic institutions to supervise pilot programs like the PPP.
But, it is not too late. The PPP and the Ministry of Education still can turn to a government funded institution like Tubman University near Harper, Maryland County to support the PPP in ensuring the reliability of its findings, when the PPP runs its course. And, the PPP will certainly run its course. What Tubman University and other similar institutions will do at that time will be to further the mission for which the PPP came into being. Moreover, Tubman University could serve as an external agency to assess the findings produced by the PPP for accuracy and reliability.
So the question is: What is the mission or end of the PPP? This is not a question about goals or the methods the PPP will employ to meet its goals. Rather the question is about the ultimate reason, purpose or end for which it exists and functions.
This semester each school child’s goal, for instance, is to pass his or her exams. That is the immediate goal. The principal and more distant goal or end for passing exams is to obtain an education that equips each child to become a productive citizen. This will be the end, purpose or ultimate reason for going to school and for passing exams. Accordingly, going to school or passing exams is not the end but only a means to an end.
Similarly, teacher training, access to technology and small class size are all means to an end, which is to create the right environment for educating productive citizens. Thus, one can argue that the PPP is just another mechanism and a means to a definite end which, as we all know, is to educate Liberia’s children for productive citizenship.
But, is this the purpose of the PPP? Or, is the PPP just another fad being embraced because it was successfully managed in some other country - a country whose culture and socio-economic and political conditions are perhaps similar to conditions in Liberia?
It is folly to presume that a program that was successfully implemented in one country or region will be successful everywhere. The success of programs, wherever they are found, depends on a number of well thought out factors, including transparency and pure motives. If the motive is to cut cost or simply to move towards the privatization of Liberian schools then we need to hold a broad national conversation beyond the one held amongst residents of Monrovia, who always believe they have all the answers to Liberia’s problems and so seldom include non-Monrovia residents in national discussions concerning matters of national interest.
Liberia is a big country. I did not say that Liberia is a very big country. So, let’s not make this a discussion about how big Liberia is. Instead, it should be about policies that come out of Monrovia, but which seldom take non-Monrovia sensibilities and input into consideration. The mistake here is a function of a complex or syndrome whose basis is unclear to me. Many of the people who reside in Monrovia are generally former residents of towns and villages that are far from Monrovia. Yet, they live in Monrovia under the delusion that they are Monrovians, hence the Monrovia syndrome that because Monrovia is the capital of Liberia, whatever comes from Monrovia must be good or acceptable to the rest of the people of the country. It is as if the rest of the country did not matter. So, just about the time when we learned of the existence of the PPP, we also learned that the PPP was already settled law. Moreover, we also have learned that pilot schools have already been identified for the implementation of the PPP. But where are these schools, and why and how were they selected? Will the findings from the pilot schools be shared with the rest of the country, and who will be responsible for the dissemination of those findings? Have these questions and concerns received adequate vetting, and by whom?
We still have two Liberias - Monrovia on the one hand and the rest of Liberia on the other. The good things that show up in Monrovia seldom show up in the rest of the country. And, the government seems oblivious to that fact. But school reform cannot be a Monrovia issue. School reform must take into account the entire country. All our children must benefit from school reform. So, while I embrace the concept of the so-called PPP, I do remain open to the possibilities it holds for our children - all our children. And as I end this series of Reforming Liberian Schools in Five Easy Steps, I hope the operations of the PPP will be characterized by transparency and pure motives, assuming that the purpose is genuine school reform that is directed toward the creation of educated and productive Liberian citizens
About the Author: Elliott Wreh-Wilson, Ph.D. is the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences,W.V.S. Tubman University, Harper, Liberia