By Gerald D. Yeakula
About a week ago, I arrived at work and made a routine stop at my boss’ office situated in the right wing of a building overlooking Tubman Boulevard. Upon entering, I was greeted by Fatou M. Coleman’s hefty but revealing book entitled "Catalogue Of Graduates From the University of Liberia". It is an accurate register of graduates dating as far back as 1866, when a single graduate walked out, and up to 2009, when about One Thousand Five Hundred students made up the class. Flipping through its pages, I became awestruck by the people of great renown who were listed. But even more notable were the many foreign students who graduated between ‘62 and '89. A total of Four Hundred and Nineteen foreign students graduated during the period. They came from 27 countries including: China, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and the United States of America. Wow! Really! Does this reflect the fact that our system soared in prominence within the sub-region and beyond with regards to education? Was our education system so vibrant that it attracted foreign students and teachers alike? Does this situation hold true today?
Our education system is in a state of ‘academic recession’. Standards have dropped; we can no longer take pride in many of the products of our system and inflow of foreign students and teachers have substantially reduced. In 2013, for example, all 25,000 candidates failed the entrance exams of the University of Liberia and the scale had to be lowered for few to enrol. This year, 48% of candidates failed the national senior high school examination (LHSCE)—one of the worst performances in recent years. These developments are disturbing and have sparked concerns from stakeholders. The government, however, seems determined to transform the “mess” amid all the hysteria.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) has decided to tackle the problem at its core with focus on early childhood and primary education. Consolidation of quality at these levels should set the foundation to support onward growth and development of students at all levels. To insert sustainable quality in the system, the MoE wrestles with the idea of fixing the system itself or engaging the expertise of external agents. The latter is being considered and the early childhood and primary levels would be affected. The Ministry of Education has contracted the services of Bridge International Academies, a private company, to adopt 50 schools and pilot its technology-driven delivery of education. In essence, all early childhood and primary public schools will be operated by a for-profit “edubusiness” within the next five years, provided that the pilot phase (2016/17 academic year) is successful. The Ministry and its partner are optimistic that the pilot project would be a catalyst for improved learning outcomes. “Through the Pilot project, Liberia will be quickly “Getting to Best” across the continent of Africa, and setting an example globally that will be emulated”, says the Memorandum of Understanding contracting Bridge.
But does Bridge have a magic wand that could change things in a matter of months? What does this public-private-partnership mean for students, teachers, and administrators of the system? How did the Ministry derive at the conclusion that this is the best option? What are the implications of relinquishing responsibilities to a private entity? These questions need more discussion but I would attempt at brevity in providing my perspective.
From the Beginning
The idea of privatizing government-run schools in Liberia emerged early this year. By March, the Ministry of Education had already signed an MOU with Bridge. The Ministry was so convinced about the plan to the extent that it did not solicit stakeholder inputs at the inception; this was at odds with the governance principle of participation. It took the advocacy of civil society to push education authorities to consult around the plan. The Ministry opened up but this was merely cosmetic as a contract was already agreed. Therefore, inputs made were largely for informational purposes rather than affecting decision-making. It is nonetheless important to sustain engagement with the process, and alert others about the impending hiccups. What is Bridge and what does it have to offer? How will this ‘innovation’ be distinctive with regards to the traditional system we currently operate? We will now take a look.
Bridge International Academies (BIA) is a profit-making company that deploys an approach radically different from the traditional method of education delivery. The company operates in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and India, and uses technology to distribute scripted lessons via low-cost tablets. Teachers learn the BIA system and how to deliver the scripted lessons they receive from the data-enabled devices. Teachers also submit key data, which ensures that they are actually present in the school delivering the lesson - a method that might effectively address teacher absenteeism.
We live in an age where technology is ubiquitous, works wonders, and its powers are magnificent. The new method may just validate what we already know about the digital revolution. I recently visited Kakata, Margibi County where teachers were being trained to the BIA system. The trainees were excited about how technology would improve education. “We are graduating from the chalkboard; even the pupils will have their own e-readers”, James Vawalee said. “We will not have to make our own lesson plans. The lessons will be e-mailed to us”, he continued. Educational materials will also be supplied to supplement materials delivered by tablets. The big question, however, is whether this innovation can actually produce the results that purveyors of this idea claim, viz., improving literacy and numeracy. I sat with Josh Nathan, Academic Director of Bridge in Liberia, and was quite dazzled by his response. “A study showed that our [Bridge] students are 50% more likely to pass the KPCE exams in Kenya”, he explained. “With our approach, students learn in one year what they would have learned in two years”, Josh added. Quite impressive! But experts in the field have differed vehemently with such assertions by Bridge and argue that its impact overall hasn’t been proven, and that there is no reliable evidence base for efficacy. Graham Brown-Martin recently investigated claims made by Bridge and found that the firms, which produce such data, were not independent; they were contracted by Bridge itself. How, then, do we know the real story of Bridge and its impact?
Minister George Werner visited East Africa in November 2015 to assess BIA’s work. Unfortunately, he visited no active schools in Kenya as they were on break. Minister Werner was, however, advised by his ministerial counterpart in Kenya to proceed with caution should he choose to invite BIA to open schools in Liberia. He managed to visit a small number of active schools in Uganda, which impressed him and strengthened his resolve. Interestingly, the Kenyan Minister’s advice was not enough for the Minister to abort or scrutinize plans: “Look, we like what Bridge are doing but we have a problem with standards. Standards for curriculum and standards for teacher training…We designed a curriculum that every school must adhere to. Bridge has our curriculum but is not following it to the letter”, Minister Werner revealed his counterpart’s comments in an interview. It is, therefore, no surprise to learn that Bridge is already suffering setbacks in Kenya. The profit-making company was recently ordered to stop further expansion by the Kenyan government. In Uganda, the government has closed 87 for-profit primary schools, including those belonging to Bridge, after they failed to comply with minimum standards and regulations. In Liberia, expectations are high that Bridge could save a system already in a tailspin, but there is opposition.
What’s Really Wrong?
Liberia presents an excellent opportunity for Bridge to redeem itself. Failure would portray the Bill Gates-backed multi-million dollar company as not viable, considering its struggles in the East of Africa, and the company does not want to bow to failure in the West. The Liberian government has given BIA substantial support that it needs to thrive. As a private company, BIA constructs its own schools in places it operates; its facilities are known to be substandard because of cost savings made in the interest of profit making. In Liberia, the situation is different; the government has selected the best buildings for use by BIA.
The government has carefully selected schools with standard facilities for the company’s program. Reports indicate that when selected, the buildings are used with no deference to those the decision affects. It is worth noting that these schools are being managed with autonomy. For instance, in Sanniquellie, Nimba County, the Martha Tubman Memorial School has been handed over to Bridge despite legitimate concerns from parents, students, teachers, and administrators. Jonah Nyepan, Executive Director of Liberia Education Monitors (LEM), recently alarmed that over Seven Hundred (700) high school students have been displaced due to Bridge’s program. The school has two sections: the morning for primary students and afternoon for high school students. Since Bridge runs one session from the morning to afternoon hours, the junior high section has been asked to relocate although there is no available space to accommodate the students. As a result, those affected are disheartened and have already begun to oppose the company’s activities in the area. Evidently, the interests of citizens have been subordinated to that of Bridge.
Another key distinction between BIA’s operations in Liberia and other countries relate to teaching staff. While Bridge pays salaries of its teachers in Kenya and Uganda, the Liberian government has committed to pay its teachers. All of these teachers are trained and hold a minimum of ‘C’ certificate. The move will certainly boost the company’s image as it has a reputation of hiring unqualified teachers. “The majority of BIA teachers do not hold a government license to teach nor have they completed a teaching qualification and nor are they members of a national teaching union. This undoubtedly means that BIA can reduce one of the most capital intensive aspects of school provision, i.e. the teaching staff costs, while at the same time maintaining a level of quality as a result of their digital platform”, Brown-Martin observed. This observation might not be the same for Liberia, as all teachers are required to meet minimum qualification. Does this mean we can no longer worry about Bridge, its teachers, and the education our children will receive?
Many of the teachers selected by Bridge are volunteers (though qualified). Some of these volunteers have taught for over four (4) years but have not received remuneration from the Liberian government. They have complained on countless occasions but to no avail. With Bridge, their worries are over because the government has committed to place Bridge’s recruits on payroll; the government will now justly compensate them. Volunteers received this news with jubilation, but the feeling was short-lived. In late July, training was conducted for all teachers selected to form part of the program. Over Three hundred (300) teachers participated in the two-week program held at the Kakata Rural Teacher Training Institute (KRTTI). They were filled with excitement at the start but enthusiasm waned as the days went by. A company, which provided a glimmer of hope, was on the verge of being despised. “Bridge is transferring me from Grand Bassa to Nimba without any relocation or resettlement incentives…we asked them and they [Bridge] said that it is the government’s responsibility. I cannot leave my family back home to go faraway for that small money”, a teacher told me. Others are disinterested because Bridge does not offer extra emoluments. “I will make the same amount of money [Bridge is offering] in a non-Bridge public school. Why should I work until the evening hours in a Bridge school when they are not compensating for the extra hours? I prefer working in my current [public] school”, noted one of the selected teachers.
Problems Too Soon
A significant number of those trained are looking to exit the program. Are these early signals that something may go wrong? Who would replace those trained teachers? Will Bridge hire untrained staff since their system does not require qualified teachers to deliver? The company’s co-founder, May Shannon, admitted in an interview that staff turnover is high at around 25% with higher numbers in their call centers which run at around 50%. She pointed out that the turnover creates a new cost to the business of hiring and training new staff let alone the impact on learning outcomes. If the teachers leave as they intend, worse might happen when school re-opens. Also, for instance, a single teacher will be assigned to teach all subjects in a given class although s/he does not specialize in all. How can someone teach what s/he doesn’t know? Don’t worry! The tablets will do that. Do books and tablets explain or interpret themselves? We are treading a dangerous path.
It is also important to mention that teachers were placed without any consideration on experience. An upper primary (Grades 4-6) teacher could be placed in an early childhood class; the reverse holds true. “The selection was random. When we arrived, we were seated according to the list. One group was placed in the Library, another in the Student Center, and the last was placed in the Long Hall. After the training, everyone in the Library was assigned to teach classes in the upper elementary (Grades 4-6). Those in the Student Center were given early childhood…and those in the Long Hall were sent to lower elementary (Grades 1-3)”, a source narrated. “As for me, I was sent to nursery even though I teach Mathematics at the upper elementary level. Those are babies starting from scratch and I will have to hold their hands to write. I don’t have patience for that so I will not take the job”, he continued.
The decision to contract Bridge without adequate consultation and scrutiny is already impacting negatively on the program. The company will now run only Twenty-three (23) out of the Fifty (50) schools initially contracted out to it. Observers say the move by the Ministry of Education is aimed at reducing and managing the risks associated with the program. The remainder of schools has been awarded to private providers in an attempt to assess results from different operators. But this latest move appears simply as a cover-up for the sole-sourcing and non-transparent contracting of Bridge. Such distractions should not divert attention from the main player in this whole process, BIA. Finally, the Bridge Partnership is just another ‘transplantation’ of ideas or models that do not fit the Liberian context. If problems remain unsettled, there would be a fundamental mismatch between the high expectations placed on it and what it can actually do. Hence, the assertion that “through the Pilot project, Liberia will be quickly “Getting to Best” across the continent of Africa, and setting an example globally that will be emulated” may well be wishful thinking.
Author's Statement: Gerald Dan Yeakula is a writer and researcher based at the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL). He works on governance issues related to education, natural resource governance, and the rule of law.