Liberia's bold experiment in school improvement – Partnership Schools for Liberia, or PSL – saw dramatic results in its first year, but it's unclear whether the program will survive long enough to bring desperately needed progress to schools in one of the world's poorest countries.
Facing a potentially volatile transfer of presidential power, financial uncertainty and union opposition, PSL will require substantial political capital and outside investment if it's going to produce the lasting educational improvement Liberia needs.
Leading up to the launch of PSL in 2016, Liberia's school system was in shambles. Fourteen years of civil war left the country and its education system floundering. Less than 60 percent of Liberia's school-aged children went to school, one of the lowest enrollment rates in the world.
Employers complained that some graduates could not write their names, and in 2013, none of the 25,000 applicants to the University of Liberia passed the admissions exam. Adding disaster to ineffectiveness, 2014's Ebola outbreak caused the nation's schools to shut down. With nowhere to go but up, Liberia's schools needed radical action to get out of an impossibly deep rut.
In 2015, Liberia's president – Nobel Prize winner and the first woman president of an African country – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf moved decisively to do just that. She charged new Education Minister George Werner to find a way to make rapid educational improvements that could scale. In 2016, Werner responded by launching the PSL program, which established public-private partnerships between the Ministry of Education and independent school operators.
The ministry randomly assigned operators to 93 schools - including local, international, for-profit, nonprofit and religious institutions - to help determine whether the program was successful and build from there. PSL incorporated a focus on data and secured an independent evaluation to determine what worked and should be scaled up. In the ministry's words, "We do not see PSL as an experiment, but rather an ambitious attempt to kick-start change based on best practice."
This September brought initial results from the independent evaluation, and PSL schools show the strong positive outcomes Liberia is desperate for. PSL students had math and reading gains 60 percent larger than non-PSL public-school students.
PSL operators also brought new approaches that improved the quality of instruction and increased the likelihood that teachers would be present and teaching by 50 percent – a key feature in a country where teacher absenteeism averages 60 percent.
(That's right – absent 60 percent of the time.) Students in PSL schools also received twice as much instruction as their peers in regular public schools, and parents and children were more satisfied in them.
Bridge International had the largest gains of any PSL operator, but it was also the most expensive among them. In their first year, Bridge students made twice the progress in reading and math as students in non-PSL schools made.
The evaluation gave credit for these gains, but faulted Bridge for being too expensive at $373 per student annually.
If a partner is producing results, how much spending is too much? In Liberia's case, anything over $100. Liberian schools run on about $50 per student annually, with PSL schools promised another $50 per student. To become affordable for one of the world's poorest countries, PSL's high-impact operators have to reach a large scale.
Bridge International's model requires substantial upfront investments to develop curriculum and the technology to deliver it. Bridge provides teachers with low-cost tablets to deliver standardized content and quality instruction cheaply to additional students.
Projecting year-two costs of $220 per student, Bridge officials believe they are on track to meet a targeted $100 per student by 2020 – but the whole venture depends on reaching the scale necessary to become sustainable at Liberia's rock-bottom funding levels.
To conquer this challenging cost curve and reach sustainability, PSL has to endure an unpredictable political landscape. The National Teachers' Association of Liberia – the country's major teachers union – wants the government to abandon the program.
In addition, PSL champion, President Sirleaf, is leaving office soon. The country is anticipating its first peaceful transfer of power since 1944, but the presidential election runoff, originally scheduled for this week, has been halted amid fraud allegations against Sirleaf in the first-round election.
Both runoff candidates – current Vice President Joseph Boakai and former soccer player and frontrunner George Weah – profess support for PSL, but whether they will champion the program through its infancy remains uncertain.
All of this shows just how fragile education reform in Liberia is, but Sirleaf and Werner are working to secure their legacy. Werner doubled the size of the PSL program in the second year to a total of 200 schools.
Sirleaf has set out to ensure PSL has the financial backing to be sustained by working to secure additional private investment and giving of $4.6 million. So far, she is about halfway there. Liberia's PSL program is a risky bet, with huge potential payoffs and a narrow road to success. Bridge International may be the provider that exemplifies that position the most.
Bridge has required substantial political and financial investments, and to pay off, they not only have to improve schools but also bend the cost curve to what Liberia can pay. At $100 per student per year, that is a tall order. But it has the potential to deliver what investors in the developing world dream of – partnerships to build the infrastructure these countries need to sustainably and independently raise productivity in their schools, and beyond.
If the alternative is returning to the abject failure that Liberian schools have been, or some marginal improvements on it, it's worth watching and hoping that Liberia's PSL program might prove how public-private partnerships can create sustainable progress in the developing world.
Nat Malkus is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in K–12 education