Any person who works hard to make a living avoids wasting money foolishly. Before buying a pair of shoes, I compare one brand to another. I also compare prices at several stores and try the shoes on before buying.
Although more than $56 million is at stake, the ministry of education apparently did no comparative shopping or “trying on” was apparently before picking Bridge Academies as the right partner to fix our failing schools. Did the ministry consider alternative ways of fixing our schools? If not, why not? If it did, what were those other approaches and on what basis were they ruled out?
On what basis was Bridge Academies selected? The company claims to have dramatically raised students’ performance in Kenya. But all of those results are based on studies performed by the company itself. Bridge Academies has no independently verified data to back its claim.
Let’s assume for a minute that the honourable minister weighed alternative and decided that privatization is the best way forward. Was there a bid process? If not, why not? If given a chance to bid for a contract worth over $56 million, I can only image what wonderful results could have been achieved by the Catholic Archdiocese of Liberia and other actors with long and successful experiences in Liberia.
According to government of Liberia reports, the main problem with the schools is a reliance on untrained teachers. The majority of teachers have received zero hours of training in teaching. Zero, as in zilch, as in nada. This inexcusable condition prevails after 10 years of peace, during which donors have poured millions upon millions of dollars into education.
After ignoring this glaring problem for a decade, the government is now proposing to pay Bridge Academies millions of dollars to open 50 schools. What is the plan for the other schools that will remain staffed by untrained teachers?
Anyone, like me, who dares raise critical questions about the Bridge Academies sweetheart deal can expect two responses from those promoting the partnership. The first thing they say is, our schools need urgent action so there’s no time to wait. My answer to them is, “hurry, hurry buss trousers.” The fact that Liberian schools are sorely in need of improvement is not news, so why the sudden rush?
Backers of the Bridge Academies deal also try to silence critics with a question. They ask, what alternative do you have? This is a clever attempt to shift responsibility onto anyone who dares sound the alarm and away from the minister of education, whose mandate should require him to produce more than one solution to each educational problem.
Although I do not have access to the vast resources and manpower available to the honorable minister, here are two alternative to the Bridge Academies deal that resulted from one week of brainstorming.
First, bring experienced Liberian educators for one month to train local teachers. The idea is not entirely original. Both the African Development Bank and the International Finance Corporation have recommended to the Liberian government that it find ways to engage citizens from the diaspora in developing the country.
There are hundreds of well-qualified and experienced Liberian teachers who could come home during vacation time to conduct structured training activities for local teachers. They and the trainees could stay together in the dormitories of local universities. Those campuses are nearly empty during that period anywhere.
An approach like that would accomplish more than teacher training. The education faculty of Liberian universities could help plan the training sessions, thus building capacity at our universities. During the off-hours away from training, local teachers would have opportunities to interact and share experiences, something that is not afforded teachers in isolated rural schools. After the training program has ended, teachers from the diaspora could continue to mentor local teachers at a distance.
Besides subject-matter proficiency and years of classroom experience, Liberian teachers in the diaspora have something expats lack: cultural competence. Some speak local languages, which would facilitate communication with trainees. Those important skill sets would allow them to “hit the ground running.”
For discussion sake, let’s say 50 Liberian teachers from the diaspora came home for one month to conduct teacher training. Let’s also assume they worked with 500 trainees. By involving three universities in different parts of Liberia, 1,500 teachers could be trained in one year.
In addition to active classroom teachers, there are many seasoned education administrators who know a few things about education in Liberia. I’m thinking of individuals like Dr. Patrick Seyon and Dr. James Tarpeh, both formerly with the University of Liberia, as well as many former high school principals.
Even if they are unwilling to return home permanently, every effort should be made to tap their wealth of knowledge based on hands-of experience in Liberia, something most foreign consultants don’t have. They all know more about schools than the two founders of Bridge Academies, both of whom lack formal training in education.
This same approach could be used in many other fields, including medicine, nursing and management. This solution will not be free of cost, but it would be significantly cheaper and more efficacious than our current approach, which veers from doing nothing for over a decade to “buying a pig in bag” from Bridge Academies.
So government is short of money? Partner with the alumni associations abroad to raise money for their schools. Offer matching challenge grants, so that every dollar raised by an association will be matched by government. This could spark a healthy competition among alumni groups to see which will outdo the other.
As noted by both the African Development Bank and the International Finance Corporation, government must take the lead by changing policies and offering incentives, if it hopes to capitalize on Liberians in the diaspora. But, government must be willing to build trust. That means, recruitment, control of funds and other aspects of the program must be in the hands of people known for their integrity. With proper planning and incentives, Liberians in the diaspora could contribute even more to the country than the $100 million they already send each year.
Besides recruiting Liberian teachers and educators in the diaspora to help fix our educational “mess,” here’s another solution. Study the methods of school improvement that are working well in places like Rwanda and Ethiopia. Both of those societies went through wars, like us, that left their schools devastated. Not only have their schools been rebuilt, they are performing better than before their wars!
Rwanda improved schools dramatically while undertaking two major and difficult initiatives. First, the official language was changed from French to English, so teachers were learning a new language while teaching it. Second, they famously launched a “one laptop per child” program.
Unlike Bridge Academies, which uses phone and tablets merely to deliver content to schools, the Rwandan program is designed to teach kids computer programming at an early age. The Bridge model treats African kids like numbskulls, fit only for receiving packaged knowledge developed elsewhere. The Rwandan model fuels the capacity of children to invent. The system being adopted by our ministry of education breeds robotic consumers, while the other prepares children to write new software applications.
As a fan of tennis, let me say to the minister of education, “the ball is now in your court.” Your supporters insisted that critics offer alternatives to the Bridge Academies deal, and I have provided two. Will they be considered? Or will government react as it did in the early days of the Ebola crisis, when suggestions from the public were dismissed contemptuously, until Patrick Sawyer took the virus to Nigeria?
Carl Patrick Burrowes,