Outsourcing Liberia’s Educational Future, Lock, Stock and Barrel

Education is a public good and an investment in the future of the country and should be a national policy. That is a given, unless you are the Minister of Education in Liberia and decide otherwise.

Barely a full year in office (and with numerous educational conferences under his belt”) Mr. Werner has decided to abandon his core mandate of creating effective policies to educate Liberia’s children and its future.  Instead, he has decided to turn the entire educational system, lock stock and barrel to an outside for profit firm. One that has as its main mode of instruction, the mobile phone.

As Diane Ravitch explains it “Under the Bridge Academies project, the notes and other lectures materials are stored on an android mobile phone and the teachers use the phones to teach, a method where the teacher does not have to be sophisticated to teach.” Bridge Academy website touts that ‘All of our curriculum is developed and then scripted in-house by the world’s leading education experts … our scripted curriculum includes step-by-step instructions explaining what teachers should do and say during any given moment of a class.”

Imagine that! Every moment in the classroom scripted from thousands of miles away by so-called “experts” totally divorced from the realities in country. Will the smart phones and imported curricula alleviate the hunger our children face while learning?  Will it miraculously provide electricity for them to power the phones or for the teachers to download the lesson plans? As these “educational experts” hop on the subway or get into their cars equipped with every modern convenience, will they consider how the Liberian child gets to school?

On the most basic level, will this mobile learning provide toilet facilities, chairs, pencils or even a window to shelter our kids from the torrential rains?  Will it resolve the situation that Time magazine reported a few days ago where a study in 2014 found that almost one in five students in Liberia has been abused by teachers or school staff (Time, April 5, 2016)?  How many minutes, I wonder, do these “experts” allow for students’ questions or for a teacher’s innovation?  Do these “world leading education experts” also tell teachers how to teach our history, our norms and values?

According to the Mail and Guardian, Bridge’s model is “school in a box” – a highly structured, technology-driven model that relies on teachers reading standardized lessons from hand-held tablet computers. Bridge hires education experts to script the lessons, but the teacher’s role is to deliver that content to the class. This allows Bridge to hold down costs because it can hire teachers who don’t have college degrees – a teacher is only required to go through a five-week training program on how to read and deliver the script. To keep tuition costs low – about $6 a term – Bridge depends on large class sizes. An ideal class size is 40 to 50 pupils, but the classes can get to 60 students. The physical infrastructure is modest too – often just simple building made of sheet metal and timber, which can be constructed in a few days” (Mail and Guardian, March 31, 2015).

So is this mode of instruction customizable?  Can Liberia insist that those that teach must possess a college degree? Is there room for changes to be made? While it is true that Bridge Academy operates in Uganda and Kenya and other countries, it is not the ONLY mode of instruction in these countries. What Mr. Werner proposes is that our ENTIRE educational system be placed in the hands of a FOR PROFIT organization.  He is abdicating his responsibility, turning over the most critical component of our future into the hands of foreign “experts” attached to a mobile phone.

While Mr. Werner and his underlings continue to tout the advantages of Bridge Academy, others with more discernment have begun to see the chinks in the armor.  The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, last week described it as “unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed and violates Liberia’s legal and moral obligations.” The UN official and human rights expert noted that provision of public education of good quality is a core function of the State. “Abandoning this to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of the right to education,”

Groups such as ActionAid, Education for All (EFA) movement, Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida Kenya) and the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) have petitioned the World Bank to stop promoting the model used by Bridge International Academies and other fee-charging, private schools, and publicly re-commit the World Bank to universal, free and compulsory basic education,” reads the groups’ protest letter addressed to the bank’s president Jim Yong Kim. “If the World Bank is serious about improving education in Kenya and Uganda, it should support our government to expand and improve our public education systems, provide quality education to all children free-of-charge, and address other financial barriers to access.”

“Bridge continues to get criticisms from the Governments of both Kenya and Uganda for its method of using Android mobile phones to teach students where most of the teachers used only what is placed on the phone as Bridge resulted to using teachers who are not qualified to teach since the teaching materials are placed on a phone and the teacher only needs to teach what is available. The entity teaching method is seen in the two countries as discouraging the employment of qualified teachers who will interact with the students while teaching instead of using fixed materials downloaded on a mobile phone.”

Business Day reports that Kenya is launching “a rigorous, independent impact evaluation of the Bridge International Academies program which will be the first large-scale, randomized, controlled trial of fee-paying schools in sub-Saharan Africa. (Business day, Nov. 9, 2015).  But who in Liberia will conduct such an evaluation?  How will an evaluate Bridge’s performance and deliverables be made? Is there a trial period or are we stuck with this behemoth even if it turns out to be ineffective?

Werner may have an MSW degree in Social Work, but his work as “Clinician Therapist” for AVS – Allegheny Valley School – under a licensed Clinician Therapist supervision hardly makes him eligible for such a task.  The Allegheny Valley School “provide quality programs and facilities to help the individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”  

That is a far cry from being qualified to craft an educational system for an entire country. Or is Aaron F. Tingaba (Deputy Minister of Administration) who last served as the Chief Accountant of the LPRC now the voice of the Ministry of Education?

Signing on to this collaboration means that the Ministry of Education is abdicating its responsibility to create policies to enable an effective educational system.  The realities on the ground need attention not mobile phones. In Nimba, the percentage of primary schools without access to water is 49%, without toilet facilities – 34%, and without electricity – 97%.

In Lofa, the percentage of primary schools with no access to water is 60%, no access to toilet facilities -25% and no electricity, 97%. The percentage of primary schools without a library in Nimba is 92.6% and in Lofa 90.5%. (Liberia Education Statistics).

“The problem with Liberia is not that it is poor, but that it is poorly managed” writes Robtel Pailey and that is precisely right.   Officials ill equipped for positions are given carte blanche to move our country backwards as they collect salaries they could only dream about a few years ago.

The National Legislature budget of 2013/2014 has transportation reimbursement as $1,104,900.  Under the term “special allowance” there is $3,204,000 allotted and foreign travel has as its budget $308,758 along with the foreign travel incidental allowance of $372,679 which should not be mistaken with foreign travel daily subsistence allowance of $595,164.

This amount is more than the allotment for the basic salaries of educators at the Zorzor Rural Teacher Training Institute -$200,000 or the allotment to Bong Community College – $219, 767. It is more than the MCSS gets “to renovate all MCSS Schools and computer systems from 2012-2015 ($250,000) (Liberia National Budget 2013/2014).

Now, is it possible for our children, or anyone, to learn in this environment, where mobile phones will be everywhere but students just have to find a functional lavatory or get enough in their bellies to see them through the day?  And how will these mobile phones be charged and who will pay for them? The old system of teaching in many African countries, introduced by colonists, was to learn by rote memorization. Amazingly, Bridge Academy does the same. Their ability to “monitor lesson pacing in addition to providing the scripts themselves, recording attendance, and tracking assessments in real-time .. Combined, this makes for a very engaging experience for pupils – a far cry from the rote learning that happens in most of the other schools found in our communities.”

But this is exactly what it is, rote learning.  As the Mail and Guardian explains “Teachers are robots that just read scripts off hand-held tablets, and that’s not the best way for children to learn – it discourages student interaction both with the teacher and with each other, suppresses critical thinking, and encourages rote learning. Teacher unions in the region have come out hard against the company, arguing that it will discourage the employment of qualified teachers.”

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” We need transformative learning where our children can ask questions, delve into the answers, and create sustainable paths to sustained peace and development.  

We need our students to be able to READ and QUESTION and INNOVATE not swallow and vomit what is rote taught them by teachers who like robots take instructions from ‘experts’ across the ocean who have no idea of how things are on the ground.  Rwanda (72% literacy rate), Namibia (87%literacy rate) and many other countries in Africa have made education their number one priority with no help from Bridge or other “experts” from outside.  Werner wants to wash his hands from his duties while at the same time collecting a paycheck.

Bridge Academy has investors that need to see their bottom line increase, hence the phrase FOR PROFIT. The World Bank, International Finance Corporation, OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), NEA (One of the  world’s largest and most active venture capital firms)  are all very impressive,  but their goal is  maximizing profits, not educating our children.

Imported solutions forced upon us without understanding the context will not educate our children.  Mass privatization of the education system is wrong on all fronts.  A primary function of a nation is to provide education as an essential public service.  Outsourcing education violates the right to education.  Liberia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Articles 13 and 14 of the ICESCR which set out detailed formulations of the right to education.  

Article 13 specifically stipulates that primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all. The UNESCO Convention stipulates that states parties must undertake to formulate, develop and apply a national policy which will tend to promote equality of opportunity and treatment, and, in particular, to make primary education free and compulsory.  It also recognizes parents’ right to freely choose their children’s educational institutions and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

We are not willing to sacrifice our kids’ education to a bandaid solution because those entrusted with their care are not up to the task. Civil societies, parent groups, and teacher unions should reject this system being forced upon our children. Reject, or live with the consequences.  The choice is ours.

Jackie Sayegh, Alum of University of Liberia and Cornell University

EducationJackie Sayegh
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