A Call to Test Bridge Academies’ Experiment in Liberia

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You can drag the Cow to the Water Pool, Shove its Head into the Water, You can’t force the Cow to Drink: A Call to test the Bridge Academies’ Experiment in Liberia

For the past weeks, I being following the debate on the new concept of privatization of primary education in Liberia. On social media, I have argued that, as a country and people, we should be very critical of privatizing our education.

Especially, the attempt to privatize our primary education to a corporation that has no footprint of doing education development work in the country of its origin. The reason is that such initiative reinvigorates the primordial concept of Africans not having the ability to govern and manage themselves.

As a concept of colonialism, primordialism is an instrument of imperialism through which westerners have often engaged the African development project. This concept of primordialism is derived from the Hamitic Hypothesis, which states that everything of value ever found in Africa was brought there by the Hamites, allegedly a branch of the Caucasian race (Sanders, 1969).

Holding true to the Hamitic hypothesis, westerner’s involvement in Africa has always been about how to teach Africans a better way to live as a civilized people. This idea of teaching Africans a better way to live is endemic in the entire global instrument of neoliberalism (which some scholars described as quasi globalism).

Neoliberalism is a concept that enforces that idea of free market enterprise, privatization of state owned corporations, deregulation, and free trade (Harvey, 2005). It is entrenched in capitalism intended to maximize profit at the expense of citizens of the global south (Cabral, 1980:127).

It is against such backdrop, many of those who are protesting the privatization of our primary education, have been questioning the motives of the Liberian government to consign the responsibility of primary education to a western corporate interest. This has been my concern too because education is a critical tool that can be used as a force for good as well as a force for evil.

And so, it would be an unthinkable venture to solely allow a foreign entity with no orientation of Liberian history, culture, and value system to take the task of providing primary education in Liberia. More so I’m concerned about a kind of privatization only intended to use Africa as a laboratory to test social specimen needless to mention education. On that note, I being concerned about this “Bridge Academies” experiment in Liberia, no matter where else in Africa it was first tested.

However, I being mindful of my words as it relates to this initiative. This is not because of some sort fear of reprisal but rather because of the reality of the corrosive nature of the challenges confronting our education system. These challenges are deeply rooted in the lack of teachers’ accountability – something that can be traced to the conspicuous negligence of teachers toward work duties as well as the lack of patriotism. Patriotism in this context does not mean that teachers should sacrifice and not get paid a decent salary nor does it mean that they should be treated with gross disrespect and disregard.

What it means instead is that teachers should consider themselves as the only ones who hold the future and existence of the country in their hands. That without them, the whole essence of our existence as a nation-state will be lost;  and that they are the first in the line of defense regarding the social reproduction of our culture, beliefs, and values.

Everything that makes us what we are as a people and nation-state distinct among  the others in the world – is forged upon us through the nurturing of teachers. This makes the teaching profession a sacred responsibility to the state for which those who find a career in it must be able to do it with a great deal of diligence and respect for human dignity.

I can’t say for sure that Liberian public school teachers value the teaching profession, owing to their negligible behavior toward the profession. Others have argued Training! Training! Decent salary!  Decent salary!! But my question is, how much is much as it relates to training and  salary? I ask this question not because training and the payment of a decent salary are not important.

But rather to indicate that, despite their importance, training and salary are not an element of compulsion as it relates to the commitment of teachers. In other words, training and the payment of decent salary are not a factor of motivation that would compel teachers to report to work on time, prepare their lesson plans on time, do research to enhance their teaching skills, develop interest in their students’ learning, become innovative through experimentation of different pedagogical techniques in order to improve the quality of students’ learning, etc.

The only thing that can make teachers to perform such tasks on time is accountability. Besides, if training and salary payment were the only means of motivation that should commit teachers to their responsibility as others have argued, I will say that, the Liberian government, despite its shortcomings on numerous counts of issues, has made some significant strides in order to bring quality back to the classroom. These efforts encompass the four subdivisions of the Liberian education, including preprimary, primary, secondary, and tertiary.

True to such commitment, in 2010, the Liberian government in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) initiated a massive teacher training effort through the USAID/FHI 360 Liberia Teacher Training Program (LTTP).

Principally focused on capacity building, LTTP I provided training in a wide range of fields in teacher education, including: reading; educational management and leadership; educational research and evaluation; and higher education management and administration (READ).

Building on the work of LTTP I, LTTP II focused on helping to address Liberia’s critical shortages of qualified teachers and institutional capacity to produce new teachers. Using an integrated set of policy, support and capacity-building activities to better prepare current teachers, the program helped to equip new teachers and improve early-grade reading and mathematics.

In addition, the program provided support to the central Ministry of Education and five counties. The program also helped to strengthen policies, systems and capacity development of the ministry, the county and district education offices, the Rural Teacher Training Institutes (RTTIs) and  universities (READ). Training in these areas was focused particularly at systems necessary for the enablement of teachers to provide quality services. Training was also provided for pre-service and in-service teachers, creating a reliable, transparent system for teacher recruitment, certification, promotion, and compensation. Support was also provided to the national plan to ensure that all children are reading by grade 3.

Early grade reading and math curricula were distributed to a selected sample of schools across the country (see 2013 LTTP’s assessment report). Following progress in this program, the Excellence for Higher Education for Liberia Development (EHELD) was initiated by USAID to help improve faculty profile and competence at the University of Liberia and Cuttington University.

The government also took a leap toward improving teachers’ salaries in all spectrum of the education environment, including preprimary, primary, secondary, and tertiary. When I was a student leader at the University of Liberia, UL professors at that time used to refer to their allowance package as “Obama.” When it was time for them to receive their package, the only slogan that was heard on campus was “Obama coming”!! “Obama coming”!

The Liberian government also provides subsidies to organizations providing private services in the field of education in order to cushion the attempt to hike school fees. Whether the intension for which those subsidies are provided is always met or not should be reserved for another argument. The point I want to make is that without accountability no amount of salary and training can make public school teachers in Liberia to be committed to their duties. Like we say in Liberia, you can drag the cow to the water pool, shove its head into the water, but you can’t force the cow to drink.

This is obvious in the entire profession of teaching. Even in the Great United States, where I’m studying currently, accountability is the only instrument used to commit teachers to their responsibilities. Because of accountability in the American education system, teachers here are very conscious of their commitment to the school, the students, the community, and the American ideals of education.

The system in the United States is such that a teacher can be sued for poor performance, especially those in the tenure track. For example, if Teacher A being teaching English for – let’s say over a period of five years for example. Depending on the state, those years of teaching will be computed and analyzed based on three core factors: graduation rate, college enrollment rate (specifically looking at students’ performance rate on the SAT and ACT exams) and dropout rate.

If it is realized that the performance of students of Teacher A class is far below the district, county, state, and the country’s average, Teacher A could be sued to pave the way for his/her dismissal. Unlike the United States, teachers in Liberia careless whether their students are prepared enough to make a pass in the WAEC exams. Those who often care are parents and school administrators. For the parents, it is about seeing their children progress as well as the concern regarding the constant call to pay school fees.

For school administrators on the other hand,  it’s about the prestige as well as the ability to boost enrollment. What this shows is that the joy of education in Liberia is only celebrated by parents and school administrators albeit for different reasons. This is one area the behavior of Liberian public school teachers differ with those in the United States. I’m emphasizing the United States because I study and teach here.

The responsibility of teachers in the United States is serious so much that even the lives of teachers out of campus are monitored. This is not because teaching pays so well in the United States than other countries around the world. Like Liberia, there are schools in the U.S. that do not pay their teachers a living wage. To complement for the gaps in their expenses, some teachers have to take two jobs before they are able to raise a living wage.

However, when a teacher accepts a contract to teach at a particular school, he/she will be held accountable; there will be no excuses as it relates to his/her commitment to the school and the country. In Liberia, unfortunately, we do not have such rigorous checks and balances system in place to hold teachers in the Liberian public schools accountable. Despite the efforts being made by the government to bring quality back to the classroom, there is still a serious loophole as it relates to public school management.

Moreover, the attempt for government to take tough measure on delinquent teachers has always appeared to be an anathema to certain political interests at the National Legislature and some pressure groups in the country. It is therefore expediently prudent to give the “Bridge Academies” experiment a try, even though its presence in Liberia to provide management for primary education seems to insult our intelligence.

This is a hard choice to make, as I see it, but given the laissez-faire manner in which teachers in the Liberian public school system have handled their responsibilities, some hard choices have to be made in order to rescue the future of the young generation. I really wish this project would have been given to an African company or institution because we cannot always look to the west for answers for everything. That will be like going back to the Hamitic Hypothesis. But again, it all boils down to procuring the best entity that has the capacity and experience in performing such a kind of task. All in all as we say in Liberia, something has to be done to inspire innovation in the development of education in Liberia.

Why did I find the conviction to speak frankly about the privatization of primary education in Liberia as it relates to government’s effort?

Firstly, let me state my contempt regarding this privatization initiative. The overzealousness of using the “Bridge Academies” android technology to expose Liberian students to computer literacy as should not be seen as the only best thing that one can ever achieve in educational development. Moreover, I feel this proposed solution to fixing the “Mess”  confronting public school education in Liberia is a complete misdiagnosis and highly simplistic. This is because the Liberian education system is far too complex for anyone to think that the results pouring out of the system lie in students’ exposure to computer scripted pedagogy.

I strongly believe fixing the “Mess” in our education system requires troubleshooting the system in order to understand (the linear and non-linear factors) precisely where the problem is coming from.  This requires a comprehensive diagnostic analysis, an analytical observation of the system’s behavior. If the observation conflicts with the way the system is meant to behave, one is confronted with a diagnostic problem, namely, to determine those system components which, when assumed to be functioning abnormally, will explain the discrepancy between the observed and correct system behavior (Reiter, 1987).

Through such examination, a good system analyst will think of analyzing the system productive capability to see whether there is a need to have the system recalibrated in order to accelerate its productive capability. Or if the system needs a complete overhauling in order to initiate reorientation that will still help to produce significant effects in line with productive expectation.

Such analysis requires a critical thinking approach only if the system operators have the requisite knowledge and experience of operating a complex system such as the Liberia’s education system. This step is taken in order to prevent the problem of misdiagnosis. While this may be a structured approach, which takes note of nonlinear effects, the Liberian government, from the very start of observing output failure rooted in the mass failure of 25,000 high school students sitting the University of Liberia entrance exam in 2013, truncated the process of system diagnostic.

As such, a process that should have led to the consolidation of system diagnosis just went ultimately wrong, especially when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf herself spoke like an expert on system diagnostic. Chiming in on the diagnostic of Liberia’s education system, President Sirleaf remarks: “The students’ failure did not come from the university, but rather from the schools that prepared them. The result is alarming. It tells me that the educational system is a mess.” (Toweh, Felix, &  Roche, 2013, para. 6). Is the education system a mess because this number of students failed the University of Liberia entrance exam? I really don’t think so. But I will reserve that for another debate.

My second contempt has to do with the Education Minister’s quick temperamental attitude toward criticism. As the Minister of Education, he needs to realize that he is working for the Liberian people for which criticism of his policies and programs should be treated with a great deal of magnanimity.

He also needs to start seeing criticism as a constructive contribution toward development, as it is only an opportunity for people to understand him better. The moment a public servant realizes this, the quickest he/she would seize the opportunity to explain again and again using different media of transmission. And I think the Minister has begun to understand that we are criticizing his proposed solution not because we hold personal grudge against him. But that we love Liberia as much as he does and so we would go all out to ensure that we too have a say in the development of our country.

 There is a need for innovation in every aspect of the development of our country.  And it is only through a consistent debate like this we can derive innovative strategies as to which direction our country should take. Too many young people are suffering. Our education system that should be used to provide them the requisite skills for them to venture into the theater of employable opportunities, is suffering from the epidemic of teachers’ narrations and textual replication (Freire, 1993:71 emphasis is mine).

This has and still is troubling for what society expects of Liberian students. However, it does not mean that the education system is a “Mess”. What it means instead is that expectation and the current products of our school system are not moving into parallel direction. That’s why there needs to be a critical diagnosis of the “Mess” before deriving any solution. We cannot do so when those are the ministry is making unsubstantiated statements like “The skills of high school graduates in Liberia are equivalent to the skills of fourth graders in the U.S.A.”

 There is this impression that the “Bridge Academies” solution is education in-box wherein contents and artifacts are starched-up in android tablets from which teachers will read scripts to students. In this case, there is no need for intensive teacher training. It is also speculated that those who will qualify to operate this “Bridge Academies” model will only need to understand how to download contents and read scripts for students to take notes. I thought this was similar to how robotic sensor regulator distributes signals to activate robots so that they would detect humans and material objects along their locations.

Since activation would be limited to android technology and script readers with insufficient knowledge and experience in teaching, the signals that activate students’ learning would also be limited to the materials and information available to them.

I thought that that kind of education would be highly sequestered, limiting the innovation capacity of Liberian students. I also thought “Bridge Academies” idea of limiting education development and productivity to test scores was totally out of place. This is true because the whole dynamism involved in the learning process coupled with the literatures regarding how learning occurs do not support such theory.  Human education development is far too complex to ascribe a simplistic prescription to it.

 But when I read Minister Werner’s description of the nature of the privatization on the Voice of America website, in which he indicates: “Our teacher attendance is poor, and the learning outcome for every student is dismal. So what we are trying to do is to leverage the best of the private sector in terms of management systems and accountability and governance to improve all of these elements and accelerate learning outcomes for our children wherever they are” (VOA, 2016).  

This, for me, is the true account of what is happening in the Liberian public school system. Now the question to ask is, will privatization provide the best solution to problems of teachers’ accountability and effective school management and governance? I will say yes as it has proven to work in private and mission schools across the country. Especially, in places like Monrovia where teachers have the opportunity to land jobs both in the public and private school systems; they tend to pay more attention to their private school job because of accountability.

Unlike teachers in the urban areas like Monrovia, Magibi, Buchanan, Harper, Gbarga – most of the big cities in Liberia, teachers in the rural areas have very limited opportunities. As such, they tend to hold their job with firm commitment because of the prestige of being a teacher in the rural area. There are also social and economic incentives to being a teacher in the rural parts of Liberia.

Teachers who take on jobs in the countryside often have students at their disposal to work for them on their various farms as a way to supplement for their living expenses. It is therefore important to privatize public school management and administration. It is the only way to force the cow to drink. I feel this is something that we should try.

About the Author:
Daniel Henry Smith. I attended A. Glenn Tubman Jr. High School and G.W. Gibson in Monrovia. I’m also an alumnus of the Seven Day Adventist High School in Monrovia. I hold a Masters in Planning and Public Policy with emphasis in International Development. I’m currently pursuing doctoral studies in Educational Theory, Policy and Administration at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey,10 Seminary Place, New Brunswick, NJ 0890. Email: [email protected]

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