Rethinking Short Term Educational Improvement Strategies: Gov’t Public – Private Partnership Dilemma
Conversations around the introduction of the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) agreement between the government of Liberia and the US-based Bridge Incorporated continue to draw attention from educational practitioners, civic groups for innumerably justifiable reasons.
While the PPP idea does generate incorporable considerations for contextual inclusion in a national reform program, the current evolution of the program institution by the Government of Liberia will remain typically a monumental flaw in the nation’s expressed endeavor towards sustainable social development.
The author is presumptuous about the readership’s general cognizance of the PPP pilot program, considering media space this issue has occupied over the last several months. Accordingly, this article will not belabor the attention of readers with details of the arrangements between the government of Liberia and Bridge International, a reality ever so available in the public domain.
As a rollout, this article examines the practicality of the move, the implications to educational governance, and projections on a more prudent alternative set of actions.
Liberia’s educational sector challenges is reflective of the ravages associated with societies ransacked by years of war, and whose progress out of the scourge, MUST necessarily be carved out of a national blueprint intricately aligned to the national vision; takes into account, the local contexts, and is responsive to the current and future needs of a nation journeying along the path of rehabilitation, recovery and development.
After more than ten years of rehabilitation, it would be right to assume that Liberia – compared to many of its continental neighbors affected by some form of catastrophic national conflict – would be far on the path of recovery and development, beyond the rehabilitation stage. As it stands, educational sector development continues to suffer the backlash of the proverbial:
“Putting on the roof before constructing the foundation”
This article considers current attempts at educational reform – within the context of the PPP reality, and the missing links to essential to advancing beyond expressed governmental “commitments” to sector reform. Accordingly, and inconsideration of the aforementioned, this author commences this discourse illuminating the mis-steps in the policy conception process and the move away from “quick impact” programming model to the long-term sustainable visioning model.
Educational reform in any society, especially those such as Liberia – evolving from the devastation of war and institutional decay, require a set of long-term nationally-driven vision to successfully propel and sustain reform efforts.
In his book, “Education Reform – The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity”, (Griffin, 2013) sounds out the theory that reforms aimed at enhancing educational outcomes must be inclusive of other critically-related aspects of educational sector administration and management . Griffin’s suggestion points to policy intelligence and creativity – leading to questions about the considerations undertaken in the policy inquiry process carried out over the PPP decision.
Creativity and pragmatism feed intelligence at the policy conceptualization stage, and inescapably provide the basis upon which responsive programs are conceived, methodologies identified, and strategies pursued, in response to the complications confronting societies.
Visioning is an essential component of the policy conceptualization process, as it is the proverbial platform upon which actions are ordered, and gains measured (D’Oyley & James, 1998; Kraft & Furlong, 2014; McCann & Eugene, 2001).
It goes without saying therefore, that the apprehensions expressed by the pool of Liberian education stakeholders: including politicians, policy-makers, our international partners, civil society actors, and especially teachers at home, and abroad – are skewed against the practicality, and responsiveness of the Government’s PPP decision. Driven by the focus of this this article, the following concerns are accordingly lifted:
Desperation and Policy Decisions: An initial study of the proposal reflects an underlying last-minute dash of desperation from government to ameliorate, or at best minimally salvage, the growing educational sector infamy projecting from ongoing public assessments, and output performances. Thoreau captures the folly in reactive desperation, rather than intelligence, in the engagement of challenges as literarily expressed in his quote:
“It is characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things”
– Henry David Thoreau
Indeed the challenges facing the nation’s education system has fallen to unimaginable lows, but any attempt at constructing a path out of Liberia’s educational recession has to be integratively holistic and underpinned by shared policy intelligence. Integrative “holisticness” requires that programs and policies instituted are integrally linked; that considering the integration, various components of the sector directly benefit from the process – by a vision constructed on the premise of the long-term successes, though contingent on the immediate (Gu & Mingyuan, 2010).
Educational development, as expressed by the duo affirm the importance of constructing policy frameworks, not in isolation of other crucial sector reform targets, but that driven by long-term vision, policy interventions are designed, to uplift, enhance, promote, and sustain projected gains. On the contrary, (Bailey, 2013) identifies “quick impact” or “cosmetic” solutions as limiting in the long run, and leaves no framework for continuity.
Policy Importation versus Policy localization: A major benefit of globalization to development programming is the borderless nature of information and resources. With increasing interactions between professionals and their access to development information, the complexities brought about by local challenges have become conceptually surmountable – given remedial propensities occasioned by accessible experiences. To further amplify this point, Witte and Johanna (2000) proffer a nexus between educational reform and national development.
They contend that efforts aimed at propelling national development must necessarily be undergo contextualization to effectively meet domestic needs, and promote stakeholders’ buy-in. Witte and Johanna unreservedly concur with the concept of global interdependence of ideas, experiences and resources, but call on policy leaders to ensure that ideas – regardless of their origin – are domesticated and aligned to the national vision while staying aware of local resource make-up and attainable national goals (van Horen, Michael & Sisira, 2004).
Van Horen et al. suggest that while there exist innumerable collection of experiences, it behooves development professionals to contextualize global experiences to remedial programs aimed at salvaging local situations. A major contention underlying the current PPP debate accentuate this point. Still further are a collection of inquiries – see below- intended to drive home the wisdom behind the anti-PPP campaign:
- Is it cost effective to contract non-nationals rather than deploying local professionals and retain resources locally?
- Is there an absence of knowledgeable local professionals to lead a localized model of the current enterprise?
- What is the projected life of the undertaking, considering growing public outcry against the scheme and the expectation of a new government in a few months?
As argued initially in this discourse, and borrowing from years of international development experience, prototyping solutions employed in other contexts come with enormous benefits. Primary is the fact that as an outsider, the “prototyper” is positioned to better examine the process from a scrutinous point than managers of the process. The objectivity of outsiders naturally is gyrated by realization of their domestic contexts, resources, and mirrored against current infrastructure.
On the question of the country’s economic situation, and within the framework of the PPP pilot, one is constrained to wonder about the current decision, and the value per dollar to Liberia of the proposed investment compared to related remedial models which were considered (McEwan et al., 2015).
In their study of comparative intervention models employed in Honduran villages, McEwan and colleagues represented the Honduran government’s model of flexibly combine structures intended to address a variety of educational issues arising from the regions, and which, if not attended to, could ultimately undermine other remedial undertakings. The team examined the programmatic differentials between alternative intervention models, but also focused its attention on interventions costs, resources outlays, outcomes and intervention sustainability.
These critical operational issues were comparatively assessed for final policy action determination. With the operationalization of the program already set in motion, there is yet to be any study – made public – that justifies or supports the costs of the intervention, nor has there been alternative courses of action brought to the public, by the government, for consideration, better still, for the information.
Another perspective brought about by this current PPP “crisis” is the assumption that professional Liberians cannot be identified to successfully manage and administer a mode process, hence the outsourcing scheme. This assumption, like many affecting Liberians in other sectors, is fundamentally flawed and remains one of the essential basis for the country’s current socio-economic backwardness (Gberie, 2015).
The recent WAEC results clearly illuminate a salient point that the preponderance of high performing schools (HPSs) on the annual school-leaving exams was private schools (Worzi, 2016). Without fact checking the leadership of those 35 institutions, one can safely conclude that they are all generally administered by Liberians.
Whether they be sponsored by international funding does not necessarily matter at this point. The core issue is that Liberians, not non-nationals are leading the effort to ensure that schools under their charge are outperforming especially public institutions.
Without the requisite statistical and policy sophistication, the realization that private schools continue to out-perform public schools should gain enormous attention from public education officials. Not only are private schools deriving significant revenues from tuition and other fees, by their capacity, they are absolutely empowered to attract the most minimally qualified, but whose commitment and dedication is incentivized reasonably. On the other hand, Government’s complacency is now being translated into the unpopular outsourcing program, that is as outdated as Liberia is old.
The presumption that government needs to import non-Liberian operatives to better its educational system is therefore fundamentally flawed and suggests that as a nation, we have not yet graduated from the slave mentality but continue to reinforce the falsehood that “as slaves, the master always knows better.”
To amplify the point further, Tokpah (2016) questions the government’s rationale in contracting such an agreement on the “eve of departure.” Considering the seating of a new government in a few months, the reasoning underlying the present judgment is suspect. Prudence support actions by public officials that are intended to safeguard the public interest and protect the national image at all times.
This present action draws public administrators, especially the head of Ministry of Education into closer public scrutiny in the midst of a number of practical actions with propensity to salvage the existing educational anomaly with long-term implications.
To this end, the author proposes a number of practical actions which, for all intents and purposes, could essentially provide a national pathway to educational to addressing Liberia current educational emergency and place the country on the course of sustainable educational development. Liberia’s challenges are in no form unique, but for the lack of commitment to follow through appropriate policies to benefit the sector, strengthen the prospects of learning outcomes and improve the overall educational environment. Again, the ideas expressed herein are not comprehensive, but stop-gap measured aimed at addressing the educational immediacy.
#1: Align Political Constituencies to Educational Districts: There is a political undertone to this recommendation. The intent here is to assign district representatives, and by extension their county Senators the obligation, not responsibility, to support the process of educational development in their constituencies.
Considering their role in budgetary appropriation, it would behoove them to ensure that the constituencies they lead are advancing in their educational and other pursuits, and that their status as representatives of the people is hinged enormously on their performances of critical institutions (sectors) under their watch.
As the government seeks to further its decentralization quest, empowerment of its various districts will immeasurably playout in favor of a more competitive environment that will engender improvements, and leverage constituents’ ownership in the educational governance process.
#2: Accentuate the Role of WAEC in Educational Governance and Monitoring: On the heels of the political alignment of educational districts and political constituency is the critical role WAEC can play in the educational governance process. Primary is its role to develop and administer class appropriate assessments for the various levels Liberia’s educational sector.
This role must not only be resourced, but expanded to essential assess more grade levels on a frequency greater than current. While perhaps much of the attention is placed on 9th and 12th graders, there are grades 3rd and 6th grades to issues to be addressed. At class intervals of three (3) governments is placed in a position to gather significant performance data for decision-making.
At these levels, it become easier to identify problem as they arise, enabling more targeted responses to the educational performance challenges.
On this note, it must become mandatory that WAEC’s capacity be improved to allow for a greater role in educational assessments.
That ALL results are tabulated with the necessary confidentiality safeguards and made public. That publication of the results be calibrated by districts and schools, and countries. NO students name ought to find its way in this publication.
That a national educational council, perhaps duly elected by and through their districts develop and with the help experts in the field, set performance benchmarks for schools to meet and for budgetary support. And that budgetary incentive programs are earmarked for both high performance, accompanied by appropriate remedial interventions for underperforming schools and districts.
That school is informed and educated about repercussions of consistent poor performance and stipulated outcome for underperformance. Repercussions may range from:
- Notices of warning school leaders
- Suspensions of school leaders
- Closure or takeover of schools
- Set up an incentive program for high performing school districts
#3 Determinations to Make Public Schools Competitive: Making public schools competitive require a full range of actions, resources and commitment from central authorities. Howbeit, there are a number of actionable steps capable of inducing instructional commitment and learning competitiveness. Primary among the many actions are:
Review and Institute Incentives for school leaders and instructors, especially those willing to serve in rural Liberia. An incentive program to attract trained educational workers away from urban centers.
Place a moratorium on the licensing of new schools for a period of at least three years while working to develop a set of new guidelines on the physical requirements of schools, appropriate learning environment, instructional and leadership qualification requirements, with attention to lowering the teacher-student ratio. Attention to incentives for qualified rural teachers is essential under this process.
#4 Consider more cost-effective public-private partnership models:
There is an abundance of models across the developing and developed world from which a practically contextual model for Liberia can emerge. Many in the US point to the Charter school model, its major defect – absence of integrious monitoring mechanisms fueled massive corruption in charter school operations across the US. Accordingly, the following recommendations are proffered to, at minimal, point policy administrators in the direction of local resources and possible alliances which could assist in driving local efforts:
Vet and recruit experienced educational leaders, former managers to man monitoring institutions across the targeted schools and program areas.
Forge alliances with existing school systems across the country to provide supervisory services for low performing schools within reach HPCs.
Provide management framework within which administrators collaborate and coordinate. Set performance guidelines for mangers in expectation of
Establish financial parameters around which transparency and accountability is accentuated throughout the process, and that players are made knowledgeable of their responsibility to the national coffers. In this regard, work with the GAC to develop financial safeguards for managers in the process.
As expressed at the commencement of these proceedings, this article is in no way a holistic panacea to the problems afflicting educational development in Liberia, but a set of considerations to cost-effectively advance the operational stalemate between public officials, educators across the country and the need to advance the sector beyond its current position.
The effort to advance Liberia ailing education sector must be targeted, resourced and commitment to this end sustained.
The current reality grossly exposes the perennial neglect over the years, and which was exacerbated by the war. It is the trust of many incurable optimists like the author that Liberia and the region can raise beyond its current position to nobler heights!
George Wah Williams, Contributing Writer
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