Over the life cycle of the Liberian state, there has been a growing dissatisfaction among certain segments in the society over the poor quality of public service delivery in general. Public service has often been described as unfriendly to customers, slow, hard to improve, and not results-oriented. Now, combined with pressures emerging from fiscal austerity measures, outsourcing has become a prudent remedy in the eyes of some policymakers. How will such an approach procure efficiency, equity, and quality simultaneously, when the environment that incubates the sector has yet not changed significantly? Worse, when the public good in question is education, the lifeblood and underpinning of national development, the question asked before takes on a significance of grave magnitude. The future of Liberia hinges on this public good.
The purpose of this article is not to join the debate on the merits or the lack thereof regarding outsourcing public education. Liberian society has gone passed this point. Therefore, it makes no sense going back and forth on this matter. That would not be an optimal use of brain resources. Instead, this article, in efficiency terms, aims to put forward those questions that the public might ask to determine the success or failure of Bridge Academies. Put another way, what product has the Bridge Academies inherited from the Liberian government and people?
What product has it being given to manage? If we have a clear sense of the state of our schools, then the public will have an informed expectation, based on which to judge the success or failure of Bridge Academies during and at the end of its contract with the government.
Clearly, there is a monitoring and evaluation plan that the government will use to judge Bridge Academies’ performance. However, I am interested here in how the public will assess the new approach to school governance in the Liberian context.
The general assessment is that the standards by which the Liberian education system operates are not uniform. The curriculum might be standardized, but its application, enforcement, and support are not consistent across the board. We therefore have minimal or no ways to measure or compare the performances of individual schools, school administrators, teachers, and students across the country. Data sources on such matters are weak or nonexistent. The National Examination, which was the nation’s foremost standardized test, has been traded in for the WAEC. Therefore, how will Liberian society, not the government, measure the performance of Bridge Academies at different phases of its intervention?
Does the ordinary Liberian have fine-grained ideas about the nature or quality of the product that Bridge Academies is inheriting? Or are they stuck in the negative perception that exists about Liberian schools without regard for the many oasis of learning (great schools) that exist in the country? The latter is mentioned to serve as a point of comparison. Until those variables are clear, at least, to the public, which will be the final arbiter of Bridge Academies’ performance, this might be an intervention without a target. Even if Bridge Academies succeeds, it might face unwarranted criticisms because the society lacks knowledge of where it started from, where it is going, how it is going to achieve set goals, and the constraints that stand in the way. Most importantly, are the goals set, ones that Liberians own broadly?
WAEC is the standardized indicator by which student performance is measured in Liberia. On that measure, student performance has been characterized as abysmal due to repeated mass failures. A proxy measure that can be added to the WAEC is the University of Liberia entrance exams. Together, these indicators form a composite picture that teaching and learning are not meeting expectations. If one were to compare the performance of students from public and private schools using these indicators, some would say that the latter is doing better.
If the ordinary Liberian were to assess Bridge Academies’ performance, it is likely that the WAEC and the University of Liberian entrance scores would be used to gauge, if they are effectively managing the schools in their care. How does Bridge Academies plan to improve performance on these two major indicators?
Another marker by which the public is prone to measure the state of Liberian schools might be teacher quality. Teacher quality is a catch-all concept for the enabling conditions that make teaching and learning possible. For some, they involve knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal virtues of teachers, including self-discipline and parent engagement. For others, they add, education leadership at all levels and the professional community produced to facilitate efficient and effective teaching and learning. Teacher quality is crucial to improving student performance. For this, meters like the teachers’ qualifications, experience, and the outcomes produced by each student in their care will be keen public yardsticks. The level of ongoing capacity building that is provided to improve the professionalism of the teacher might also be another variable. Simple questions like: ‘What does the teacher know? What are they capable of doing relative to producing marked improvements in student outcomes?’ Put another way, the public will need to know what is being taught now and who is teaching it? But attached to this, would be teacher satisfaction in terms of compensation and incentives. Answers to these questions will adequately serve as measures by which to hold Bridge Academies accountable.
It would be important to add the infrastructural dimensions to this discussion. By school infrastructure, I capture several things under one auspice. I think we must know the general nature of school facilities and the extent to which they would be improved to meet quality and/or public expectations. I also think of infrastructure not only in terms of facilities, but amenities such as bathrooms, libraries, laboratories, book stores, athletic fields, food for students, and basketball or volleyball courts, even classroom size coupled with technology. Relative to classroom size, experts are keen that disadvantaged students mired by poor performance learn much better in smaller classrooms, where their learning styles are taken into consideration by the teacher. Unless the public knows what to expect on these fronts, it might fail to hold Bridge Academies to appropriate account. The public would therefore need to understand the quality of school infrastructure that is being passed down to Bridge Academies to set associated expectations for improving it.
The mission to transform Liberian schools will not be complete until capacity is built throughout the country for self-management and self-governance. The centralized approach has proven over the years to be unable to give local partners the deserved stake in this life changing enterprise. Local decision making and community participation are the cornerstones of devolved school systems. It is the missing ingredient in helping Liberian schools systems to recover from its present state. All of the variables identified would have to include a process of inclusive decision making, whereby local communities, more than ever, parents and their communal ties, are equipped to fully graduate their local education systems to self-governance and management. It is this ownership that will eventually send the message that Bridge Academies has achieved its purpose in the eyes of the ordinary citizen. Devoid of it, this intervention would be a mere pipeline or conduit, another paternalistic venture, which will leave insufficient capacity in its wake for Liberians to administer their schools nationally and locally.
Our education system did not get the way it is today suddenly. It will therefore not be improved to standards of excellence with quick fixes. No one knows precisely whether or not Bridge Academies is the best alternative for transforming Liberian schools because the evidence for making such a decision has yet not been brought to the public attention. It might even be even absent. Using evidence from other contexts such as Kenya to explain the success of Bridge Academies makes the necessary case, but it is insufficient. If one thing is indispensable to change making, it is the context. Kenya is not Liberia, and Liberia is not Kenya. Liberia is a transitional society emerging from the throes of war and an Ebola epidemic that combined to devastate all fibers of its being. These experiences set Liberia apart. When the country is transitioning to a new government in a year, and when the education system needs a complete overhaul, if supporters of the Bridge Academies intervention fail to clearly articulate the standards by which they must be assessed in layman terms, in the long-run, Bridge Academies’ record will be mired in controversy. Allies of this venture in and outside of government would have made the classic mistake in systems transformation, not telling your constituents how success will be measured before you begin the enterprise. Thus, they build expectations that are not rooted in reality and fail to satisfy them. And when regret turns into despondence, they wonder where it came from.
I am not an unbiased observer of the education reform process. When I worked for government, my role involved organizing Liberia’s first Education Roundtable and providing technical assistance to executives at the Ministry of Education (MOE) in developing its Operation Plan.
During this period, I built ties with staffers who are still working at MOE. The current Minister of Education and I served on the Cabinet together. I am a professional colleague with some of its local leaders of Bridge Academies. I worked with them in previous positions. In spite of these associations, my commitment to academic objectivity and the good of Liberia exceeds these relationships.