The Real Problem with Education

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Education is back in the headlines, marred by the Ebola-sized interruption, and by government’s hasty missteps to fill the classrooms after a long, unproductive year. But the Ebola effect is just the tip of a massive iceberg.

At the base of this iceberg are thousands of ghost faculty members, in whose names bank accounts are being filled with thousands of taxpayer dollars. Further up the food chain are middle managers at the Ministry of Education who remain lost on the true number of Government teachers, and who don’t care to know, as long as they get their paychecks at month’s end. At the top is a succession of PhDs and Master’s degree holders who could not seem to handle this mess of a sector, even if they wanted to.

As with the Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage, it only takes the tip of an iceberg to sink a ship. That is exactly what Ebola did – to our education system, our health system, and the economy as a whole. But the fact is, disasters happen. The key is employing the right strategies to rebuild. The trouble is, our President seems indisposed to make any real headway in the sector.

Whether to fill her quota of political appointments; or to avoid protests by angry students or parents; the President has, time and again, compromised the quality of Liberia’s education system.

Take, for example, the decision to reopen schools, while Liberia had not yet been declared Ebola Free. While this decision put students and teachers at high risk of encountering another outbreak, angry parents, anxious to salvage what was left of the 2014 academic year, won the fight to reopen schools. And reopen they did… for a few months. Now the same parents are indignant at having to pay full tuition twice this school year.

Another example: students rioting at the University of Liberia. The Brownell saga made it clear that Liberia’s flagship university needs to overhaul its admissions process, and scale down student intake to accept only the emotionally and intellectually qualified.

As it stands, though, UL is a breeding ground for many a two-dimensional sycophant who talks big, knows little, and fans around Senators calling, “Chief, chief!”

Still another example: two successive Nimbaian Ministers with PhDs, hired to be sitting ducks floating easily over the filthy pond that is the education sector. We embrace their tribe, but sadly, it should not have been a criterion for their appointment.

And another: the usual story that keeps Liberia in the chokehold of corruption: personnel who refuse to name and shame those who exploit the system.

Let’s not forget the occasional protests over salaries by teachers who barely speak enough English to justify their employment. How does the government respond? By paying them… after a payroll cleanup exercise that only massages a problem that requires sandpaper.

On the flip side, the new Minister, swelling from his success at the small Civil Service Agency, seems overly confident in his ability to turn the system “from mess to best.” He may impress some with this goal, but we are amused. Firstly, he has only two years to work this miracle – if he lasts that long. Secondly, he is already making all the wrong enemies by snubbing his first budget hearing, and playing hardball with the legislature and students, when he has not yet built the political capital to do so. This is a recipe
for disaster. Our only question to him is this: if Mary Broh could not win, what makes you think you can?

Evidently, the real problem with Liberia’s education system rests in the politics. Our President, Education Ministers and the personnel further down the chain all fall on the two extremes of the political spectrum: on one side, you have those who cower in the face of public dissent; on the other end are those who have courage but lack wisdom or political acumen.

To restore balance to our education system, the leadership in the sector must grow a spine and make the tough decisions; kill their egos and develop partnerships that lead to positive results; stop lamenting about textbooks, just shut up and get the job done, because our future depends on it.

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