Editor’s note: The views expressed in this commentary are solely of the author and do not necessarily represent that of the Daily Observer newspaper.
A. James Brown
This week the UN is hosting its first Transforming Education summit. Government leaders and educationists from across the world are convening in New York for the United Nations (UN) inaugural Transforming Education Summit. The summit is a response to the global learning crisis and is focused on identifying education transformation programs proven to work at scale.
The UN summit is taking place against a backdrop of growing evidence about the unprecedented scale of the learning crisis and an increasingly public acknowledgment by leaders that the 2030 SDG-4 goal - the provision of quality education for all of 2030- will not be met.
The Liberian Delegation will be headed by Education Minister, Professor Ansu Sonii. Unlike other African Leaders, Liberia has taken practical action to implement system transformation across the nation. The Minister will be using the summit to showcase the Liberian Education Advancement Programme (LEAP) one of the few programs on the continent designed to improve learning outcomes at scale.
As World Leaders convene to discuss solutions to learning poverty; many will be discussing the surprising U-turn by the World Bank which has publically abandoned its 2030 SDG4 targets. The World Bank published its Western and Central African Strategy on the Education Sector highlighting several targets that may not be achieved. This is the Bank's first regional strategy published since 2001.
Amongst other things, the Bank is drawing down on the achievement of its goal of reducing learning poverty (inability to read and understand a simple text at age 10) from 80 percent in 2020 to 75 percent by 2025, and 66 percent by 2030. The publication of the strategy highlights that the Bank is giving up on achieving SDGs Goal 4 by 2030, which aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. This goal ensures that all girls and boys complete free primary and secondary schooling by 2030.
In contrast, local Government leaders, including economically challenged Liberia, remain firmly committed to tackling learning loss and meeting the globally agreed SDG4 targets at a national level. It is worrying that they are more ambitious than the World Bank seems to be when it comes to SDG4. This will have consequences. The Government’s LEAP program is currently dependent upon donor funding and hopes to ultimately secure multilateral funding, but this seems increasingly unlikely if organizations such as the World Bank are openly backtracking on the need to tackle the learning crisis by 2030.
In a proactive and locally lead efforts to deal with the learning crisis faced by their populations, the Liberian Government, like other governments in Africa, opened up its education sector for partnerships, under the Partnerships Schools for Liberia (PSL) renamed the Liberia Education Advancement Program (LEAP) program. Bridge Liberia, the largest partner in the LEAP Program supports over 75,000 students in all counties.
At the end of the first semester of the 2022 academic year, LEAP data showed that more than 40,000 students, or approximately one-third of the program's total student population, are enrolled in early childhood education grades (beginner, nursery, kindergarten), thus demonstrating the LEAP partners' support of pre-primary enrollment and provision. Gender balance and equality are program hallmarks and continue to progress. In the 2022 academic year's first semester, LEAP’s pupil gender equity ratio showed 47% female vs. 53% male. The total number of schools managed by the current four LEAP partners has grown by 650% since the program's inception, and 50% from 2021 to 2022, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Total LEAP pupil enrollment grew by more than 60% from 2021 to 2022.
The methodology underpinning the Bridge Liberia was the subject of a groundbreaking study earlier in the year by a Nobel Prize winner for economics. The study found ‘among the largest learning again ever measured’; if this does not offer the scalable kind of solution being sought by the World Bank and the Global education community at the Transforming Education summit - then what does?
The World Bank is familiar with the work taking place in Liberia and has supported similar programming in Nigeria to the tune of $75 million. Its leaders know there are scalable solutions to learning poverty in action and recognize its new strategy; the question is why does it not have the confidence to focus on the wider delivery of those solutions?
As the United Nations convenes its annual meeting with a summit on education; the Transforming Education Summit (TES), it would be relevant for global bodies like the UN to look at countries and work with organizations that are already working in line with actions tracks outlined by TES such as digital learning and transformation.
Digital learning and transformation, are already at the core of LEAP's approach to transforming public education, as recommended by the World Bank. Partners like Bridge Liberia which is supporting over 300 public primary schools across the country use cross-cutting edge technology to support and monitor school leaders for effective delivery of learning materials for the students daily.
Bridge Liberia focuses on teacher training and leverages technology to empower teachers and improve children’s learning outcomes, through intensive training, ongoing support, scientifically-based digital teacher guides, positive classroom management techniques, and real-time monitoring of lessons.
The impact of this support shows in numerous randomized control studies conducted to measure the impact of the program. The Learning in Liberia Year 3 study shows that eighty-one percent of students who joined a Bridge Liberia supported school under the LEAP program in the first grade and have now spent 2½ years in a Bridge Liberia supported classroom are proficient or basic readers; compared to only 33% of students in traditional public schools.
Interventions like these are being made at a time educational infrastructure is crumbling, teachers aren't showing up for work, and an entire generation is at threat of being left behind in terms of education. The Bridge Liberia approach to transforming public education, recommended by the World Bank, combines structured pedagogy with the gathering of real-time data supported by technology for accountability and feedback, especially as countries struggle to recover from the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In the face of tremendous innovations, it is imperative for the World Bank to creatively revise its strategy for the achievement of SDG 4 by lending technical and financial support to institutions in the education sector to further mitigate and/or address the challenges of enrollment and retention of students, particularly in rural Liberia. By forming partnerships with local education providers, it will ostensibly further eliminate challenges surrounding cultural and traditional obstacles facing students' enrollment and retention.
Furthermore, it is worth noting for the World Bank to support the acceleration of improvements in Liberia’s public education system and establish evidence-based interventions to increase optimal student learning outcomes by supporting endeavors being undertaken by education providers like Bridge Liberia. As Global leaders Convene in New York; policymakers should listen and learn from those leaders who have effective programming at scale to showcase.
There are so many conversations; about ways that learning could improve but now is the time to start implementing those that have been proven to work in the countries where the learning crisis is most acutely felt. The World Bank should be increasing its ambitions for education, not scaling them back. The LEAP Program clearly shows that indeed partnerships in education do work and the World Bank must consider the methodology behind it as a solution to ending learning poverty as recommended by Nobel Prize winner Prof. Michael Kremer in his groundbreaking study on education; Solutions to learning poverty.