Liberia, Desperate to Educate, Turns to Charter Schools

A schoolgirl in Monrovia, Liberia.

Credit Zoom Dosso/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This is education in Liberia: A girl is more likely to be married by 18 than to know how to read. The last two times the University of Liberia held its entrance exams, 15 students passed — out of some 38,000 who took the test. Only 59 percent of 6-to-11-year-olds are actually in school.

One reason many students stay home is that teachers do, too. George Werner, who has been education minister for a year, has begun a ghost-busting project — firing teachers who either don’t teach or don’t exist. In three counties so far, Liberia has removed 2,500 ghost teachers from the payroll.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has another 18 months in office. Education reform is a long-term project. But she and Werner are doing one thing in a hurry: When the school year starts in September, private operators — for-profit companies and charitable organizations — will take charge of 120 government primary schools, 3 percent of the total. It’s a one-year pilot project that, if it works, could lead to a nationwide charter school system.

Everything that involves for-profit schooling is controversial. In Africa as in the United States, private schools attract wealthier families — pulling advantaged students and their influential parents out of the public system. To a lesser extent, the same is true with charter schools: They often strip out families who place great importance on their children’s education. Resources sometimes follow.

The scheduled project, the Partnership Schools for Liberia, has been especially contentious because it originally invited only one partner: Bridge International Academies.

Bridge opened its first school in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2009. It is now Africa’s largest and most polarizing chain of private schools (I wrote about Bridge in 2013).

Low-cost private schools are everywhere in Africa. But most are very similar to government schools. They usually consist of a single teacher in her house, with no access to training or materials, using the same rote-learning system ubiquitous in developing countries: She writes something on the blackboard, students repeat it in unison.

Bridge is different. Teachers are closely monitored, supervised and coached. They get scripted lessons on tablets, which tell them what to say and do every minute. Bridge has master teachers who create lessons; the classroom teacher’s job is to deliver them. This allows Bridge to hire high school graduates at low salaries. They get a three-week course in teaching methods and managing a classroom.

Bridge also has a very long school day, eight and a half hours, with optional Saturdays. Bridge now has over 460 nursery and primary schools in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and India, and has been opening a new school every 2.5 days on average.

Bridge charges $6 a month in tuition — well out of range for a slum dweller living on a dollar a day. But supposedly free public schools also charge, in the forms of fees and bribes, leaving the poorest at the same disadvantage.

You’d expect Bridge’s students to do better academically than public school students, and they do. But how much is attributable to family background, and how much to Bridge’s teaching?

A formal evaluation is just beginning. For now, we have Bridge’s studies. The company recently commissioned a study in Kenya comparing its schools with a control group and controlling for family factors. The results were so-so in math: Bridge students got the equivalent of 13 percent more instruction each year. They were excellent in English, the equivalent of 32 percent more schooling.

Liberia’s partnership project grew from a series of conversations that began last September between Werner and Shannon May, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Bridge. Werner then visited Bridge schools in Kenya and Uganda, talking to parents and teachers. “I was awed by what I saw: the ability of children to read and write, the commitment of teachers, the measurement and evaluation mechanisms, the organization,” he said in an interview last week. When Sirleaf was in Kenya on a state visit, she too visited a Bridge school.

They decided to do a one-year pilot program with Bridge, and if the pilot was successful, to turn more of Liberia’s primary schools over to Bridge — perhaps eventually all.

May jumped at the opportunity. “They are paying $78 per kid per year,” she said. “I said we could do it for $75, and you would get everything you see in Bridge schools now if we could do it at scale. I want to show that the Liberian government can afford a great school.”

Others were horrified. There had been no competitive bidding, just a unilateral decision to work with one for-profit company. “Provision of public education of good quality is a core function of the state,” said Kishore Singh, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to education. “Abandoning this to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of the right to education.”

Liberia’s public school teachers threatened to strike. As for private schools, there are some good ones in Liberia. They all said, “What about us?”

“The minister is looking for solutions in a really challenging environment,” said Susannah Hares, the international director of Ark, which runs schools in Britain and abroad, and consults with governments, including Liberia’s, that are setting up public-private partnerships. “He came across something that could be a quick win,” she said of Werner. “He probably acted too quickly in announcing it.”

Werner respondeded to the criticism by altering the plan; now Bridge is to operate 50 schools next year, while another 70 will be chosen in a competitive process. Others on the short list (Tuesday is the deadline for final proposals) include Omega Schools, a Ghana-based chain of 38 private schools; Rising Academies, which operates three schools in Sierra Leone; and BRAC Liberia, a branch of the world’s largest anti-poverty group, which operates free schools for the most marginalized students. At the end of the project year, an outside evaluator will measure results, leaving data for Liberia’s next administration to ponder. So this plan is now far less radical than when first envisioned. It’s even less radical than American charter schools, since the private operators must use existing civil service teachers.

But it’s still hugely controversial. Let’s try to sort this out.

First, a number of accusations are nonsense. For example:

Bridge is bringing rote learning to Liberia: Just the opposite. Scripted lessons do not mean rote lessons. (Here’s a video.) Lucy Bradlow, Bridge’s director of public relations, said that in a typical Bridge lesson, the teacher solves a problem on the blackboard, and then three more at the blackboard with students. Then the students work on problems in their textbooks, while the teacher walks around checking for understanding.

Liberia is privatizing its country’s schools: The problem with private education is that it creates inequity, one tier of education for rich and another for poor. In a sense, Liberia is creating a solution: All the Partnership schools will be free.

As it does for all schools, the government will provide schools in the pilot with teachers, administrative staff and school buildings, all paid for from the education budget. Outside donors — not yet publicly identified — will be supplying another $50 to $60 per student. “We operators are asked, as far as possible, to live within that amount,” said Paul Skidmore, the founder and chief executive of Rising Academies.

That will be impossible, as there are large upfront costs that operators will have to pay themselves. All will certainly lose money on the pilot.

If the pilot is successful and the program expands, the government will pay operators the same amount per pupil as it spends on regular schools.

It’s a last-minute maneuver to affect coming elections: True — but hardly unusual. At least a government with a desperate problem is trying something. Time might be better spent complaining that it hadn’t been done earlier.

At the same time, the project raises serious concerns:

The process favors Bridge. Bridge has been working on this for months. It has the minister’s ear, and therefore clout in setting the rules for the pilot. For example, Bridge has the best chance of getting the schools it wants.

The other charter operators haven’t even been chosen. “It’s quite unfair, but there is nothing you can do,” said Alain Guy Tanefo, chief executive of Omega. “It’s still good to be a part of. It’s a fantastic opportunity to prove there are other models.”

Bridge’s other advantage is financial. Its investors include Bill Gates (personally), Khosla Ventures, the Omidyar Network, the Zuckerberg Education Venture and Learn Capital, which counts Pearson as a limited partner. Bridge could sink unlimited money into its 50 schools, even at a level that would be unsustainable if scaled up.

It’s happening too fast. That’s a refreshing problem to have in this part of the world. Still, school starts in September.

Measuring results will be very difficult. Bridge’s advantages will make it difficult for the evaluation to compare the different charters with one another. Nor will it be easy to compare their results with those of the regular educational system. Although the charters will be in government school buildings, using government teachers, they are negotiating to be able to choose which teachers, to the greatest extent possible.

The program has the potential to further undermine public schools. It’s understandable that the charters want to pick their teachers. The teachers’ union is furious, and an unwilling teacher can sabotage a classroom. But choosing means taking adventurous and ambitious teachers out of the regular school system. “We don’t want to cannibalize public schools to create brilliant shining schools on a hill,” said Justin Sandefur, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington. He is an informal adviser to the ministry, and is likely to have some role in the evaluation.

Small pilot, small problem. But if the Partnership schools scale up, it could be a big problem.

That doesn’t have to happen. The public school system might benefit, by adapting relevant practices from the charters. “It could be a way to bring new people, talent and innovation to the public sector, and strengthen it,” said Hares.

Liberia lacks the capacity to manage the project well. This is the most serious issue, underlying all the others — especially because one of the charter operators is a global superpower. “You need strong governance,” said Hares. “When partnerships work well, it’s when governments act like the commissioner, quality assurer, regulator and financer of education.”

But Liberian schools are a disaster precisely because the government has been unable to do that. And if it could, then why bring in private school operators? Why not use those skills to create a decent public system?

A personal note: In the American context, I oppose public financing or encouragement of private and charter schools. I’ve sent my children to New York City public elementary and middle schools that are not academically selective. Our elementary school has been active in the anti-charter movement.

Liberia is different. The project should have been envisioned sooner, and the process should have been fairer. But if experimentation is justified anywhere, it’s there. It’s hard to look at Liberia’s educational system and say: Do nothing new.