Defending Liberia’s right to experiment, and a few questions

Liberia continues to attract criticism for its Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) pilot. Here is a recent news report  already pronouncing the verdict on the programme:

Coalition for Transparency and Accountability in Education (COTAE) said in its report released last week Wednesday that the PPP is gradually but emphatically proving to be a failure and the education sector further weakening, presenting a vague future for a nation of impoverished and mostly illiterate citizens.

I have earlier written about how we must support Liberia in experimenting with this model of partnership schools. To recap, Liberia’s Ministry of Education acknowledged that “42 percent of primary age children remain out of school. And most of those who are enrolled are simply not receiving the quality of education they deserve and need” – commendably referring to the problems of both access and quality of education in the country. Conventional education systems have failed to deliver, and research from across the globe supports the view that just having higher paid, or qualified permanent civil service teachers do not yield results. In this context, PSL seeks to generate evidence, and provide decision-makers in Liberia with the tools to iterate reforms to their largely dysfunctional schooling system. Liberia’s education system is not working, and it needs to test out bold new ideas. I therefore fully defend the government’s right to experiment.

It is sometimes hard to disentangle the criticism of the concept of a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) from that of specific providers. Much of the criticism of the PSL seems to be directly targeting the for-profit education company, Bridge International Academies (BIA). But BIA are only one of the eight service providers, running 24 out of the 93 schools (fewer than the originally intended 120) under the PSL.

It is no secret that BIA’s classroom cap (maximum 55 students) is denying students access to education by denying them access to the Bridge schools. These students unfortunately end up not enrolling in school at all—a situation that is counterproductive to government’s compulsory primary education policy. Some of those that are rejected end up in an overcrowded class in another nearby school that tries to accommodate them…

…Schools accommodating students who were denied access to BIA schools are overcrowded and face serious logistical challenges. In some instances, parents have hurriedly erected makeshift structures to accommodate students rejected by Bridge, but lack of teachers and other logistical challenges are still affecting the quality of education in these schools…

…COTAE also accused BIA of breaching the MOU with the government. “Some schools close before the stipulated time due to lack of or inconsistency of the feeding program for students. This breach has serious implications for the curriculum as all materials may not be covered. Students, mostly children, are expected to be in school from 7:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., but without food,” the report noted.

In recent months, critics, led prominently by Action Aid International, have sharpened their attacks. The Economist writes about the main concerns being voiced: one, that PSL operators have limited class sizes and are pushing out poor-performing students, and more broadly, will look to game the system to suit their methods; two, that operators are raising and spending philanthropic funds in these schools in addition to the government’s capitation (computed annually, per-child) grant of $50; and three, the business model operated by operators like BIA end up channelling a significant proportion of philanthropic funds raised such programmes on people and systems located outside the recipient country.

There are clearly two separate sets of issues here. One, the question of legality of practices followed in PSL schools. It is important to remember that as in any Public-Private-Partnership, the government needs to play an active oversight and regulatory role. It will not be up to the researchers (however independent they might be) to bring to light, cases of operational deficiencies, or even malfeasance. If BIA and other providers are indulging in practices that violate the commitments made by Government of Liberia to its citizens (and indeed, commitments made by the PSL providers to the GoL), those have to be addressed through the education system, and law enforcement. Admittedly, it is easy to sit outside and demand that a government, already suffering from capacity constraints, play an active role and stand up to powerful donors and donor-funded multinational corporates/NGOs when there are instances of wrongdoing.  But that’s where critics and activists should focus their efforts – in supporting the government to monitor better, and enforce standards.

The second set of issues that The Economist raised are related to the success/failure of the pilot, and its replicability. These are weighty criticisms, and are being addressed to varying degrees by the independent evaluation led by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA). The researchers have set up a randomised control trial, where intervention schools were assigned randomly to the operators from a set of schools chosen for the evaluation. Critics however argue that the independent evaluation will not provide clear evidence on the PSL. See here and here for this debate that will be fought out in the months and years to come.

The question of additional philanthropic funds being pumped by the operators into PSL schools is a tricky one for the evaluation. Different operators, to their ability and intent, will bring in varying amounts and types of additional investments. These investments are helping them overcome the terms of their agreement with the government that stipulate that they cannot charge any school fees. This could make the programme entirely un-viable even if it comes out successful in the evaluation. Providers like BIA might argue that unit costs would fall with scale, but there are obviously no assurances that will happen. This will also be partially determined by the extent to which the government eventually wants to regulate private providers in the education sector. This is of course a secondary question – first, PSL has to deliver improvements in learning – but one that the government and donors should already be thinking about.

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