Can overhauling ‘teaching’ reform schools in Kenya?

Kenyan schools are not doing well. About a 120 of them were set alight in arson attacks last year alone which were largely blamed on fears arising from a government crackdown on cheating in national exams. Amid national schooling reforms, many pupils and parents continue to be unhappy about the changes. Where do the teachers figure within this period of heavy reform?

Both the best and worst performers in East Africa are in Kenya
Although school enrolment has gone up steadily, over a million children are still out of school. In terms of learning outcomes, Kenya performs relatively better than its neighbours, but results from internationally recognised competency test, Uwezo, shows that learning levels are poor, and have stagnated over time. For instance, in the 2014 Uwezo assessment, 39% of children aged 7-13 years passed a test that required them to demonstrate competence of Standard 2 level numeracy and literacy. This was not significantly different from the performance in previous years: 40% in 2011, 37% in 2012 and 41% in 2013. Looking at student learning levels, both the best and worst performing districts in East Africa are in Kenya. The extremities in quality within Kenyan education are huge. For instance, according to the same Uwezo data, “a child in the Central region is over seven times more likely to have attained a Standard 2 level of literacy and numeracy than a child in the North Eastern region”.

Fixing the education system in Kenya is an onerous task. The Government of Kenya has time and time again, reiterated its commitment to improving the state of education, and has outlined its vision in the National Education Sector Plan 2013- 2018. Alongside, a host of national and international development agencies in Kenya have over the years, financed numerous programmes, targeting various components of the education sector. These efforts have yielded a wealth of evidence. One should consider such evidence, while attempting to answer the question – how can we improve the quality of schooling in Kenya?

A good teacher is a good solution
Instead of looking at angry pupils, why not start with overwhelmed teachers instead? Teachers in Kenyan schools face a wide range of constraints. Most importantly, they are often not adequately prepared to deliver the curriculum in the classroom, thus suffering from poor motivation. While the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) recently introduced a more rigorous teacher performance and appraisal system, it is important to think of teacher performance holistically. A workman can only be as good as his tools.

But teachers are constrained by the system they function within
Let’s take each one in turn. The system of pre-service training of teachers has faced significant scrutiny across the globe. Even where teacher training is of acceptable quality, there isn’t enough support for teachers to stay up-to-date with contemporary teaching and learning methods. Teachers are therefore often poorly equipped to handle children in the classroom, avoiding the use of conventional rote learning methods, and focusing equitably on those who may not be performing well. Research indicates that lower performing children are more likely to drop out of school, as they spend more time in the classroom without being able to comprehend what is being taught.

The other constraint – that of poor motivation – has several dimensions. An evident one is ‘pay’, and there have been recent efforts to meet teachers’ demands with the approval for a pay hike for teachers, which will cost the state exchequer an additional KSh 54 billion over the next 4 years beginning July 2017. One manifestation of poor teacher motivation is the observation by the UN’s Education Commission that nearly a half of primary schools teachers in Kenya did not attend classes. Further, teachers face significant challenges of poor infrastructure and insecurity in remote counties of Kenya. Moreover, teachers suffer from lack of professional development opportunities during their teaching careers.

The constraints described above translate into a poor learning experience for children in the classrooms in Kenyan schools. But there is now a strong body of evidence that can be tapped in designing interventions that are politically feasible, and have the potential to deliver concrete results.

Overhauling the classroom pedagogy
So how can teachers be supported better in delivering the curriculum more effectively? For instance, a study conducted in coastal region of Kenya tested the impact of additional support such as training, semi-scripted lesson plans, and weekly SMS-based support for teachers. They found that a combination of these inputs resulted in significant improvement in not only student learning outcomes, but also in student retention drop-out rates. This approach is quite similar to Tusome, a model adopted nationally by the Ministry of Education to improve early-grade reading and literacy in the country. Such support can be complemented by pedagogical interventions, such as separating students into groups by ability (determined through a simple initial test) so that teachers can ensure that low-performing students get the same attention as the high-performing ones. Testing regularly, and ensuring consistency in testing methods will be critical.

Enhancing teacher motivation
A teacher’s motivation and enthusiasm is critical, pay is only one element to their role. While experiments involving performance contracting appear promising for impact on learning outcomes, the political economy of the education sector makes this an unlikely sell in the short-term. In the meanwhile, tightening accountability systems within the education sector, by using a combination of compassionate monitoring arrangements, and career development opportunities for teachers appear to be feasible interventions. Technological applications that can capture and transmit data upwards can help enhance accountability in schools, and contribute towards the creation of a data-driven, responsive schooling system. Modernising the system should modernise the teacher’s outlook in their career. This should be accompanied by a strong emphasis on an in-service teacher development module, supporting them to continuously upgrade their skills to match the evolving requirements in a 21st-century classroom.

Fostering localised solutions
While enhancing accountability mechanisms might be a top-down reform, it is critical to recognise that a pure command-and-control model no longer works for school education. Since the tremendous expansion in enrolment brought about by Universal/Free Primary Education drives, the schooling system in Kenya (and other sub-Saharan African countries) have struggled to deliver quality education at scale. Schools operating in far-flung areas face a set of challenges that are often unique to their context. But schools usually do not possess the autonomy, or the resources to find local contextual solutions. Therefore, empowering school administrations – teachers, students, and parents – to have greater autonomy through control over resources and functions at their level is another reform worth initiating. There are several possibilities here: starting from schools making decisions on the types of infrastructure they need, to teachers innovating pedagogical methods to be used in the classrooms.

There are no simple solutions to the problems with the education sector in Kenya. But we do have more than one entry point that would initiate reforms necessary to ready the sector to meet the needs of children in the twenty-first century. Working with teachers is one such area.

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