Students in Liberia lag far behind their peers in the developing world. Their education has been disrupted by more than a decade of civil war, post-conflict stress, and the Ebola health crisis. The international response has provided necessary funding for teacher training and educational resources, but has not been sufficient to realize the children of Liberia’s right to quality education.
In 2015, the Liberian Ministry of Education crafted “Getting to Best”, a vision for Liberia to become an educational leader in Africa and globally. The Government of Liberia’s Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) pilot project is part of this wider “Getting to Best” education strategy. PSL seeks to engage multiple successful school operators to implement and study key elements of “Getting to Best” prior to scaling the most promising policies to be adopted countrywide. In 2016, the Ministry entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Bridge International Academies to become the first of eight partners within the Partnership Schools for Liberia.
The MOU called upon Bridge to disrupt the status quo by lengthening the school day; reducing class size to no more that 55 students; and holding teachers accountable for attendance and performance. The MOU also ensures that lessons learned in the Pilot Project are shared with the Ministry. The MOU clearly intends to establish ideal conditions for this test of prospective policies, including “the best teaching force possible”, “access to data-enabled cell service”, and concentrated school locations for “cost-effective oversight.”
Early indications suggest this is working according to plan. PSL students performed exceptionally well compared to their traditional public school counterparts, according to a study conducted by independent researchers at the Center for Global Development and Innovations for Poverty Action. The study, a randomized controlled trial, used appropriately conservative treatments of academic outcomes and carefully assigned schools to treatment and control conditions. In its first year, the PSL pilot has dramatically increased learning for students, by 0.6 years across all PSL schools. Bridge students gained one additional full year of learning.
It appears that the Ministry of Education’s Pilot Test has been a big success. Bridge, whose comparable student learning gains were highest among PSL partners, was most successful at implementing:
- Enrollment caps necessary to counter overcrowding (>55 pupils)
- Eliminating the double shifts which limit learning time for students
- Identifying “ghost teachers” and encouraging the Ministry to stop paying these teachers who do not show up for work
- Identifying and removing illiterate teachers
These policy shifts appear to support learning outcomes and also helped the PSL schools accomplish several other outcomes as well:
- Teacher attendance increased
- Parent satisfaction increased
- These schools’ good reputation spread beyond their walls. Even teachers and parents at non-PSL public schools had high confidence in PSL partners and indicated a desire for the program to expand.
The Ministry will expand the program in this second year to reach more students, including those in the most remote parts of the country. In its recent report on the global education crisis, the World Bank rightly commends Liberia’s public-private partnership as positive policy action. If its subsequent steps are as successful as its first, Liberia will be well on its way to achieving its audacious goal to become a leading light for education.