The Liberian Ministry of Education envisions a day when its students outpace Africa and the rest of the world. While they still have a long way to go, the promising results from a bold new initiative, Partnership Schools for Liberia, suggest that Liberia is on the right path.
The Ministry intends its Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL), a public-private partnership between the Government of Liberia and eight school operators, to immediately boost learning gains for students, provide training and support for teachers and administrators, and share with the Ministry the lessons learned on management, curriculum, materials use, and learning practices. Having just completed its first year, PSL has already begun to deliver on its promise by raising student performance 60%.
While these early learning gains are impressive, so also is the Ministry’s disciplined implementation plan. The Ministry’s agreement with Bridge International Academies (the first PSL agreement) named the initial three years of the PSL “a pilot phase” and established several provisions “to increase the likelihood of pilot project success.” These provisions included clustering schools to ensure “cost-effective oversight”, access to data-enabled cell service, “double opt-in” hiring procedures which required mutual agreement between the teacher and the operator, and the right to remove teachers and administrators for failure to meet the operator’s standards for code-of-conduct, rules, or general performance.
The Ministry, to its credit, recognized the difficulty of achieving its audacious goals, allowed its partners the greatest chance at early success, and built in a rigorous evaluation to maximize learning. Pilots are widely misunderstood and often maligned, but when designed well, they provide opportunities to learn from early stage implementation to inform later stage implementation. By reducing complexity, the Ministry increased the likelihood that the first-year PSL implementation would effectively serve initial and future PSL students.
There is, of course, a risk that the learning does not keep up with the increasingly complex conditions. If this happens, then operators are unlikely to sustain early successes as the implementation scales, requiring operators to serve more students under less favorable conditions. It is worth examining the specific provisions that reduced complexity to assess whether these may pose unsurmountable obstacles if the Ministry is unable to maintain such conditions as implementation proceeds.
There is reason for optimism. Two of the four favorable provisions, clustering schools and data-enabled cell service, present significant current challenges, but smaller future challenges. When an operator has few schools, it makes sense to cluster schools to reduce travel time and increase operational efficiencies. With many schools, it is less wasteful to provide support services across an expanded geography. Similarly, investment in data-enabled cell service availability, a necessary condition for some PSL operators, has already increased and Liberia’s technological infrastructure improvements are scheduled to keep pace with PSL expansion.
The other two favorable provisions, local control over teacher hiring and removal, are Ministry policy decisions which could be adopted universally. An explicit goal of the PSL pilot is to test potential Ministry policies and, if warranted, to build the Ministry’s implementation capacity. These are never complete tests. In this case, some of the teachers who exit PSL schools will be transferred to other public schools rather than leaving the system altogether. Still, the pilot test allows the Ministry to preview some of the challenges and benefits of the new policy proposal before recommending its wider adoption.
The Ministry’s commitment to develop evidence-based, sustainable, and beneficial policies is key to the successful scaling of this PSL pilot. Effective scaling is humble in the face of a difficult task and depends on learning, especially as complexity increases. So far, the strategy seems smart, as long as the Ministry maintains its commitment to let learning lead implementation.