The Urgent Need for Innovative Solutions in Education
My first teacher was my mother. This is not just because my mother taught me how to make my way in the world, but because she started the school I attended throughout my childhood.
The school was a simple but tidy place, about a mile from my childhood home and steeped in my mother’s Christian values. Later, I attended College of West Africa, Liberia’s oldest and most prestigious high school.
My childhood schools, and later my first university and my graduate school, were private institutions rather than public ones. Of course, this distinction between public and private shouldn’t matter; a school’s outcomes should.
My Government in Liberia is seized by a sense of urgency. Our country and people have been deeply scarred by crises and wars that all but ruined our most important institutions and infrastructure, including our education system.
We know we need to act fast to keep hope alive, and education is the single most important tool we have in rebuilding our nation. We cannot afford to wait. We must act now so that we do not fail our children. Our Government recognizes that we need to be creative and pragmatic about tapping into the private sector to improve the education options available to our children.
The Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) program, an innovative public-private partnership (PPP), is one of our most important pilot initiatives in this vein. To fast-track improvements to our ailing system, in 2016 we identified eight leading private education providers through a competitive screening process, including both local and international schools. Each provider is managing schools over the course of the 3-year pilot, with funding and in kind support provided on a per-pupil basis.
In the first year, the program has reached more than 27,000 children in 93 pre-primary and primary schools. The schools, which are free to attend, rigorously track outcomes against eight key performance indicators. Children at PSL schools are guaranteed a trained teacher per grade and two school administrators, are provided more teaching hours and innovative lesson plans, and benefit from monitoring from the providers and through an independent randomized control trial.
We hope that our bold experiment will pay dividends for these students. Early results indicate that PSL is having an impact, with gains in literacy and numeracy even in the pilot’s earliest stages. Our objective, pending the full results of the pilot, is to expand PSL to 20% of primary schools, or 500 in total, over the next three years, with a focus on reaching the poorest children. We believe that PSL schools can be model schools and learning hubs within every district in the country, sharing best practices and vital resources with neighboring public schools.
Moreover, the PSL experiment is pushing our Government to make important changes to our systems and capabilities within the Ministry of Education, including upgrading our payroll management systems to make sure all teachers are on the books and get paid on time. These changes will benefit the entire education system in Liberia.
We are also inspired by innovative approaches globally to harnessing the private sector in education. For example, we are investigating the use of Development Impact Bonds, wherein governments pay for results only if target outcomes are achieved. Other education programs across Africa leverage the private sector in creative ways to improve outcomes, such as matching school principals to business mentors and using build-operate-transfer arrangements to rapidly develop education infrastructure.
The Sustainable Development Goals lay out important and ambitious targets for providing all children with quality education. Given the scale and urgency of the challenges to achieving these targets, particularly in Africa, we must be innovative and bold in our policymaking.
Liberia’s PSL schools are a model for what governments can do if we leverage all the education resources at our disposal—both private and public—to achieve impact for our children.
This piece was adapted from a Foreword to The Business of Education in Africa, a report launched at the World Economic Forum in Africa last month. The Partnership Schools for Liberia program, as well as more than 100 other case studies of good practice in education, are highlighted in the report.