At first glance, Cecelia Dunbar Elementary School hardly looks like the site of a radical educational experiment.
Set in a cacophonously green village surrounded by lanky rubber trees about an hour from Liberia’s capital, its low-slung classrooms are unlit and streaked with dirt. Children – as many as 50 to a class – squeeze into a number of desks that is never quite enough, like an endless game of musical chairs. On a recent morning in the 4th grade classroom, two students – one who looked about 9, the other perhaps 15 – share a bench with no legs, propped up by large rocks, with tattered workbooks balanced carefully on their knees.
“Chairs are one of our biggest challenges,” admits principal Jacob Haiwulu. “And lunch,” he adds – as in, the school can’t afford to provide it, and most students don’t have the money to bring or buy it either.
In many ways, however, these challenges are small in the face of what ails Liberia’s public school system more generally. This corner of West Africa is, undeniably, one of the worst places in the world to get an education. Nearly two-thirds of children never go to school at all, and even for those who make it to the end of high school, half fail the West African graduation exam.
Many students had their education interrupted first by the country’s more than decade-long civil war, which ended in 2003, and more recently by the outbreak of Ebola that swept Liberia three years ago and shuttered schools for nearly a year. When the Ministry of Education surveyed adult women who had attended school through the fifth grade, it found only 20 percent could correctly read a single sentence.
So in early 2016, the Liberian government announced it was going to try something new. It would take about a hundred public schools – among them Cecelia Dunbar – and hand them over to nongovernment organizations and for-profit companies.
As part of the “Partnership Schools for Liberia” program, the government would keep training and paying teachers at these schools, and kick in $50 per student each year. The organizations running the schools, meanwhile, would have control over almost everything else.
If it worked, the education minister pledged, the charter school experiment would expand across the public school system – a global first, and a highly controversial one. From San Francisco to Sweden, private-public partnerships in education have become touchstones for debates that extend far beyond the classroom. Defenders hold them up as models of desperately needed innovation, while critics say they erode public resources and equality – a phenomenon some Liberian education experts fear is already repeating itself in their country.
“Liberia had fallen so badly behind that we didn’t think incremental steps were enough anymore,” says George Werner, the minister of education. Instead, he says, the country needed to pry open its education system and start over. And maybe, in the process, it could teach the world a lesson or two about how to educate its most vulnerable children.
Doing things differently
Few would dispute the fact that Liberia’s education system needs a radical overhaul. But many are skeptical about how Mr. Werner has gone about it.
Why, detractors ask, is the government spending lavishly on privately run schools instead of funneling that cash into improving its own capacities?
“You can’t build a skyscraper without a solid foundation, and that’s exactly what they are trying to do,” says Samuel Johnson, the secretary general of the National Teachers Union of Liberia. And anyway, he says, private companies don’t have a long-term obligation to Liberia – what if they decide they don’t want to work here anymore?
“Provision of public education of good quality is a core function of the state,” the United Nation’s special rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, said last March, speaking about the Liberian experiment. “Abandoning this to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of the right to education.”
Werner, a young and energetic former teacher with an American-inflected accent, has heard all this before. But donors, on whom Liberia leans heavily for educational funding, “are tired of funding the status quo, and frankly I don’t blame them,” he says. Who wants to give money to yet another failing school system creaking under the weight of inefficient bureaucracy?
So to show them he was serious about doing things differently, in early 2016 Werner began dispatching teams from the ministry around the country to prune his payroll of so-called “ghost teachers,” instructors who never showed up to school – or in some cases didn’t exist at all – but still pulled down a government salary each month. The government eventually eliminated the paychecks of nearly 2,000 teachers – saving itself millions of dollars annually.
But Werner also had bigger plans. So he signed an agreement with Bridge Academies – a controversial American company that runs low-cost private schools in East Africa, India, and Nigeria – to allow them to take over a few dozen Liberian schools. The project would be a pilot to test whether the entire school system could eventually be privately run with public funding.
Local education activists balked, drawing attention to Bridge’s reputation for high spending and rote teaching. (Teachers at Bridge schools, for instance, follow a strict script that instructs them on exactly what to say to students and even when to make eye contact with them).
“It didn’t seem like this program was trying to address any of the structural issues in our schools,” says Lakshmi Moore, the Liberia programme manager for the international nongovernmental organization ActionAid.
So the government backpedaled, eventually agreeing to divide the experiment among eight companies and non-profits, ranging from a Bangladeshi education NGO to a small Liberian charity that provides education to street children.
Analyzing Year One
And then, in September 2016, the experiment began.
At Cecelia Dunbar, teachers were given spiral-bound booklets with a new curriculum designed by a team of international education experts who had set up low-cost private schools in neighboring Sierra Leone. Posters were hung in classrooms and corridors, cheerfully reminding students to “come to school every day hungry to learn, and thirsty for knowledge.” New teachers arrived, fresh from the country’s teaching colleges, and the former principal was replaced with Mr. Haiwulu: warm, thoughtful, and young, he came from the area and radiated a clear love for both the village and its kids.
“School is better now,” says one third-grade student, who has attended the school since preschool. “Now our teachers come to school every day.” Before, she says, they showed up once or maybe twice a week. In the classroom behind her, meanwhile, her class breaks into peals of laughter. Their teacher, Tarrance Johnson, has turned a phonics drill into a race to see which student can blurt out a word first when he taps it on the blackboard. “Ball!” yells one student. “No wait, bell!”
But the question, says Ms. Subramani, is not whether Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) schools like Cecelia Dunbar are doing better than public schools. An evaluation of the first year of the program showed that most of them were. In particular, students in PSL schools improved by an extra two-thirds of a grade level in math, and an extra half a grade level in English, compared with other Liberian students, and spent twice as much time learning each week.
But “that’s like comparing apples to oranges,” she says. That’s because ordinary Liberian schools receive an annual budget of $50 per student from the government. PSL schools, on the other hand, receive twice that – and can supplement with their own additional funds. Bridge, which is backed by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, spent $663 per student last year, and Rising Academies, which runs Cecelia Dunbar and four other schools, about $270 – figures that are highly unsustainable even if Werner can eventually raise his budget, as he hopes, to $125 per student.
“The minister keeps saying it’s about innovation, but where’s the innovation?” Subramani says. “The basic idea of the program seems to be that if you put more money into schools, you get better results. If you better train teachers, you get better results. It’s very simple stuff that we don’t need to privatize to try.”
The ministry has also begun to scale back its rhetoric about the PSL. When the program started, Werner promised to hand over “as many schools as possible” to private providers if they performed well. Today, he won’t give a figure for how many schools he hopes will eventually become charters, but calls the program an “incubator for the wider school system” rather than its future.
But so far, there’s not much evidence that the high performance of the new charter schools is helping Liberian schools in general. Several PSL schools – notably those run by Bridge – have reassigned weak teachers out of their schools, according to a report released in September analyzing the program’s first year. This practice, activists say, shuffles the problem of bad teaching to schools with fewer resources to fix it – rather than addressing the root problem of shaky teacher training.
Some PSL schools have also capped class sizes to make teaching easier. In Liberian schools it is not uncommon to find children spilling out of their classrooms, unable to see the blackboard or hear their teachers. “I am learning small small,” says one third-grade boy at B.W. Payne Elementary School in Monrovia, using Liberian English. His class – in a non-PSL school – has 74 students. But shrinking class size can have unintended consequences, says Mr. Johnson, of the teachers union.
“There have become major issues with access,” he says. “In communities where there is only one school, what you’re effectively doing is ensuring those kids don’t go to school at all.”
For now, however, the program is still growing, despite a call by the program’s evaluators and technical advisers to halt any expansion until the results of the PSL’s first year had been fully analyzed.
This school year, the number of schools has doubled, from 93 to about 200. The ministry hopes to add more schools next year. The experiment, it says, is working. The next step is to make it available to more children.
“When you’re in a situation like ours, you need to do something radical,” Werner says.
Tecee Boley and Adrian Pabai contributed reporting.
This story was updated to reflect the correct amount Bridge schools spent per pupil in Liberia last year.