Monday September 5th marks the start of the new school year in Liberia - and with it the start of a new relationship between Rising Academies and the Government of Liberia.
From today, five government elementary schools – three in Bomi County and two in Montserrado County – will become Rising Academy Partnership Schools. They will remain in public ownership, free to attend and non-selective, using qualified government teachers on the government payroll, observing the Liberian National Curriculum, and with government retaining responsibility for the physical upkeep of the school buildings. But responsibility for the day-to-day management of the schools and for improving the quality of teaching and learning will pass to Rising.
This effort is part of Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL), a bold and deliberately experimental pilot programme to explore whether bringing in operators from outside government can help address the chronic crisis of education quality in the public system.
The case for change is compelling: for every 100 children of primary school age in Liberia, only 38 attend primary school, of whom only 23 will complete grade 6, of whom only about 8 will make it through secondary school and sit the WAEC exams at the end of grade 12, of whom only about 4 will pass. Along the way, even the kids in school aren’t learning what they need. To be considered fluent readers, Grade 3 students given an age-appropriate text ought to be able to read 45 to 60 words per minute correctly; in Liberia, the average is less than 20 words per minute.
Much has been written about the PSL programme – in The New York Times, The Guardian, Vox and HuffPo among others. Unfortunately, early (mis)conceptions about the programme have proved hard to shake. For a clear and comprehensive account of the programme from two people who actually know what they are talking about, this piece by Susannah Hares and Justin Sandefur is the best place to start.
Here’s the short version: under PSL, 90 primary schools (less than 3% of the total) will be handed over to outside operators to run in 2016-17. As well as Rising, these operators include international NGOs like BRAC, Streetchild and More Than Me, private school operators like Omega Schools and Bridge International Academies, and Liberian organisations Stella Maris Polytechnic and the Liberia Youth Network. As a relatively new organisation, Rising is proud to be among such distinguished company.
Operators are paid a fixed per capita grant for each student enrolled, and then held accountable for using this money to improve learning outcomes for students. If operators do well, they might be allowed to expand to manage additional schools in future; if they fail, they might be stripped of the schools they are running. If the programme as a whole shows it can make a difference to the quality of schooling, it might be expanded; if the programme as a whole fails, it will be shut down.
The key point is that these decisions will be based on rigorous evidence. A major attraction of the programme is that it gets beyond unhelpful and ideological debates about who should run schools and focuses on getting the data. PSL has been designed as a ‘gold standard’ randomised controlled trial, with schools randomly assigned to a treatment condition where they are run by a PSL operator or a control condition where they are not. Comparing what happens in these two groups of schools over time should therefore provide a reliable estimate of what difference (if any) it makes to have an outside operator. Formal details of the evaluation are on the AEA’s RCT Registry here.
The speed at which the PSL programme has moved from idea to implementation is staggering, particularly in a country where, as Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has admitted, ambition is often thwarted by a lack of capacity in the system to get things done. Some operators have had a head-start, but in Rising’s case we only submitted our initial Expression of Interest on 4th May, only got the green light from government in mid-July, and were only notified which schools we were being asked to run in early August (and in one case even later than that).
Nevertheless, it was absolutely right for the Government to try to move quickly, rather than delay another whole year and risk losing momentum, and we have been doing our best to make the most of limited time available.
A major focus has been on staffing, screening existing staff and undertaking an urgent recruitment exercise. Our initial assessment showed that our schools had less than half the number of teachers they were supposed to have. In one case, a Principal had been assigned a teacher who had collected salary but never showed up for 3 years. That’s meant On August 23rd, we held an assessment centre for more than 200 recent teacher training graduates, with 12 candidates appointed to take up positions in our schools.
A second major focus has been on training. Through our work in Sierra Leone, we have developed an effective teacher pre-service training programme. Rather than lots of theory, teachers are given a small number of specific, high impact, practical skills to practise and receive feedback on. Rapid improvements in the level and quality of student engagement are possible as a result. Without the time to do the programme in full, 28 existing teachers received an abridged version of the training, with intensive in-service training taking place each afternoon for the first two weeks of term, and further training scheduled for later in the term.
A third focus has been on fixing some of the basic infrastructure in the schools. Bigger issues like leaky roofs remain the responsibility of government. But most of the schools didn’t have enough desks and chairs, and those they had were in disrepair, so we’ve procured more than 250 items of furniture to address the most urgent needs.
Finally, one of the freedoms granted to operators under PSL is to innovate with how the National Curriculum gets delivered. Some elements of our approach, like our highly effective phonics programme in partnership with Phonics International, remain just as relevant in Liberia as they do in Sierra Leone. But in other areas our international team of curriculum writers have been hard at work producing lesson plans and materials that will be appropriate for this new context.
With PSL, Rising embarks on a new and unfamiliar journey: a new country, and a new way of working. Among the teachers and principals, there is already a sense of excitement about what we might achieve together. Among parents too: student enrolment is up as parents get to hear about our new role in their local school.
Unlike so many traditional education programs which seek to raise the quality of outputs simply by increasing the number of inputs, PSL starts by correctly identifying the source of the education crisis as the way that schools are managed and held to account. With the right management and accountability, rapid improvements in student achievement are possible; without them, the system will continue to fail the children who need it most.
We wanted to be part of PSL because, when the history of this brave reform initiative is written, we want the world to know we did our best to make it a success.