Liberia, Desperate to Educate, Turns to Charter Schools

14fixesWeb-master675{THE NEW YORK TIMES} – This is education in Liberia: A girl is more likely to be married by 18 than to know how to read. The last two times the University of Liberia held its entrance exams, 15 students passed — out of some 38,000 who took the test. Only 59 percent of 6-to-11-year-olds are actually in school.

One reason many students stay home is that teachers do, too. George Werner, who has been education minister for a year, has begun a ghost-busting project — firing teachers who either don’t teach or don’t exist. In three counties so far, Liberia has removed 2,500 ghost teachers from the payroll.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has another 18 months in office. Education reform is a long-term project. But she and Werner are doing one thing in a hurry: When the school year starts in September, private operators — for-profit companies and charitable organizations — will take charge of 120 government primary schools, 3 percent of the total. It’s a one-year pilot project that, if it works, could lead to a nationwide charter school system.

Everything that involves for-profit schooling is controversial. In Africa as in the United States, private schools attract wealthier families — pulling advantaged students and their influential parents out of the public system. To a lesser extent, the same is true with charter schools: They often strip out families who place great importance on their children’s education. Resources sometimes follow.

The scheduled project, the Partnership Schools for Liberia, has been especially contentious because it originally invited only one partner: Bridge International Academies.

Bridge opened its first school in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2009. It is now Africa’s largest and most polarizing chain of private schools (I wrote about Bridge in 2013).

Low-cost private schools are everywhere in Africa. But most are very similar to government schools. They usually consist of a single teacher in her house, with no access to training or materials, using the same rote-learning system ubiquitous in developing countries: She writes something on the blackboard, students repeat it in unison.

Bridge is different. Teachers are closely monitored, supervised and coached. They get scripted lessons on tablets, which tell them what to say and do every minute. Bridge has master teachers who create lessons; the classroom teacher’s job is to deliver them. This allows Bridge to hire high school graduates at low salaries. They get a three-week course in teaching methods and managing a classroom.

Bridge also has a very long school day, eight and a half hours, with optional Saturdays. Bridge now has over 460 nursery and primary schools in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and India, and has been opening a new school every 2.5 days on average. READ MORE OF THIS REPORT

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About Cholo Brooks 15592 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.