NTAL Writes Education Minister, Complains About PSL

Mary Mulbah, President National Teachers Association of Liberia

The leadership of the National Teachers Association of Liberia (NTAL)  has written the Minister of Education of the Republic of Liberia, Professor Dao Ansu Sonii making specific reference of the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL), which the NTAL said has unfortunately overshadowed much of the hard work performed by Ministry of Education officials to support public schools.

See full text of the NTAL  letter below:

Professor Dao Ansu Sonii

Minister of Education

Government of the Republic of Liberia

3rd Street, Sinkor

Monrovia, Liberia

Dear Minister Sonii,

We write foremost to congratulate you on your appointment to the position of Minister of Education. We are confident that your government will bring bold thinking and creative solutions to the challenges faced by Liberia’s education sector, and we are excited to work with you to deliver high quality public education for deserving young Liberians.

In recent years, the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) has unfortunately overshadowed much of the hard work performed by Ministry of Education officials to support public schools.

At the risk of repeating information that we’re sure you’ve carefully considered and are likely in the process of objectively weighing, we would like to respectfully share some concerns we have over the impact of the PSL schools on Liberia’s public education system as well as troubling aspects of how they were overseen by your predecessor.

A key finding of the Randomized Control Trial (RCT), carried out to evaluate the first year of the PSL, was that it is not cost effective and the resources needed to maintain, let alone expand, the initiative are unsustainably high. As much as 20 times more per pupil was spent by one provider than would have been spent on a Liberian child in a public school, for example. We suggest that if similar resources were spent in the public system, significant improvements to learning outcomes would have been achieved.

While providers have assured the government that they will be able to bring costs down as they ‘scale up,’ we believe this is misleading, and that the priority of these providers is to strengthen their global brand in support of their model rather than to carefully design a cost-effective structure that will work in Liberia over the long-term.

Another significant challenge that the RCT discusses relates to the negative consequences of the PSL on students, teachers and surrounding public schools.

For example, as a result of limiting class sizes and cancelling double shifts, thousands of students were pushed out of their local schools by the former government’s preferred contractor, Bridge International Academies. In one town visited in early 2017, it was noted with concern how four out of five of an elderly farmer’s children lost access to their local school, forcing her to decide which of those children she could afford to send to a neighboring public school. Due to high daily travel costs, she chose to send her two sons to school rather than her two daughters, indicating that in cases where multiple children in the same family are cut from a PSL school, the consequences may be disproportionally borne by young girls.

The extension of the school day, implemented without adequate planning, was also not without negative consequences. In one school in Bong County, it was noted that the absence of a plan to feed low-income students during the longer day resulted in many dropping out of class. We would be happy to refer you to teachers and parents from the community where that school was located should you or any members of your staff wish to follow up.

Even more concerning is that subsequent critical analyses of the RCT findings by leading scholars indicate that gains observed in the results of students enrolled in PSL schools are considerably lower than was reported. As noted by Professor Steve Klees, University of Maryland, “…absent was any control for a student’s pretest score. This is an extremely unusual procedure.  In almost all RCTs, the impact of the treatment is measured by the gain in the post-test score over the pre-test score.  It turns out that the pre-test score in the PSL schools was significantly higher than in the government schools.”

Furthermore, it has also been credibly demonstrated that these gains in test scores had little, if anything, to do with the private management of schools.

These matters give rise to serious questions about how the PSL may deepen inequality and segregation, negatively impacting Liberia’s overall school system and by extension, the future prosperity of the country.

The implementation of the PSL was a major priority of the Ministry of Education under the prior government, and Minister Werner clearly considered its introduction to be a major accomplishment of his tenure. We believe that in the almost predetermined rush to advertise the PSL’s “successes” and ensure that it would be difficult to scale back after a change in government, there was a worrying reluctance to directly acknowledge and evaluate critical information presented to the government about the program, as well as the track record of some providers in other countries.

Ultimately, we would like to offer our view that the PSL is not only unsustainable; in the long-run it may harm Liberia’s ability to retain control over the critical function of educating its young citizens and cause irreparable damage to the public system. We are deeply unsettled by the notion that Liberia should serve as a laboratory for an “experiment” in education policy.

We acknowledge that there is likely a great deal of pressure being brought to bear on your administration to expand the PSL, in keeping with the wishes of the providers, many of whom have much at stake in being able to point to their success in Liberia.

We hope you share our view that a robust, well-managed public sector is far more desirable than a balkanized system outsourced to large companies for whom Liberia is no more than a dot on a client map.

We offer sincere gratitude for your attention and willingness to consider our views, and look forward to the success of your tenure and the flourishing of young Liberian minds.

We wish to assure you that we are ready to work with your government and offer any assistance that we can to strengthen and improve our public education system, and to ensure the very best for our country’s deserving young citizens, their families, and our nation as a whole.

Yours sincerely,

Mary Mulbah

President, National Teachers Association of Liberia

David Edwards

General Secretary, Education International

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