Liberia's Educational Crisis


When the Boughs Break:  Liberia’s Educational Crisis

Jackie N. Sayegh

That the government of Liberia, and by default the Ministry of Education, has abdicated its responsibility to educate our children is an understatement.  Every religious group, cult, quasi-agency and organization now operate a school in the country and subject our children to “learning” a term I use as loosely as possible. There are schools everywhere, but more schools mean nothing on its own. Inexperienced, underpaid, overworked teachers are forced to tackle overcrowded classrooms (thanks to free primary education) with few resources and even fewer support systems.

The recent travel abroad of 17 educators to study early childhood educational systems is an exercise in futility. No tour, curriculum, or workshop will hide what our children and their parents face on a daily basis in their desire for an education or the education of their children. Given the 2012 report of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that measures 15-year-old students' reading, mathematics, cross-curricular competencies and science literacy, it would seem that Liberia would have been better served had the educators visited East Asia instead. Of the students that took the PISA tests, those from China, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Canada performed the best. The US ranked 17.

The stark reality is that our education system is in freefall and we need to examine and address the causes that underlie this crisis. Sen writes that “in a society where so much depends on the written medium, being illiterate is like being imprisoned, and school education opens a door thorough which people can escape incarceration.”  We need to demand that the MOE turns the key to open the door.

Let us start with some basics: Nimba County has the highest amount of registered primary school (grades 1-6) students in the nation - 55,605,  Lofa has 31,082. It would seem the student to teacher ratio is more than adequate- Nimba has 2,309 teachers (21.8 student- to -teacher ratio) and Lofa has 1,446 teachers (23.3 student-to-teacher ratio). All things being equal, this would seem an ideal environment for the education of our kids. (Liberia Education Statistics)

But to hope is to expect and all things are never equal.  In Nimba, the percentage of primary schools without access to water is 49%, without toilet facilities - 34%, and without electricity - 97%.  In Lofa, the percentage of primary schools with no access to water is 60%, no access to toilet facilities -25% and no electricity, 97%. The percentage of primary schools without a library in Nimba is 92.6% and in Lofa 90.5%. (Liberia Education Statistics). 
Now we wonder, is it possible for our children, or anyone, to learn in this environment, an environment where there exists easy access to mobile phones but not to clean and functional toilets?  The MOE site touts that that “- This Ministry is the first government entity to have a multi-language website (English, French and Spanish).” Well, that is great, but could we start with toilet facilities first?  Are there standard hours for a school day?   How does one go about operating a school?  What kinds of structures qualify for the designation of a school?  Is just having a roof and walls to shield our children from the torrential rains and the scorching sun adequate enough to be called a school? Who teaches our children and what are they teaching them?   

The inadequacies are not present at all schools.  There are some schools (mostly in Montserrado county) that possess all the necessary bells and whistles to be fully functional and to turn out stellar students.  But these schools do not make up a large percentage of all schools and we need to have our children (of all income levels) educated to be able to take on the challenges of development and nation building. Education is not the cause of war but it does have the possibility either to intensify or to alleviate the conditions that contribute to war.

Alan Smith, UNESCO Chair in Education at the University of Ulster Northern Ireland explains that we “need to focus on education because unequal access to education is often one of the most powerful ways in which dominant groups maintain unequal access to power and wealth between groups within conflict-affected societies – often reproduced from one generation to the next”

The old system of teaching in many African countries, introduced by colonists, was to learn by rote, memorization to become proper civil servants,  not to question orders but to get the job done the way one was taught.  The PISA report states that in the countries that led the ranking, students reproduced what they had learned in various situations.  “ The world economy will pay an ever-rising premium on excellence, and that today's economy no longer rewards people simply for what they know -- Google already knows everything-- but for what they can do with what they know.” We need transformative learning where our children can ask questions, delve into the answers, and create sustainable paths to sustained peace, so we need our students to be able to READ! 

The problem with Liberia is not that it is poor, but that it is poorly managed” writes Robtel Pailey and that is true. Priority areas are not given priority. One only has to look at the nation’s budget to get a partial glimpse of the problem.  The National Legislature budget of 2013/2014 touts transportation reimbursement as $1,104,900 and then “other specialized materials and services” which accounts for $ 1,366,113.  The “special allowance” for the National Legislature is a pork filled barrel of unspecified goodies.   Under the term “special allowance” we have $3,204,000 allotted and let us not forget their foreign travel which has as its budget $308,758 along with the foreign travel incidental allowance of  $372,679 which should not be mistaken with foreign travel daily subsistence allowance of $595,164. That amount is more than the allotment for the basic salaries of educators at the Zorzor Rural Teacher Training Institute -$200,000 or the allotment to Bong Community College - $219, 767. It is more than the MCSS gets “to renovate all MCSS Schools and computer systems from 2012-2015 ($250,000) (Liberia National Budget 2013/2014).

Of course arguably more funding on education would not automatically translate into better performance, but it is worth a try. Education must be at a premium in Liberia. If we want a transformed country, one that values law and order, one that is civil in its dissent and courageous enough to take a stand, our kids must become educated.  Increase the salaries of teachers, train the teachers, build facilities for our children, enable them to learn in a nurturing environment and then see what happens. “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another” writes Chesterton and we need to give the children a healthy soul to inhabit.  Let there be a concerted effort from the relevant ministries and other agencies of government to educate and empower teachers, to make learning an experience that can happen within and outside the classroom and to let the class room be a place without fear and intimidation for our children. The government must direct resources for safe, sanitary and sustainable environment where all our kids can learn and feel that they are valued. Either that or sit back and reap the consequences of our inaction.  

CNN Opinion “What Asian Students can teach the rest of the World” Andreas Schleicher, December 3, 2013
Liberian Educational Statistics
Budget, Republic of Liberia 2013/2014
Drèze, Jean, and Amartya Sen. 2013. An uncertain glory: India and its contradictions.
Alan Smith, UNESCO Chair, University of Ulster. Education and Conflict.
Pailey, Robtel Neajai. Liberia's education system should take its cue from Robin Hood. The Guardian