Liberia’s for-profit public schools

Liberia’s primary and secondary schools are dismal, even by the standards of sub-Saharan Africa. A new education minister in 2015 decided to address the problem by outsourcing education to private, for-profit companies.

FT Africa editor David Pilling visited Liberia, to see how the experiment is progressing, and filed a long report. He found that the results are not very impressive. But perhaps it is too early to judge such revolutionary changes in provision of free, public schooling.

A study published by the World Bank this year of primary schools in seven sub-Saharan countries — Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda, comprising 40 per cent of the region’s population — found that, on average, students receive less than three hours’ tuition a day and that many teachers fail simple literacy and numeracy tests. Another study, by Justin Sandefur, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, compared maths scores across countries. He found that the median child in an African classroom scored below the fifth percentile of wealthy countries.

Liberia is an outlier. It does worse. According to the country’s education ministry, fewer than 60 per cent of school-age children are actually in school. Attendance may not be worth the effort. …. In 2013, some 25,000 high-school graduates took the entrance exam for the University of Liberia. No one passed. ….

George Werner was appointed education minister in 2015 with a rescue mission. …. In January 2016, he announced that he was outsourcing 120 schools to Bridge International Academies, a US-based for-profit provider of low-cost education that was already teaching 100,000 children in schools in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and India. If successful, many, or even all, of Liberia’s schools could be outsourced to the same company. ….

Bridge is sometimes referred to as the Uber of education. It is backed by a who’s who of US investors, including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay.

David Pilling, “Liberia is outsourcing education. Can it work?”, FT Magazine, Financial Times, 22 April 2017 (gated paywall).

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