Over the past few years, Liberia has embarked on an ambitious project to partner with non-governmental school networks.
Even more daring: Liberia’s political leadership is parterning with foreign school operators, some of which are for-profit.
Imagine for a second if, after Katrina, New Orleans political leaders had decided to partner with school operators from Singapore, Finland, and Shanghai.
In Liberia, numerous short-term and long-term risks abound – as do extremely high-potential upsides.
Partnership schools achieved .18 SD gains in one year
Whatever one thinks of Liberia’s strategy, kudos to them for partnering with school networks in a manner that allowed for randomized control trials. Because schools were randomly selected for partnership, we can get a better understanding on whether or not the providers are delving a better education.
In aggregate, the first year effects were large: students in partnership schools scored 0.18 standard deviations higher in English and 0.18 standard deviations higher in mathematics than students in regular public schools. The authors note: “while starting from a very low level by international standards, this is the equivalent of 0.56 additional years of schooling for English and 0.66 additional years of schooling for math.”
Also, teachers are showing up more often: “teachers in partnership schools were 20 percentage points more likely to be in school during a random spot check (from a base of 40% in control schools).”
And teachers are teaching: “…16 percentage points more likely to be engaged in instruction during class time (from a base of 32% in control schools).”
Results varied by provider
The highest performing operators delivered ~.3 effects!: the Youth Movement for Collective Action (YMCA), Rising Academies, Bridge International Academies, and Street Child.
Second tier (very solid .15 effects): BRAC and More than Me.
Third tier (no effect): Omega and Stella Maris.
Students receiving 2X learning time
This was incredible to me: “students in partnership schools spent twice as much time learning each week, when taking into account reduced absenteeism, increased time-on-task, and longer school days.”
Costs running a bit high (but to be expected in start-up)
The authors note that operators were spending more per-pupil than traditional schools; while this is a warning sign, I don’t read much into it now, as start-up efforts generally run higher and than smooth out. The exact same pattern happened in New Orleans.
What is the impact on traditional educators and schools?
As in the United States, non-governmental school operator growth impacts the traditional system, which has both programmatic and political consequences.
In an odd twist, the government contracts limited the class sizes of networks, which forced some operators to turn away students who then had to find other schools.
Operators also fired existing teachers, which presumably benefited children but caused adult hardship and risks political blowback.
I predict that these issues will only increase in salience. They require solutions that are both programmatic (government regulation of student equity issues) and political (ensuring that adult incumbents don’t derail positive efforts).
Teacher supply issues may get worse
The researchers note that to the extent that operators were able to recruit better teachers – and that the supply of teachers does not change – operators will be unable to scale and achieve the same effects.
In New Orleans we faced the same issue: we failed to grow high-quality teacher pipelines at the same pace we grew operators, and this caused operator growing pains midway through their scaling plans.
I hope Liberia gets ahead of this.
Is it worth it?
The perennial (and reasonable) question asked in such efforts is always: is it worth it? Is the disruption to families and educators worth the gain?
This question was asked a lot in New Orleans. I (as with the majority of New Orleanians) believe that it was worth it in New Orleans.
But I do think the Liberia case is more complicated, as it involves issues of national institutions and sovereignty.
There are numerous risks to outsourcing school operations to international organizations.
What if you end up in a conflict with the home nation(s) of large operators? What if these operators inculcate undesirable foreign values to your culture? What if the outsourcing of your educational operations slows down the overall maturation of your civil society?
These are hard questions.
My guess is that it is worth it, in that the gains of having a much better educated populace are worth the trade-offs of relying on foreign operators.
But I am not an expert in international development and I have not studied the issue enough to have strong opinions.
All that being said, all involved deserve our praise: the government is trying hard to serve their citizens, the school networks are serving students in extremely difficult situations, and the students themselves are getting smarter.
Here’s hoping the positive results continue.