Liberian Education: The Need for further Curriculum Reform

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Liberia has articulated a courageous national vision called the Pro-poor Agenda for Development and Prosperity (PAPD) with one of the key strategic goals of providing greater income security to one million Liberians. Additionally, the PAPD  aims to reduce absolute poverty by 23 percent through sustained and inclusive economic growth driven by scaled-up investments in agriculture, in infrastructure, in human resource development, and in social protection as well as addressing inequality and poverty across sectors, including the education sector.

Whilst some progress has been made in this regard, there is widespread acknowledgement that the intentions outlined in the PAPD are falling short at an implementation and outcome level.

Ministry of Education (MoE) in 2017, developed a four-year education sector plan (ESP) to address the most urgent challenges facing the education sector in Liberia: Getting to Best Education Sector Plan. Complementing the PAPD, the new plan will implement evidence-based, and innovative programs to measurably improve the quality and relevance of teaching and learning for all students by June 2021.The key outcome of pillar 1 of the PAPD (power to the people) is to  empower Liberians with the tools to gain control of their lives through more equitable provision of opportunities in education, health, youth development, and social protection. One of the aims of the PAPD is to raise per capita income levels in Liberia and economic status to a middle-income country. Though ambitious, it is not impossible, as such the focus over the next few years should be geared towards ensuring the education sector is vibrant and relevantfor this move.

Eventhough, Liberia launched its reformed national competency-basedcurriculum,it lacks efficiency in implementing the curriculum. Inadequate resources and lack of qualified teachers are among the many challenges hindering the implementation. Moreover, the education sector is not equipping students with 21st century skills, necessary to contribute to a vibrant economy and raise its economic status from least developed to a middle income country. Coupled with pre-existing education challenges, the recent covid-19 pandemic continues to contribute to learning loss and dropouts which may result in increased youth employment and poverty in the country. The closure of schools across the world has led experts to predict significant learning and economic losses that will follow students well into the coming years. Liberia has one of the youngest populations in the world at 65 percent.

In Liberia, this situation is all the worse, given pre-existing inequities built into the education delivery system. According to the World Bank, individuals using the Internet (% of population) in Liberia was reported at 7.9845 % in 2017.This digital exclusion has meant that the MoE’s ability to respond to school closures has been severely limited in terms of the provision of remote learning opportunities. Completely unprepared, teachers and policymakers have scrambled to create radio and television programs to meet demand, but these efforts have been analyzed  by researchers as being chaotic, piecemeal, and poorly publicized. Among those who have been able to access some form of learning content, many students have not had adequate parental support, nutrition, and safety. Some students have not even had a quiet place to work. In response to this, MoEthought to begin reopening schools starting in August. Yet, phased reopening had its own challenges since only a certain percentage of students are allowed to attend each day due to social distancing protocols; essentially, the time students will have at school until 2021 is going to be significantly lesser than usual, at a time when remedial instruction is most needed.

Given this backdrop there has been widespread, structural learning loss among students across all education levels. Students have lost about 5 months of learning time in school with at least a 50% additional loss due to alternative scheduling to still come in the ensuing school year.  Projected economic losses may be a minimum of three years per child, and the global shrinking of economies is likely to make it extremely difficult to secure livelihoods in the future. The current education system in Liberia is failing to prepare students who have the skills necessary to adapt to the needs of a fast-changing world, and so, there is a need for schools to identify and prioritize the competencies required for success in the 21st century.

Having analysed the root causes of this need, I have identified that the curriculum is deeply embedded in the problem, in its failure to meet the needs of Liberian learners and prepare them for the fast changing world. At least two-thirds of current and recent high school students agree that attending a school focused on social and emotional learning would help improve their relationships with teachers and peers, their learning of academic material, and their preparation for college, careers, and citizenship

In this article, the first in this series, I present this COVID-19 pandemic asan opportunity to embed within Liberia’s curriculum the necessary cognitive, social, and emotional competencies required to create a truly meaningful 21st century education. Even though, Liberia still grapples with 19th and 20th century educational challenges, this pandemic should give policymakers and stakeholders especially donors the opportunity to reflect on what is and is not important in these times of crisis, and thus make long-term change that can, in effect, make our systems more resilient. The infusion of 21st century skills in national curriculums has been identified as an international need by various multilateral bodies.

In building the argument for why improving students cognitive, social and emotional competencies is important to the client, I will look at the issue through a macro-economic lens, a pre-COVID -19  and a post COVID -19 lens.

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is characterized by what has become known as the VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Driven by advances in automation and digitization, 4IR has brought with it major shifts in labor market demands and lack of alignment between the skills of school graduates and workplace requirements. By 2030, Deloitte predicts that 50% of global youth will lack the skills to be part of the worldwide workforce.   Eight in 10 employers say social and emotional skills are the most important to success and yet are also the hardest skills to find.

Liberia has unsustainably high levels of youth unemployment and poverty. Youth unemployment in Liberia is estimated as high as 85 percent, according to UNICEF. An estimated 64 percent of Liberians live below the poverty line and 1.3 million live in extreme poverty out of a population of 4.6 million. According to a recent research report, skills match and lack of entrepreneurship and life skillseducation are some of the main causes of youth unemployment around the world. Therefore, improving educational outcomes is a lever to contribute to long term advances in unemployment and poverty in Liberia.

Even though enrollment rate in primary education and  secondary education has improved (44.256 percent for primary education in 2017) the critical need now is for improvements in student learning and retention.

Poor learning outcomes in reading and numeracy in the lower grades has meant  that students struggle to learn in higher grades.  Basic reading skills in Liberia are poor and approximately a third of Grade 2 and 3 were unable to read at all. In 2008, the average score on an Early Grade Reading Assessment was 43.7 percent.

Research findings point to “four binding constraints” that have limited educational progress in recent years:

  1. Lack of institutional administrative support by regional authorities for local schools.
  2. Inappropriate political influence by unions on school administrative decisions.
  3. Poor use of class instructional time.
  4. Low levels of teacher effort and preparation in content and pedagogical knowledge, including basic literacy instruction.

It is important to note that the fourth constraint, the quality of teachers, in a country experiencing a shortage of qualified teachers, will require special consideration in this proposed policy reform.

Poor learning outcomes are a major factor behind low completion rates.  Liberia experiences unsustainable levels of dropout, with 65 percent for boys and 73 percent for girls who start school unable to teach grade 5. Remarkably, Liberia has an 82 percent dropout rate in the 12th grade. As we have seen, low graduation rates have high consequences for youth employment and poverty reduction.

Concerns regarding the effects of the 4IR on human capital, have ignited a global conversation to think systematically about learning frameworks to prepare youth to thrive in this new and volatile landscape. Initiatives like the OECD´s The Future of Education and Skills 2030, Learning Framework (OECD 2018) point to an emerging consensus regarding the need for global competencies in cognitive, social and emotional development to replace an overemphasis on content and teaching to test.

Prior to COVID -19, as indicated earlier, the MoE attempted to infuse some competencies in its new reformed national curriculum. This should be a starting point to explore how skills and competencies for the 21st century could be embedded in a new curriculum, to complement the 2019 reformed curriculum.

 It is clear that COVID -19 will exacerbate pre-existing patterns of inequality in education and socio-economic development in Liberian society.  Inequalities that are reflected in a “semi-dual” education system that delivers quality education for some in private schools, while the majority struggle in public schools with poor infrastructure, weak teaching, scarce  educational resources (such as text books) and poor to no access to digital technologies and connectivity.

Taken together, the odds are high that the short- and long-term impact of COVID on Liberian society will further exacerbate already unsustainable levels of inequality as reflected in educational outcomes, youth unemployment and poverty.

The challenges facing Liberia’s education are immense, and given the COVID-19 pandemic, are set to increase. The MOE is faced with the unenviable responsibility of designing a deeply considered and practically implementable response that addresses short-term needs of learners, whilst considering the long-term trajectory of education. It must be said that such a response cannot be marshalled by the MoE alone. The current reality is calling on education stakeholders and cross-sectoral players to collaborate in developing and delivering a ‘whole-system’ response.

It must also be acknowledged that the pandemic has presented Liberia, as with other countries, an unparalleled opportunity to utilize the urgent need to begin the process of the laying the foundation for a more relevant 21st century curriculum in the long term.

About the Author

Laura Golakeh is a passionate gender and education advocate. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Gender and Peacebuilding and is currently a student at Harvard Graduate School of Education at Harvard University pursuing a Master of Education in International Education Policy. She can be reached for comments or feedback on lgolakeh@gse.harvard.edu or WhatsApp +231776834002.

 

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