Liberia, Desperate to Educate, Turns to Charter Schools

Jun 14, 2016 · 42 comments
Belinda (Chicago)
I agree with your perspective of the educational battle being waged in Africa today over public vs. charter schools. It is disappointing that neither system is reaching the most marginalized students which mirror the position of some urban school systems in the United States. The solution for both Africa and the United States is to work through the politics of education. Bridge has managed to arrive at the party first with the most money. They have a clear advantage of gaining ground over any other charter school. Never the less, a study to measure the effects of all systems would speak volumes. As an educator for over 25 years, rote learning is what Bridge Academy engages in which is the same as the alternative education programs in the United States. This is not to say that alternative education is secondary to traditional education that is an argument for another paper. I am saying that it will take those trained in both traditional and some alternative educational methods to support the development or the educational system in Africa or they will continue to mirror the challenges we have had for over 100 years.
short end (Outlander, Flyover Country)
I know it sounds insensitive and a throwback to colonial times....but let's be practical for a moment.
Wouldnt the Liberian School System be better if the USA just simply took it over?
27 million dollars, if not for the rampant corruption in Liberia....would pay for a lot of physical improvements to locally run schools PLUS pay for a number of teachers.........
Thats if the USA primed the local economy, the way JM Keynes imagined it would work....
minus the insane levels of corruption and tribal violence that seem to be endemic to Liberia.
Bill (Joliet)
Having lived in Liberia education is a lot different than here in the United States. As the writer has rightly indicated there are those who corrupt the effort. Any school effort private or otherwise would benefit the Liberians. I checked with people from Liberia and people living outside Monrovia are far less able to go to school. Liberians are often not able to get the better jobs in the country because of poor education. In rural areas it may be closer to 10% who are able to get to a public school. The current president is to be commended for many improvements. Thanks for the article
Jackie (Ithaca, NY)
Rote learning and Bridge Academy is not the solution to Liberia's education problem. Students lack chairs, pencils, note pads and food. Our Minister of education, who came fresh from being a clinical therapist for the mentally challenged, has no idea of how to fix the education problem and has turned it lock, stock and barrel to a company that knows nothing about the horrific challenges students face every day, from wading in knee high street water to empty stomachs. Several schools have been closed down because the government has not paid the rent for the school buildings. Our senators make about $10,000 a month in one of the world's poorest countries.Teachers make about $150. Rwanda is a shinning example of political will and intelligence when it comes to educating its citizens. it takes a village to educate our kids and the village cannot be on the other side of the ocean, divorced from our culture and history and trying to educate our kids through the mobile phone.
C. Williams (Sebastopol CA)
Strange - the battle over public vs. charter schools in the US is now being waged in Africa, or so the author implies.

Most interesting would be: What do Liberians think about what is happening ?

Did she consider interviewing any Liberian citizens to see how they felt about their educational system and the proposed pilot project ?

Oh, were the shoe on the other foot - what would the comments section look like if Liberians were writing in about what changes they felt were best for the "broken" US public school system.
Robert Melosh (Florida)
Opponents of charter schools in the USA often treat all charter schools and state charter school laws as equal. This is either dishonesty or pure ignorance. To equate all charter schools with private, for profit schools or even not-for profit private schools that can charge tuition is also wrong. The idea that a charter school harms an area's public schools, AND the dream that public schools would improve because of charter school competition are both without proof.

In the US the question is can independent operators provide better education for the same or (often in the US) less government tax revenue. The answer is most logically that some can, and some cannot. Failing schools should be fixed or closed.

In Liberia, the situation in more desperate. The first question is can the government and outside donors provide enough money to educate the children. Until recently the per student government allocation was $39! A rise to $75 would be a major increase. An additional 50 dollars from donors would bring this total to $125 per child. Could this possibly be enough?
Would this amount of investment for each student in tuition free Liberian Schools be possible in the near future?

Now, the Liberian government says it can afford trying this in 3% of the schools with help from donors. Even at these relatively small per student costs, if it works, Liberia alone will not be able to provide the money needed to extend the program to all students.
E. Guichard (Washington, DC)
This debate jars me. I went to a piss poor rural school in the back waters of Fria, in Guinea, West Africa. To a school called 'Tige' which means charcoal in Soso, coz the people mined it right next to the school. The classroom was a cement box with an aluminium tin roof with holes and no ceiling. When it rained the class moved to one side of the room. It took me an hour walking through the bush, on the side of a hill to get to class. I had to get around burnt fields that had horned snakes out and about. The teachers knew ‎squat...but they were passionate about teaching. We learned by rote. Just like the entire French education system...I had 12yrs of that experience. Anything better than that is freaking great. I don't know what these freaking critics are talking about. They have no freaking clue what it's like...I'm for Bridge and will personally put money into it.

Eric Guichard
Bill (Joliet)
The majority of Liberian people are incredibly poor. I am talking to many Liberians everyday who's monthly income is $150 a month. Many of them can't afford the bribes and corruption in the public schools. I can verify how difficult it is for Liberians to compete for high level and technical jobs. I challenge the % of children 6-11 are in school. I believe the actual number would be lower. The president in Liberia has made progress from the war torn experience of 20+ years. fatmanwalkinginliberia
Billie (Seattle)
In order for ANY school to be successful in Liberia the ingrained tradition of teachers charging for grades i.e. bribes to teachers. This is a practice at all levels from elementary through college and is common knowledge among Liberians. I hope Bridge or any other educational venture will acknowledge this custom and pledge to eradicate it.
dcl (New Jersey)
There is no magic formula for charters. They cherry pick their students. As a special needs public school teacher, as the year goes on, I get many students who are kicked out of their charters. Charter schools can expel students for infractions, for being special needs, for not having involved parents.

Public schools cannot.

To act like the charter schools have a magical solution would be comical if millions of taxpayer's money were not being poured down their gullets & the gullets of their investors.

What exactly is the solution--is it seriously to refuse to educate 20% of the population?

For those who extol the 'old days' when teachers taught huge classes: In the old days, schools didn't educate everyone. Special needs kids, mentally ill, very poor, discipline issues---these kids were expelled or not educated. This could be done b/c you didn't need high school to get a job. Our entire economy has changed, & with it, our educational needs.

So what is the solution? What do we do with the 20% or more of our kids who charter schools won't educate? If public schools could expel them, they'd be doing great too. And they're doing just as well as most charters even as they don't expel--b/c their teachers are far more experienced & stable.

I understand parents wanting to send their kids to a safe good school. But if cherry picking is the solution, why not let public schools do that too? Why does it need to be charters? And again, who will educate the 'rejected' students?
Jim K (San Jose, CA)
Wow. I sure hope Liberia hasn't signed any global trade agreements. Next thing you know they'll have a brand of Trump University.
mbakal (Oakland)
Two points. #1: Charter's DO undermine public education. This is precisely why avowed union-busters like the Walton family and conservative law makers are so enamored of them. International companies should not assist any state in abdicating its responsibility to educate its children. #2: Scripted Education IS, by definition, rote education. If you teach, this is obvious. If you don't, you need to look no further than the disastrous track record of Teach for America to understand why the notion that you can throw new teachers into the classroom after a short crash course is a flawed proposition. The education research is clear: High quality learning requires that students be engaged in discussing and analyzing ideas with one another and with their teacher in an open-ended fashion. The video--designed to show that scripted education can be high quality--shows just the opposite. Scripted education strips students of the opportunity to ask "why"; it stymies innate curiosity; and it gives young children the horrendously false belief that knowledge is simply about getting the right answer (watch the video--the teacher provides feedback to students in a single word: "correct".) This type of learning is called known as behaviorism. It is appropriate for training dogs, not teaching kids. How could it possibly lead to a love of learning? In the 21st century, all kids have the right to an education that prepares them to be critical thinkers and ethical citizens, not robots.
Monica Miller (Falls Church VA)
$54.00 a year is prohibitively expensive, and does not include the cost of uniforms. Mothers will be forced into wide scale prostitution in order to pay those fees, unless the NGO's are stepping in to pay the cost of tuition for each student (which this article did not mention). Given the fact that NGO's have completely run amok in Liberia in the aftermath of Ebola, the least they could do is make themselves useful by spending money on student tuition.

Just because charter schools don't work here does not mean they won't work in Africa. Liberia and all the countries around it have corporal punishment in their schools, which makes a huge difference in classroom control. Teachers in Africa bust their behinds as long as they are paid fairly and on time - they are only absent from the classroom when they are out hustling to make a living because they haven't been paid. This is where Liberia appears to be making their biggest error - trying to go cheap on salaries for high school graduate teachers.

If NGO's were doing what they were supposed to be doing, instead of funding rents on mansions and maintenance on Hummers and expense paid travel to conferences all over the region, the recovering Ebola countries could likely provide more than half of elementary school students with an education.
Mambo (Texas)
What I'm at a loss to understand after reading the article is this: what will these charter schools be doing to change the dismal level of school attendance in Liberia? Will they indeed be bringing in the unschooled, or simply making sure that the few who are already in school get a decent education?

I'm all in favor of trying new approaches, but in order to solve a socioeconomic problem of any type, the social aspect needs at least as much attention as the dollars and cents.

My intuition suggests that effective social interventions need to be grounded in the lived experiences of affected communities and are fatally flawed if imposed either from above or abroad.

We need to lose the mindset that the poor have no insight into their problems or even worse, the conviction that we understand their needs better than they do.
Matt (Canada)
The NYT cheerleading of charter schools continues.
Amanda (Boston)
Maybe private education will succeed in Liberia where public education has failed, I don't know. But:
- In my understanding, proponents of charter schools in the US like them because they see unions as the problem with public schools. Charter schools are a way to get around unions. In Liberia, it seems very clear that the number one problem is a lack of resources (either public or private). How are charter schools going to solve this problem?
- The long school days of charter schools might be beneficial in the US, where kids don't necessarily have after-school care and need time and space to do their homework. But in Liberia, kids need to be able to help their parents earn money, and most of them are going to become farmers, traders, or skilled tradespeople. They don't need a lot of homework, and their communities provide built-in after-school care. How many hours a day do you have to sit in school to learn to read, write and do arithmetic?
Winston Smith (Your Town)
How curious that having gone through a major city public school system that took all comers and emerging with a good educational foundation, that with the benefit of the decades of evolution in pedagogical and technological abilities since, this is an elusive attainment these days. There was quite a bit less money spent then on a per pupil basis and, tellingly, there were were no teachers' unions.
Blue state (Here)
And smart women had fewer options when we were kids. No thanks. If you don't pay teachers more now, you don't get good teachers. The few martyrs burn out.
Objective Opinion (NYC)
Sorry, I can't get interested in schools somewhere halfway across the world when almost 50% of African American males in the U.S. aren't graduating from high school. The system's broken here - I really don't care about Liberia's.
Steve (Seattle)
The system ISN'T "broken here." And you SHOULD care about the state of education for ANY human beings, anywhere. (Your comments demonstrate that nationalism is a close cousin of racism.)

Charter "schools" are a fraud. They've inflicted great harm on public education and are similar to a virus that if left unchecked, will spread rapidly and overwhelm the host: our country's proud, historic commitment to free, universal education for ALL children, regardless of how much money or status their parents may or may not have.

If you control for income level, the United States is at or near The Very Top of all countries worldwide. Poverty---and everything that comes with it---is the real culprit here. And so it's no mystery why so many politicians want to attack and denigrate our public schools and our teachers; it allows them to distract the public from the real reasons why so many POOR students do poorly in school. Get real and face the facts.

Or are you claiming it is just a "coincidence" that all the "bad" teachers are in the South Bronx or East L.A. and all the "good" ones end up in Scarsdale, Greenwich and Beverly Hills?
Blue state (Here)
Pax, Steve. Sounds like he is concerned with poverty here. Inflicting charter schools on Liberia - well, I'd rather get busy at home too.
Jackie (Ithaca, NY)
But why did you click?
Jeff (California)
It hasn't worked in America. Why would Liberia think it would work?
Mambo (Texas)
Perhaps because Liberia is not America - as the author has taken pains to point out.
John Smith (Cherry Hill NJ)
CHARTER SCHOOLS In Liberia? The Bridge Academy schools may look good on paper, but the tuition fee of $6 is impossible for slum dwellers in Liberia who earn $1 per day. In fact it might be better for Liberia's government to give free cell phone time to those who want their kids to get free instruction online from places like the Khan Academy. But without basic materials like even chalk and a small chalkboard, that would be a stretch at best. The statistics that of 38,000 applicants to the University of Liberia only 15 passed its entrance exam the last two times it was given. Not surprising since about 6 in 10 children of elementary school age attend class. The Bridge will give brief training to teachers and provide some materials. Doesn't look promising. I wonder if the Grameen Bank could become involved, as they have been successful in helping mostly women to start small businesses. The model used is scaled to what works in India, but its principles may be applied to Africa with some modifications. Educating mothers to run small businesses may motivate families to advance themselves in Liberia.
Emily (United States)
Actually, families who send their children to Bridge schools next year will not be responsible for paying tuition. The public-private partnership covers the cost of schooling so it will be free to attend.
APS (Olympia WA)
"You’d expect Bridge’s students to do better academically than public school students, and they do. But how much is attributable to family background, and how much to Bridge’s teaching?"

Also, how much is due to Bridge defining the standards against which all students are measured against and then teaching their students specifically to those standards.
George (Ambler, PA)
APS, you have asked "How much is due to Bridge defining the standards?" None. This is an examination written and administered by the Kenyan Department of Education.
jeito (Colorado)
"Liberia is privatizing its country’s schools: The problem with private education is that it creates inequity, one tier of education for rich and another for poor. In a sense, Liberia is creating a solution: All the Partnership schools will be free."

The last sentence is misleading. If the Partnership schools are currently free at this time, that's only because the Bridge organization is offering a loss leader. Over time, as investors demand a profit (as they should), the business will weed out unprofitable practices, such as educating children with disabilities, and inequity will prevail. You can take that to the bank.
nyalman1 (New York)
Nice to see Liberia putting the interests of children first by utilizing charter schools. Hopefully they experience the tremendous success of charter schools in New York City providing quality education to thousands of poor and minority children failed by the teachers union driven policies of our failing public schools.
Steve (Seattle)
This reads like the words of a well-paid employee of Eva Moscowitz and her charter "school" business.

If these "schools" were so good, how come their students do so very poorly in terms of college admissions, test scores, and admission to the most competitive public high schools in NYC?

And why does Eva Moscowitz---the head of the so-called "Success Academies"---need $600,000 per year to run them? Is that salary of hers a good use of public tax dollars?
nyalman1 (New York)
Eva Moskowitz's salary is paid from private donatiuons - not public tax dollars.

The Success schools and NYC charter schools generically have significantly outperformed public schools. Thousands of children are on their wait lists.
Mario (New York)
Thousands are NOT on their "wait list." Their extremely well-paid public relations and marketing hired hands set up the "lottery" frenzy and then make up the data that the poor suckers in the neighborhood are on the fake wait list. Her schools do not out-perform public schools.
surgres (New York)
"A personal note: In the American context, I oppose public financing or encouragement of private and charter schools. I’ve sent my children to New York City public elementary and middle schools that are not academically selective. Our elementary school has been active in the anti-charter movement."

There are outstanding public schools, but they are usually in wealthy neighborhoods. Do you think that Tina Rosenberg lives in a poor area with an under performing public school?
The reality is that many public schools in NYC are similar to those in Liberia, and people who oppose charters here are trapping those children and ruining their future.
Steve (Seattle)
That's completely untrue. The STRONGEST resistance to charters is coming from the black and Latino communities. If you doubt what I'm saying, go talk to people like Karran Harper Royal who is the Assistant Director of Pyramid Community Parent Resource---an anti-charter group of education advocates in New Orleans. Or look up people like Jitu Brown, a very determined community activist and anti-charter/anti-privatization citizen in Chicago, fighting tooth and nail against Mayor Emanuel's plan to close numerous schools in black and Latino neighborhoods.

Please lose the hoary stereotypes. If anything, black and Latino children are the MAIN victims of the charter "school" cancer that is present in our nation, and must be stopped, if public education for all is to succeed.
nyalman1 (New York)

Unfortunately many people, including yourself, appear more than willing to sacrifice minority and poor children at the altar of the teachers unions. Charter schools have a demonstrated track record of successful outcomes in New York City and poor and minority parents are flocking to them as they provide an opportunity for them to have their children provided with safe and nurturing learning environments. Are they perfect? No. But until the public school system puts children (not teachers, administrators and politicians) first than these charters are often the only option availability to create the equality of opportunity that is critical in our society.
newell mccarty (oklahoma)
One--we should remember that Liberia was a U.S. manufactured country as a place to return slaves. Any public school should be encouraged to emulate programs that have worked-- in any similar system, anywhere in the world, private or public. Two--we should remember that the history of schools prior to colonization was completely private, and those schools only perpetuated the deep class divides we now have. Privatization in prisons, medicine, military and schools has had a checkered, if not dismal past. Money as the bottom line usually doesn't work. As in politics, money corrupts and nothing is more corruptible that than how and what we teach our children, if not controlled by the public.
Dave (New York)
There are many examples from around the world that Liberia could be following. Something smells fishy here. Why follow America's charter school movement? Someone in their government got bought off, apparently, otherwise they'd be following an example like Poland's. They turned around their failing system within a short time period simply by raising standards and expectations, providing resources, and giving autonomy to local leaders and teachers to improve education and reach standards. Notice ... they didn't just standardized test to death all the kids. They simply held off tracking and made all their students reach higher expectations. With a concerted effort and strong leadership from the government, all schools can improve.
Mark Thomason (Clawson, Mich)
Where government does not work at all, then Charter Schools may be a desperate last hope. That is not an endorsement for US to adopt the same.

That the US Charter School industry got a foothold in Liberia is also not a reason to give them more here.

The basic problem is that education can't be improved by removing resources, by skimming off 20% as a profit margin for the MBA goal of rate of return on investment.

What makes for-profit schools more motivated to educate than parents addressing their local school board?

What Charter Schools really represent is a failure of government. They are pushed by the very people who also seek to make government fail, to drown it in a bathtub. I don't think those people actually want to educate those of us left behind by that, they just want to be rid of the expense of those poor people they despise.
Dave (New York)
Agreed 100%
surgres (New York)
@Mark Thomason

Charter schools represent the LIMITATIONS of government. One monolithic entity cannot meet the educational needs of all of the people in need. The facts prove that clearly, which is why the best schools in the US are privately run. We should celebrate the the country of Liberia is trying to improve the lives of its children, especially its girls, but following a similar strategy.

Charters are merely an effort to provide private-education quality to the public.
Your ignorance and prejudice against Charters is truly disheartening.
liwop (flyovercountry)
Mark, it's time for everyone to stop and reflect on where the problem in our education system lies.
We, here in the U S do the same thing over and over again hoping that something will change. The same arguments are used by both side in this debate and nothing changes, no matter which course we take. Kind of like constantly running head first into a brick wall, hoping this next time an opening will magically appear. It never does.
Every year we throw more and more money at the problem in the hopes that that will cure the underling problem. It doesn't . Every year our kids enter the K-12 system, then go on to the university's. Some of these kids enter the education system with the dream of helping the next generation. Unfortunately, they are being taught by the prior group who came through the same system, programmed to fail.
Between the union rules and the Political correct crowd dictating that every kid gets a trophy and no one is smarter than the lowest learning kid in the class, We produce our next generation of educators.
The for profit system may not be the best answer, However, it offers a better recipe for breaking the cycle. For profits have an incentive that if they don't produce they go out of business and someone with a better idea moves in. In our government system, that motivation and incentive is lacking. No one will come along to replace a failing system, but they will get more funding to continue along the path of least resistance.
See also