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Liberia Begins Plan to Outsource Its Primary Schools to Foreigners

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Foreign Policy published an informative article about Liberia’s determination to outsource its primary school system.

Liberia’s Education Fire Sale

Everyone knew the country’s public school system was a mess — but nobody thought the government would try to fold up shop.

Earlier this year, the government announced a plan to begin a phased public-private partnership in education that could eventually see nearly all the country’s primary schools subcontracted to foreign for-profit companies. Supporters say it’s an exciting break from a failing status quo that harnesses technology and research to improve childhood learning outcomes. Detractors accuse the government of abdicating one of its most fundamental responsibilities.

The hybrid privatization plan, which has been described as one of the most expansive and ambitious anywhere in the world, calls for 3 percent of primary schools to be turned over to private companies during a pilot year beginning this fall. Fifty schools will be run by Bridge International Academies, an American for-profit company backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerburg and Bill Gates that builds and runs low-cost schools primarily in East Africa. As many as 70 more Liberian schools will be turned over to a host of other private operators. If the pilot is deemed a success, it will be scaled up to at least 300 more schools in September 2017. It could cover the country’s entire primary school system by 2020, according to the timeline set by the government.

Is this neocolonialism or a new spirit of philanthropy or both?

But the fear isn’t just that private companies are taking over what has traditionally been a government service. It’s that they will provide an inferior product. Critics like Angelo Gavrielatos of Education International, an international umbrella body representing education trade unions, say Bridge’s model of cheap schools and lightly trained instructors who use scripted, tablet-based lesson plans is a radical departure from established norms in the education field, one that is aimed more at reducing costs than providing an appropriate learning environment for children.

“Their business plan is predicated on the employment of unqualified staff delivering a highly scripted standardized system, word-for-word off a tablet,” Gavrielatos said.

May counters that scripted lesson plans can still be engrossing for children: “When you watch Hamlet and it’s a great actor, would you say that’s rote?”

But even Werner admits that a Kenyan education official warned him that Bridge deviated from that country’s national curriculum and employed underqualified staff. “They were urging Bridge to better align with the national government, or else,” he said. “He gave me advice cautioning in terms of having a relationship with them.”

But Bridge says it achieves results. By using the technology on its tablets to monitor teacher performance in real time, it can support those who flounder and hold them accountable when necessary. Studies it commissioned purportedly show marked increases in learning outcomes for students in its schools. Although Bridge is a for-profit company, May describes it as a “mission-driven business” that is primarily concerned with providing kids with better opportunities, not turning a big profit.

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