The West African nation of Liberia has had many struggles in its long efforts to rebuild, first from its devastating civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s and, now, from Ebola. And one of the hardest struggles has been education.
In 2013, after all 25,000 high school students sitting state university entrance exams failed, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf admitted that the education system was "a mess" and called for a complete overhaul.
Now it seems Sirleaf's government has decided that rather than overhauling the education system themselves, they're going to pay someone else to do it for them. Under a pilot program called "Partnership Schools for Liberia," the Liberian government will outsource some of its primary and early childhood educational system to private companies over the next five years.
One huge contract has gone to a private company called Bridge International Academies — reportedly to the tune of $65 million. And it's causing some real controversy.
The United Nations' Special Rapporteur for the right to education, Kishore Singh, has denounced the plan as "completely unacceptable" and "a blatant violation of Liberia’s international obligations under the right to education." A coalition of teachers unions and civil society groups in Liberia issued an open letter announcing their opposition. Education International, an international federation of unions, has warned that "privatisation vultures" involved in the plan "pose [a] serious threat to Liberia’s public education system."
Their concern is that by hiring a private, for-profit company — whose primary goal is to make money, not serve the people (or so the argument goes) — the government of Liberia is abandoning its responsibility to its people and potentially jeopardizing the quality and equal access of the education system.
Defenders of the plan argue that the government of Liberia faced an impossible choice. It could continue to provide substandard education, or it could acknowledge its own limitations and deficiencies and turn to outside experts for help meeting a challenge that was beyond its abilities.
So who's right? After speaking to development and education experts, it's clear that some criticisms of the plan have real merit, and that this program comes with trade-offs we would find unacceptable in, say, an American education system.
But perhaps the more meaningful question is also the more uncomfortable one: In a country that has one of the world's lowest GDPs per capita and where basic state functions are still struggling, could the problems with Liberia's program be a necessary trade-off?
In March 2015, the government of Liberia announced its plan for public-private partnerships to improve its education system. It ended up with Bridge International Academies.
The for-profit company, which formed in 2008, operates more than 400 relatively low-cost primary and pre-primary schools in Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria. The company says its goal is "to bring some of the world’s greatest instruction and pedagogical thinking into every classroom in every village and slum in the world."
Instead of paying more educated, experienced, qualified teachers, the company hires inexperienced people from the local communities (reportedly paying around $90 a month). It gives them a few weeks of training and handheld tablet computers loaded with pre-scripted lessons designed by the company's education experts. It then sends them into the classrooms to deliver the scripted content to the students.
And when they say scripted lessons, they mean scripted. We're not talking a general outline of a lesson plan with a few bullet points here. "Step into any classroom at Bridge and the chances are that the teacher will be uttering exactly the same words that are being uttered in every single Bridge school," writes the Independent's Catrina Stewart.
"A handbook instructs the teacher to look up from the e-book every five seconds, to wait eight seconds for children to answer, and instead of asking the teacher to explain a mathematical concept, the lesson plan takes them through it step by step," Stewart writes.
Bridge claims that this scripted curriculum model gives poor children "access to the types of teachers they would never be able to afford."
In underfunded education systems like those of Kenya and Liberia, teacher absenteeism can be an enormous problem. The company says it addresses this by using technology to track teacher absenteeism and performance in real time.
Bridge's "academy in a box" model has attracted investment from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and the World Bank Group's International Finance Corporation, which invested $10 million each. Bill Gates and the UK government's Department for International Development are also investors.
The company's arrangement in Liberia is a new model for it. Rather than coming in and setting up its own private, for-profit schools, Bridge will be applying its teaching model to 50 existing schools in the Liberian education system for the 2016-'17 school year.
Bridge will take the teachers currently teaching in those 50 schools, send them through the Bridge training process, equip them with tablets and a scripted curriculum based on the Liberian national curriculum, and send them back into the same schools, where they will be constantly monitored and assessed.
According to Bridge, the Liberian government has promised that all teachers currently employed will remain on the civil service payroll — in other words, no teachers are going to be fired when Bridge comes in.
However, teachers who don't perform well according to Bridge assessments may be removed from their classrooms and given other civil service jobs in the government. Maybe you can start to see why this plan so alarms Liberia's teachers unions, among others.
Liberia's minister of education, George K. Werner, downplayed the degree to which this would be a shift, saying, "The schools will remain within the public sector, owned, financed, regulated and quality assured by government, with support from external donors."
But it's not hard to see why this plan has caused some controversy.
Critics argue that this highly scripted approach provides a substandard education based on an archaic model of rote learning that we would never approve of giving our own kids here in the developed world.
"If somebody suggested that kind of an educational model, in this country they would be laughed out of the educational community," Ed Gragert, the US director of the Global Campaign for Education, which advocates for increased access to education in the developing world, told NPR's Jason Beaubien.
"That's not how kids learn best," Gragert says. "Kids learn by interacting with each other. It seems like we are going back for the sake of somebody making a profit to where a robot could teach that class."
"It looks hi-tech, but it is really just someone following a lesson plan in a top-down way and not stimulating discussion," David Archer, head of program development at the UK charity ActionAid, told the Independent. "It is almost Victorian."
Even in the most generous reading of Bridge's plan, there's an inherent trade-off here. The strongest case you could make is that some countries, unable to fund their education systems, face a difficult choice. They can provide a high-quality education to whomever they can afford to reach but leave out those they cannot afford to reach. Or they can increase the number of students they reach through a cheaper, Bridge-style model, but by compromising the quality of that education.
"I've seen this argument play out between big names in education research next to people who would do this in the developing world," Justin Sandefur, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and an expert on aid effectiveness and education in the developing world, told me.
In Liberia, there are still about half a million children out of school, and about 21 percent of children don't complete primary education. For these kids, is even rote learning better than no learning at all?
"There are all these concerns in the US about teaching to the test and how horrible that would be," Sandefur says, but then you'll hear "some of the people in the developing world saying the best thing that could happen in our classrooms would be that somebody comes in and teaches to the test. The teachers are asleep; they're not there. So I think you do have to put it in perspective."
But there are concerns beyond the quality of the curriculum. Critics warn that relying on private companies to provide education undermines government efforts improve their own public school systems.
"The provision of basic education, free of cost, is not only a core obligation of states but also a moral imperative," the UN's Kishore Singh has written. "Privatisation cripples the notion of education as a universal human right and — by aggravating marginalisation and exclusion — runs counter to the fundamental principles of human rights law. It creates social inequity."
"It is ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free primary education to every child, but it can find huge sums of money to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf," Singh writes.
The hard truth
Liberia's education plan would be unprecedented at this scale in Africa, and the objections have real merit. Still, it's worth remembering that this is hardly the first public-private partnership in education. Indeed, it's essentially the same model that created charter schools in the US and UK.
There is a hard truth to be swallowed here: Some governments simply can't provide everything themselves, even core services such as primary education. In those cases, hiring companies to provide those services on its behalf might be worth the trade-offs.
There is another trade-off at work: Companies like Bridge can promise a quick solution to a hard problem, but this risks making the government reliant. The Liberian government, rather than building up its own expertise in running a school system, is relying on someone else's expertise.
Bridge is an immediate solution that doesn't solve — and some ways entrenches — a deeper, long-term problem, which is Liberia's inability to run a public education system.
"In the long term, if you pay teachers well and you manage the recruitment well, you should attract better people to teaching," explains Sandefur. The question, he says, is, "Are you failing to build up the civil service corps by trying to go for the quick, cheap solution of outsourcing to Bridge?"
It seems the Liberian government is willing to accept these trade-offs, at least for now. As Education Minister Werner has put it, "While the government will always remain responsible for ensuring every child’s right to education, we need to work far more collaboratively with others to strengthen our public schooling sector. This must happen fast. We cannot risk failing another generation of children."