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Education in crisis contexts

Paul Skidmore on the radical transformation to education in fragile states

The leader of low-cost, private school networks in Africa explains why the learning crisis can’t be solved by governments and nonprofits alone

Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Liberia is facing an educational crisis. Not only is primary school enrollment below 40%, the quality of instruction is abysmal: Only 25% of adult women who finished elementary school are able to read a complete sentence, and in 2013, none of the 25,000 applicants to the University of Liberia passed the entrance exam.

Paul Skidmore may have a remedy. As the CEO of Rising Academy Network, a private school operator in two African countries, Skidmore and his team have been able to increase student learning in their schools in Liberia by up to 60% without raising costs for the Liberian government.

Skidmore founded his private schooling outfit in Sierra Leone in 2014. Just months later, that country became ground zero for an Ebola epidemic that left almost 4,000 dead and millions panicked. Skidmore and his staff moved fast to relocate classes in students’ homes and incorporate Ebola prevention into the curriculum. “The courage that those teachers showed in that most difficult of circumstances has become part of our DNA,” Skidmore tells Grant and Ravi.

Since 2016, Rising Academies has taken on a new challenge. The problems of Liberia’s schools, the government argued, were too big to fix without a complete overhaul and outside help. In 2016, the Liberian Ministry of Education turned over operations of 93 randomly-chosen public schools to eight private school operators -- including Rising Academies. The program, Partnership Schools for Liberia, is a pilot that could lead to a nationwide charter system.

Contractors pledged to improve instruction, curb absenteeism, and permit independent evaluation of their success rate. The hope is that at least some of the Partnership Schools will demonstrate improvements in student learning -- without boosting the bill for the cash-strapped Liberian government -- that can be replicated throughout the school system.

Paul Skidmore, CEO of Rising Academy Network

If it seems drastic to privatize so many schools all at once -- well, it is. But on the whole, the push towards more private schooling in Liberia fits with the rising trend of school privatization in the developing world. Worldwide, roughly 30% of children in low-mid and middle-income countries attend private schools, and that’s expected to increase. The fastest-growing niche among the private school sector in the developing world are small, low-cost schools catering to those in extreme poverty.

In general, the push for public-private partnerships in the education sector is a function of recognizing that while school enrollment is rising, student performance is not necessarily improving except in some private academies. Findings from India indicate that private schooling increases student performance roughly equivalent to studying an extra two years.

Some have advised caution, however, about treating private schools as a silver bullet. Skepticism often revolves around hidden costs of operating effective private schools. Liberia’s Partnership Schools operators, for example, receive $50 annually per student from the government, plus the same sum from Ark, a UK-based educational charity, and are able to pitch in their own reserves. The abundance of available resources for Partnership Schools generates clear inequalities: While one Partnership Schools contractor spent over $1,000 per student annually, public schools are constrained to $50 per student. For some, it therefore seems no wonder that Partnership Schools -- already doubly resourced, through Ark’s matching gifts, compared to Liberian schools at large -- would be able to generate improved outcomes. As World Bank economist Jishnu Das argues, “Private schools are effective in proportion to the public subsidy they receive.”

What we actually do is to try and bring about a very different model of teaching and learning in the schools, being very intentional about how you reshape the atmosphere of school to make a safer space for learning ... We're trying to create a culture where everybody feels like a learner, whether that's the students themselves, whether it's the teachers, the school leaders, or us in the head office.

Skidmore, though, argues that the incentive structure of private education not only makes the work more compelling, it enforces innovation, healthy risk-taking, and mutually beneficial relationships between operators and clients rather than the unhealthy power dynamic of aid workers and beneficiaries. “If my parents in Sierra Leone don’t like this school, then they don’t send their kid on. I lose out,” he tells Grant and Ravi. “And I like it that way.”

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Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.