Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Kenya's education reform must be driven by evidence, not whim


The value of education, for personal growth and national prosperity, is incontrovertible. However, the benefits of education can only be appropriated on condition that children in school actually learn.

Although free primary education dramatically improved gross enrollment, learning seldom occurs in our schools. Globally, about 250,000 million children in grade four do not have the minimum literacy and numeracy standards. Here in Kenya, nearly one-third of the children in grade six do not have the numeracy and literacy standards expected of a child in grade four.

We have paid too much time worrying about enrollment in school, retention and completion of primary school, and too little attention to learning outcomes. Imagine an uneducated mother, Paulina, who sacrifices everything she has to keep her child in school for eight years only to find out that the child can barely read or write or add. Paulina’s nightmare is that her child will wind up as an unskilled laborer, just like her. What happened to the promise of education, the skills and the dream of a job in a distant city? She must wonder.

Paulina’s quandary is personal and obscure. But it is not uncommon among parents and children in rural communities and poor urban schools. We are talking about 200,000 or (21 percent) of the children who scored way below 200 marks in the last KCPE exams. We seldom think about them. Soon after we are done idolizing the top scorers we begin worrying about slots in public national schools and top county schools. Paulina’s predicament remains a private crisis.

But in my view Paulina’s predicament must be at the centre of a serious national conversation about education. Paulina’s predicament is at the heart of the grave reality that attending primary school is not the same as learning. No amount of enrollment and retention or completion will provide our children with the learning and skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.

Education must more than a constitutional obligation of the state or some SDG commitment. Education must be an inalienable that is inextricably bound with learning. I argue that the national conversation must move beyond a focus on inputs to expand access to public and private investments that provide the conditions, which support learning.  

Our current model is really about the curriculum; timely completion of the syllabus and super test scores. The schools are merely grade factories and the children are graded products. This must change if learning has to occur. The child must be the alpha, centre and omega. The child’s development as measured by learning, not some meaningless test score, must determine the standard by which we measure the performance of our education system.

I am sympathetic to the frustration we all have about our education, and especially the conversation about the need for a structural overhaul. There is talk about moving from the current 8 – 4 – 4 to a system that require mandatory two years in pre-school, six years in primary school, three years in junior secondary (with an exit option to vocational training), three years in senior high school and three years of undergraduate education.

My view is that fiddling the structure of education would be a trivial, unhelpful intervention. The problem is neither content nor structure. The problem is that our children are not learning. Numerous studies have shown that between 50 and 65 percent of teachers in both private and public schools don’t have basic reading and math skills required to teach grade four pupils. Without a doubt, teacher quality is atrocious. Moreover, teacher absenteeism is a chronic, especially in public schools.

Common sense and evidence recoils at some of the ideas and suggestions around reforming our education. No amount of tinkering with the schooling structure will produce learning. And we must drop the hysteria about competency-based education. What we have to be clear about is what learning domains are important to our children in a competitive globalized world, and how student progress can be measured.

The education reform we need is one that recruits, motivates and retains the best teachers, and one that makes learning and the child the focus of education. Moreover, education reform must not be about more disciplinary content. Learning must be about a capacity for critical thinking, analytical and moral reasoning, creativity, collaboration and the ability to process and critically evaluate data and information.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Involve the youth in dealing with the challenges of urbanization


The annual rate of urbanization in Kenya is estimated at about 4.4 percent, which 62 percent higher than the annual rate of Kenya’s population growth. The unprecedented rate of urbanization, especially in Africa has been widely regarded as a blessing.

Cities, when they work, are places of promise, hope and opportunity. The long history of urbanization, especially the rise of global cities – from ancient Athens to Rome and to Cairo and New York in the present time – is a chronicle of modernity and prosperity. More recently, urbanization in China and Korea has been accompanied by significant income growth.

However, the link between the growth of a majority of African cities and shared material wellbeing is tenuous. According to leading urban scholars, like Harvard University’s Edward Glaeser, there has been an explosion of poor-mega cities over the last three decades. Here in Kenya, rapid urban growth has been accompanied by deterioration of basic services, especially housing, water and sanitation, lack of planning and of course maddening traffic gridlock.

Across our region, the convergence between rapid urbanization and the youth bulge presents an opportunity and a challenge. It presents an opportunity because urban spaces that inspire and foster creativity and innovation. Think about the technology hubs and the burst of innovation that have become the hallmark of Dar es Salaam, Kampala, Kigali and Nairobi. Cities have become the magnet of Africa’s youthful talent. A pool of educated urban population is a veritable engine for East Africa’s transformation into a knowledge economy.

A survey by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University revealed that Kenyan youth are optimistic about the future, and believe they will have jobs, better access to quality education and healthcare. Moreover, a majority of the youth will live in urban not rural spaces. Hence, the views and aspirations of the youth should inform the planning, management and governance of our cities.

The convergence between the youth bulge and rapid urbanization presents a challenge because a better future is inextricably bound with thriving cities. In essence, the success of a majority of young people today will depend on whether our cities deliver opportunity and shared prosperity that meets the expectations of the youth.

It will take youth and a broad coalition of stakeholders working together to create the necessary conditions to build cities that deliver opportunity and prosperity for all of us. While youth are disproportionately affected by the problems that beset our young cities, their engagement could be the source of innovative solutions. Authentic and meaningful engagement of young people in change processes however, requires creative, non-traditional approaches.

Through its Young Cities Dialogue programme the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University is deploying novel methods to gather the experiences and views of urban youth across East Africa, and to create dialogue aimed at influencing change through public policy and a call to action by urban youth.

After months of painstaking research through observation and consultation, a group of Mombasa-based performing artist created and presented four superb short plays, which describe the experiences of youth in Mombasa; their struggles and triumphs, their joys and pains, their dreams and the hard knocks of reality. Drama is simply a form of narrative or story presented through performance. The point of dramatizing story is to engage deeply, emotionally through the heart and through the mind.

It was truly inspiring to witness young people grapple – with sophisticated wit, reflection and wisdom – with issues that confront urban youth such as unemployment and opportunity, the failures of our criminal justice system, sexual abuse, pluralism and interfaith understanding. Moreover, it was exceedingly delightful to listen to the thoughtful exchange between the protagonist in the play and the audience to find resolution to complex dilemma. At the heart of the dilemma in each play were moral and ethical choices, personal agency and the role of civil society, business and government.

At the end of the Young Cities Dialogue in Mombasa last Saturday, my confidence and faith in Kenya’s youth was reignited. Youth have the capacity to grapple with the challenges of urbanization, while taking advantage of the opportunities created by urbanism.

The long future belongs to youth of this country and the least they expect is authentic and meaningful inclusion in co-defining problems and co-designing appropriate solutions to create thriving and happy cities.

Kenyan youth aspirational but lack opportunity and integrity


About 80 percent of East Africas population is below 35 years of age, and the median age is estimated to be approximately 18 years. Our future is in the hands of this unprecedented large proportion of young people. Hence the future is not out there, nor is it some unknowable instance in the misty horizon.

Through the combined actions or omissions of the old and young, we are employed in the active construction of both the present and the future. But more specifically those youthful today, are the true curators of the future.

The East African Institute of the Aga Khan University commissioned a survey of youth in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania between 2014 and 2015 to understand their values and attitudes, concerns and aspirations. To paraphrase Irish author, political theorist and philosopher, Edmund Burke; if we understand the sentiments that preoccupy youth today we can shape what the future could look like.

The Kenya Youth Survey report was released yesterday in Nairobi. The report reveals important and surprising insights, and offers reasons both for optimism, deep concern and the need for urgent action. Moreover, some of the findings are contradictory and counter intuitive.

The good news is that Kenya is not hopelessly fractured along ethnic lines; 40 percent of youth identify as Kenyans first, while 35 percent identify as youth first. About 12 percent identify by their faith first. Less than 5 percent of the youth identify by their ethnicity first. Less than one percent identify as East Africans first. Moreover, when asked what they value most, 85 percent value faith first, 60 percent value family first, 45 percent value work first. The report also suggests that we could be reaping the benefits of massive expansion of primary and secondary education. About 78 percent of the youth had post primary education. Only 22 percent had primary education as the highest level of education.

What is cause for deep concern is the dearth of integrity. About 30 percent believe corruption is profitable, 50 percent believe it doesnt matter how one makes money as long as one does not end up in jail, only 40 percent strongly believe that it is important to pay taxes, 35 percent of the youth would readily take or give a bribe and, over 70 percent of the youth are afraid to stand up for what is right for fear of retribution. Moreover, while 70 percent of the youth believe it is important to vote 62 percent are vulnerable to electoral fraud, with 40 percent stating categorically, that they would only vote for a candidate who bribed them.

About 50 percent of the youth were aware of government initiatives for youth. Only 24 percent of the youth have benefited from government-initiated youth programs. Unemployment and lack of access to capital were the two most important concerns the youth feel must be addressed urgently. About 68 percent of young rural women were unemployed. Nearly 1 in 2 youth with a university degree was unemployed. While 48 percent would like to go into business, only 1 in 5 youth are in self-employment.

The youth are optimistic and pessimistic about the future. Optimistic because 77 percent of the youth believe Kenya will be richer materially, with better access to quality education and health, and more jobs for youth; 67 percent believe society will reward merit and hard work. Pessimistic because 40 percent believe there will be more corruption, and 30% believe the country will be poorer in ethics and values, and substance abuse will be rampant.

The staggering lack of opportunity and the dearth of integrity among youth demands urgent action. The capacity of our economy to create opportunity for the youth remains weak especially in the decade when Kenya recorded the highest headline GDP growth. A high tolerance for corruption, tax evasion and a corruptible electorate could stymie economic progress and undermine democracy by making politics and leadership the precinct of a corrupt cabal.

The Kenya Youth Survey report does not prescribe solutions or policy recommendations. Instead, it furnishes key evidence that could inform the collective search for a shared framework for policies, programs and actions necessary to prepare Kenyas youth to thrive and lead in a competitive and globalized world. The report is also an invitation to all stakeholders to earnest dialogue, debate and new questions to inform and shape new research priorities. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Time to fix failing public schools


How our children perform in KCPE is nearly always predictable. Invariably, children from private schools outclass those from public schools.

However, we are reluctant to engage in the important conversion about the achievement gap between public and private schools. We are numb to the shameful reality that about 70 percent of the places in topflight national and county secondary schools will be gobbled children who come through private primary schools.

In many middle and upper middle class families, a place in an elite public secondary school is considered a birthright to their privileged children who ace KCPE. Hence, to deny their children a spot in the best public schools would be a violation of their constitutional right. Reason; they sacrificed everything to take their children to better resourced private schools and must not be punished for making such a choice.

With very few exceptions, public primary school is synonymous with poor quality education. And the market has responded robustly to meet the hunger and demand for quality education. We probably have the most competitive private primary school market in East Africa. As a matter of fact, most teachers in public primary schools send their children to private schools.

Why is the quality of learning outcomes so deplorable? There are complex and related reasons for poor learning outcomes in Kenya’s public primary schools. Moreover, we seldom pay attention to data and research evidence when we make consequential policy choices. A recent service delivery indicator report by the World Bank offers very interesting insights – based purely on school factors – into why private schools consistently perform better than public schools.

The report reveals no significant difference in teaching equipment – functioning blackboard, chalk, pencils and notebooks – between public and private schools. Similarly there was no real difference in the quality of infrastructure – well-lit and ventilated classrooms, and clean toilets – between private and public schools.

However there were significant differences between public and private schools. The student to book ratio in public schools was 4 to whereas only two children shared one book in private schools. The rate of absenteeism from the classroom among public school teachers is nearly 50 percent, compared to 30 percent in private schools. Teachers in private schools spent 33 percent more time in teaching hours compared to their public school counterparts. Teachers in public primary schools have to teach and manage class sizes twice as larger than class sizes in private schools.

What the report says about teacher quality is horrifying. We have bad teachers in our schools.  Over 60 percent of all teachers, in public and private schools, do not have the minimum content knowledge required to teach. Content knowledge is evaluated based on basic reading, writing and math at primary 4 level. However, teacher quality was somewhat better in private schools, where 49 percent of teachers had the minimum content knowledge compared to only 35 percent in public schools. Similarly, a study conducted by the African Population and Health Research Center in 2009 revealed that teachers scored an average of 47 percent in a standardized primary 6 math test, with the lowest scoring 17 percent.

What does the data tell us? Although teachers in private schools are not phenomenally superior, they have smaller class sizes, they have more contact hours with students who have far superior access to text books compared to students in public primary schools. These factors interact with non-school factors in complex, non-linear ways, to determine student-learning outcomes. I am mindful that association is not causation.

It is obvious, what we must do. Close the achievement gap between private and public schools. Teacher training colleges are currently the option of last resort. It is hardly surprising that 65 percent of teachers in public primary schools can’t read at the level of a primary 4 pupil, which also speaks volumes about the quality of high school education. We must attract, recruit train and retain high quality teachers in public schools.

We need to increase the ratio of books and teachers to students. Hence we need to employ teachers and put a book in the hands of every child. We must make sure that teachers have the tools and resources they need to get the job done, including a investing in professional development and continuing education for teachers in service. Only when this is done can we hold teachers accountable to learning outcomes.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Close the achievement gap between public and private schools


Analyzing KCPE results is always both insightful and disconcerting. Out of the 937,453 candidates who sat KCPE in 2015, 139,393 (15 percent) were enrolled in private schools. The average score in public schools was 181 out of 500 marks, significantly lower than the 230 mean score attained candidates enrolled in private schools.

Here is what is most disconcerting. Over 200,000 students or 21 percent, a number higher than the total enrollment in private schools, scored well below 200 marks. It is unconscionable that more than 20 percent of young men and women, most of them from public schools, will not have a high school education.

Consider this. In the financial year 2015/2016, the government spent Ksh.10 billion in grant capitation to support 9.1 million children in primary school. In my view this scale of public investment is worryingly modest. A service delivery survey conducted by the World Bank revealed that there is no significant difference in learning infrastructure (classrooms, blackboard, light, toilets) between public and private schools.

However, private schools had a significantly higher capacity to support delivery of quality learning. For example 49 percent of teachers in private schools had basic reading and math skills compared to only 35 percent of teachers in public schools. Moreover, a teacher in a private school spent about three hours thirty minutes teaching in day compared to two hours twenty minutes by a teacher in a public school.

If you take into account level funding, the competence and commitment of teachers, quality is the least likely attribute of Kenya’s public primary schools. Parents in the lower middle class, middle class and the wealthy classes get this and are making enormous sacrifices to educate their children in private schools. For example, to educate the 139,393 KCPE candidates in about 6000 private schools private school in 2015, parents spent about Ksh. 9 billion, assuming conservative average annual tuition cost of Ksh.60, 000. Our government spent Ksh. 10 billion to educate 9.1 million children in public schools.

We cannot fault well to do parents for sending their children to private schools. But we must be mindful that achievement gap created by these choices is bad for the future for this country. The 15 percent of the children from private schools will most likely gobble 70 percent of places in the top publicly funded national and county secondary schools. With this firm toehold on the first rung of the ladder of opportunity, these kids from more privileged backgrounds will outcompete children from poorer backgrounds, exacerbating socio-economic inequality.

The provision of free and quality education should help bridge historical socio-economic inequality in our society; enabling a child born with less material privilege to hold and achieve the same life goals as a rich kid. In the 21st century, access to free and quality education must be the Open Sesame that guarantees poor rural children access to opportunity in a competitive knowledge economy.

Access to free and quality education could emancipate tens of millions of boys and girls from rural poverty, and the limited opportunities that define the existence of their parents. Think about tens of millions young men and women graduating from our colleges, polytechnics and universities to take up careers their forebears could not even begin to imagine; as lawyers, doctors, engineers, plumbers, masons, mechanics, artists, teachers, faith leaders, entrepreneurs and merchants, all spread across this great land.

Access to quality education must be a birthright, not a privilege preserved for the rich. As we think about reforms in the education sector, we must take a hard look at the scale and quality of public spending in public education. We also need to improve the quality of teachers in our public schools.

Hence, we need a fair and stringent mechanism for holding teachers accountable to the learning outcomes of our children. In my view a performance contract provides a chance for the teachers to demand the resources they need to do their job and close the achievement gap between public and private schools. These include textbooks, small class sizes, lower teaching load, and children who are well fed and ready to learn.

Access to quality education for all citizens is good for us all. Imagine tens of millions of new middle-income consumers in vibrant modern, well-planned towns, new tax payers and a government more emboldened and committed to advancing equal opportunity for all citizens.

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