Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Stripped of cheating, our schools are a disaster

The 2016 KCSE results are out and a nation is bewildered. The number of students who scored grade A declined by about 95 percent compared to 2015.  The proportion of students who scored below the C plus grade increased to 84 percent, up from 67 percent in 2015.

Moreover, 66 percent of the students failed. They scored a D plus grade and below. More than 5,000 students scored grade E. What this means is that about 2 out of 3 students completing high school are functionally illiterate. This also means that the individuals do not posses the ability to manage life and employment tasks that demand thinking, reading and numeracy skills at the basic level.

Let us be clear here. Failure at this monumental scale has catastrophic implications for our society. We are talking about 377,000 young men and women. We are talking about the individuals who are likely to be a guard, driver, house help, waiter, gardener, mason etc. Some of them will even end up teaching in our early childhood programs or in the army of police service. And you can bet they will be parents. In 2015, the number was 214,000. So in just two years we have produced about 600,000 functionally illiterate citizens.

What is interesting is that the commentary and conversation about the 2016 KCSE results has been about what many call the dramatic decline in the number of students scoring grade A. This is not surprising. I have said many times here that our schools have been turned into grade factories.

Teaching and learning are widely considered as a diversionary and a waste of time. Teachers and parents are more concerned about the final grade. Hence, drilling and the application of techniques such as cheating are essential tools of trade. By eliminating cheating in the 2016 KCSE, CS Matiangi has laid bare the real problem with our education.

The problem with our education is not the curriculum. The problem is not 8-4-4. The problem is that our children are not learning. Our schools, primary and secondary fail too many. Moreover, our education resources are not equitably distributed. For example, it is unconscionable that about 61 percent of the students who scored grade A (assuming that this is some rough measure of learning) went to schools in Kiambu and Nairobi counties. These two counties have the largest proportion of the best-resourced high schools, also known as national schools.

The 2016 KCSE results present a profound teachable moment for our country. Stripped of cheating, our schools are a total disaster. Clearly, our teachers are not teaching and our children are not learning. This is the crux of the Kenya’s education crisis.


I urge CS Matiangi not to rush into curriculum reform and the introduction of the 2-6-3-3-3. Let us go back to the drawing board. Lets not fiddle with the curriculum yet. What needs urgent attention is teacher quality, school resources, school governance and how to unleash the creative genius in every child.

Shared prosperity, shield and defender of democracy

Two of the most consequential events that shaped 2016 have been in the making for decades. For example the neglect and honestly sheer hubris of America’s coastal elite gave us the TIME 2016 Person of the Year. Similarly, the underclass in the United Kingdom galvanized by uncertainty delivered Brexit.  

The triumph of Donald Trump and Brexit shook the devotees of liberal democracy to the core. The unprecedented revolt of the underclass in both the US and the United Kingdom – considered the citadel of liberal democracy – persuaded many to doubt that the working class who often lack four year college education could not be trusted with the delicate and complex choice that defines the essence of western democracy.

Populist nationalists marshaled arguments against free trade, globalization, automation, and immigrants to instill and harness mortal fear and despondency to galvanize a veritable revolt of the underclass. In both the US and the United Kingdom, voters pushed to the fringes of society, living on minimum wage or unemployed, without college education and lacking skills to thrive in the globalized knowledge economy chose Donald Trump and “Leave”.

Both Brexit and the triumph of Donald Trump offer invaluable lessons for Kenya since we are a nascent democracy. The lessons are especially critical because ours is a democracy conceived in the image of a liberal democracy.  The lessons from Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump are instructive because we are hard at work laying the foundation of the conditions that will produce and sustain an angry and virulent underclass.

A huge chasm of inequality has opened in our society. The fruits of economic growth, even though modest, have not been shared. As Macharia Gaitho recently put it, we have become a country of 40 billionaires and 40 million beggars. For a majority of Kenyans, life is uncertain, unforgiving.

Prosperity is stuck at the top, with who have a monopoly on capital. The last 15 years of sustained economic growth, albeit modest, has not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality. Our zero-sum ethnic politics has only rewarded ethnic elites.

How we educate has not kept pace with the demands of the new economy. About 90 per cent of youth entering the job market cannot find well-paying jobs. Urbanization has spawned a multitude of working poor.  Hence, a majority of Kenyans are disconnected and denied a chance to get a toehold on the first rung of the ladder of opportunity. Neglect of so many of our fellow citizens is both morally unconscionable and politically reckless

The end of ethnic politics is nigh. The emerging underclass will obliterate the primitive ethnic cleavages that now undergird our politics. The underclass will provide a fertile seed bed for virulent discontent and hasten the emergence of demagoguery.  


The biggest threat to Kenya’s nascent democracy is not foreigners. The biggest threat to our existence as a people grappling with nationhood is not terrorism or tribalism. The growing legions of the underclass are our most grave existential threat to Kenya.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Curriculum review and laptops alone will not improve student learning

Uwezo launched its sixth learning assessment report last week. The report is hardly flattering. It is a chilling indictment of our education. Learning outcomes are dismal.  Shameful regional inequalities in education achievement persist half a century after we earned the right govern ourselves.  

The Uwezo assessment measured the ability of over 130,000 children to read and complete basic numeracy tasks at the level of standard 2. Are our children learning? Only 3 out 10 children in standard 3 can read and add at the level required in standard 2. About 1 in 10 children in completing standard 8 have not acquired literacy and numeracy skills expected of a child in standard 2.

Learning achievement in rural and urban schools reveals shameful, unconscionable disparities. Only 25 per cent of children in standard 3 in rural schools can read at the level expected of a child in standard 2. Conversely over 40 per cent of children in standard 3 in urban schools can read at the level of a child in standard 2. Here is what is more disconcerting. Children from non-poor households were two times more likely to read and add at the level expected of a child in class 2.

It is obvious that our children are not learning. And this is especially worrying in a knowledge-based economy, which is both global and intensely competitive. Is there something irredeemably wrong with the current curriculum? Or is it the teachers? Or is the child? Or is it the household – the parents and the home environment? What have lessons have we learned?

What do we need to do to improve learning achievement and prepare our children for an unknown future? I know we are investing billions of shillings to introduce laptops/tablets into our classrooms. I also we are changing the education system and the curriculum will no longer be 8-4-4. These are drastic policy decisions. And they are costly.

This is not the first time we are fiddling with the both the education system and the curriculum. Will these big-ticket policy decisions improve learning achievement for our children? Where is the evidence? I would love to see the systematic evaluation of the 8-4-4 system and the current curriculum.

I would like to know if this time we are sure that the reason our children are not learning is because the current curriculum is defective. I would also like to see any studies conducted in our schools, which prove that electronic devises will enhance, reading, writing, numeracy and playful creativity among our children.

Are we changing the curriculum and the education system just because it’s a good thing to do? Are electronic devises the new fad?


Are we truly committed to preparing our children for a brutally competitive knowledge-based economy? If we are committed we must invest in teacher training, pay teachers well and hold them accountable. Moreover we must invest in rural economies, reduce poverty and prevent stunting, which robs millions of children of their learning and productivity potential.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Invest in mothers and the unborn to secure Africa’s future

Later this week, Uwezo, will launch the annual learning assessment report. Previous reports have shown that learning levels are low and remained static; less than one third of children in standard 3 posses basic numeracy and literacy skills. Why are our children not learning?

What is most disconcerting however is that learning outcomes are lower in rural, arid and poorer households across the country. Pass rates in numeracy and literacy were highest in Nairobi and Central Kenya and lowest in counties like Wajir, Turkana, Garissa, Mandera and Tana River. Moreover, 90 percent of the mothers in counties in poor arid and semi-arid counties could not read the level a standard 2 pupil compared to less than 30 percent of mothers in counties Central Kenya. 

According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey report of 2014, children of mothers who are illiterate or did not complete primary school are more likely to be stunted than children born to and raised by mothers with secondary education or higher.

High prevalence of stunting converges with mothers’ literacy levels and low level of learning achievement among children. Our research on spatial patterns of inequality at the East African Institute suggests that stunting could explain up to 46 percent of the difference between eight counties (Turkana, Marsabit, Wajir, Mandera, Tana River, West Pokot, Garissa, Samburu and Isiolo), and remaining 38 counties.

Stunting is a horrific early growth failure and has been described by WHO as the most significant impediment to human development. Stunting is caused by poor nutrition and maternal health especially in the first 1,000 days, which is the first two years from conception. Sadly, the effects of stunting are irreversible. Children over the age of two years are unlikely to regain lost development potential and carry long-term deficits in cognitive capacity.

Food for Thought, a report by Save the Children published in 2013, showed that compared with normal children, stunted children: score 7 percent lower on math tests; are 19 percent less likely to be able to read a simple sentence at age 8, and 12 percent less likely able to write a simple sentence; and, are 13 percent less likely to be able to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school.

Studies by the World Bank estimate that a one percent loss in height due to stunting could lead to up to 1.4 percent loss in economic productivity. It is estimated that 40-67 per cent of the working population Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and Swaziland was stunted as children. Today, this early growth failure costs these economies between 1.9 and 16.5 percent of GDP.

The African Development Bank estimates the cost of closing Africa’s infrastructure gap at USD 360 billion, with significant investments required by 2020. Do we know what it costs to halt the march of malnutrition and secure the first 1,000 days for all African children?  


Together, lets invest in mothers and unborn children to secure Africa’s future and build a stronger generation.

CS Matiangi has restored credibility in national examinations

In John 2: 13-16, the Bible records Jesus’ visit to the temple in Jerusalem. He found livestock and poultry traders, and moneychangers doing business. Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple. He ejected t moneychangers and overturned tables. “Do not make my Father’s house a house of merchandise”, Jesus said to them.

Kenya’s education, especially the examination process, has been a shameful temple of merchandise for nearly three decades. Top ten slots were for sale to the highest bidder. A thick and well-oiled cartel traded in examination papers, influenced grading and scoring of scripts and had the last word on school rankings. Parents could negotiate grades directly with officials at the Kenya National Examination Council (KNEC).

Elite private primary school, also known as academies, thrived. They charged high fees and invested hugely in cheating, paying for ranking and using multiple registration centres to guarantee high mean scores. Similarly, elite public secondary schools, also known as national schools, used their high enrollment numbers and financial advantage to purchase examination materials and influence test scores and ranking.

High school principles are minor deities; officials at Jogoo House and KNEC worship have them on speed dial and worship the ground they walk on. Education in this country almost ceased to be about teaching and learning and preparing the next generation of citizens. Education had become a house of exchange of just three things; money, grades and rankings. Students became pawns in the game. Grades and ranking become something like dope, to which schools, parents and students got hooked to.

Successive education ministers and top officials at Jogoo House were inducted into the immoral orgy and baptized in oodles of bribe cash. These individuals were eaten up by zeal for loot. But not the current Education Cabinet Secretary Dr. Fred Matiangi. CS Matiangi is consumed by zeal for our children and the credibility of our education system.

Under CS Matiangi’s indomitable, and I dare say abrasive and egotistical, resolve confidence is beginning to return to Kenya’s education system and especially, KNEC. Stringent management and administration of KCPE has paid off hugely. CS Matiangi is the man of the moment. He is Kenya’s knight in shining armor.

At a time when our country is staggered by the gales of grand corruption, what CS Matiangi has achieved in the department of education must give us hope. CS Matiangi gives us hope that we can vanquish the evil forces of corruption at work in our society. He gives us hope that Kenya’s education sector will not be a house of merchandise.


CS Matiangi could have chosen the gravy path like his predecessors; taken the loot and looked the other way as our education system goes to the dogs. CS Matiangi gives us hope that there are Kenyans who are willing to risk everything, resist the charm of sleaze and put Kenya first. Can his cabinet colleagues emulate his example?

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