In a survey of 350,000 children from across East Africa Uwezo, an education advocacy organization revealed that one in five children in primary 7 did not have primary 2 competency levels in reading and numeracy. This means that 25 percent of school age children in East Africa cannot read, write or count well to meet minimum learning standards.
My sense has always been that Uwezo findings are probably underestimating the magnitude of the problem and the crisis is much deeper. But here are two things out of the Uwezo study that worry me sick: children from socio-economically disadvantaged households perform; and, invariably, children in public schools perform worse than children in private schools. I am sure you find this a rather obvious and expected finding.
We all must be troubled; especially if you are a taxpayer and believe that the future of this country is inextricable bound to the potential, capability and achievement of the youth, most of who come from struggling households and attend public schools. I reckon that these kinds of kids constitute about 70 percent of the kids enrolled in our primary schools today. But the odds are stacked against these kids because less than only 20 percent of the kids who sit primary 8 examinations transition to decent county and national schools.
Poor quality education is jeopardizing the future of millions of young people in Kenya, especially those from low-income families. In our constitution, education is a fundamental human right and essential stepping stone to individual opportunity. If our society is to deliver on this constitutional obligation education must provide young people with the essential knowledge skills, attitudes they need to be productive citizens. A good education is therefore not just a privilege of the well to do. A good education is a birthright of every Kenyan child. We must to ensure that every child, regardless of their social background, attains an agreeable minimum standard of literacy and numeracy.
In my view, we do not understand the full scale of the learning crisis and have no clue about what needs to be done. At the heart of not understanding the problem is the fact that we do not competency indicators to measure and track learning outcomes. And without the data we have no evidence-base against which to hold stakeholders – teachers, government, school boards, students and parents – accountable and to guide relevant policy reform. National exam scores won’t do.
We need consensus on competencies that are important for children across the country. Such competencies must be linked to the knowledge, skills and attitudes children need to succeed in a dynamic globalized world. A focus on competency-based education calls for a radical shift away from our examination-based education, which demand nothing but mindless regurgitation from our children. In thinking about essential competencies, we must see education as critical to attaining the human ideals of peace, freedom and social justice.
Commonly known as the DeLors Report, Learning: The treasure within, a report to UNESCO of the international commission for the 21st century published in 1996 provides an essential framework for thinking about nationally relevant learning competencies. The four pillars proposed in The DeLors Report provide framework for developing objective competency indicators to measure learning across the school system; from early childhood to post-secondary level.
Here are Delors’ four pillars, with examples of measurable skills and attitudes that I think could form a basis for a competency-based education.
· Learning to live together by developing an appreciation for others – their culture, religion and values on the basis of a spirit of understanding and appreciate our interdependence. This is especially critical for an ethnical divided society such as ours;
· Learning to know by developing the ability to think and write, laying the foundation for learning throughout life, and especially developing the tools to think and solve problems rather than memorizing facts;
· Learning to do through experiences that are based on real life problems, which fosters greater retention and application of knowledge and skills. This is radically different from traditional learning approaches, which are content-focused.
· Learning to be by inculcating personal responsibility, developing imagination and creative expression, underscoring the central role of the arts in education.
Data from assessment based on the four competency pillars could used to refine policy and practice, leading ultimately to improvements in learning outcomes for all children while holding all stakeholders accountable to our children.