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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