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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.

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