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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Learning Crisis in East Africa Demands Urgent Action

At the World Education Forum held in Dakar, Senegal in 2000, the global community committed to achieving education for all (EFA) goals for every citizen and for every society. The Dakar Framework for Action re-affirmed that education must be geared to tapping talent and potential and supporting children to improve their lives and transform their societies.

Progress in global education remains anaemic, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The latest UNESCO EFA Global Monitoring Report – Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all – published January 29 2014 reveals that one third of primary school age children are not learning basic reading and math skills in an education crisis that costs governments US$129 billion annually. In 2011 Uwezo, a civil society group that monitors educational achievement showed that across East Africa, 2 out 3 pupils in Standard 3 failed Standard 2 literacy and numeracy test.

Over the last few years, there has been boisterous talk about Africa’s economic renaissance. All the five countries of the East African Community (EAC) have produced audacious vision statements, often buttressed by ambitious political manifestos. But these, in my view, will amount to naught; another lost opportunity if over half of Africa’s children are not learning basic skills in reading and math. It will be another lost opportunity if teachers are absent from the classroom nearly 50 percent of the time. It will be another missed opportunity if teachers lack mastery of their subjects. Africa rising will be a myth as long as Tanzania cannot train and recruit the additional 91,400 primary school teachers it needs. Africa rising will not be a reality when over 1 million children of school age are out of school in Kenya.

The Anatomy of the Learning Crisis
Sixty percent of the candidates who sat Tanzania’s Certificate of Secondary Education Examination (CSEE) failed. This magnitude of failure touched off fierce public debate and blame in Tanzania. Some analysts attributed this high failure rate to the sudden switch to English as the medium of instruction in secondary school. The expectation that children leaving public primary schools should enter secondary school and take lessons for all subjects in English language is both callous and ludicrous. English fluency is equally poor among secondary school teachers and officials of the National Examinations Council of Tanzania (NECTA). NECTA issues examinations riddled with poorly constructed English sentences. Poorly prepared students taking poor quality examination is the perfect storm. But Tanzania’s foremost education activist, Rajesh Rajani, thinks that a high failure rate among in Tanzanian schools is solely attributable to a broken education system.

It is estimated that in 2010, 42 percent of East Africa’s 24 million children under five years of age were stunted. A recent study reported by Save the Children in the report, Food for Thought: Tackling child malnutrition to unlock potential and boost prosperity, shows 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. Uganda’s feminist and social justice advocate, Jacqueline Asiimwe argues that nutrition is often ignored in conversations on about what ails education. Circa 33 percent of Uganda’s children below the age of five are stunted. The Cost of Hunger in Uganda, a report published in 2013 by World Food Program and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, revealed that 7 percent of all school repetitions were associated with stunting and that stunted children are more likely to drop out of school and have 1.2 years less in education compared.

In 2009, African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) carried out a classroom observation study focusing on math in 72 schools in six districts in Kenya. The students’ mean score in standardized primary 6 level math was 47 percent. The mean score for teachers was 60.5 percent, with the lowest teacher scoring 17 percent and highest 94 percent. Clearly, no teachers in the sample had mastery of primary 6 level math. Similarly, data from Uganda’s National Assessment of Progress in Education (NAPE) reveals that teachers enter the profession with knowledge and skills that are too low to be effective in the classroom. In 2011, a test similar to primary 6 test for students was applied to a sample of primary 3 and primary 6 teachers in Uganda. In Literacy, 17 percent of teachers were not able to write words correctly, and 54 percent were unable to write a composition. Only 54 percent of the teachers examined were rated proficient in reading sentences, and 38 percent in reading a full story at the level of primary 6.

A randomized evaluation in rural Kenya revealed that providing textbooks written in English language did not raise average test scores, especially among weaker students in primary school. The finding that the textbooks provided did not change learning outcomes is hardly surprising. It is also consistent with UWEZO findings, which show that a majority of children, especially in rural schools cannot effectively read and comprehend the English textbooks. Moreover, high rates of teacher and pupil absenteeism cause a majority of rural children to fall behind the official curriculum.

These rather clear patterns of inequality in learning outcomes raise a larger question. Is it possible for a centralized, uniform education system to serve diverse national populations? This question is especially pertinent given the vast heterogeneity in the social, economic and livelihood outcomes, generated by modest but unequal economic growth in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. More importantly, the legacy of colonialism and the political economy of post-independence created structural conditions in which the current educational systems invariably favor the most advantaged children.

I find it troubling that secondary school is still considered an elite institution in the 21st century. In the 21st century knowledge economy, a high school education must be a birthright of every East African child. Not a privilege of the well to do in society. The cutthroat competition for elite public schools has a fundamentally corrupting influence in the quality and integrity of education in the EAC region. The scramble for few places in good high schools is a major diver of the exam-centric nature of national education systems. We are more concerned about the ability of our children to tick the correct bubble in the multiple choices questions than their ability to think. This obsession with grades explains why the Tanzanian public blamed the new grading system, Fixed Grade Ranges (FGR) when 60 percent of the students who sat O-level exams in 2012 failed. Whether our children are learning is of secondary concern.

The education systems of the EAC member states are more similar than different. They share one distinctive characteristic – a crisis of learning. Our schools fail too many children: 50 percent of the children who sat the 2013 Kenya Certificate of Primary Examinations scored below average; 49 percent of the children who sat Tanzania’s Primary School Leaving Examination in 2013 scored below average; and, 46.5 percent of Uganda’s children who Primary Leaving Examination in 2013 scored below division two. If you believe that education is the currency of the knowledge economy then we are disenfranchising 50 percent of all our children. This is a holocaust, an unprecedented slaughter of human capital.

Re-imagining Education for the Child
The education systems in the EAC region are faithful to the logic of their colonial purpose – to produce unthinking, uncritical and subservient minions for the colonial overloads. The system was not created to encourage children to engage in the kind critical thinking, creativity and complex reasoning that a knowledge economy demands, and which is a pre-requisite to realizing the bold dreams of national vision statements. We must re-design our education systems to deliver the hopes and aspirations articulated in our vision.

But whenever we try re-imagining or reforming our education system, I am reminded of the American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887). In the first stanza of his poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, Saxe writes:

“It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined, 

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind), 

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind”.

Constrained by limited perspectives and contingent on what they touched, the blind men characterized the elephant variously and erroneously as: a wall; spear; snake; tree; fan; rope. But as Saxe writes in the last stanza of the poem:

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!”

John Godfrey Saxe’s poem is a brilliant analogy of the hubris of the expert. Armed, often, with limited understanding, we rush to conclusions and argue extensively in defense of our expert opinions. Like the blind men in Saxe’s poem, as policymakers or educators or economists or donors we have been exceedingly stiff and strong about what we perceive to be the problem with our education system.

I have listened with bemusement as different experts diagnose what ails our education system. With the silver bullet mindset the experts often cite factors such as curriculum or teacher quality or access or physical infrastructure or school management or class size or language of instruction or textbooks or technology or finance or assessment. What is needed is an all of the above solution, which sets out to re-build the school system in all of its essential dimensions, and delivers learning for our children.

The curriculum is at the heart of the leaning crisis. We must re-imagine curriculum in the image of the child­. It must be a curriculum that liberates the child to paly, experiment, question, collaborate, co-create imagine and reason. The curriculum must prepare the child for an unknown future and careers that do not yet exist; hence not encumbered by content, but liberated and inspired by a flaming desire to create, innovate and solve problems. It must be a curriculum that dethrones the teacher as the “all-knowing” oracle and installs the child as self-directed learner. 

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