Creative Commons

Monday, October 26, 2015

Now is the time to scrap KCPE and KCSE

Kenya is facing a veritable crisis of integrity. Not one facet of our lives is untouched; the police, the courts, the civil society, the executive and legislative bodies. Even private business, including banks have not been spared.

That the public institutions named above are mired in varying levels of sleaze, some unspeakable is not divine revelation. What in my view is disconcerting is that the decay of morality and integrity has spread to what I think are hallowed places; faith based organizations and the education system.

Fundamental values that define functional and progressive societies are often instilled through public education. These include, honesty, generosity, reciprocity, self-reflection, dignity, honor and patriotism. Through education we learn the value of service to others. Through education we learn to sacrifice to achieve cherished goals. Through education we encounter first hand the association between honest hard work and success.

Assessments, diagnostic, formative and summative, have served the noble purpose of providing both the learner and the teacher with a fairly objective basis for evaluating progress in mastery of requisite knowledge, skills and attitudes. The essential logic of assessments is that in the end, teaching and learning must produce proficiency or mastery. Failure is not a permissible outcome.

Today the noble aims of assessments or examinations have been subverted. Education is now just about examinations. What happens in our schools is not education. Our schools are obsessed with examination grades. Parents demand high grades. Teachers crave high mean grades. Headteachers derive prestige, high enrollment and revenue from high grades.

A high-stakes exam-centric education has turned schools into grade factories. Our school buildings, in my view are mausoleums, containing the remains of education. We have defiled the creative proclivity of our children and murdered the soul of education. Parents and teachers want high grades from students by hook or by crook.

This year we have witnessed leakage and cheating in the KCSE examinations on an unprecedented scale. The government has labored to provide assurances and defend the credibility of examinations. Public confidence in the 2015 KCSE is irredeemable lost. I am sure the students and teachers who gave their all, through sacrifice and honest hard work, feel deceived. 

An exam-centric education system is at the heart of the leakage, cheating and the corruption in public education. Grades are king. Grades are up for sale. There is lots of money to be made. In a society where ethics and morals and integrity are threadbare, we have no trepidation about how we make money. Money to “feed their children” is an offer most public officials find impossible to refuse. For up to Ksh. 2000 for a paper, a lot of public officials could feed their children. And many teachers and parents will have their dancing shoes on when the results are announced early 2016.

I think the rampant and shameless leakage and cheating in the national examinations offers an new impetus for urgent reform in our education. An essential part of the reform must include abolishing high-stakes standardized national examinations; KCPE and KCSE. What we need is a system of seamless transition from primary to secondary schools. A high school education must be a birth right of every Kenyan child, unconstrained by a terminal examination.

Similarly, transition to post-secondary institutions – polytechnic, college or univiersity­­­ – should be determined by an admission process designed by such institutions. Continuous assessment records over four years in secondary school could in my view, provide a more reliable measure of a students ability, compared  to the current standardized test that is riddled with malfeasance. 

I offer some ideas to motivate debate: i) replace current content heavy curriculum with a problem-based approach to learning to encourage critical thinking, analytical reasoning and discovery; ii) assess learning through multiple ways, including school-based formative assessments and student portfolios; iii) promote knowledge application and reflective practice at all levels through service learning.  

I believe now is the time to abandon high-stakes standardized examinations, which are evidently corrupt and questionable. I believe the time is right to broaden the methods of assessing learning to evaluate more comprehensively, the multiple purposes of education.

Calling for the resignation or sacking of KNEC officials or the CS for Education misses the point. We must have the courage to scrap national standardized examinations, re-claim the soul of education and emancipate our children to learn. It is the right thing to do.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Strong institutions key to avoiding the resource curse

Prominent development theorists of the 1960s believed that abundance of natural resources would lead inevitably to industrial “takeoff” in developing countries, just as they had done for countries like Australia, Botswana and Canada.

However, the co-occurrence of deplorable human development outcomes and poor governance among resource rich countries has undermined the earlier conclusions about the positive association between resource abundance and economic growth. The experience from countries like Nigeria, South Sudan and DR Congo suggest that natural wealth increases the likelihood of negative economic, social and political performance. 

Africa’s experience with extractive resources, hydrocarbons, timber and mineral ore is mixed. Abundant resource wealth has existed side by side with grotesque poverty and squalor in countries like Angola, DR Congo, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Zambia. It is estimated that about 70 percent of people living in extreme poverty are in resource-driven economies, with a significant number in Africa. Furthermore, almost 80 percent of countries whose economies driven by extractive resources have per capita income levels below the global average and nearly half of these countries are not catching up.

The co-existence of odious poverty and immense natural resource wealth, also known as the “resource curse”, is well documented by leading economists. For example Jeffery Sachs and colleagues examined a diverse set of resource rich economies between 1970 and 1989 and showed that there was a negative correlation between resource abundance and economic growth. Other studies have also shown that per capita incomes of resource-poor countries grew three times faster than resource rich countries. Today, Africa’s fastest growing economies e.g., Rwanda and Ethiopia are not resource dependent.

Several explanations have been advanced to explain the resource curse. Receipts from resources often cause significant rise in the value of local currency, crowding out other export activities or making them uncompetitive. Moreover, volatile revenues from the extractive resources are difficult to manage. Public spending is often increased on a whim, and rational fiscal policies and public investment thrown out the window.

Invariably, in periods of resource booms, governments borrow with abandon, spending money on obscenely wasteful projects, often drenched with corruption. This was the story of Nigeria until the gravy train crashed to a halt at the end of the oil boom of 1986. Moreover, resource wealth creates political incentives by raising the value of acquiring and retaining power.

With the exception of Botswana and South Africa Africa’s has not reaped the full benefits of its vast resources. Africa’s dismal record with extractives is especially disconcerting when you consider that vast resources, especially oil and gas have been discovered in Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda and Tanzania.

According to McKinsey Global Institute, a cumulative investment flow between $1.2 trillion and $3 trillion in the extractive sector is possible in low-income and lower-middle-income countries by 2030. This is equivalent to about $170 billion a year, more than three times development aid flows to these countries in 2011. Such levels of investment flows could potentially lift 540 million people out of poverty as well as financing the delivery of a host of SDGs by 2030.

There is credible evidence to show that countries with institutions that promote good governance and accountability tend to draw equitable economic dividends. It is certainly not the case that politicians and their constituencies don’t know that resource wealth can be harnessed to drive equitable and durable economic prosperity.

Can the hydrocarbon bonanza in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania yield a curse or generate socio-economic bliss? In their book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power and Prosperity, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson demonstrate that political institutions and incentives they create determine whether nations prosper or remain poverty traps.

We are still a long way from pulling oil or gas out of the ground here in East Africa. However, the policy, legal and institutional mechanisms that have been created or are under discussion inspire little confidence that we will escape the resource curse.

Africa is on the cusp of what must be a new and prosperous age of extractives. Africa must turn the page on the resource curse and open a new chapter, defined by an era of resource-driven equitable economic prosperity.

Without downplaying the contribution of resource booms and bursts, political institutions contribute hugely to the resource curse phenomenon. Hence, whether extractive resources drive equitable socio-economic development depends entirely on Africa’s people and the quality of institutions they build.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Act now to restore confidence in our universities

Kenya’s higher education sector is in turmoil. A lot has been a lot written and said about the quality of academic programs and the quality of graduates form our universities, both private and public. Employers and professional associations have been most vocal about the decline in the quality of degree programs and the astounding incompetence of graduates. 

The crisis in higher education is not inexplicable. As the saying goes, the chickens have come home to roost. The quality of students and indeed the performance of the higher education institutions are only as good as what we put in. We reap what we sow.

Lets examine the pipeline. What is happening at every part of the education system? Under the county governments early childhood development and education centres are moribund. No meaningful, age appropriate learning and stimulation happens to the hundreds of thousands of children who attend public ECDE centres across the country.

The precipitous expansion of access under FPE has huge implications on quality of learning. Nearly two out of every three pupils who have completed two years in primary school cannot pass basic numeracy and literacy tests. Moreover, nearly 30 percent of children who complete primary school cannot read or write or do math at the level of a child in grade four. But keep in mind the fact that 30% of Kenyan children are taught math by teachers who score less 40% in a math knowledge assessment. This is a according to a study by the African Population and Health Research Centre

I have looked at KCSE national mean scores in languages, math, science and humanities, i.e., English, Math; Kiswahili, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Geography and History between 2009 and 2013. What I see is both frightening and powerfully revealing. For example, the mean score in English has declined from 39% in 2009 to 27% in 2013. There has been a slight improvement in Math score from 21% in 2009 to 28% in 2013. Between 2009 and 2013, the mean score in science was 28%, 35% and 23% in Biology, Physics and Chemistry respectively. The average score in humanities and Kiswahili was somewhat higher at 42%, 45% and 39% in Geography, History and Kiswahili respectively. Kenya National Bureau of Statistics publishes these statistics in the National Statistical Abstract. 

These statistics are both sobering and instructive. They help in part to explain what in my view is a full-blown crisis in higher education, not only in Kenya but also in the EAC region. According to study commissioned by the Inter-University for East Africa (IUCEA) and the East African Business Council (EABC) 56% of students graduating from universities in East Africa are unemployable. This study revealed that 51% of Kenyan graduates were half-baked, unsuitable for the job market. 

The point on incompetence was made unequivocally when Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board fired nine magistrates who lacked mastery of basic skills in English language and could not write judgments supported by sound legal analysis and reasoning. This is hardly surprising if you consider that the mean score in English in 2013 was just 27%.  

Patrick Lumumba, the director of Kenya School of Law admits that quality of university education is below the required standards, and that admission standards are at an all time low to maximize tuition revenue. Moreover, according to Professor Lumumba, universities have proliferated teaching programs to generate additional revenue to finance ballooning operational costs. Furthermore, the pace of expansion of universities had outstripped the rate at which we are training and recruiting the professoriate. The combination is a veritable disaster; atrocious quality of teaching and poor quality students.  

Here are some suggestions that could help restore confidence in our graduates and universities. We must strengthen the quality of teaching and learning across the entire education system, from Cto high school. Universities must be highly selective and only admit students who are well prepared for undergraduate programs. We must reform undergraduate curriculum to encourage experimentation and discovery. Content should not be pursued as an end in it self, but must made relevant through case and problem-based learning approaches.

Last but not least, we must hold universities accountable for value and quality. There must be clear institutional performance goals as well as objective and verifiable data on student and learning achievement across all undergraduate programs. We must act now to redeem our universities.

Monday, October 5, 2015

We owe our children a better future

We are all one great family, connected to one another through bonds of kinship and friendship.
Nothing tests and shakes these bonds like the demise of a close relative or a dear friend. This passed weekend my grandmother was laid to rest.

My grandmother, aka “Min Osea”, was born before World War I. She was a teenager in the great depression and married my grandfather just before World War II erupted. She was in her thirties when a world, bleeding, broken and stung by the holocaust, said never again and founded the United Nations 70 years ago.

My grandmother lived in the century that saw the meteoric surge of human ingenuity through science and technology. She was born when there were hardly any cars on the streets or planes in the skies. In her lifetime we sent a man to moon, conquered space and put time and distance in chains. She was only 14 years old when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and revolutionized medicine.

She lived in the warmest decade since we started taking instrumental records of weather and climate. In her lifetime, a planet is in peril and dangerous climate change now threatens lives and livelihoods for billions. She has lived through the dysfunction and paralysis in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Can COP21 in Paris deliver the breakthrough needed to halt dangerous warming?

My grandmother had lived for half a century when a people were liberated from the colonial yoke. She witnessed the fireworks and jubilation and passion and hope that greeted a former colony’s right to self-determination and Kenya’s independence.

My grandmother like many in her generation was galvanized, entranced by the invigorating unity and love among all Kenyans, tied by the bonds of liberty, aspirations and common purpose. She listened to the soaring oratory and solemn pledge by our founding fathers to eradicate poverty, disease, and illiteracy, and build one nation. A nation was young and a people were hopeful and united.

What has changed in the more than 100 hundred years my grandmother lived, and especially in her last 50 years after this country wrestled freedom from the British? We have made so much progress through the century my grandmother lived. But there is still unfinished business and so much more to do.

After independence, we cut maternal and infant mortality. But today, hundreds of thousands of children still die from preventable diseases. We are still listed among 34 countries with 90 percent of the global burden of malnutrition. Nearly four out ten children born in this land are stunted. Millions of Kenyan children of school going age are out of school. Hundreds of thousands who go through our education system complete school but are barely literate of numerate.

Throughout the century in which my grandmother lived, this country has 21 physicians, 5 pharmacists, and only 3 dentists per 100,000 people. In the village where she lived the local dispensary, outpatient morbidity for children under five years is dominated by malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and respiratory infections. In a sense majority of children born in my grandmother’s Homa Bay County have the odds stacked up against them.

My grandmother had imagined that politicians were called to preserve the dignity of their fellow citizens. But more than half a century after independence, our politics is bellicose and primordial. Our politicians have fed many of us the spoilt meat of tribalism. Ethnic division and mistrust have replaced the unity of purpose and the shared aspirations that galvanized my grandmother’s generation at independence.

Deep inside, we all grapple to answer a most basic but non-trivial questions: Who am I and why am here? I am convinced that your answers must be more profound than merely owning a big house, a fancy car and having a well paying job. There must be a higher purpose to our lives; a higher purpose, which connects each one of us with all of humanity, bound together by the desire to perpetuate our kind as responsible stewards of Mother Earth.

The task of building this nation is always work in progress. It is a shared responsibility worthy of our best talents. If my two daughters, Daisy and Disiye, were to live as long as my grandmother what will they see and what difference will we have made? We owe our children a better future.


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