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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Kenya's education reform must be driven by evidence, not whim

The value of education, for personal growth and national prosperity, is incontrovertible. However, the benefits of education can only be appropriated on condition that children in school actually learn.

Although free primary education dramatically improved gross enrollment, learning seldom occurs in our schools. Globally, about 250,000 million children in grade four do not have the minimum literacy and numeracy standards. Here in Kenya, nearly one-third of the children in grade six do not have the numeracy and literacy standards expected of a child in grade four.

We have paid too much time worrying about enrollment in school, retention and completion of primary school, and too little attention to learning outcomes. Imagine an uneducated mother, Paulina, who sacrifices everything she has to keep her child in school for eight years only to find out that the child can barely read or write or add. Paulina’s nightmare is that her child will wind up as an unskilled laborer, just like her. What happened to the promise of education, the skills and the dream of a job in a distant city? She must wonder.

Paulina’s quandary is personal and obscure. But it is not uncommon among parents and children in rural communities and poor urban schools. We are talking about 200,000 or (21 percent) of the children who scored way below 200 marks in the last KCPE exams. We seldom think about them. Soon after we are done idolizing the top scorers we begin worrying about slots in public national schools and top county schools. Paulina’s predicament remains a private crisis.

But in my view Paulina’s predicament must be at the centre of a serious national conversation about education. Paulina’s predicament is at the heart of the grave reality that attending primary school is not the same as learning. No amount of enrollment and retention or completion will provide our children with the learning and skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.

Education must more than a constitutional obligation of the state or some SDG commitment. Education must be an inalienable that is inextricably bound with learning. I argue that the national conversation must move beyond a focus on inputs to expand access to public and private investments that provide the conditions, which support learning.  

Our current model is really about the curriculum; timely completion of the syllabus and super test scores. The schools are merely grade factories and the children are graded products. This must change if learning has to occur. The child must be the alpha, centre and omega. The child’s development as measured by learning, not some meaningless test score, must determine the standard by which we measure the performance of our education system.

I am sympathetic to the frustration we all have about our education, and especially the conversation about the need for a structural overhaul. There is talk about moving from the current 8 – 4 – 4 to a system that require mandatory two years in pre-school, six years in primary school, three years in junior secondary (with an exit option to vocational training), three years in senior high school and three years of undergraduate education.

My view is that fiddling the structure of education would be a trivial, unhelpful intervention. The problem is neither content nor structure. The problem is that our children are not learning. Numerous studies have shown that between 50 and 65 percent of teachers in both private and public schools don’t have basic reading and math skills required to teach grade four pupils. Without a doubt, teacher quality is atrocious. Moreover, teacher absenteeism is a chronic, especially in public schools.

Common sense and evidence recoils at some of the ideas and suggestions around reforming our education. No amount of tinkering with the schooling structure will produce learning. And we must drop the hysteria about competency-based education. What we have to be clear about is what learning domains are important to our children in a competitive globalized world, and how student progress can be measured.

The education reform we need is one that recruits, motivates and retains the best teachers, and one that makes learning and the child the focus of education. Moreover, education reform must not be about more disciplinary content. Learning must be about a capacity for critical thinking, analytical and moral reasoning, creativity, collaboration and the ability to process and critically evaluate data and information.  

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