In 2015, George K. Werner took a big risk. As Liberia’s minister of education, it was his job to bring the country’s shattered educational system back to life. After civil wars and the Ebola crisis, he had 16 year olds in first grade and teachers who, in some cases, could not read well enough to teach them. Half of Liberia’s kids were out of school entirely, and in 2015, not a single high school graduate passed the college entrance exam.
A couple of years ago, Minister Werner and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf went to see Bridge International Academies in Kenya. Bridge is a chain of low-cost for-profit schools that provides a quality primary education for about 60 bucks a year. Minister Werner was deeply impressed with the schools he saw and upon his return, came up with a radical idea: He’d bring in Bridge to run a small cohort of government schools with the intent to scale up if the experiment went well. A public-private partnership with Bridge would employ government teachers in government schools under close government oversight, and kids would get a quality Bridge education for free. Werner asked Mulago Foundation to help fund the partnership, which we did, alongside a small group of like-minded funders.
The partnership was risky because—and I did not know this—there are a lot of people who go batshit-crazy at any mention of private-sector involvement in public schools. Despite the fact that Bridge would run less than 1 percent of Liberia’s primary schools, the African news outlet Mail & Guardian trumpeted the experiment as “Liberia Outsources Entire Education System to a Private American Firm.” Kinshore Singh, the UN special rapporteur on the right to education, in a particularly dyspeptic state of mind, harrumphed that the experiment constituted a “gross violation of the right to education,” The international teachers unions and their buddies, particularly Education International and ActionAid, went nuts, and Minister Werner found himself buried under an avalanche of public criticism from people who for the most part couldn’t be bothered to study the terms of the experiment.
Shortly after the Ministry engaged Bridge, it brought in Ark, an NGO with experience in the UK charter school movement, to advise on this public-private partnership. Ark, along with others, urged Minister Werner to open up the experiment to other operators, and the original Bridge effort became Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL). PSL started with a total of eight private-sector operators, some of whom had never run more than one school. The compressed launch of all eight in September of 2016 was kind of a circus—especially when it was reformulated as a randomized control trial (RCT) at the last minute—but everyone got their schools up and running. When I visited schools run by four of the operators last March, what I saw was heartening: Schools were bustling, kids were in them for six-plus hours a day, and teachers were up in front of the kids the whole time teaching from honest-to-god lesson plans.
All told, PSL’s first year went as well as we could have hoped. But things got complicated again as everybody weighed in on what should happen in year two and beyond. Those of us who funded the original idea with Bridge wanted to scale up as fast as possible; we wanted to get to a scale that would allow costs to drop, build political momentum, and serve as many kids as possible. Ark, on the other hand, was legitimately worried about the Ministry’s capacity to oversee a bunch of private operators and didn’t want PSL to grow yet. The researchers were focused on their RCT and didn’t want PSL to grow until we had a couple of years’ worth of learning outcomes data—another valid concern.
The debate sorted into two camps: the grow-now funders, and the maybe-grow-someday advisors and researchers. Minister Werner welcomed private debate, and as the decisions for year two dragged on, the debate heated up. When in the fullness of time the minister seemed ready to double the number of schools in year two (to about 1 percent of the country’s primary schools), the maybe-somedays took to the Internet, posting an open letter to the minister of education that urged him not to scale the program, to take the maybe-someday path. I first saw the letter on Twitter, right below Trump’s latest idiocy.
To this day, I can’t understand the motivations behind that letter. Academics seem to care a great deal about the opinions of other academics, so maybe it was pre-emptive cover in case things went south. Or maybe it was just a way of putting a thumb on the scale: Despite its bland language, it seemed manipulative, especially in a country where Big Aid pays the bills. We all argued passionately for our views in private meetings with Minister Werner; the concerns on both sides were valid, and all of us were heard. None of us had the right to air our laundry in public.
Shortly after that, another heavily promoted open letter showed up. Education International, having failed to nip PSL in the bud, commissioned and proposed its own ”qualitative” study of the initiative. Minister Werner politely declined, reasonably citing the fact that the initiative already had an $850,000 independent RCT in progress, that the first year was mostly about operators figuring out how run schools in a challenging context, and that Education International had already made a big public show of its opposition. Education International then rounded up a bunch of academics (few if any of whom know anything substantive about PSL) to sign an open letter accusing Minister Werner of “blocking independent research.”
Let me get this straight: Education International batters Minister Werner for months on PSL, then commissions a “qualitative” study of an initiative that already has an RCT running, then batters the minister some more for declining to add another agenda-driven actor into an already volatile mix. Never mind that Education International has never put forward any other substantive solutions for the revival of Liberia’s schools. I mean, come on.
Minister Werner’s response to both of these affronts was measured and gracious. He essentially thanked both parties for their efforts to contribute to better education for Liberia’s kids, then asked them to respect his decisions on how to best accomplish a Herculean task.
Minister Werner genuinely wants what’s best for Liberia’s kids. Think about what he faces whenever he makes an important decision. Legislators want to their constituents to benefit from any new initiatives. With a big election coming up, the survival of any program—not to mention the future of his own party—is in question. People like me want to make the most our philanthropy even though it’s hard to assure effective oversight in a country purged of capacity by conflict. Researchers want to protect the integrity of expensive studies and are appropriately concerned that evidence should drive policy. Big Aid donors have their own agendas and contribute a big chunk of the national income. Advocacy groups from across the sanity spectrum weigh in freely. The pressure can be overwhelming. Most of us couldn’t handle it.
All over Africa, there is a rising tide of capable ministers—men and women, often young—who genuinely want what’s best for their people. They’re all under a lot of pressure. Let them do their job! When and if it’s appropriate, we should weigh in persuasively and passionately. But when the decision comes down, and unless there is evidence of corruption or malfeasance, people like me should shut the hell up and throw in our support. Real innovation is hard, dealing with inadequate resources is hard, navigating the agendas of all the different actors is hard, and somebody is always waiting to pounce on a misstep. We all have opinions, but there is a right time and a right way to express them. These leaders deserve our respect, and they need our support. Don’t cross the line.
Read more stories by Kevin Starr.