Two sides to education in Liberia

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

– Shakespeare, Hamlet

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The Necker cube is an optical illusion first published as a rhomboid in 1832 by Swiss crystallographer Louis Albert Necker.

Stare at the red dot and unless you are obstinately single minded your perspective will change. Stare long enough and you will be able to move between perspectives – you will be able to hold two views of how to see the cube and consciously switch between them. The yellow face is on the top of the cube. The yellow face is on the back of the cube. After deliberating I hope you have the faculties to see that both these statements are true.

I have recently been reading many opinions on the recent education reforms that are taking place in Liberia. This year, the government has started a project that aims to improve the failing education system with the introduction of a pilot scheme under which private companies and NGOs will take over the day-to-day running of 120 primary schools (3% of the total).  Similar to any scheme which mixes the private with the public, controversy has loomed large.

I was reminded of the Necker cube while reading two opinion pieces on the project. The first by Ben Phillips at ActionAid, describes a visit to one of the schools that is now run by one of the private companies taking part in the project.

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Bridge International Academies (BIA) has quickly become a darling of the Right and a Lucifer of the Left. Phillips goes on to describe a visit to the school and describes that class sizes have been kept smaller than they were before; that teachers are unprepared for lessons;  and that materials that have been promised have not been delivered to the school. All compelling evidence that private contractors in education cannot be trusted. All evidence that the yellow face is on the back of the cube.

If you contrast Phillips’ account with this article by Kevin Starr, the director of the Mulago foundation who has provided venture capital to BIA, you start to see another face to the cube.

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Starr sees evidence of cheap schools, with strict management, closely guided lessons, improved use of technology, and 8 hour teaching days. All evidence that the yellow face is at the top of the cube.

Empirically you can say the cube is across from you, just as you can empirically say it is below you. There is evidence for both views. Neither is wrong. But it is false to state it is only below you or only across from you. This stops being empiricism and becomes dogmatism. Similarly it is dogmatic to see private schools as either an innocent panacea or a malevolent virus for education systems.

Not enough people in this debate are striving to maintain the ability to see that attempts at privatization can be both good and bad simultaneously just as the necker cube is both across from you and below you. Not enough people are trying to weigh the costs and benefits of the approach simultaneously. It’s like both sides are loading their dice and imploring to you to play with their dice as they have weighted it the “right” way.

The poor quality of education in both the public and private sectors in Liberia is the real challenge, not the false dichotomy between the two.