Diametrically disagreeing with the Werner style of education reform

The policy actions designed by Education Minister George Werner to reform Liberia’s education system are ill-fated. They are cloaked in missteps. They are not a product of scientific thinking. Worse still, they are a far cry from the real, critical issues and questions about the sector under reform. They are a composite of shameful cover-up of colossal political and moral failure on the part of our current education reformists and their sponsors. And, of course, they are pointless and therefore doom to fail, unfortunately at the irking expense of poor parents and tax payers; Sherman C. Seequeh writes.
Werner and adherents of his proposed reforms know—or needed to know—that the problems they have flagged as necessitating their enunciated policy actions are deeply rooted. They are stubbornly defying.  And they are widely known for decades. Not only do these problems predate Ebola conditions that Werner and others have converted into fertile grounds to grow this reform crop, they also predate the Sirleaf administration.
It is not news nor is it a new development that students and teachers share learning arenas with domestic animals; that students of Liberia feed on pamphlets—some half-baked—and that most students are without textbooks at all; that particularly teachers and school administrators lament persistent shortage or the persistent non-existence of chairs, desks, reference books, chalks, blackboards and other essential academic materials; that even most of the teachers if not all who have these materials, particularly books, are ill-prepared to impart knowledge properly and efficiently. It seems, perhaps, that Werner and his likes are just becoming sober and lively to these conditions of schooling through which many have gone.
Yes, I do believe too that because these pretexts or justifications proffered by Werner and his supporters are longstanding problems, chronic and deeply rooted, they deserve to be reformed—and no less by austerity means. But austerity reform actions are not stupid. They are not ill-conceived. In fact, they are not arbitrary, hasty, haphazard and superficially fathomed. They call for, and executed from, sober and sane reflections; their impacts commensurate with their outcomes. Austerity actions are, and must be, SMART—specific, measurable, accurate, realistic and time-bound.
In my view, if the Werner and others’ crusade is not for setting the stage of jamboree over the confessed World Bank US$3.2 million intended for purchase and distribution of textbooks and UNICEF US$60,000 for education-related WASH activities that had been dusting on the shelves for long while the education system is still a “mess”, then the reform package must be one of those bundles of daydreams mistaken for public policies that have long stymied this country’s leap to progress.
Brutally speaking, the Werner reform deliverables as publicized are not SMART as laid out. They are jumbled up, not specific, not measurable, not accurate and not realistic.
Firstly, closing schools at July’s end and reopening early October is practically less than two months in terms of working days. Given government bureaucracy and capacity and the Liberian topography, I can take a bet that even what I consider the simplest tasks of all—textbooks distribution—cannot be achieved in time and properly. Roads to the countryside are winding, some impassable and many of the main targets, the remote schools, take days on foot to access.
Will Werner and other ideologues of his reform package be able to reach all schools that are without necessary supplies, such as chalks, blackboards, Science Clubs, etc. by October 2015? Will they not leave these millions of textbooks on the hands of street vendors? Will they be able to establish the “conductive learning environment” for students and teachers, including building schools to separate goats from students across the countryside before October 2015?
Secondly, the training of 4,000 teachers for whatever the purpose stated is chuckling. Without bothering to ask what have Werner and his partners got to say about the roles of KRTTI, ZTI and Webo, the traditional teacher training hubs in the country but that are perennially cash-starved in all this, let me ask: What will LTTP achieve in less than two months which it couldn’t do in the last five years or so. LTTP, which is now in its second phase, is a five-year program lavishly funded by USAID. On the terms and methods formally adopted, the LTTP worked hard across the country to improve teacher performance, conducting pre- and in-service teacher training and revising a teacher career ladder structure and incentive system. It has integrated technology into the training by using video cameras and small projectors to create and share videos of good teaching practices. Yet, our education system is a “mess”.
Do Werner and ideologues in partnership saying that LTTP is now ready since it started its work in Liberia or do they believe the institution can work miracles in a month and half?
Now, if the argument is that the actions prescribed by Werner and partners would postdate the two-month period during which schools are ordered closed, then what is the sense or rationale in closing schools anyway. Let me put it another way: If the reforms would be continuous—if chairs and textbooks will be put in place in Barclayville, Grand Kru, and Wontuken in Sinoe County, and if goats and students will be kept apart in Rivergee and Lofa Counties by building decent school structures while schools would re-open and be ongoing in October and thereabout, then why close schools now in August and September.
It is still a faulty reform pretext for Werner and partners to jump to the conclusion of tying the closure of schools and the reset of school calendar to rains. Have Werner and his reform adherents not heard about the phenomenal fact called climate change? Do they really live in Liberia and on Planet Earth? Who told them that there would be no rains in October, in November and even in December—even in the intensity that we have it in July, August and September? Are they negating the power of climate change or are they being merely obstinate to its impact? Or are they saying that as long as climate change unleashes its onslaught on Liberia, the Ministry of Education or government will correspondingly continue to reset the school calendar?
Another sickening pretext by the education reform ideologues is the issue of teachers’ payroll, another longtime nightmare of the education system. And it is more sickening because it comes from George Werner, an immediate past Director General of the Civil Service Agency which has got a very high stake in civil servants payroll and salary reform issues.
As if his years of incumbency at the CSA was a mere vacation and not a period of reform, Werner is now using and transposing his fail-to-achieve task at the CSA to the Ministry of Education to “Work with the Civil Service Agency, USAID and its implementing partners and LIBTELCO to close the supplementary payroll for teachers and develop legal and procedural links to identify and pay the right teachers, principals, CEOs, and DEOs.” In fact, what does the Education Ministry salary menace got to do with school calendar? If civil servants’ salary reform project is important that it is cited as one of the justifications for the closure of schools, then why not keep schools closed even long beyond this October since this stubborn menace will be around here for a long time to come?
Everywhere one traces the pretexts and justifications for the Werner education reform package—as far as it is pillared on the closure of schools for two months—they just don’t seem to stand the minimum test of logical scrutiny. They don’t seem to hold water except for the apparent purpose for either launching a trial balloon, or to gain quick popularity, now turning into notoriety, or to create platform to make use of loose cash, such as the World Bank’s US$3.2m and UNICEF’s US$60,000 which the Ministry of Education now says have been available and will be used for some of the deliverables encapsulated in the reform package.
It is sad that despite widespread public discontent and abhorrence, President Sirleaf who has presided over the messy education system for well over nine years would back an ill-fated and unpopular reform package premised on false start.
Parents are lamenting the loss of thousands of dollars to ill-conceived policy actions; yet, the President is stiff-necked on their pleas. Besides tuitions and other fees paid by parents for children and wards, there are other painful expenses, including preparing the kids and footing routine costs of daily transportation and lunch. Despite these colossal losses and burdens parents face, the Sirleaf administration and the emergent celebrated education legend George Werner are seemed so cleaved to suspending schools for two months as if paradise was guaranteed for them if the insensitive path they are threading came to an end at the controversial period of lull. And they know full well, that the efforts they have embarked upon will not give them any meaningful dividends at the end of the day; when they know no one would die in Liberia were they to pursue these efforts while schools are running.
Who told Werner and his partners in the ill-fated reform package that Liberians don’t want the education system radically revamped? Every parent wants a scholarly child. But achieving that end by reforming a chronically tattered education system does not call for such hasty and particularly ill-conceived austerity actions. The desired policy actions for any well-meaning education reform efforts would be well-thought of through proposals and execution actions that absorb public opinion, synergize an hybrid of stakeholders’ interventions and perspectives and bring all hands on the desk. And this should flow along with time in a methodically but vigorous way.
As far as logical thinking and sane planning are concerned, the Werner education reform package coming barely a month and few weeks of his incumbency and which is largely coined only from his Confirmation Defense before the Senate is not exhaustive, all-compassing and not well-tested to address the full implications of and solutions to the messy system. It will only compound an already messy situation and lead to colossal loss on the part of parents and tax payers if much time is not provided and more consultations not done simultaneously as schools are run. And it would be sheer callousness for them to proceed with plans, apparently groping about.