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Lessons from a radical education experiment in Liberia (The Economist)

January 2, 2020

From the article:

“In 2016 George Werner faced an unenviable task. Liberia’s education minister was in charge of one of the most difficult school systems in the world. More than a decade of civil war and an outbreak of Ebola in 2014 had stopped many children from going to class. Those who did learned little. Just 25% of Liberian women who completed primary school could read, one of the lowest shares anywhere. Mr Werner’s budget was a mere $50 per pupil per year. Many teachers on his payroll were “ghosts” who did not exist but somehow kept on drawing salaries.

So Mr Werner signed off on one of the boldest public-policy experiments in recent African history. He outsourced 93 primary schools containing 8.6% of state-school pupils to eight private operators. Five charities and three companies were monitored in a randomised controlled trial (rct). Researchers tracked test scores in the operators’ schools and nearby government ones. More than three years later, the results are in. They reveal the messy reality of education reform in one of the world’s poorest countries.

On average children who began the study in outsourced schools learned more than those in government ones. But those gains were ‘modest,’ says Justin Sandefur of the Centre for Global Development. Pupils beginning in privately run schools could on average read 15 words per minute three years later, versus 11 in state-run classrooms. Any boost is welcome, but the average reading level in the pilot schools is still behind the 45-60 words per minute deemed necessary to understand a simple passage (and far behind the more than 100 words per minute that peers in rich countries can read). Improvements in maths skills were of a similar magnitude…”

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