Linking Liberia’s education RCT to country context to make relevant for policy makers

Nomtha Sithole

The award of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize in Economics to the pioneer “Randomistas” as they have come to be known, has been pre-dated by deliberations for, against and balanced on the merits of Randomized Control Trials (RCTs). Here in Liberia, the tool has been central to an exciting, and controversial, education policy reform, which I’ve been working with the government on for the past 2 years. It is now time to reflect on a final RCT evaluation of the policy reform instituted by government, launched publicly in December 2019. The independent evaluation, led by the Center for Global Development was introduced to measure outcomes of a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) that tested eight education models of non-governmental management of public schools.

Quality learning outcomes in the Liberian school system have been elusive for decades. With the average Liberian child leaving school unable to read or write, and a national adult literacy rate of 48.3%, innovation and reform is critical. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2013 labelled the education system “a mess” following 100% of (25,000) students failing a State University entrance examination. Against this back drop, her appointee to the Ministry of Education in May 2015, George K. Werner, sought to deliver systemic change in the public-school system within a two-year period before the country went to elections.

The Liberia Education Advancement Program (LEAP) was introduced in 2016 as Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL). An innovative approach to transforming learning outcomes in the public school system, the program was introduced as a three-year pilot and invited non-governmental education providers to implement their varied models of school management in a select number of public schools. At the core of this initiative was a desire to assess what works so that government might identify approaches it could mainstream in trying to address the extensive systemic challenge.

The challenges are so extensive that LEAP itself has wrestled with the status quo of the education system. For fiscal year 2019/20, 84% of the US$43M budget for the Ministry of Education is allocated to salaries yet there remain gaps in hiring. The payroll system is managed externally by the Civil Service Agency, creating lags in updating personnel records. This means, for example, a teacher can be absent for months before being replaced on the payroll while still receiving a salary. Teacher training mechanisms remain frail and a number of teachers have been identified as functionally illiterate. Moreover, local accountability systems are ineffective due to a lack of resources and patronage. Donor projects have often funded their own priority programmes which lack sustainability. The education system has remained mostly unyielding to the varying inputs made over the last decade to reform intervention (millions of dollars have been solicited and committed to education recovery).

Rebranded as Liberian Education Advancement Program (LEAP) by the new government in 2018, it is the first tuition-free education PPP for basic education in Africa, putting Liberia – a small nation of 4.8 million people – on the global education radar.

The Tony Blair Institute, through embedded support to the Ministry of Education since 2015, supported the government to design and coordinate the approach to this program, including the need for rigorous data collection and analysis to generate insights on progress and to identify troubleshooting needs. Through its embedded support to the Ministry of Education, Ministry of State, Ministry of Finance and elsewhere across GoL, TBI’s work has included providing system-wide insights to the government on how to coordinate and drive this reform, based on our unique perspective across government.

Based on the coordination needs of the program, Ark and Social Finance where brought in as management partners for LEAP. We helped establish the Education Delivery Unit which has supported efforts to unpick complex systemic challenges required to make LEAP work in practice and required for broader education sector development – from identifying ghost workers for removal from the payroll, to ensuring LEAP teacher allocations were appropriate so as not to disadvantage the wider system and to improving accountability measures in LEAP year on year. LEAP stakeholders agree that the coordination role of government has been key for implementation of the program.

For the Government of Liberia, beyond the RCT findings at baseline and midline, it has been critical to consider day-to-day nuances of the political, economic and social environment in which the programme was implemented and where potential policies are to be applied. The midline outcomes of the evaluation made recommendations that needed to be considered not in isolation, but in the broader national political context during and after an election in which the incumbent administration lost power.

Given that data remains a scarcity in informing policy decisions for governments in sub-Saharan Africa and given the complexity of politics and patronage systems, contextual realities and societal cues will for the foreseeable future continue to play a key role in driving policy. With minimal capacity to fund robust research, Liberia is no exception. Midway through PSL, Liberia went through an election and transition in political administration. The new Minister appointed in February 2018 is a more conservative figure than his predecessor. The Ministerial team was initially conflicted on the continuity of the pilot, but adapted the policy intervention on the strength of the audacity of the concept to full school system reforms. While available data was factored into the continuation, in March 2018 the leadership visited schools, including those in LEAP, across the country to meet with school administrators, students, and communities. It was from this “County Tour” that LEAP was fully adapted and recommendations for further strengthening program oversight compiled. It is important that this RCT – and how it is interpreted – appreciates and complements this approach to policy thinking if it is intended to serve the government, as it should.

What will be most enduringly valuable from the RCT evaluation of LEAP is not only the data outcomes the evaluation measures, but how the outcomes translate against the backdrop of Liberia’s education system, economy, governance mechanisms, politics, and society. Comprehensive framing of data outcomes with respect to these broader real-life realities will constructively guide the government in its policy making. The research outcomes, again, if intended to inform the government, should deliberate on the expectations of LEAP toward learning and producing outcomes that can realistically be mainstreamed across the school system to further systemic change. Likewise it should speak to the varying extents to which this objective was enabled, or as the case may be, hindered by context. Without answering the contextual “why?” and “what now?” that provides strategic direction to public education in Liberia, we may have a nice piece of research that has little practical use and does a disservice to the stakeholders that may need it the most, including those making funding decisions in support of education reforms in Liberia.