Lots of Schooling But Not Enough Learning



Ethiopia has come a long way in improving access to education. But poor quality of education is still a fundamental problem created as a result of poor policies and political considerations, writes Fiseha Haile (fisehahaile77@yahoo.com), an economist at the World Bank. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank.


Some two years ago, I was asked to help review two-page essays submitted for a contest run by an international organisation in Addis Abeba. Hundreds of students competed, of which the top five were shortlisted.

As I leafed through the shortlisted essays, disbelief gripped my heart, and the quality, or lack thereof, shocked me to the core. Three of the “top” five essays were written by second-degree holders and one by a PhD candidate at Addis Abeba University (AAU). There was not even a meaningful and well-constructed sentence in any of them. I could not help but look back and try to figure out how we, as a nation, have descended into a bottomless pit.

Most economists agree that innovation is the primary driver of growth in the long run. The pace at which technological upgrading takes place – be it through invention, innovation or imitation – is one of the most important factors that differentiate successful from unsuccessful economies.

“If industrialisation first occurred in England on the basis of invention, and if it occurred in Germany and the United States on the basis of innovation, then it occurs now among ‘backward’ countries on the basis of learning,” said Alice Amsden, a political economist.

East Asian countries were successful learners partly because they invested heavily in education. It should be evident that a country cannot muster technological capacity in the absence of an education system that produces a skilled and competent workforce.

Ethiopia has made massive investments in education, with the sector’s share in the government budget doubling from its 2000 level of 15pc in recent years. It currently stands among the highest in the world.

The number of public universities has increased sharply, from nine to over 30 between 2007 and 2017. Similarly, primary and secondary schools sprouted everywhere, including in remote areas. These are commendable efforts and exemplary for many African countries that spend little to nothing on education.

Alas, the dramatic expansion of schools occurred at the expense of a terrifying decline in the quality of education. In fact, the country’s education system is far from meeting even its own curriculum standards.

The provision of inputs has not kept pace with the sharp rise in enrollment. At the university level, the number of students in science and technology faculties has recently burgeoned, driven by the 70pc to 30pc quota enrollment policy. At the same time, universities have been suffering from an acute shortage of necessary inputs, such as qualified teachers.

Perhaps surprisingly, the shortage of a skilled workforce does not sit well with the government’s broader development aspirations, notably industrialisation and rapid FDI attraction, which require an educated and skilled workforce.

Symptoms of the quality deterioration started to emerge in the mid-2000s, and many experts have long pleaded with the authorities to take remedial measures. However, there have been few measures taken toward reform.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s teachers, making the decline in quality self-perpetuating and self-accelerating, akin to a brakeless car moving downhill. Results from teacher certification exams conducted between 2014 and 2017 show that, out of more than 160,000 primary and secondary school teachers, barely 22pc of them obtained a passing mark.

To make matters worse, teachers have been increasingly drawn from the poorest-performing pool of students, with the brightest ones running away from a profession that is relatively less respected and pays poorly. Despite salary adjustments and a large-scale program of skills training for teachers, the quality of education remains in a downward spiral.

The crisis has more to do with government policy than with anything else. Utterly misguided education policies and the use of educational institutions for political ends are mainly to blame. In the early 2000s, the government changed the medium of instruction in junior high schools from English to local languages.

At the same time, it introduced lessons given through TV in senior high schools delivered in English, which in effect replaced teachers. However, most teachers had a hard time understanding what was being transmitted, let alone students.

Having attended two years of TV lessons, students would then do the rest of their high school lessons in English through face-to-face teaching. This warped system did more harm than good. No wonder that the edifice that rested on this shaky foundation is now in shambles.

Children, of course, learn better in their mother tongue. In fact, developed countries, including European nations, use their own languages uniformly up to graduate schools. Nonetheless, students in these countries have relatively unrestrained access to books and other inputs in their respective languages.

For more than a decade now, nearly all students were allowed to proceed to the next level regardless of whether they grasped the basic lessons or not. With tens of thousands graduating every year, limited government jobs, and fledging private sector, students know even before they join a university that their chances of employement are slim.

Both the carrot and the stick were effectively removed. The EPRDF’s “job creation” mantra has proved to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Poor quality of education meant that thousands of graduates were either unemployed, failing to create jobs or remained stranded in the unproductive informal sector.

Partly due to rampant unemployment, the youth took to the streets in droves, which culminated in the recent political upheaval. Indeed, the government was sowing the seeds for this debacle when it began issuing diplomas like birth certificates, with utter disregard to quality.

To cap it all, meritocracy has virtually been removed from state enterprises and the public sector. Loyalty and political allegiance took the driver’s seat of state machinery. The ruling party and government became inextricably intertwined, with schools and universities arm-twisted to live up to the unceasing demands of the former. It is ironic that the incumbents had long accused the Dergueof political interference in schools.

As they say, “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.”

Going forward, we need to come to terms with the fact that Ethiopia’s learning crisis is real. Saving or losing a generation is at stake. There are no quick fixes or “microwave” solutions for the crisis. It cannot be fixed by just providing skills training for teachers as much as a building with a shattered foundation cannot be fixed by adding another storey to it.

Systemic solutions are required for the systemic problem. Getting the foundation right will require well-thought-out reforms and a steadfast commitment to them.

In fact, the new administration has developed a roadmap, dubbed the Ethiopian Education Development Roadmap, and has put it forward for consultation with stakeholders.

A problem well-stated is half-solved. Students and teachers are not to blame. As such, university exit exams and teacher certifications will not solve the problem. Since 2010, the Ministry of Education required students, notably in law and medicine, to pass exit exams to graduate. However, this amounts to nothing more than diagnosing a patient in code blue and expecting recovery without any treatment.

It is critical to de-politicise education. Educational institutions are not cadre training centres. The partial use of local languages is too far-fetched and premature in today’s Ethiopia for the aforesaid reasons. Not everything that is good is good everywhere, every way and all the time. Transplanting policies from advanced countries without due consideration for local specificities is a recipe for failure.

Our policies need to be dynamic enough to respond to changing circumstances and unavoidable failures along the way. We cannot afford to spend another 15 years stubbornly recycling failed policies. A platform should be put in place to make sure that the views of experts, stakeholders and the population at large are regularly and sufficiently heeded.

Schooling is not the same as learning. It is time to learn that learning is lacking, not schooling. A lot needs to be done to get the house in order.

To quote Jeff Olson, “It’s never too late to start. It’s always too late to wait.”



By Fiseha Haile (fisehahaile77@yahoo.com)
Fiseha Haile (fisehahaile77@yahoo.com), an economist at the World Bank.

Published on Sep 29,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 961]


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