The Famine of Competence in Ethiopia’s Education System

Ethiopia is a remarkably young country and a veritable nation of students with a median age of around 18. Nearly 46 million Ethiopians (43.6pc) are 14 years or younger, and 67 million Ethiopians (65.5pc) are 24 years or younger, according to Index Mundi’s 2017 estimate. These numbers make it impossible to exaggerate the importance of Ethiopia’s educational system for nurturing the present and future generations who will work for the development of the society.

However, the longer I teach in Ethiopia, and the more I talk with other teachers and employers, the more deeply alarmed I become that Ethiopia’s educational system is radically failing. As an instructor at the graduate level, I regularly encounter students who struggle to read, write, and dialogue with basic competence.

Of course, there is a spectrum of skills and very inspiring exceptions. Yet, the basic literacy skills of a significant portion of my graduate students are below what the Ethiopian system expects secondary education students to be able to do, let alone university students, and substantially worse than graduate students should do.

The dilemma is that although quality education is essential for overcoming poverty, declines in this area that have accompanied the rapidly expanding education system seem to have made quality education almost impossible. It is a vicious situation, like Theseus’s paradox.

How can a leaky boat be rebuilt while sailing across the ocean?

If not rebuilt, the ship will sink. But rebuilding while sailing is also extremely risky.

Consider the following factors at work in Ethiopia’s impoverished educational system.

Most teachers were themselves low-performing students, have been poorly trained to become teachers, and thus do not inspire deep learning in their students. It is hard to transmit what one has never received or only experienced in glimpses.

Moreover, since teachers know little more than their students, they are intimidated by questions and demand only memorisation, recall, and politicisation. Ethiopian English teachers, for instance, are famous for not being able to speak or write in English.

I talked with a Harvard researcher some years ago who studied math classes in rural schools, and he found that teachers routinely wrote miscalculations on the chalkboard. In one classroom, every single calculation the teacher did was incorrect.

Unsurprisingly, however, the teachers refused to acknowledge their mistakes when students caught them, and thus basic competence was penalised. It was more important to agree with the incompetent teacher than to understand math. This does not inspire a passion for teaching in students, except for authoritarian personalities.

Most teachers are also poorly paid and supported, and thus they are frustrated, distracted, and unmotivated. In many cases, they teach at several schools to survive and have a low level of commitment to any one of them. Many do non-education related jobs as well. Teachers are spread thin and offered leftovers. Since everyone knows this is how the system works, few people question it.

Unsurprisingly some of the most gifted young professionals I know are ex-teachers, who taught for a year or two but then did everything in their power to get out of the educational system because it was demoralising them. It turns out that those who remain in the system are often the rejects of non-education related sectors – those who tried but were not able to get out. A young acquaintance told me that his teacher training cohort was forty-six, but only three remain teachers now.

Another issue is that classrooms are overcrowded and not conducive to rich learning, because many students need access but cannot afford to pay for it. Thus, an under-trained, under-resourced teacher competes for the attention of 50 or more students who are tired, hungry, stressed, or bored.

The result is that teachers are overwhelmed, and students are underserved. I knew a passionate young lecturer at Addis Abeba University who grew exhausted by his massive class sizes and the incompetence of his students, and thus moved to China and has no plan of returning.

Thus, learning does not happen. Epidemic plagiarism is taken for granted, lightly penalised, or actively encouraged. Nonetheless, students are passed, graduated, and enter the job market, because failing most of the students would humiliate the system and aggravate social unrest.

The outcome is that many students have learned almost nothing and yet possess diplomas, which become increasingly worthless.

Many have met university graduates, whose entire higher education was in English, and yet struggle to say, “Hello, how are you doing?”

I have heard from multiple employers that they prefer hiring employees without a diploma. This is because they believe there is a better chance to find employees that are teachable and willing to learn, since the formal education is almost useless, teaching students to memorise rather than solve problems, and gives graduates a sense of arrogance and entitlement despite their incompetence.

That exceptional students who could become outstanding teachers exiting the system is yet another factor that exasperates the education system. They are passionate enough to continue growing and unwilling to work within a poor and impoverishing environment. Thus, the most qualified educators are the most difficult to retain and almost impossible to win back once they leave, whether to non-education sectors or abroad.

The situation is well known: the best graduates want an efficient system with limited bureaucracy and politicisation (and sexism for women), accessible resources, good pay, and a higher quality of life.

But this is precisely what the Ethiopian education system will not offer them. Thus, brain drain becomes a flood, and lower-performing graduates are swept into it since they too want a better life. Professional advancement is most times bogged down in bureaucracy and political loyalty, resources are scarce, pay is low, morale is bitter, and excellence is looked upon with suspicion. Meritocracy would disrupt the traditional system and humiliate its gatekeepers.

The heroes who remain in the system often get burned out, ground down, or give up. They eventually leave the system or conform to the status quo, because they are tired of being discouraged or unrewarded for trying to do their job.

Thus, we return to the first point in this vicious cycle: most teachers are poor students who do not inspire learning. In a country where the quality of education is plummeting even as its reach expands, brain drain is accelerating, unemployment is gigantic, and the population is exploding, the signs are ominous.

It is no surprise that “education” often has a different connotation here in Ethiopia. It is not seen as something to aspire to but something to survive, avoid, or go abroad for. In fact, one of my friends warned me to stop talking about it because he feared few Ethiopians would be interested in my vision if I used that word.

Thus, I regularly meet graduate students who already have first and second degrees but can hardly write in English, struggle to form coherent arguments, and do not seem to notice when they flatly contradict themselves in the same paragraph.

Nonetheless, they are already teaching courses in various schools and educating (or miseducating) new students, in part because they need the money to survive. Thus, students are dividing their attention as teachers before they are even trained.

What we cannot afford to do is despair. Though this educational crisis is alarming, uncensored reflection is imperative to avert even greater disaster. The worry is that when we hit 2050, Ethiopia will be in a far worse crisis than it already is in – with 75 million more people to educate. Unless we act now, 2018 will seem like the golden days in hindsight.

What is the way forward?

There are no easy answers. But we must begin by asking the hard questions and having honest dialogue until we find genuine solutions through creative but committed iteration.

One possible strategy is to identify and champion model teachers who have a proven record of inspiring and empowering life-changing learning in their students from the KG to the PhD level. This could be done through regional teacher summits, creative television programs, radio interviews, and Facebook Live, where transformative teachers are given a platform to perform and share their best ideas and practices. Employing creative producers would be essential.

Championing model teachers would show other teachers and students what inspiring learning looks like. It would celebrate teachers and elevate their social status to an equal level with doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. It would also publicly break the taboo against questioning and critical thinking.

This approach can show teachers who welcome tough questions and refuse to make up fake answers or shame the questioner but have the skilful courage to say, “I’m not sure. How can we think through this question together?” Or it could simply be, “Good question. I’ll go research and let you know what I find.”

Thriving classrooms allow teachers to be learners and students to be teachers. Thus, cooperation is inculcated.

Such a strategy would also set a new standard for what success in the system looks like and requires and thus tell a new story about education in Ethiopia that can inspire the imagination and motivate the mind.

Of course, a challenge is that “model teachers” – like “model farmers” – could easily be co-opted and turn into what many believe is a code for party loyalty and patronage. Such conformity-driven groupthink, both in politics and religion, is killing the Ethiopian education system and must be abandoned.

Quality education begins at home, and parents are the most important teachers. If parents buy books, ask their children imaginative questions, and actively listen to them, the next generation will expect and demand better. However, I realise this suggestion represents an enormous economic and cultural challenge, especially for the rural poor.

One thing is certain: Ethiopia is a young country of students, who have the capacity to learn. Ethiopian children are brilliant. But unless we address the urgent challenges, there is little reason for optimism as we race toward 2050. A famine of competence is spreading throughout the land.

By Andrew DeCort (PhD)
Andrew DeCort (PhD) is an ethics scholar from the University of Chicago and author of Bonhoeffer’s New Beginning: Ethics After Devastation. He can be reached at

Published on May 12,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 941]



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