Liberia's public education system is moribund. The civil war of 1999-2003 and the Ebola epidemic of 2014 have left the Ministry of Education with little capacity to run a national school system. An effort to clean thousands of ghost teachers from Ministry payrolls was cut short (New York Times, 2016), and while systematic data is scarce, teacher absenteeism appears common (Mulkeen, 2009). Nearly two-thirds of primary aged children are not in school, including over 80 percent of children in the poorest quintile, placing Liberia in the lowest percentile of net enrollment rates in the world, and at the 7th percentile in youth (15-24) literacy (EPDC, 2014).
Faced with these dire statistics, the Liberian Ministry of Education announced in early 2016 that it would contract the operation of government primary schools to a group of private companies. Key features of this public-private partnership are that (a) all schools will remain free to students, and (b) teachers will be unionized civil servants, drawing from the existing teaching corps.
We propose a large-scale field experiment to study the effect of this new Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL), comparing 120 schools that have been delegated to management by private operators to 120 control schools under government management. The randomized field experiment will allow us to investigate three main aspects of accountability:
1. Managerial accountability (of teachers to private operators). A central hypothesis underlying Liberia's charter school program is that private operators with greater capacity to implement routine performance management systems, regularly monitor teacher attendance, and provide teachers with frequent feedback and support will help to overcome teacher absenteeism and low education quality. This is not about carrots and sticks. We will test private operators' ability to generate accountability without authority to fire teachers or hire new teachers on flexible contracts.
2. Bottom-up accountability (of teachers and operators to parents). An underlying hypothesis behind charter schools is that they will be more reactive to parents demands than traditional public schools because their funding is linked directly to enrollment numbers. We will test this by comparing student transfers (exit) and parental involvement (voice) in PSL and control schools.
3. Top-down, results-based accountability (of private operators to the Ministry of Education). Charter school operators' contracts can be terminated if they do not achieve certain pre-established standards, commonly known as results-based accountability. The first year of the PSL pilot (2016/17) will lack any formal mechanism to hold operators accountable for results. A major innovation and focus of the year 2 expansion under study here is to develop and test different forms of top-down accountability based on measurable learning gains.
This proposal seeks support for a follow-up study to track the longer-term effects of the PSL program in years two and three of operation (2017/18 and 2018/19) focused on scalability and sustainability. A separate evaluation of the first year PSL pilot (2016/17) is already underway and will be nearing completion when DFID-ESRC funding decisions are made. The longer-term follow-up study is of paramount importance for several reasons. First, it is important to document whether any learning gains achieved in year 1 can be maintained over a longer horizon. Second, the year 1 pilot has been heavily subsidized and disproportionately concentrated in Monrovia, whereas years 2 and 3 will focus on more cost-effective and sustainable models, including new schools in more remote and underserved areas. Third, in years 2 and 3 the program will introduce new top-down results-based accountability measures mentioned above, which are a major focus of our current proposal.
Innovations for Poverty Action
We anticipate four groups of research beneficiaries: policymakers in Liberia, researchers focused on accountability in education, policymakers from other countries, and finally, the broader research community.
The most direct beneficiaries include policymakers in Liberia. Our proposed research not only intends to answer whether PSL schools "work" or not, our goal is to understand "why" and "how" PSL schools deliver (or fail to deliver) better learning outcomes. We collect data on intermediate inputs (for example, teacher absenteeism, parental engagement and resource allocation within the school) to effectively inform policymakers on how to improve PPP contracts. To maximize our impact on policymakers' decisions, the research team will be in constant communication with government officials during the course of the evaluation, and participate in continuous discussions to discuss emerging issues, share resources and interpret the evaluation results. The research will be used to prepare a report aimed at Liberian policymakers, with specific recommendations for the improvement of the PSL program. Local and international conferences will be used to disseminate results and technical knowledge. Other outlets, such as electronic media (e.g., blogs) and newspapers, will be used to disseminate policy recommendations considering the interest of the general population in this hotly debated intervention.
The second group of beneficiaries are researchers focused on accountability in education and on market solutions for public service delivery. The main output for this audience will be a draft paper for publication in a peer reviewed journal, which will be disseminated through conferences and seminars.
The third group of beneficiaries are policy makers from other countries who can learn lessons from the Liberian experience. The main output for this group of consumers will be a policy brief containing key policy lessons derived from the academic paper. This brief is intended to maximize the impact of our study in other countries and contexts.
The last group of beneficiaries is comprised of researchers in general. The main output for this group is a rich anonymized dataset comprising 240 schools in Liberia. This dataset can be used to study several features of the education system in Liberia. For example, the dataset would provide insights into teacher absenteeism, parental expenditure in education, and children's aspirations. This dataset will be placed in data repositories accessible to other researchers.
There are several stakeholder involved in the project, and collaboration between them has already begun. They include Ministry of Education (MoE) of Liberia, Ark's Education Partnerships Group (EPG), private operators, and the World Bank. The MoE's role in transforming research findings into impact is evident. Thus, the MoE has actively collaborated with the PICGD in designing the PSL program and its evaluation. A separate MoE team has been assigned to support the implementation of the PSL evaluation.
Ark's Education Partnerships Group (EPG), an international non-profit UK charity, aims to help governments in developing countries provide accessible and quality education by facilitating effective partnerships between state and non-state actors. GoL has asked EPG to advise MoE on the PSL programme design, including the evaluation.
A mix of national and international school operators are involved in the project and all of them have actively participated in the development of the PSL program and the randomization process. We intend to share best practices for future improvements to the PSL program.
Finally, other stakeholders, such as the World Bank, have also been actively engaged. For example, the Education Sector Plan (ESP) by the World Bank may include a decision-tree for PSL scale-up that hinges on the evaluation results from our study.