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The Opportunity Gap

August 31, 2013


All the big news agencies are picking it up so I’m sure you’ve heard.  Of the estimated 25,000 students who wrote the entrance exam for the University of Liberia this year, none of them passed.  I heard the news first when I was watching Al Jazeera over the weekend (one of the many luxuries of life at Cuttington) and, honestly, I didn’t think much of it.  I’ve gotten so used to life being unfair here that it hardly seemed like news.

As someone who has taught high school for the past two years and who will soon start teaching at Liberia’s second largest university, I am very disappointed.  But not in the students.  Never in the students.  I’m disappointed in the reporters for failing to dig in to the issue.  Many stories pick up a quote where Ma Ellen calls on students to be more serious.  You could say that to students anywhere!  The take home message from this tragedy should not be that Liberian students are lazy or stupid or unmotivated.  I taught almost 500 students while I was in Sanniquellie and I wouldn’t say that a single one of them was lazy, stupid, or unmotivated.

The students are not broken—the system is broken.  Fixing it should be the story.

A few days ago I was listening to a podcast from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the guest, John Jackson, president and CEO of The Schott Foundation, talked about the interplay between the achievement gap and the opportunity gap.  Before we say kids are under performing, weak, and behind we need to look at where they are coming from and whether they even have the opportunities necessary to achieve at the level we expect.  Jackson likens achievement tests to “measuring whether some kids can swim in pools with no water.”

The honest truth is Liberian students don’t have any ‘water.’  They lack basic things like teachers and books and even those who are motivated to learn hardly have the resources they need to teach themselves.  Many have uneducated parents who don’t speak English.  There are few, if any, books in their home and there probably isn’t a community or school library.  If the student is from a rural area they might travel to a provincial capital to attend high school.  Their family will spend the entire year saving the $20USD they need for school fees and setting aside a small bag of rice that is supposed to last the entire semester.

Now let me ask you, are those students lazy or is something else going on?

You are not judged by the height you have risen but from the depth you have climbed.

~Fredrick Douglass

“You are not judged by the height you have risen,” Fredrick Douglass said, “but from the depth you have climbed.” Liberia’s education system is in a hole.  Students are so far behind that they show up at every institution of higher learning under prepared.  But what can universities do?  The applicants have a WAEC certificate and a high school diploma.  They can’t just say, “Go back!”  They need to look into the hole where those students are coming from and give them opportunities to reach the necessary height.

Students graduating high school now were born around the time the war broke out.  They spent their lives running from one safe place to another and sitting down from school, often for years.  Even those who managed to stay in school suffered.  Last year one of my senior students told me he understood math for the first time ever.  “Because of the war there was no math teacher at my school from 7th to 9th grade.  They just keep promoting us anyway.  What else could they do?”  Other students bounced between French schools at refugee camps in Guinea and Ivory Coast and English schools in Liberia.

For twelve years teachers have been passing these students and schools have been promoting them under unacceptable conditions and in dubious situations.  Liberia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and, unfortunately, that spills over into the schools.  In acknowledgement of that fact most colleges and universities have remedial programs.  People don’t actually ‘fail’ the entrance.  They just test into either the regular or the remedial program.  This is a move I applaud and one I am shocked the University of Liberia is not implementing (or rather are only implementing after this embarrassment).  Meet the students where they are and help them move forward.  Don’t throw them away like everyone else and everything else has.

That said, I’m grateful to the University of Liberia for making a move toward a more transparent, merit-based system.  The corruption there is so notorious and the overcrowding so extreme that I actively discourage my students from seeking admission there.  I’ve often heard that even if you pass the entrance you have to bribe someone to actually gain admission and then bribe professors to pass in their classes.  They are taking steps in the right direction, but their hard-handed approach has accomplished nothing positive, except perhaps to draw international attention to the desperate conditions in Liberia’s secondary schools.

What I would like to see come out of this tragedy is some serious pressure on and investigation into WAEC.  The WAEC is an extremely difficult weeklong high school exit exam.  Students write nine subjects and are forced to pass in seven of them.  Passing grades in English and Mathematics are mandatory and, traditionally, about 70% of students pass the WAEC each year.  So the question is, how did 25,000 of these same students fail a less intense entrance exam, struggling in English, which is at the core of WAEC?  I would love for WAEC to answer that question, but the truth is they can’t.

Examination malpractices are widespread and widely known with exam papers and answer keys routinely leaking during the exam week.  Clever students often fail in WAEC and irregular, dull students often pass.  Last year my school sent 86 students for the WAEC and about 67 of them passed (only one failing in my subject).  This year we all expected a similar, or better, result.  We sent 81 and—wait for it—only 7 passed, many failing math even though they’d been my students for two years.

Do I have to say it?  This smells fishy, especially given the UL news.

WAEC is a true test of neither a student’s academic preparedness nor potential and it is time the Ministry of Education started demanding more from them.  If our universities are going to start admitting students based on merit then our high schools have to start graduating them based on merit.

None of my seven students who passed in WAEC wrote the UL entrance exam.  This leads me to believe the 25,000 failures reflect on the caliber of students UL attracts more than it reflects on Liberian students as a whole.  My students are intelligent, hard working, and highly motivated people who dream about lifting their families and their country.  One of them leaves for EARTH University in Costa Rica in less than two weeks on a full scholarship and one of them made a solid pass on the Cuttington entrance (no remedial classes).  I don’t know what the others are doing, but I know many of my students sat the entrance at Nimba County Community College in Sanniquellie, what I recommended instead of UL, and made successful passes.  “It was so easy!” they reported with big smiles, “Your math was all there!”

There is so much hope for Liberia and my students remind me of that everyday.  They want change.  They want the opportunity to actually achieve.  They don’t want to pay for admissions letters and grades.  I dare to speak for them and say that they want a merit-based system.  But the system must bear the responsibility for providing that opportunity and bridging the gap.  The hole may be deep, but we can’t lose sight of the light.

Visit my WAEC & Math page to download previous exams—and an old UL entrance exam.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Candace permalink
    September 1, 2013 3:07 am

    Frederick Douglass also said: “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave”. Knowledge is power. These kids deserve a decent chance. Teach! If you can’t teach support a teacher, student or school.

  2. Andrea permalink
    September 1, 2013 5:20 pm

    I’m sorry that the education system there is such a mess…from the time they start to as far as they could go in university, it sounds like a mess. I’m glad they have someone like you to fight for them. Education really opens all sorts of doors; knowing that others have not had the same chances for education is very humbling and makes me so grateful.

  3. Julie Simpson permalink
    September 5, 2013 3:36 am

    Thanks Becca, well said. And thanks for working so hard for your students and for empowering them to learn and to bring positive changes to Liberia.


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