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Tackling the learning crisis in Ghana’s education system

“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world,” said South Africa’s first black President, Nelson Mandela. Truly, nobody can disagree with Nelson Mandela, on this.

Education, without doubt, has the unmatched power to foster social and economic prosperity – both at the individual and national levels. Increasingly, successive governments have allocated more resources to education. Governments have often done so, by building classrooms, recruiting more teachers and providing teaching and learning materials at different levels of the educational ladder.

Though these inputs may not have kept up with the ever increasing enrollment numbers, governments have made some efforts geared toward ensuring that teaching and learning happen in schools – building human capital that will spur sustainable growth and development.

But at the center of education is learning and skills acquisition by learners – without learning, education is just schooling and not producing its expected outcomes which ultimately build human capital. Very often than not, in accounting to the people on education, politicians and bureaucrats, present data largely in terms of inputs; number of schools, number of teachers, teacher salaries, school grants and sometimes, volume of enrollment. But data on learning is always missing when politicians account to the people on education.

Could it be the case that politicians have ignored learning and skills acquisition, the most vital outputs, of the educational systems? Or they know and don’t want to talk about it? Or perhaps they simply don’t have the data because they failed to independently measure learning and skills acquisition in schools?

The global schooling expansion situation hides another statistics – for millions, schooling is not producing enough learning. Learning outcomes in basic education are so low, in so many contexts, that the developing world is facing a learning crisis – the World Bank says.

According to the 2018 World Development Report, 125 million children globally are not acquiring functional literacy or numeracy, even after spending at least four years in school. It also noted that, emerging data on student achievement show that, for millions, schooling is producing little learning in crucial early grades.

A study by Van Fleet in 2012 suggests that 37 million children in Africa learn so little in school that they will not be much better off than kids who never attend school.

According to a 2014 regional assessment among Grade 6 students in West and Central Africa, captured by the World Bank in the 2018 World Development Report, nearly 58 per cent are not sufficiently competent in reading or mathematics to continue schooling.

In a skills assessment conducted by the World Bank in 12 countries comprising of seven African countries of which Ghana was part, as documented in the 2018 Development Report, Grade 2 pupils in Ghanaian and Malawian public schools are the worst performing pupils in Africa among the 12 countries chosen for the study – with almost 90 per cent of students unable to read a single familiar word such as “the” or “cat” by the end of Grade 2. In numeracy tasks, about 70 per cent of Grade 2 students in Ghana were unable to perform simple two-digit subtraction exercises. Yet, Malawi, which performed poorly with Ghana in literacy, had more than 80 per cent of her grade two students performing the same numeracy tasks that about 70 per cent of their Ghanaian counterparts failed to perform.

This low level of learning in basic schools exposes the realistic learning crisis in the Ghanaian educational system, in which a huge number of children are far more likely to leave basic school without acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills. This learning crisis, limits opportunities for further education or training and ultimately translates into serious inefficiencies in the skills of the country’s workforce.

Recent data from the World Bank in the 2018 Development suggests that, nearly 80 per cent of Ghanaian educated workers have just level 1 literacy or below. This practically means that 80 per cent of Ghanaian educated workers, according to the World Bank, have their literacy proficiency limited to understanding of basic texts and they are not able to integrate, evaluate, or interpret information from a variety of text materials – rendering them effectively low-skilled.

Clearly with this damning revelation about Ghana’s workforce, our investments in education are not yielding the expected outcomes, pointing to the fact that the Ghanaian education system is woefully failing to build the needed human capital that will spur sustainable socio-economic growth and development, reduce inequality and alleviate poverty.

These revelations make it crystal clear and bring to the fore the learning crisis in the Ghanaian education system. So the question is, how does government ensure that money is not wasted on schooling but learning and skills acquisition are actually being achieved in our public schools?

According to the World Bank, learner preparation, teacher skills and motivation, the availability of relevant inputs, and the school management and governance that bring these together, are some of the causes of the learning crisis faced by most middle and low income countries across the world.

Teacher Skills and Motivation

Teachers are the most important determinant of student learning. It will take a teacher with the requisite skills to spur students to learn and acquire skills. It is estimated by the World Bank that, students with great teachers are three times likely to advance in level than those with poor teachers.  Even with the requisite pedagogical skills, teachers need to have mastery over the subjects they teach in order to deliver the knowledge thoroughly to their students.

To address the high demand for teachers, government has lowered the entry requirements into the colleges of education to address the shortfall in teacher demand. There is evidence that a large chunk of candidates entering the teaching profession are academically weaker than the pool of students in other institutions of higher learning.

Even those who are well-qualified and go through the training college system well-equipped, are sometimes wrongly placed in the classroom – if not giving subjects that they lack mastery over. Some persons who studied early childhood education and are supposed to be handling kindergarten or nursery are placed in Junior High School to teach very “technical” subjects like mathematics and science. Obviously, they lack mastery and may not be able to deliver despite being skilled. In this case teachers may not be any knowledgeable than students.

Teacher incentive must be made truly attractive at the basic school level to attract the best and well-qualified candidates to enter the teaching profession. Entry requirements into the colleges of education must be heightened and, like before, selection interview conducted for all candidates. The mandatory licensure exam policy being implemented is a good thing and must continue with  fairness and transparency.

In doing so, the colleges of education will be churning out teachers who, when placed right, are well qualified and have the pedagogical skills and mastery over whatever subject areas they will teach and deliver to the understanding of their students.

Learner Preparation

Early childhood education prepares young children for school. If Ghana is to make her investments in education viable and worthwhile, particular attention must be paid to early childhood education – because it forms the root of the education system and determines how well students perform at higher levels. A good early childhood education benefits the student and increases efficiency because children with good early childhood education have foundational skills that boost children’s ability to learn and are less likely to repeat, drop out, or need remedial or special education, according to the World Bank. Again, highly motivated and qualified teachers with the needed skills to handle children at this level are needed and not low-skilled ones.

Relevant Inputs

Relevant inputs of course, like the building of classrooms, providing enough relevant teaching and learning materials to aid teaching and learning. Children must not learn things in abstract. Almost every Ghanaian Junior High School student can rattle the basic test for acids using litmus paper. Yet almost all of these students have not seen or touched a litmus paper before. This takes away the hands-on approach to studying which enables kicker understanding and practical skills acquisition.

School Management and Governance

Promotion or appointment to the headship of educational institutions shouldn’t be an award for longevity in the teaching profession. Being a great teacher in the classroom doesn’t necessarily make you a great Administrator or Manager.  Being a Manager or Administrator demands entirely a new set of skills called managerial skills which not all teachers may have it necessarily. Young and innovative people who have the skills it takes to manage schools should be given the opportunity as opposed to promoting only teachers who have already been in the service to that position.

Outside these four generic determinants stipulated by the World Bank, Ghana also needs to focus attention on regular Assessments and tackling teacher Absenteeism.

Regular Assessments

Presently, as it stands, government does not have any way of independently measuring learning in the schools. Government relies solely on the West African Examination Council’s (WAEC) assessments at both basic and secondary levels to measure learning in the education system. These exams do not give the full extent of the measure of learning as they come only once from kindergarten to senior high school. Government is unable by looking at them to figure out which levels to pay more attention to in the education system. Even with this, every year the pass rate is so abysmal. For government to really focus on tackling the learning crisis, government must regularly conduct its own nationwide standardized assessments like in the case of Brazil, where every two years, all students in Grades 5 and 9 take a national test designed to assess public education.

In Ghana, it can be designed that, after every three years, students should be made to take a national standardized assessment in Science, Mathematics and English. So before pupils from preschool proceed to basic school, they take a standardized national assessment test in Maths and Science and English. Then when they are ending lower and upper primary, thus at the end of class 3 and 6, they take another national assessment test before eventually taking WAEC’s Basic Education Certificate Exam (BECE).

This way, government will have its own independent way of measuring learning before they finally take the BECE, which is also another standardized national assessment. All these assessments don’t obliterate the usual end of term or year exams conducted by the respective schools. In fact, this national standardized test doesn’t determine progression to the next level. The school still reserves the prerogative to determine who is qualified to progresses to the next level. This national standardized tests are just to help government independently measure the extent of learning in order to devise policies to specifically target where lapses are on the academic ladder.

Teacher Absenteeism

Gross absenteeism of Ghanaian teachers is a huge problem hindering effective learning in Ghanaian public schools. This problem is of great concerns because the bulk of national education budgets goes to teacher salaries. In many developing countries, the World Bank says substantial amounts of learning time are lost because classroom time is spent on other activities or because teachers are absent. Across seven African countries, including Ghana, one in five teachers was absent from school on the day of an unannounced visit by survey teams, with another fifth absent from the classroom even though they were at school. Effectively, it is estimated that Ghanaian students receive only about two and a half hours of teaching a day—less than half of the scheduled time, translating into only a third of instructional time is used. There are many reasons cited by the World Bank for this loss of instructional time, including poor training and other demands on teachers, and some teachers may perceive it as justified. But whatever the cause, lost teaching time reduces student learning time.

The Ghana government must declare zero tolerance for teacher absenteeism and put stringent measures in place to monitor daily attendance of teachers and take punitive measures against absentee teachers. Reducing absenteeism could be over 10 times more cost effective at increasing student-teacher contact time than hiring additional teachers, the 2018 World Development report indicates.

By Bismark Elorm Addo

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