Feature Article of Saturday, 22 December 2012
Columnist: Zubeviel, Thomas
In The Quest For Quality Education In Ghana
Despite substantial increases in government spending and a myriad of well-intentioned policy initiatives targeted at improved academic outcomes, performance in many schools is disappointing. Few of the most widely supported reform initiatives have not delivered the desired outcomes envisaged by policymakers. Yet, some schools – private and public – consistently perform better and are more effective than others.
From the pre-colonial era to date, public spending per student has been increasing considerably. Government has also employed more teachers – trained and untrained – which have, debatably, reduced pupil teacher ratios significantly. The government, municipal, regional and district directorates of education, Boards of Governors, headteachers, teachers, Parent Teacher Associations, Teacher Unions, Non-Governmental Organisations, listed companies, International Organisations and some development partners have launched multiplicities of initiatives aimed at quality education. However, actual student outcomes, according to national assessment benchmarks, still leave much to be desired. Despite marginal improvements, overall outcomes of Ghanaian students - in basic schools, but probably the case for other levels too – does not compare favourably with their counterparts in other parts of the world.
Ghana is however not the only country struggling to improve student outcomes. Indeed, educational systems in many jurisdictions have increased budgetary allocations for education and have designed or even borrowed policies targeted at arresting and reversing the increasing spate of poor performances. Nevertheless, not many countries have succeeded in this direction. Indeed, the evidence suggests that in many jurisdictions, performances have either flat-lined or deteriorated. What is interesting is that, many of the reform initiatives seem to have been well-thought out and have far reaching objectives. This makes their failure astounding. In Ghana for instance, nearly every aspect of the various reforms have been reviewed and updated, namely; funding and governance of schools, curriculum, assessment, testing and standards, inspection and supervision, the role of municipal, regional and district directorates of education, the relationship between schools and communities, school admissions, structure of education among others. Yet, reports from the various educational review committees and the appraisal of the education sector have consistently indicated that after half a century of independence and an unending cycle of educational reforms, there has been no measurable improvement in the standards of literacy and numeracy.
As mentioned earlier, many of the reform initiatives have been ambitious and have largely involved public schools. Yet outcomes from public schools continue to be unsatisfactory. Despite the fact that the best public schools continue to demonstrate significant improvement in student outcomes, in aggregate, the results from the West African Examination Council (WAEC) organised examinations indicate that public schools, arguably, underperform private schools. It is unrealistic to assume that constantly restructuring the educational system and implementing a multiplicity of initiatives would improve classroom quality. It is true that there has been decentralisation of resources and authority - to some extent - to the school level in many ways. It is also evident that schools have undergone significant reorganisation to facilitate ambitious instructional improvement plans. The unfortunate reality is that many headteachers and teachers find it difficult to change and improve practices on a large scale. Moreover, the evidence is overwhelming that student learning cannot be improved without improving the quality of instruction.
Yet, many of the reform initiatives have been underpinned by the need to increase access to quality education by expanding facilities and reducing cost on parents. Within the current political discourse however, the issue of access, affordability and quality have re-emerged bringing to the fore an age old question relating to the sort of educative experiences Ghanaian students undergo. The argument here is that the problem about the educational system is not only about access, affordability or issues related to forcing learners into classrooms. Indeed, it is about all. There cannot be quality education without access, affordability or ensuring that all learners are compelled by law to attend school until such an age (18) that they are able to decide otherwise. As a matter of fact, the issue of quality education encompasses everything that needs to be provided or made available to ensure that all learners enjoy the educative experiences. This means that while commitment by politicians is welcome news, the issue does not require the piece meal approach currently being promised but a more comprehensive and dispassionate approach by all stakeholders to developing a national policy document on education. Having said that, it is important to indicate that Ghana has never been in want of well-thought out policy documents aimed at quality education. The problem has been effective implementation.
Moreover, the available evidence suggests that ensuring universal education at any level through increased access via fee free education, expansion of facilities and/or compulsion does not necessarily ensure quality education. Indeed, in places where some marginal improvements have resulted, teacher quality has dominated any known effects on learning outcomes. Also, increasing access to education has significant resource implications. Increased enrolment means that the school system requires more teachers, which also means that with the same level of funding there would be less money in teachers’ pockets as well as poorer conditions of service for teachers. What this also means is that, because the school system needs more teachers to fill the classrooms, government may relax teacher recruitment requirements.
The need to focus on teacher quality cannot be overemphasised given that an important engineer of the difference between high attaining or achieving learners and those who are not is teacher quality. Empirical studies that take into consideration all the known evidence of teacher effectiveness demonstrate that students placed under high-performing teachers will progress three times as fast as those placed under low-performing teachers. Indeed, students who consecutively study under low-performing teachers for several years suffer educational losses that are largely irreversible especially when this happens at the basic level. Even in excellent educational systems, such students stand very limited chances of ever recovering the lost years. This has huge implication for Ghana’s education system.
There is evidence that waste of instructional time on the part of teachers and learners has significant implications for learning outcomes and that compared to their Tunisian counterparts, Ghanaian students spend less time on tasks. However, just like the Athenian learner, Finnish children do not start school until they are seven years old and spend only four to five hours each day for the first two years when they eventually start school. Yet, they score better than any country in international comparison tests in mathematics, science, reading and problem solving by age fifteen. When Ghana took part in a similar exercise in 2003, Ghanaian students beat only their South African peers out of the 46 countries that participated. Questions have been raised about the validity and reliability of these international comparison tests as pointers to quality education given the contextual differences and diversity of challenges faced by educational systems. However, schools that are meeting the targets of stakeholders and international benchmarks tend to focus more on instructional quality given its direct bearing on student outcomes.
In a study that sought to explore why the best performing school systems continue to excel, it was found that such schools: ensured that the right people are recruited as teachers, these people are developed into good instructors or facilitators of learning and institute mechanisms and target support to ensure that every child benefits from excellent instruction. This also requires changes and improvements in areas such as funding structures, governance and incentives. These will ensure that the necessary conditions such as standards and assessments, clear targets, differentiated support for teachers and pupils, adequate funding, facilities and other core resources are provided. Therefore, while it is important to demonstrate political commitment and spawn grand policies aimed at quality education, focusing on teacher quality has a higher propensity to lead to improved learning outcomes. Indeed, any policy that fails to address the core issues of teacher quality and differentiated learner needs is not likely to deliver improved learning outcomes that all stakeholders desire.
By: Thomas Zubeviel
Wa, Upper West Region