Enormous Opportunities For Liberians
-US-based Liberian Professor Declares
A US-based Liberian Professor, Isaac Saye- Lakpoh Zawolo told a Public Agenda in an interview that the recent presidential and legislative elections provided enormous opportunities for Liberians.
“On the just ended elections let me quickly aver that I was elated by the results and extremely sanguine that there is an enormous opportunity for us, Liberians, to get it right this time for so many reasons. As you may know, I am a member of the now ruling Congress for Democratic Change, the CDC. I am the immediate past Secretary General of the CDC United States outpost, the CDC-USA. We invested so much into the Party and we are proud that the people listened,” the professor said in an exclusive interview recently online. He spoke on wide range of issues. See full text of the interview below:
Interview with Professor Isaac Saye- Lakpoh Zawolo
Prof. Zawolo, it is a pleasure and appreciation for accepting our invitation for the granting of this interview.
Let’s begin with the just ended elections in Liberia. What are your thoughts?
Thank you for having us. We are humbled by your invitation. It is our ardent hope that we can justify the interest in us. It is not so common for Liberians in the Diaspora to be given the opportunity to share their views on important issues facing us as a people. So, again, thanks for having us.
On the just ended elections let me quickly aver that I was elated by the results and extremely sanguine that there is an enormous opportunity for us, Liberians, to get it right this time for so many reasons. As you may know, I am a member of the now ruling Congress for Democratic Change, the CDC. I am the immediate past Secretary General of the CDC United States outpost, the CDC-USA. We invested so much into the Party and we are proud that the people listened.
Now, what are the reasons that lead me to the conviction that there is a great chance for us to right the wrongs of the past? First of all, the base of our Party is the most neglected sector of our society both geographically and economically. At the helm of our Party and government is a true and perhaps the best embodiment of travails, trials and exploit of an ordinary Liberia. President Weah, our leader once belonged to the sector I alluded to earlier. He understands what is to be poor and abandoned. As a young man he experienced the neglect by government for him and his neighbors. He saw what it meant when governments or the elected failed to care for the electorates. He knows, on the flip side what the downtrodden expect from their government- a chance to work, earn a livable wage, decent schools, well equipped and staffed hospitals and care for their families. He does not need to be told.
Another reason is that our people appear ready to work with the President as he engages the multifaceted challenges facing the nation. The people, by their vote, signaled resentment for the old order and understand that the damage inflicted by the decades of failed governments will require time and patience to remedy.
You talked about your base being the “neglected”. One may argue that though you specifically did not mention the “youths”, this is one sector of society that hugely supported you. What can you say that this government has to offer? Do you have any suggestions on what the CDC led government should do to ensure the youths of Liberia are served?
Well, I think though I did not mention the youths overtly, my interest in the youths and assessment of the role of the youth in our Movement, the CDC, cannot be overstated. We see the youths as the connective to our posterity and the fulcrum of the survival of our civilization. Our nation is doomed should we neglect the youths of Liberia. Sadly, the youths of Liberia have been marginalized, ignored and ostracized from the running of our nation.
The CDC led governments attaches an unprecedented level of interest in the youth of Liberia. In fact, I can say appointments made by the President, thus far, buttress this thought. You are witnessing the ascendancy to major roles in government by some of our brightest young men and women.
But, we cannot be content with the appointment of youths to high offices neither can this be the sole measure of how committed we are to the youths of Liberia. We must address the lack of job and training opportunities for our young people. I am hopeful that our government through the ministries of education and youth and sports will carve out an agenda for training and education which will align with the human resources need of our economy. Obviously, this will include the potential for training in agriculture, agro-industries, light manufacturing and the concomitant economic activities associated with these industries. But, to do this we will have to plan ahead, be deliberate and involve others with the expertise to make this work.
So, in short, we hope that this government will see the creation of more jobs and thus reduce the high level of unemployment among our young people.
Great, you have taken us to another area by your referencing of “education”. As an educator, what do you hope for in the area of education? Can we expect to see a change in how we educate our children?
Education is one of the most important pillars of any society. Regrettably, it appears that most past governments have not seen it this way. We have heard officials of government criticize our schools, our children and even the teachers; we have heard even some presidents dismiss our schools as “a mess” and the rest. Yet, with all these demeaning characterization we have not seen our leaders demonstrate any real commitment to the commiserating remedies. Bad system, allow me to mention, are not fixed by the admission or recognition that they are bad. Our educational system does not have to ability to self-repair. We have to fix it and to do so our approach cannot be peripheral neither can they be cosmetic. We must take on our system as a body and develop a holistic approach to addressing its need. None of this has been done. None of this has been suggested by government.
Okay, we got you. The previous government did not fix it. Our question is do you have what can be done now?
I think I indicated that we need to take a holistic perspective of our system and then develop long-term plan to address the problems we identify. I think, we should begin by accepting that the system is broken and will require years to repair. Against this backdrop, I will suggest a “bottom-up” approach. Now what is the “bottom-up” approach? We have a 6-3-3 k-12 system. We need to amend this system to include Pre Kindergarten and Kindergarten. We must then begin our fix by starting at the Pre K levels and moving on up. I recommend the increasing of the qualifying education level for our Early Childhood and Primary Education teachers to at least two years of post secondary training at certified teachers’ training institution. To ensure that schools comply with this mandate, the Ministry of Education should put in place licensing and accreditation standards for all early childhood education centers and primary schools by 2021. I also suggest that the Ministry of Education work with the Higher Education Commission to put in place new licensing and credentialing standards for institutions offering teachers education. The standards should be high, reasonable and non-restrictive. I also think that since government lacks the capacity to provide training for the number of teachers needed, subsidies should be extended to institutions which meet the standards set by the higher education commission.
No matter how good a system may be any system which is not monitored effectively may run the risk of receding to the acts of the past. To alleviate this I suggest the development of an effective monitoring structure for teachers’ performance. This can be done by working with the National Teachers Association of Liberia, NTAL, to create a Teachers Evaluation System. The Teachers Evaluation System will allow for the observation of teachers. In this regards, NTAL and the MOE will agree upon the frequency of the observation, the protocols of the observation and the reporting of the observation.
Once such a system is in place the MOE will begin to roll the requirements out for junior and secondary schools and teachers. Under this plan, the minimum educational level for junior and senior secondary schools teachers will be increased to at least a bachelor’s degree by 2024. Additionally licensing and accreditation standards will be set for these schools by 2024.
Do you understand that this comes with a huge cost? Who pays for all of this? More teachers with college degrees will mean higher salaries. Are you aware of this?
How can I not be? Yes, I am aware. Education is not cheap. We are talking about the survival of our country. But, you see, we don’t necessarily have to pay for all of this from the existing source of funding. We have to be innovative as we fund education in country. We must tap into the resources of businesses and employers nationally and locally to assist government with the cost of education. The MOE should work with the legislature to enact laws to compel businesses as a part of their social responsibility to assist with funding education. We should also look at other tax initiatives to secure funding for education. In fact, look, just thinking about it the other day, I was able to identify about $2,000,000 locally which can be used to pay for some of the things I am talking about.
Nice ideas. But, can you share more about the monitoring of the system you are suggesting. How do we ensure compliance? What happens when a child does not attend “an accredited school”?
My plan for monitoring will radically change the way the district and county educational offices work. Under my plan, each district will be assigned a subject/grade level specialist. The specialist will be responsible to their District Education Officers who will report to their County Education Officers. Additionally, by 2014, I will like to see at each school at least two instructional specialists to cover Language Arts/Social Studies and Math/Science to assist teachers who have the potential to do well but are desiring of help. Again, this comes with a price tag which we will have to find a means to fund.
Now, when it comes to a child attending a school which is not “accredited” “. Under my plan, every school which is not accredited will have to have their status stated on the application form and that parents will have to sign that they understand the implications. To ensure this periodic audits will be done and schools found in violation may face a host of consequences include possibly a court order to “cease and desist” from operation.
To accomplish this and not be punitive to children in underserved communities, the MOE will work with non-accredited schools in those communities to enhance their capacity to achieve accreditation.
Lastly, students who attempt to enroll at accredited public schools after attending a “non accredited school” will have to meet some stiff requirements which may extend to denial of enrolling.
Let’s move to the issue of the WASSCE exams. Do you think we are ready for it? Should the exam be delayed?
No, we are not ready. But should we delay the administration of the exams? I say an emphatic no. Any delay could translate into a delay in the urgency to improve our education system. What I think must be done is the phasing in of WASSCE as a graduation requirement. How this will be done can be an issue for another interview or the prerogative of the authorities at the MOE.
STEM- there has been much talk about Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics education. Many think our students are not being prepared for STEM careers. Do you share this belief?
By the way, I am also a trained engineer. The importance of STEM education and its introduction at the very early grade level has been documented by many researchers. When students are exposed to STEM at an early grade level they tend to develop interest and most likely select STEM and STEM related careers. As we consider the prospects for crude oil and other mineral resources in Liberia as well as we talk about diversifying the pillars of our economy we cannot overemphasize the need to promote STEM education. So to answer your question, I am an advocate. But it takes more than advocacy to implement a pathway to STEM careers. We need to develop a National Pathway to STEM Careers Consortium to bring together educators, people working in STEM fields, and other interest groups to plan programs and provide incentives to students. We also must see how we can enhance the experience of our students in our science and math class rooms to attract them to STEM fields. Focusing our science and math classes on solving fictitious math and science problems is not the way to attract students to STEM careers. We must provide training for our teachers to give the students an opportunity to solve real world problems in math and science. It requires a lot but in can be done.
We heard that in August of 2017 you conducted training for teachers from the Kakata, Margibi County area. What was the training about? Why Kakata? Are there plans to extend it to other parts of the country?
Well, when I celebrated my 50th birth anniversary and 30 year anniversary of my teaching career, I decided to launch a Foundation to give back to Liberia. My Foundation, the Foundation for Equity and Excellence in Education in Liberia, FEEL INC. sponsored the workshop. The workshop brought together 42 junior and senior secondary school mathematics teachers. We provided training for the teachers on Lesson planning, vertical alignment of mathematics standards and teaching for success on the WAEC/WASSCE mathematics exams.
The workshop presented us an opportunity to engage the teachers and identify areas of success and areas with a potential for growth. And that brings us to the next question. Do we have plans to conduct similar workshop? Yes, we do but this time we want to focus on junior high school teachers and will be using some of the teachers we trained during the last workshop to facilitate the training this time. Our goal is to train 200 junior high school teachers from lower Bong, Margibi and Montserrado Margibi Counties. We will shoulder the cost of the training; provide breakfast and lunch and at least a $25 honorarium for each teacher who completes the training.
Okay, Prof. Zawolo, you have elaborated on what appears to me as good plan for education in Liberia. You have demonstrated your interest in education as well as your expertise. My concern is that with you residing in the US it may be hard to implement your great plans. Are you willing to return to Liberia and serve at the Ministry of Education or say the MCSS?
Let me say, that I don’t have to be the one implementing the plan I have expounded here for it to be successful. Anyone with the necessary and commitment to academic excellence can do it. On the other hand, service to ones country is unenviable. If the call is made for me to come and serve, I will have to sit with my wife, children (all adults) and my grandchildren to look at the offer and make a decision. It will be a sacrifice should I accept such an offer but what better sacrifice is there to make than for a man to serve his country and people. But to accept this offer I will have to secure the commitment of the government to my plans to radically transform the K-12 educational landscape. Look I have not talk about my healthy child initiative and teacher- MOE relationship. I am sure if they will be ready for a person of my vision.
What is that- the healthy child initiative? Can you elaborate?
A sick child will find it hard to learn. A hungry child will find learning difficult. A malnourished child will find the challenge to stay in school impossible. We will propose a mandatory school lunch program at all public school and in addition to that we will suggest the hiring of at least one school nurse at each district depending on students’ enrollment to rotate to the schools. Under the supervision of the nurse the schools will ensure that all students will receive the mandated immunizations commiserate with their age as well as annual physical medical examination. My hope will be that by 2030 each public school will have a school nurse. Again, I know you ask how we pay for this. Well again, there are a myriad of ways we will propose to pay for such but if the cost will have to be shouldered by government I think the investment will be worthwhile.
What do you mean by the teacher- MOE relationship?
I will want to see the teachers, through NTAL, working harmoniously with the MOE to provide education for our children. Along these lines the abrasive relationship which persisted between the MOE and NTAL over the last few years will have to be addressed. This will make imperative the revisiting of some of the contentious issues including the Public Private Partnership which saw the taking over, to the dislike of NTAL, of some schools by Bridge International Academy, BIA.
So, are you saying you will call for the termination of Bridge International Academy if you were asked to serve?
No. I did not say so. I say we will have to revisit the issue with the goal of addressing NTAL concerns. Look, we cannot refuse help. We will only want to work with those who will always be here even after Bridge leaves to ensure that we are not insensitive to them. I am talking about handling the issue so that we can get the best of both worlds, so to speak, if it is possible.
So do you support the continuation of the Bridge International Academy in Liberia?
This is not about whether I support or don’t support BIA. I am willing to get help as long as the help does not undermine the relationship between the MOE and the NTAL and that the help is research backed. Look, we are talking about the future of our country and it is far bigger than what I like or don’t like.
Wow! Professor Zawolo, you seem ready to take our nation’s education system to another level. Has your Party, the Congress for Democratic Change contacted you about serving? If not, why?
Look, this again is not about me serving. My Party knows what I stand for, my expertise and my passion. My Party ascended to government as a part of a coalition and we will have to respect the interest of all our coalition partners. I know for certain that when the CDC feels that my services are needed it will make the call. In the meantime, let me see that I am gainfully employed and I enjoy what I do.
Professor Zawolo, thank you. Do you have anything to add?
Let me just say thanks to you and your editorial staff. It was a wonderful experience to share my thoughts and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with you in the future. Thank you.