Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) invited opposition party leaders when he formed his new cabinet last October. Perhaps looking to freshen up the workings of the Ministry of Education, where many would agree infrastructure is relatively present but implementation and focus on quality have been highly lacking, Abiy installed Berhanu Nega (Prof.), a venerated educator and opposition figure. Such opposition leaders must see the appointment beyond its political implications and realize that the country faces real challenges that require their technocratic attention, writes EBR’s Addisu Deresse.
Born in the town of Bishoftu, also known as Debre Zeit, in 1958, Berhanu Nega (PhD), is the most prominent opposition leader appointed as minister by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) in the new government formed in early October. The new Minister of Education is said to have come from a family that highly valued education. His late father, Nega Bonger, a self-made millionaire, sent his children abroad for education.
For Nega, education was a place for his kids to get away from the deadly politics of the Derg regime. He knew his children, who as young high schoolers were active in the country’s politics, would otherwise end up in prison or dead. He was proven right as he lost Berhanu’s elder sister, Askale Nega, after she was taken into custody by the Derg and then disappeared. Her death, together with many young and bright men and women who sacrificed their all for a free and democratic Ethiopia, was later reported in Addis Ababa by the military junta.
Sources close to the family say that Nega was determined to send his children abroad for education even when his vast commercial corn and soybean farms were confiscated by the socialist regime and its distaste for private investment.
His father’s money and courage put Berhanu in the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he received his bachelor’s degree in economics. He would also attend his master’s and doctorate’s education in the US. Quality education, which has been a luxury for most Ethiopians, was not just a hiding closet for Berhanu though, it was also a means for excellence. Berhanu’s younger son, Iyassu, shared classes with the daughter of Donald Trump, America’s former president, as well as the granddaughter of Joe Biden, America’s current president.
Iyassu, who dropped out of medical school to study business administration at the undergraduate level at the University of Pennsylvania, became a Wall Street investment consultant in New York for a few years before going to Harvard Business School for his MBA. Noah, another son of Berhanu, is an engineering graduate from Carnegie Mellon University, an elite private research university based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
During his first public appearance as an appointed Minister of Education, Berhanu asserted how his ministry will not have room for challenges that could arise from political differences. He was referring to the differentiation between his political affiliations as leader of the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) party and that of the ministry’s workers, who are primarily affiliated with the incumbent Prosperity Party (PP).
For anyone with even the slightest insight into the nation’s education sector, Berhanu’s challenges will be much more demanding than in-house politics. He has taken the helm of a sector where quality has not been a virtue. Many would agree that the nation’s education system is broken and the need to fix it is more critical now than ever before.
Of course, more kids have gotten the chance to go to school. The Ministry of Education (MoE) claimed that more than 95Pct of school-aged kids have been able to attend school during the regime of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Voices on the other side have been debating that the number excludes dropouts. Some even say that political cadres in education bureaus forced parents to have their kids registered, not caring much for the follow up of their success.
A document from MoE indicates that enrollment in grades below the ninth has declined in 2016/17. Completion of grade eight for female students was about 52Pct, and 55Pct for their male counterparts in the same year. The dropout rate between grades one through eight was 11.9 and 11.4Pct for female and male students, respectively. The enrollment rate in grades nine and 10 was 45 and 48.9Pct for female and male school-goers, respectively, in the stated year. Enrollment rates for grades 11 and 12 are reported to be around 25Pct for both genders. The data is not indicative of the whole story, yet, there is strong evidence on the increasing number of schools opening at least in villages and major towns.
Data is not available at the ministry regarding teachers’ appropriate qualifications for the respective grades they teach. There are figures stating that 80Pct of female and 66Pct of male teachers in grades one to four might be qualified. In 2013/14, only 21Pct of primary schools and 30Pct of secondary schools were considered level three or above—the baseline set through international inspections. In the same year, only 46Pct of schools are reported to have access to digital or broadcasting technologies and only 60Pct of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) completers were assessed to be competent. Recent report of students’ reading performance and national exam promotion rate show a very bleak reality about the education sector’s efficiency in bringing up competent citizens.
Why is Ethiopia suffering from poor education?
Discussions with industry observers indicate that private schools are doing whatever they want. There are reports of schools providing courses against national curriculum guidelines.
Also, whilst some schools use native languages in lower grades, others don’t. Certain schools even have supplementary books in English in lower grades, way before English becomes a language of instruction. There are also some that offer two after-school classes on a daily basis to support main classes, whilst others have one and some don’t even offer such classes.
“I am supposed to take 10 classes every day,” Mahlet Ambachew, an 11th grader at a private school in Akaki Kality District told EBR. “If a teacher calls for a makeup class early in the morning, that makes it 11 classes and this is only typical to my school.”
Discussions also reveal symptoms of reluctance towards extracurricular activities. MoE strictly recommends the implementation of extracurricular activities. Drama, sports, gender clubs, and arts, amongst others are highly urged to boost quality and student engagement—integral to their development. Many private schools that operate in rented residential compounds neither have the means nor the initiative to encourage students to engage in extracurricular activities. The same can be said for educational facilities. Science laboratories and libraries are usually only open when education regulators visit the schools for accreditation assessments.
The case for public school is even worse because the focus has always been in building low quality infrastructure. Further, teachers’ education and benefits packages have long been an issue throughout the country. Accordingly, grey-haired teachers are missing in many schools. Many young educators never consider retiring as a teacher as a decent life isn’t possible with the prevalent low wages in the face of high cost of living. Teaching has therefore become a transitory profession. An assessment once done by one of the Catholic schools in Addis Ababa shows that more than 70Pct of their teaching staff are pursuing another disciplines in higher education to change their profession.
The new Minister is facing such an ugly reality.
Berhanu was “a gregarious and active figure on campus, he rooted for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cleveland Cavaliers…and was known as one of the best squash players on the Bucknell faculty,” reads a 2016 New York Times report. As someone who reaped the benefits of not only curricular but also extra-curricular activities in a well-functioning education system, the new minister has out-of-classroom challenges, too.
Teachers’ complaints on the size of textbooks are another factor to be looked at. Asrat Zelalem, Biology Teacher at a community school in Hawassa, the seat of the new Sidama Region, shared a story on how an American who once came to Ethiopia to train teachers was shocked to see the total number of pages a grade nine student has to study. “I have to be a professor if I read all this,” Asrat recalls his foreign colleague saying.
According to discussions with teachers working for private and community schools, a Continuous Professional Development (CPD) package once introduced has more to do with administrative and political affiliation than imparting scientific skills. It only ended up being an instrument for administrative control rather than one that improves teachers’ pedagogic and scientific skills. Compare that to a CPD program for health care workers and one would understand how a total failure it proved to be in the education sector.
Quality can be maintained through fair competition among players or through regulating control by the public sector, according to teachers. Private schools compete in two areas: how fluent in English their students are and how many students make it over the national pass mark. While the first criterion does not help maintain quality over the whole process, the second can be corrupted. Schools can corrupt their way out of quality controls over the implementation of the national curriculum and/ or extra-curricular activities.
“We hear stories of schools sabotaging the exam process to support their students,” Berhanu said during a recent local television interview.” Exams integrity is very important.”
These teachers are also well aware of the scar Covid-19 is leaving in their sector. The pandemic forced about 27 million children to stay home for more than a year. This does not include those in higher education institutions. As senior public health officials have not yet agreed on the time frame for a total victory over the pandemic, there lays a lot of uncertainty in the future of education.
For Berhanu, being Minister of Education also means understanding that there are only very few parents who can pay expensive tuition fees as his parents did for him. The challenges he will have to face also entail bringing down unreasonably high tuition fees.
“Our school collects 150,000 Birr excluding textbook and uniform payments every year from each student’s parents,” said Asrat. EBR
10th Year • Dec 2021 • No. 102