On September 7th, a team of independent evaluators from the Center for Global Development and Innovations for Poverty Action released a midline report on the impact of Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) as part of a three-year Randomized Control Trial (RCT) of the program. Our founder and CEO, Katie Meyler, has been advancing the program from its inception. Having worked in Liberia throughout the Ebola crisis, she understood the urgent need for an innovative approach to address education challenges across the country to rebuild the systems that would prevent a future national disaster. This vision was shared in a meeting between Katie and Liberia’s Minister of Education George Werner in September 2015, who spearheaded the PSL program soon after with initial support from More Than Me.
Two years after the initial discussions about PSL began, More Than Me is proud to have participated in a program that has reached 93 schools and benefited some 27,000 children in Liberia. Most importantly, the independent evaluation shows strong evidence that the program is achieving its objective of improving learning outcomes. Children in PSL schools learned on average 60% more than their peers at the control public schools. The education reform initiative has contributed to a global conversation on the role of public-private partnership in the delivery of public education and we are delighted that the promise of this model for Liberia is being proven through the RCT.
At More Than Me we have taken a unique approach to the management of the six public schools that we were assigned in Year 1. We call our model, (S)HE Matters, an acronym representing our investments in Safety, Health, Education and Monitoring. Our strategy grew out of our work at the More Than Me Academy, a private, tuition-free girls school in central Monrovia.
We believe that literacy and numeracy gains are critical ingredients to the success of our students, but also, that in an environment recovering from a civil war and Ebola, investments in the whole child will lead to the best learning and social emotional outcomes for children over the long term. We also stress the development of local Liberian capacity through our Capacity Leads and School Quality Managers as a crucial component for the ultimate sustainability of the program.
IS OUR APPROACH WORKING?
This year we made an important transition as an organization from operating a relatively high cost model at the Academy (2 meals per day, full time nurse and social worker on staff, investments in technology and a library) to a low-cost model that would scale effectively across Liberia.
We created a cohort of “School Capacity Leads” that focused attention on building accountability around attendance and timeliness as a cultural practice within our schools and trained teachers continuously on classroom management, lesson planning and delivery. School principals received ongoing training and support as well, empowering them to work more closely with the Parent-Teacher Associations and to support teachers more consistently.
The early data for More Than Me reflects that our investments in (S)HE Matters are experienced daily by students and Liberian staff and our ability to mobilize resources locally and improve activities beyond the scope of literacy and numeracy is significant – and unique to our organization. While we spent an estimated $256 per child, higher than most providers, we also increased access to health, hygiene, nutrition and safety at our schools more extensively than any other operator (see figure below). In addition, our costs will drop by 50% in year two and our education intervention will break even in year three.
The report measures activity by contractors, shown below, but was not designed to assess issues related to health and safety. Thus, many of the gains our children experienced are left out of the report by design.
Local community members recognized our investments. 98% claimed to have benefited from teacher’s guides and 93% from school repairs (40% higher than any other operator). 91% of community members saw More Than Me organize community meetings, the top provider in this category, and we are also the top provider offering food programs. More Than Me teachers were observed in their most recent contractor visit (85%), the highest among operators, and we were also most likely to check attendance or meet with the principal of the school. These are among the many activities More Than Me engaged in to generate lasting results at our schools. The data below reflects our involvement in our schools as communicated by teachers to the evaluators. MTM is listed on the rightmost column.
In our Quarterly Learnings Report we documented the improvements made to health for our children.
More Than Me’s approach is providing tangible gains after just one year, though we are focused on delivering a more complete and proven curriculum in the year ahead and ensuring our math gains are as strong as our literacy gains. Also, we have instituted centralized multi-day teacher and principal training programs, orienting the local staff directly with our model and culture – rather than rely entirely on Capacity Leads to transfer these practices.
The most critical data from the report is whether students are learning more than at non-PSL control schools. At most PSL schools they are: 60% more than in control schools.
The analysis from the report also shows that students from More Than Me treated schools, showed learning gains equivalent to 1.1 years of additional schooling compared to control schools. In other words, a student from a More Than Me school learned two times as much as a student in a non PSL school.
What led to these learning gains? According to the report, the authors identified two factors that can explain the results; a combination of younger teachers at our PSL schools than traditional public schools (perhaps because we recruited – or were able to recruit – younger teachers with better training through the Rural Teacher Training Institute) and better management of the schools by PSL operators.
In both instances More Than Me has been a leader. We invested heavily in selecting and training teachers at the beginning of the school year and we placed a high emphasis on student and teacher attendance and accountability. We believe this contributed to our learning gains.
However, in our view, there are other ingredients that yielded significant gains for providers Rising Academies (Rising) and Bridge International Academies (Bridge) that were under-represented in the results. Both Rising and Bridge have made considerable investments in curriculum content including student materials, teacher lesson plans and assessments, and it showed in the results. Their learning outcomes were impressive.
More Than Me has been exploring a comprehensive early childhood education curriculum and a primary education curriculum that would be both a best in class approach and appropriate for the Liberian context. One of the happy outcomes of PSL is that these providers have invested significant resources in creating learning materials specific to the Liberian National Curriculum standards. In light of this More Than Me began to discuss licensing curriculum with other PSL partners last April and agreed early this summer to license curriculum for early childhood education from Bridge and primary school grades from Rising, and the report validates this decision. The combination of investments in (S)HE Matters in general, and the curriculum in specific, we believe, will help our schools realize truly outstanding results for the children by the time the endline results are delivered. Moreover, we have brought these curriculum resources to our Academy, a non-PSL school, proving that PSL can have an effect beyond PSL program schools.
Among the critiques of the program is the matter of cost. PSL is designed to essentially double the investment in education per child through the combination of $50/child to cover teacher and principal salaries paid directly by the Ministry of Education (as they do in the current public school system) and $50/child to operators to cover their work at the schools, raised from a pool of philanthropic funds. This extra $50 helped More Than Me develop our (S)HE Matters model in year 1, but it only covered 20% of our costs. This raises the question: is it sustainable?
More Than Me is pleased to report that these year 1 expenses are considerably higher than our year 2 expenses, which are still higher than our year 3 expenses as we achieve economies of scale. Our year 2 expenses are slated to drop in half, to approximately $128/child, leaving the need to raise only $78/child, and in year 3 that number is expected to substantially drop to $71/child. By year 5, we believe we will be operating PSL schools at under $50/child (on top of teacher and principal salaries).
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
This is an exciting time for PSL. Early indicators of learning outcomes have validated the program and we are immensely proud to be a part of this pioneering effort in education. Partnership remains the word we lean on as we collaborate with and learn from the other partners and the Ministry of Education. Both the program and More Than Me are on track, so the message we would send is: “keep growing!”
CHILDREN ARE LEARNING! The report authors show treatment effects of operators using two different data samples, intent to treat (ITT) and treatment on the treated (TOT). Since More Than Me had two of our originally assigned schools replaced since they did not meet the MoE’s PSL criteria, we believe that the TOT data sample is the most meaningful representation of MTM’s impact on student learning.