The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Liberia’s Education Crisis: Quality v Access

This post by Laura Golakeh, a 2015 summer intern at the Wellesley Centers for Women, was originally published in The Analyst, a Liberian newspaper. It is posted here with permission.

Laura GolakehOn March 11, 2021, the House of Representatives passed a bill seeking to “create a special education scheme to support deserving students attending public tertiary institutions across Liberia. The Bill is titled “An Act to Create a Special Education Fund to Support and Sustain the Tuition Free Scheme for the University of Liberia, All Public Universities and Colleges’ Program and the Free WASSCE fess for Ninth and Twelfth Graders in Liberia, or the Weah Education Fund (WEF) for short. The bill when enacted into law, will make all public colleges and universities “tuition-free”. The passage of this bill by the Lower House has been met by mixed reactions across the country: young, old, educated, not educated, stakeholders, parents, teachers among others, have all voiced their opinions about this bill. While some are celebrating this purported huge milestone in the education sector, others are still skeptical that this bill may only increase access but not address the structural challenges within the sector. I join forces with the latter, and in this article, I discuss the quality and access concept in our education sector and why quality is important than access. I recommend urgent action to improve quality for learners in K-12.

While this may sound like a broken record, an overview of our context is key in addressing the pertinent issues in my article. Liberia is still rebuilding its damaged education system after more than 14 years of crisis. Additionally, structural inequalities and the recent Ebola crisis in 2015, have contributed to challenges facing the education sector. While some gains have been made, Liberia is still behind many sub-Saharan countries in most education statistics. Poor learning outcomes, overage enrollment, unskilled and unqualified teachers, poor infrastructure are among some of the many challenges facing the sector. There are no national school quality standards and no proper monitoring mechanism at the county and district level. In 2013, all 25,000 candidates seeking admission at the University of Liberia, Liberia’s oldest degree granting institution failed the entrance exam. According to an official, the candidates lacked “enthusiasm and a grasp of basic English”. To put that into perspective, 25,000 individuals who went through K-12 lacked basic English skills needed to thrive in college. I put it that, quality is the issue, not access. A closer look at the following stats may help us understand this more clearly. It is no secret that Liberia has made progress in providing access to education, but has made limited progress in retaining learners. A World Bank report in 2016 showed that, of children who enroll in primary school in the country, 69 percent ‘survive’ to grade 6 and 59 percent ‘survive’ to grade 9. On the other hand, in the Education Quality and Access in Liberia (EQUAL) study, the mean score for Grade 3 oral reading fluency was 19.9 correct words per minute, compared to a mean score of 25 correct words per minute on the EGRAPlus assessment, and an average of 18.9 correct words per minute for Grade 3 students assessed by the Liberia Teacher Training Program (LTTP) II study. International benchmarks associated with literacy and comprehension are set at an oral reading fluency of between 45–65 correct words per minute. Again, the issue is quality and not access. It is not enough for a learner to have a seat in the classroom, the emphasis for policymakers is to guarantee that learner has quality education while they are sitting in that seat. The emphasis is to fix our broken system and ensure adequate funding for our schools. The emphasis is to overhaul our K-12 system and ensure our learners are graduating with relevant skills to succeed in their personal and professional endeavors. As one of my mentors and former boss said in a recent post on social media, we “cannot fix the roof while the foundation is collapsing”. This is a complete error in judgment. A careful review of the sector has brought me to the conclusion that focusing on quality in the system especially, K12 should be a key priority. Policymakers should also be cognizant of the following issues:

Teacher Quality and Societal Perception of Teachers: Goal 4 of the United Nations Sustainability Goals aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Teachers therefore are needed to play a key role in achieving this goal by 2030. According to a World Bank report, about 62 percent of Liberian public school teachers are not qualified. Additionally, teachers especially public-school teachers are underpaid compared to other professions in the country. The “salary of teachers in Liberia range between US$140 to US$500 per month depending on their level of education. The lowest paid teachers, certificate holders, earn between US$100-US$ 140 while B certificate holders’ pocket US$ 180-US$ 200”. According to a study by the Center for Global Development conducted in 15 African countries, “teachers are paid either a lower or comparable monthly salary to other wage workers with similar educational background in three-quarters of African countries”. These issues make it difficult for the system to attract qualified teachers, hence the influx of unqualified teachers. According to an IREX report, research conducted to study perceptions of the teaching profession in Liberia showed that the profession is viewed by many as low compared to other professions in the country. It is true that a greater part of a teacher’s experience is based on how society views them and the profession in general. Countries like Singapore have the best education system because reverence for its teachers is well documented.

Bottomline, increase teacher’s compensation, provide professional development opportunities, ensure teachers are monitored and evaluated and engage in an advocacy and outreach campaign to change societal perceptions of the teaching profession. It is widely known that the social status of the teaching profession impacts recruitment and retention of effective teachers. Recent findings from the Global Teacher Index 2018 study suggests that there is a correlation between teacher status and student learning outcomes and that increasing teacher status can directly improve the pupil performance of a country’s students.

Reform Student Assessments: Education leaders need to promote a comprehensive and rigorous assessment systems that contribute to quality education. Student assessment reform is also a powerful stimulus for quality improvement in higher education and its reform goes well beyond the domain of assignments and examinations. Ensure classroom and large scale system level assessments are put in place to not only assess learning in the classroom but also continuous evaluation of the education system. Particular emphasis should be made to encourage teachers to design formative assessments that reflect students’ learning outcomes and that track individual students’ growth, rather than focusing on comparing students with one another. Teachers should be taught the necessary skills and expertise to carry out these assessments. A reform assessment module will serve to diagnose student learning issues, provide feedback to students on their learning, inform teaching, communicate with parents about their child’s learning, and meet school-level requirements on assessing student achievement. The goal is to graduate from traditional assessment to 21st century assessment.

Bottomline, ensure an enabling environment, system alignment and improve assessment quality.

21st Century/Competency Infused Curriculum: I wrote in a previous article, that a competency infused curriculum for education is essential for all learners in Liberia. Curriculum and quality works together. Our curriculum needs to be reformed to reflect our learners developing cognitive skills, practical skills, attitudes, emotions, values and ethics and motivation related to cooperation for learners. A quality education is one that prepares learners to be global citizens. The World Economic Forum defines global citizenship skills as those that focuses on building awareness about the wider world, sustainability and playing an active role in the global community.

Bottomline, a competency infused curriculum will lead to better learning outcomes for learners and better prepare them to thrive in the 21st century.

Gender Nudge: Gender awareness drives quality. In Liberia, as well as our education system, patriachal tendencies have led to a greater disadvantage for female and other vulnerable learners in classrooms. Poverty, disability, early marriage and pregnancy, gender-based violence, cultural ideals about the status and role of women in our society have helped build obstacles for female learners. Inorder for Liberia to ensure quality education for its citizenry, these gender related issues need to be addressed adequately.It is without any doubt that education policies and programs are bound to fail if gender is not mainstreamed in its designs and implementation.For example, a policy that wants to ensure that girls and women thrive in educational institutions should take into account that institutions do not work without interacting with and getting influenced by societal or cultural factors such as family, state, media and society. As a result, educational institutions are forced to perpetuate the stereotypes held against women in society. Such influences can stop women and girls from realizing their potential in academia as they are forced to encounter issues of discrimination, sexual harassment, dominancy of males among others.

Bottomline, mainstreaming gender in education policies and programs as a prerequisite for quality education.

Lastly, the Liberian Government needs to invest resources in the sector. Lawmakers should work with the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders to allocate more budget support for the sector. Liberia education spending for 2018 was 8.06% of its GDP, a 0.2% decline from 2017. Recently, civil society organizations in Liberia protested over an 8 percent decrease of the education budget from 570 million in 2018/2019 to 525 million in 2019/2020 national budget.

The education system is in serious need of a “fix” not a temporary political solution. I choose quality over access.


Laura Golakeh is a gender and education expert. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Gender and Peacebuilding and is currently a student at Harvard University pursuing a Master’s in International Education Policy. During the summer of 2015, Laura was an intern at the Wellesley Centers for Women. 

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Social and Emotional Learning During COVID-19 Crisis: Equity Lens Reflection

Social and emotional learning during COVID-19This article was originally posted by Karen Craddock, Ph.D., on April 17, 2020, on The Wellness Collaborative.

While we manage the day-to-day, sometimes moment-to-moment, shifts during this global pandemic, it is sure to have implications on how we navigate the array of feelings and interactions we encounter in every aspect of our inner and outer lives. This process involving managing emotions, setting goals, showing empathy, building relationship, and making constructive decisions, otherwise known as social and emotional learning (SEL), is especially poignant now. Raising awareness of how these skill sets and competencies intersect with interpersonal, situational and structural inequities is even more so…

Pain of exclusion

In my blog article on the social-emotional, neurophysiological pain of racialized exclusion and strategies to remain resilient, there is discussion on how pain is perceived and received across racial lines. Particularly relevant is mention of the well documented racial empathy gap that occurs for people of color, especially in healthcare settings as well as in education. This is important to keep top of mind during this COVID-19 crisis in light of emerging national data revealing the glaring disparities occurring along race for both contracting and dying of the disease, as well as getting access to testing and treatment.

What is clear is that the pain of racism occurs both directly and indirectly. So as communities of color hear and experience more of these disparities, even while not surprising, the impact is felt whether target or watching from the sidelines. Already strategies of resistance have been activated among people of color to buffer and recreate in the midst of this, which includes a call for increased awareness and action by all. Furthering these strategies to remain resilient will be crucial for the long haul calling for intentional awareness to stratified privilege, disrupting inequities, supporting affinity networking, and deploying collaborations with resources of all kinds.

Staying physically distant and socially connected

While we adhere to vital mandates to stop the spread of the virus which can require quarantine and separation, it is important to be aware of language that indicates social or relational disconnection. We are wired for connection and thrive mentally, physically, and emotionally from being in healthy relationship. The limits of the terminology have recently come forward and will likely continue.

Inclusive language that encourages staying socially connected in safe ways is vital. This means honoring the diverse personalities and profiles of individuals falling along the spectrum of introvert to extrovert by making room and opportunities for everyone to find comfortable and necessary methods to stay connected without assumptions of “one size fits all”. By using the term physical distancing it also forces us to look at the range of physical settings people are in while braving this storm. Thus, it is even more important to address the implications and remain aware of the physical constraints and necessities that are realities across the country and for so many.

A current context in the climate of COVID-19

It is not unusual that during times of extraordinary crisis that prevailing stressors become worse. For communities already chronically marginalized by race, ethnicity, gender, class…an increase in volume, intensity, and impact occurs. In addition, a climate of crisis also heightens awareness of social, structural, and systemic inequities. Over the past few weeks we have experienced COVID-19 hit our communities and we are beginning to hear stories and see data that brings this point to a head.

From physical appearance to physical location, the ugly truths of marginalized existences are coming to bear. An African-American man living in Boston expressed this tension in a news article describing the risk and worry he has of being a man of color wearing a facemask to prevent illness while fearing for his safety due to bias. We see the economic intersectional realities during this public health pandemic across many communities and how it is specifically playing out given the disproportionate rate of pre-existing and socially influenced health conditions among communities of color. And sadly rates of domestic violence and abuse are likely spiking especially with quarantine and stay at home recommendations and mandates in place. The backdrop of the growing rise of suicide among Black youth sharpens the need for paying attention to the mental health needs of us all right now and especially within communities of color.

As educators and practitioners of SEL it is vital now more than ever that we remain vigilant in our efforts to defeat COVID-19 while staying aware of how its impact is inextricably tied to issues of bias, equity, and wellness. It will require and invite opportunities for self-reflection personally and professionally that center cultural fluency, emotional intelligence and agility. Before us is a call that compels intentional, active, and inclusive engagement within affinity networks and with racially culturally diverse thought-partners and leaders to seek and create solutions for much-needed healing.

Karen Craddock, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women. As an applied psychologist, her work centers on issues of equity, wellness, leadership, and partnership. Her studies on psycho-social functioning have included explorations of race and gender intersectionality, models of optimal resistance and resilience, social and emotional learning, emotional intelligence, and the neuroscience of inclusion.

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When the News Is Scary: 4 Ways to Support Children During the Coronavirus Outbreak

child washing hands with soap and waterAs the mother of four children ranging in age from 5 to 17, I think I’ve heard it all when it comes to the coronavirus COVID-19: every rumor and misunderstanding that gets shared at school and on social media about where it came from and how it spreads. In gently redirecting my children toward the truth--and helping them manage their well-founded anxiety--I’ve leaned on my knowledge of social and emotional learning (SEL).

As the director of Open Circle, an evidence-based SEL program for school-age children, I know that it’s important to help kids develop skills to recognize and manage their emotions. It’s also important for them to feel safe and cared for, especially in the midst of a crisis. Effective SEL strengthens our ability to understand, name, and manage our emotions all while building healthy relationships with others that foster increased empathy and community.

Here are a few things I’ve kept in mind while having conversations with my children about COVID-19, which might be helpful to anyone who has similar conversations with kids in their lives--whether their families or those they interact with in a professional capacity.

Children take their emotional cues from adults.

Kids look to us for how to react to a crisis, so it’s critical that we mind our words and actions when in their presence. We should convey calm and compassion, and focus on the facts available. Familiarizing ourselves with what’s known about COVID-19 and how it spreads allows us to ensure we’re conveying factual information to the children around us. Displaying an overly anxious or fearful affect is “contagious,” and causes children, in turn, to become overly anxious and fearful. We need to remain calm and reassuring as much as possible--and to lean on the other adults within our communities when we need to share our own fears and concerns.

“Othering” behavior and speech must be interrupted.

An unfortunate by-product of this scare has been the othering of Asian American communities, which has led many Chinese restaurants and businesses to lose customers. I’ve heard children say things like “Chinese people caused this” or other disparaging remarks. It’s important for adults to immediately and firmly interrupt these types of comments and othering behavior.

Calm breathing and mindful pauses can help.

At Open Circle, one of the threads woven throughout our curriculum is calm breathing and mindfulness. Teaching children to take three slow, deep breaths or a one-minute mindful pause throughout the day helps them develop the tools to cope when they’re feeling anxious.

It’s OK to say you don’t know.

None of us have all the answers to questions children may ask about COVID-19, and that’s OK. Sometimes these questions do have an answer, and we can find it for them by utilizing the resources available to us: our doctors, school nurses, reputable online sources. Some questions simply can’t be answered with any definitiveness. In those cases, all we can do is help children understand that life comes with gray areas, and not all questions have a straightforward answer. What’s most important is for them to understand that the adults in their lives--whether at school or at home--will be there to protect and assist them, no matter what. As Mr. Rogers’ mother used to say, when there’s a crisis, “look for the helpers.” Knowing that there will always be helpers may go a long way toward relieving children’s worry.

Kamilah Drummond-Forrester, M.A., CAGS, is the director of Open Circle, an action program of the Wellesley Centers for Women that equips elementary schools with evidence-based curriculum and training to improve school climate and teach children essential social and emotional skills.

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Guest — Yashi srivastava
It is very important to follow these mindful steps and each and every person should help each other to be safe by the correct ways... Read More
Monday, 16 March 2020 01:20
Guest — Mark Philip
WHAT TO DO IF THERE IS A RISK OF EXPOSURE TO THE VIRUS? • Respect the incubation period and stay in quarantine, symptoms can take ... Read More
Monday, 23 March 2020 04:17
Guest — Pavithra Suresh
Good. Nice analysis with the different angle of thinking, of course the children and mild and young are people are confuse with th... Read More
Monday, 27 April 2020 11:50
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Connected Teaching – An Approach for Classrooms, Communities, and the Workplace

connected sequence of paper dollsA recent family conversation reminded me of my (long-ago!) elementary school experience of learning who my teacher would be in the coming school year. I remember the sense of anticipation – who will be my teacher?.

Now, decades later, I am a college professor, and with each new semester, I begin working with new groups of students. I have related anticipation (not as intense, for sure, but related) as I wonder about each new group of students. Will they be excited to learn? As we meet each week for class, will they arrive prepared and ready to discuss the topics of the day?

Who we learn from or teach with is important because we all learn through and in relationship. And I propose this is true not only in school (at any level), but also in the workplace, communities, and other settings. Relational Cultural Theory (RCT) helps us understand this more deeply.

Relational Cultural Theory

Many readers of this blog are familiar with Relational Cultural Theory (RCT), developed by Jean Baker Miller and her colleagues in the Wellesley area and later the Stone Center at Wellesley College, now part of the Wellesley Centers for Women. For those new to the theory, RCT is a human development theory based on the idea that we grow in and through relationships. This challenges many predominant developmental theories which suggest that adults are at higher developmental stages when they are independent or don’t feel they need others. RCT is clear, we are at our best when we engage in growth-fostering relationships.

RCT and Education

While RCT was initially developed and used primarily in clinical settings (e.g. psychotherapy and social work), scholar-practitioners have also applied RCT in other domains including organizations, social justice, and education. For example, RCT is foundational in the WCW program Open Circle, which provides social and emotional learning curriculum and professional development for elementary schools.

RCT and a broader relational approach can also help us become better and more resilient teachers (whether we are in formal educational roles or teach as leaders and supervisors). RCT helps us understand how relationships and even single interactions can be powerful conduits for teaching and learning. Additionally, an RCT lens helps us explore power, cultural context, boundaries, and mutuality in teaching.

Connection and Critical Feedback

For example, the concept of mattering helps us understand the teaching and learning relationship and gives us an important tool for assessment. An essential element of assessment (whether one is a teacher assessing student work or a supervisor conducting staff evaluations) – is being able to deliver critical feedback.

The concept of mattering helps us remain positive and focused on the other person’s growth and development as we prepare and provide critical feedback. Offering critical feedback can be frustrating (for example, when we believe we explained an assignment clearly and imagine the student wasn’t listening) and stressful (e.g. when the receiver is resistant or defensive). By reminding myself that students and their learning matter deeply to me before I engage, I’ve been able to get myself in a good space for providing sometimes-difficult feedback on papers or in person. I believe that at least some of the time, someone receiving critical feedback will be more open if they sense that the teacher or supervisor is coming from a place of respect, care, and hope for improvement. In part, this is about the energy and affect we bring to the interaction. Additionally, a sense of mattering helps us frame the feedback with a sense of hope and belief in the recipient’s ability to learn and grow. So mattering helps us position ourselves for the interaction and frame the message.

Mattering is just one example of how a relational approach to teaching, supervision, and leadership can fuel teaching and learning in a variety of settings. The following questions help us continue to explore:

How have important relationships shaped your learning? How can a relational approach help us:

  • navigate generational differences in the classroom and workplace?
  • balance availability, authenticity, and boundaries in the age of social media and 24/7 access?
  • be more resilient through the lows and highs of teaching and leading?

Harriet L. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Connected Teaching: Relationship, Power, and Mattering in Higher Education and Lead Scholar for Education as Relational Practice with the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, a legacy project of the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a professor of psychology and counseling at Carlow University.

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Back to School, This Time with Social and Emotional Learning

It’s back-to-school time and families, youth, and educators must adjust their schedules for another school year. In the midst of the forms and information families receive – or that get “lost” in a child’s backpack or locker – you may have heard something about a social and emotional learning (SEL) initiative or curriculum. In fact, the local school system in my rural, seaside community is convening a team of educators to consider how SEL can inform and improve what teachers are already doing to promote positive youth outcomes.

SEL refers to the way individuals learn and use a set of social, emotional, behavioral, and character skills to navigate successfully in school, work, and relationships across the lifespan. Related experiences, programs, and curriculum vary widely just like the school or afterschool settings in which they are taught. Whether the particular program is focused on conflict resolution, character education, bullying prevention, or another version of social skills instruction, the development of SEL programs is based on the consensus among social scientists, educators, and health care professionals that social and emotional skills matter. The positive youth outcomes from high-quality, evidence-based SEL programs include improvements in behavior, attitudes, and academic outcomes. (Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405- 432).

Across the country at all levels of education – from state administrators of federal child care funds to infant-toddler and early childcare teachers or public school and afterschool leaders – a focus on SEL practices is gaining ground. For many, this is not a new conversation.

Here at the Wellesley Centers for Women, SEL has been an ongoing part of our work for the past thirty years.

  • In 1987, Open Circle was launched as a research project committed to the social and emotional wellbeing of children. Today, Open Circle provides a unique, evidence-based SEL program for grades K-5 aimed at proactively developing children’s skills for recognizing and managing emotions, positive relationships and problem solving, as well as helping schools develop a community where students feel safe and engaged in learning.
  • The National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) has brought national attention to the importance of children's out-of-school time using research, training, and advocacy to strengthen children's emotional, physical, and social development.

From my desk at NIOST, I’m starting the school year by working at the national, state, and local levels to support educators and administrators in their efforts to promote positive youth outcomes, especially in the expanding field of SEL. Specifically, I am researching the SEL programs that states are currently adopting in preparation for our forthcoming workshop for out-of-school time (OST) leaders on how to integrate these practices into school-age child care or other OST settings. As I do this work, my background as a former school committee member and education advocate means I can’t resist passing along the newest SEL information that comes across my desk to the regional school administrators in my community who are convening the SEL planning discussions for local schools.

If you want more information about SEL programs and practices, check out the Wallace Foundation’s May 2017 report, Navigating SEL from the Inside Out.

If you simply want to celebrate the importance and purpose of afterschool care for the wellbeing of children and families, consider joining the 18th annual Lights On Afterschool on October 26, 2017. This campaign includes a series of events across the U.S. promoting awareness of the many ways OST programs contribute to positive youth outcomes and children’s wellbeing.

If you have other ideas or resource recommendations for how SEL can be incorporated more into OST programming, please share in the comments. Let’s make this a rewarding year all-around for our young people and those who support them!

Gwynne Guzzeau, M.S., J.D., is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. She has been affiliated with the Gestalt International Study Center for a number of years as a faculty member and Professional Associate and served as executive director from 2014-2016.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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