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By NBF News
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Dr. Chidiebere Onyia, the founding President of California Association of Nigerian Educators and Chairman/CEO of OrgLearning Nigeria recently took a peep into our education sector and tried to provide reasons why things don't seem to be at ease there. Dr. Onyia who is also the Managing Partner of Education Reform and Sustainability Initiative, spoke to Daily Sun on various issues such as the quality of our graduates, training of varsity lecturers, endowment fund, his memo to education ministers, observed gaps and how to tackle some of the problems confronting the education sector. Excerpts:

What is the situation in the education sector?
The sector has so much potentials, the only challenge I have noticed having worked in different countries on education at all the levels is that I see a huge gap in the areas of planning and actual implementation. Teachers' quality is one of our greatest concerns in Nigeria and, to worsen that situation, our curriculum flaw is a major challenge. I have looked round. The curriculum we have for the kids does not prepare them nor does it show a clear understanding of the gap of learning that we have in the Nigerian educational system. So, I think the gap we have at the foundational level is being escalated at the university level.

How do we then begin to address the problems ?
We are dealing with years of dysfunctionality. We need to have a clear plan and I think the greatest challenge is that we are not addressing our fundamental education problem. We have a huge gap in our learning and, that is understanding what Nigerian vision for learning is. Is it just that we take assessment in primary six as a measurement of our competence or that we are preparing our kids to be both thinkers and competitors in the market that is larger than the geographical location of Nigeria? So, at the foundational level, we need to go back and restructure our curriculum completely, the curriculum we have now will continue to worsen. What we are seeing in NECO and WAEC assessment where 98 per cent of the candidates are failing.

The most important issue is that we don't have a data system in Nigeria. There is no evaluation system where I can sit down and look at a primary six exam and point to a child deficiency in literacy and numeracy based on a particular skill. The teachers give them grades that are numbered to rank them but they don't actually address the areas of the deficiency, so we can have an intervention. A child is promoted to JSS 1 with the same deficiency he/she had in Primary 4, 5 and 6 and we expect that those gaps in our fundamental education will close. It wouldn't close. Rather, it will continue to widen and what we will have is an expanded malpractice both from the teaching perspective and from the students. Parents now pay to have people take exams for their kids so that they can get into good universities.

So, the problem is our foundational education problem, the system is not addressing it. All the agencies in the Federal Ministry of Education have to sit down and tell themselves the truth. We have to have stakeholders that are in the field and I am not talking about urban learning where we have the private schools with the resources, I am talking about public education. It is a huge problem. There are major flaws in our foundation education that keep manifesting as we go forward. Then as we get to the university education, we need to change our approach to research and teaching. That some people are Professors in particular disciplines doesn't mean they understand the 21st century skills that the kids need to be successful outside their fields. Even the NUC (National Universities Commission) is not addressing this because they are focusing on the mandate of accreditation.

How may we go about addressing the issue of the quality of our university graduates?

The products of the universities did not start their deficiency from the university level. It is something that happened over the years, from their elementary to secondary level. And we expect these Professors to perform a miracle within three to five years? How possible is it for a student that had some fundamental academic flaws to, all of a sudden, overcome the flaw and get a degree and some of them even come out with 2:1 and when they come into establishment where you need them to be thinkers it doesn't work. The critical thing Nigeria education will need to look at is what is our vision for education? Who do we want to become? And we have models all over the world that have taken that approach. If we know who we want to become as a nation in ten years, then what we do right now is to begin to address it. The kids are doing more but learning less and the question is who is measuring what they learn? The ministry has not shown a data of what a Third Grade primary three pupil is supposed to know and how they can measure that. I haven't found it, I have gone round and asked the ministry, I even checked the website of the Nigeria Education Research Development Council; it is down. How can a credible entity of the ministry have a website that is down? Why don't we have an assessment system aligned to our curriculum at every level and train the teachers to be able to teach in line with the standards and measure the effectiveness?

You have been engaged by some varsities to train their lecturers, what are your findings?

My findings from working with these universities had been like an eye-opener in terms of having a perception of what you think is wrong but when you get down, the challenges you thought were there are worse than one can even imagine. That is our experience with some Nigerian university system. We have worked with some universities in the South West and South East and what we found out is that there is huge gap in what these universities have as a vision and what their products are able to do. And the problem is that there is a huge gap between what goes on within the Faculty and what goes on in the administration. In terms of vision, internalizing the vision and being able to integrate the vision into the teaching and learning process is almost not there. What we also found out is that some Vice Chancellors are open, they are proactive but the problem they have is that the universities are made up of huge entities with so much dysfunctionalities that a lot of people are just there and at the end of the day, the vision of the VC is sabotaged. In one of the universities that we are working with, UNN, what we have done is taking the principal officers on a three-day retreat to address attitude change. We are seeing a remarkable change after the retreat.

How do we address funding of education at all levels?

I think Nigeria has the capacity to meet the UNESCO funding benchmark of 26 per cent allocation to education sector and I hope President Goodluck Jonathan will move up or at least come close the 26 per cent. If you look at most successful school system, you note that funding ranges between 7 and 9.5 per cent of their GDP but in Nigeria, we are looking the total budget allocation and we hope it gets to 26 per cent. So when we get it to that basic mark, we can now do it in line with our GDP. And if we do that, we will see the educational gap as economic gap. Once we align the concept of education by just bringing what happens in the classroom to a bigger picture, the economic gap as a nation, then we will change our approach to it. Then we can put people that have ideas of what education is, in the Senate and in the House of Representatives committees. They would oversee education by not just looking at the budget in number but by looking at the critical components of quality education. The concern we have is that the funding at the moment is limited to just buying a couple of textbooks and distributing to the kids and painting school buildings, putting up signs and taking pictures and that is all. The leadership has not gone into the classrooms to see what teaching means. We have a leadership that you wouldn't see in schools, sitting down to observe a day's instruction in the life of a child.

Why have Nigerian universities not taken advantage of endowment funds?

Four years ago, I had a discussion with the immediate past VC of UNN in California on what the university had in its endowment and he smiled and told me they are just beginning the process. The challenge is that the Nigerian universities are so focused on subvention they get from Federal Government and have not tapped into their alumni capability to get people that have graduated from the university to help them set up endowment. And the challenge this creates is that the research aspect of the universities are not as robust as it should be, because everybody is waiting for meager fund from the government.

You talked about sending memos to former education ministers, what were the memos all about?

About four years ago, you know in the education system, we had 11 ministers. Professor Ruqayyatu Rufa'i is the 12th person. I sent a memo stating how we should address the issue of fundamental education and build a structure that aligns with what happens in the elementary and secondary levels and how it impacts on the university level. The quality of what we get, not based on JAMB or the university entrance exams, but the quality of what comes in and I drew up a design to include awareness to training and implementation at the different (federal and states) levels, building the entities to create the awareness. In my capacity then as the President of California Association of Nigeria Educators, I sent this proposal to the Presidency and Education Minister. It was amazing that a couple of months after, we started hearing something about teachers quality within the administration and this was after they read the proposal and they told me they were excited, that they wanted to implement the proposal and will let me know when it was time so that I can come with my team and we begin to build the capacity. It never happened but we saw success of the implementation of some of our proposal. But the challenge is that because the process was not internalized, they picked up components that looked good and consequently the outcomes were mediocre. The last Minister also met and reviewed the Roadmap. The Roadmap is a very good document and it is wonderful on papers. I understand the thinking of those that are going to implement it. But the problem I have with that is the hope of implementation is placed on people that have no idea of what the Roadmap is saying, which is the classroom teacher. With the new education minister, she has picked four components and implemented it in 12 months. But the quick-fix approach will not lead to any credible result for our students. That's my concern.

You talked about gaps and quick-fix approach, how has this style damaged the delivery of quality service in the sector?

In terms of delivery, I have worked with faculties in Faculty of Education in different universities, just trying to retrain them on the way the curriculum is designed for teacher training. And what we found out in what we have done for about two and half years is that there is a fundamental gap between what research says in the 21st century about teaching and learning and what we are still teaching new teachers to be able to do. And in the area of Science and Technology, Mathematics and basic written strategies, what we found out is there are gaps that are constantly emanating just because of the quality of faculty we have here are not exposed to those training because there are no funds to continue to retrain them. These Faculty members have to pay out of their own pockets to attend conferences and how much are they being paid after going through all the family expectations? So the gap is huge and I start at the university because those are the people that still train the teachers that go into the classroom and are expected to perform this new teaching approach in the 21st century. People got angry when 98 per cent of NECO candidates failed, but we never get angry when somebody goes in there and he is not elected and people take up arms to protest. If we continue to produce substandard students, when they come out they can't function in the job environment.

If you were made the education minister, what is your starting point?

My starting point will be to focus on our foundational education; all the agencies that are responsible will have to sit down, not going to the drawing board because we already have a situational analysis of what the gaps are. And one of the greatest gaps is our assessment system; it is so obsolete. It does not address what the 21st century learner needs to do beyond content; it should deal with both critical thinking and content by proficiency. We will go beyond the road map and the entrepreneur education. We have a system in Nigeria that looks at vocational education, polytechnic education as sub standard to degrees and we know that, that is not the case in other developed nations where they have this type of education system. Design an evaluation component where the administrators who are going to be trained on what instructional leadership will be able to evaluate the teaching and learning going on in the classroom and provide intervention.