Reclaiming Public Education in Nigeria: A Lesson from a School District in America

by Sadiq A. Abdullahi

Since 1994, I have been involved with the Miami-Dade County School District in South Florida as a teacher, tennis coach, and chairman of the Educational Excellence Advisory Council (EESAC).

The current superintendent is Mr. Alberto M. Carvalho, an immigrant with exceptional leadership and organizational skills. In 2008, Carvalho moved up through the ranks to become the CEO of the fourth largest school district in the United States. As a result of the politicking that was connected to the selection process and the circumstances surrounding his appointment by the local school board, he was heavily criticized by many including many African American teachers and administrators. In 2012, the criticism has turned to respect and envy.

This essay is not about Carvalho. The essay focuses on what Nigeria can learn from a school district that has all the human, organizational and administrative trappings imaginable. But as the recent school district’s academic performance shows, his persistence, determination and commitment to improving public education is unwavering and unquestionable. One of his strengths is his understanding of how individual schools work: the internal struggles, problems and challenges. Carvalho leadership style is worth emulating.

For the nine years, I have been at one of the “failing” schools in the Homestead area. The high school has attempted to improve its image, school grade and overall climate for some time now. So when in the first week of January 2012 the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) released the letter grades for high schools, the school saw its grade improve from a “D” to a “C.” School grades determine a lot of things in America. For example, a school with an A or B grade gets not only the academic recognition but get a lot of rewards and incentives.

What lessons to be learned? Can Nigerian politicians and school officials learn from this experience?

In order to continue the transformation of public education in Nigeria, it is wise to look elsewhere as we look inward for solution to the problems facing public education in Nigeria. For the past several years, I have followed the activities of the Federal Government under the leadership of the minister and state minister of education. For example, Prof. Ruqayyatu Rufai has been credited for introducing sweeping primary, secondary and tertiary reforms as part of her long-term plan to reclaim public education in Nigeria. It is hoped this essay will be another contribution to the transformative process.

How does a public school reform itself? What is needed to sustain the reformation?

Several reasons account for a change in school grade. The first reason is faculty and staff readiness for change. At this high school, there appears to be a realization that in order for the school to improve – teachers, cafeteria, custodial, security and support staff – must be engaged in the process of improvement. Until a few years ago, the school improvement efforts were one-sided and political. The issues and problems were real- political, economic, administrative, and cultural. Past administrations have come in without a definitive action plan, only to rely solely on the School Improvement Plan (SIP) document from the FLDOE which disregards the qualitative and normative aspects of school improvement. The normative process relates to how the faculty and staff, students and parents are treated. This approach embodies the humanistic child/teacher-centered and child/teacher-friendly approach, which research continues to support.

The second reason is the district level support provided by the Educational Transformational Office (ETO), a branch of the Superintendent’s Office. ETO is prescriptive and overwhelming. A school is expected to follow a structured instructional delivery framework. Everything is regimented and the school administration is not left out. This approach has some merits but the verdict is in the public domain.

The third reason is the student population. The student population at this high school is mainly composed of economically disadvantaged African American and Haitian students. Many of them come to school with unresolved issues and problems. In Nigeria, students of poor parents go to public schools.

The fourth reason is the FLDOE’s new grading scale. This new scale allows for the 50/50 split (particularly called the 880/800). This means that a school can earn the first 800 points if students do well on the FCAT and the school meets the Adequate Yearly Progress requirement. The other 800 points will be earned if more students graduate, enroll in college or meet state industry certifications. This is an area state government in Nigeria should explore, but it is an expensive proposition considering the level of corruption and lack of transparency in accounting.

Difficult Challenges Ahead

Some of the challenges include teacher turnover, absenteeism, apathy and a lack of professionalism on the job. Local Governments must be redefined and restructured. They should make every effort to donate cash and educational materials. The local Chamber of Commerce should be more involved. Annual fundraising events should be co-organized to raise enough money to purchase computers, improve landscaping, and to provide new books and gift certificates to students and teachers. Teacher incentives and rewards should be reinstituted at the school supported by the community. The PTSA should be reinvigorated.

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