Beyond Textbooks: Uganda Needs More Qualified Teachers

Recently, the U.S Ambassador to Uganda, Deborah R. Malac, commissioned the distribution of more than 1.5 million student textbooks and teacher instructional guides to more than 5,000 schools in Uganda. The generous gesture from the American people was welcomed by many entities in Uganda, and it builds on the existing 7-year USAID funded School Health and Reading Program aimed at improving reading outcomes for 3.5 million children in the early stages of primary school.

No doubt, the textbooks and instructional materials will go a long way to help schools and the already overwhelmed teachers who are short on supplies. But, what Uganda desperately needs even more than textbooks is more quality teachers.

Uganda is home to 37 million people and 78% of the population is below 30 years of age. Of these, 52% is younger than 15. An alarming 70% of the more than 8 million children enrolled in Uganda's schools drop out before completing primary school due to poor quality education, and only 35% of those who make it to secondary school go to university.

Contributing factors to the drop-out rates include unqualified teachers, absentee teachers, and oversized, understaffed and insufficiently resourced classrooms. Only one in five of Uganda's primary school teachers meets the minimum standards of proficiency in numeracy, literacy and pedagogy, and about two out of four teachers are absent from class daily. Among those present in school in 2015, 56% were not in the classroom during scheduled teaching hours, and 84% of teachers in Uganda report wanting to quit their job.

It's not that Uganda isn't trying to improve, however. In alignment with the UN Millennium Development Goal #2 to achieve universal primary education, Uganda passed a 'Right to Education Act' coined Universal Primary Education, causing a significant increase in enrollment, from 3.1 million in 1996 to 8.4 million in 2013. The number was commended by the international community as achieving the Milllenium Development Goal #2 for the country.

But the poor quality of education the majority of Uganda's children receive in UPE schools is alarming, and some have even argued whether they are learning at all. Evidence from research conducted by Teacher Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa in partnership with the Uganda Ministry of Education Science, Technology and Sports in 2013 revealed worrying low levels of subject mastery among primary teachers, with teacher proficiency levels averaging 37% in oral reading, 66% in numeracy, and 73% in literacy. The low levels of proficiency, especially in reading, were attributed to poor training and coverage of subjects in Primary Teacher Colleges.

Of course, the quality of education that the majority of Africa's students receive is worrying across the continent. Some, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), fear that the abysmal quality of education could hamper the "the Africa rising" narrative if graduates are under-prepared, unproductive and less globally competitive workers and leaders. The 2015 OECD report ranked Ghana and South Africa the lowest among 76 education systems surveyed.

Kenya, our neighbour to the east, has begun the process of overhauling their education system to focus on quality learning and skills development. A similar solution is desperately needed to bridge the quality gap in Uganda's education system.

Fortunately, the means to that solution already exists within Uganda.

Uganda has the highest youth population on the continent and annually graduates 40,000 from our universities but only 8,000 are able to find work upon graduation. Here exists a hugely untapped resource of highly energetic, passionate youth. Uganda's development partners and our national government would need little investment to bring a high quality and inclusive 21st century relevant education to millions of our children, if only they could tap into this readily available resource.

One way to tap into this resource is through the Teach For model, which is already being used in 40 countries, including China, US, Japan, India, UK and now in Africa, Ghana. Through the program, university graduates are trained to be teachers, especially in under-resourced government schools. The program's success are a double win for the respective nations because they provide an already qualified pipeline of solution-driven leaders in expanding educational opportunity and improving learning outcomes for majority of children, as well as acting as a training ground for the next generation of empathetic and moral leaders.

Across the globe, students' learning experience can be enhanced by access to relevant textbooks, new classroom infrastructure, learning aids and instructional technologies, but a highly qualified and motivated teacher has a far greater effect on a child's motivation to learn than any combination of the above. One example is Phiona Mutesi, born in the slum of Katwe, in Kampala Uganda, who lost her father to AIDS as a child and did not have a bright future. But she was able to rise above systemic injustices to achieve her dream of a Chess Grandmaster through the help of her mentor and teacher, Robert Katende, a graduate of Makerere University.

There are so many Mutesi's that fall through the cracks in Africa because no one is motivating them and seeing and fostering their potential. Children deserve a knowledgeable teacher, motivated to inspire them to learn.

If Uganda is to achieve its Vision 2040 as well as the Sustainable Development Goal #4 of quality education by 2030, there must be a reimagining of the quality of education that we are able to provide to our children. Fortunately, the solution lies within our reach.