Imagine spending 16 years in school watching your teacher writing long texts on the blackboard and then copying them. How much knowledge do you think you would have acquired if your classroom time was spent in this way?
In many FTI Partner countries, textbooks are conspicuously absent from schools – from primary to higher education. And the effects of “print poverty’’ on performance are big: students scoring in the 98 percentile of tests may read 4.7 million words per year, or 67 minutes per day, while those scoring in the 10th percentile may read 51,000 words per year or 1 minute a day (Anderson, Fielding, and Wilson 1988).
Many countries lack sufficient capacity to print millions of textbooks, so they must be printed abroad. International competitive bidding takes a long time and unwittingly favors foreign suppliers. Collusion and rigged bidding raise prices inordinately (read Disappearing books: Greed or policy mistakes or both? by my colleague Luis Crouch). Textbooks may be ordered once every five years, and as they wear out they become scarce. The result is both scarcity and high prices. In Malawi, for example, the 2009 Country Status Report showed that 94% of first graders and 34% of eighth graders had no books. And the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) statistics reported that only 42% of students had textbooks in 2000 and in 2007. No progress over all those years.
Importation and prices limit availability, and textbooks in some countries cannot be bought at any price anywhere – except on the black market where private schools and better-off students are the primary customers (see the example of Mozambique in Illegal Sale of School Books Continues in All Africa.com). They are stolen at various points of the distribution system, often from schools, and sold in the streets. In one country they were being sold right outside the Ministry of Education!
Advice on increasing textbook choice may have made the situation worse. Multiple versions of textbooks result in the printing of small lots that cost even more. If schools are asked to choose and pay with their budgets, they find that they can only afford a few. If a principle must decide whether to buy textbooks or fix leaking roofs, the choice is obvious.
And quality often is nothing to write home about. Given the need to keep prices low, textbooks are often skimpy, little more than outlines and in several, the valuable paper is used up by large pictures or parts are left blank. Those of us who went to school using thick, informative, illustrative books would be surprised to see 75-pagers on high school math, 50 pages for grade 1 basic literacy.
So do teachers and parents complain about this deficiency? Rarely. The earlier generations went to school without textbooks so they think of this as a “natural” way to study. This is also what I saw in Nepal as World Bank task manager around 1992. Nepalese students only studied from handwritten notes in secondary and higher education. Some had inherited the notes of certain university courses from their fathers!
Thus the classrooms become the most expensive copying centers in the world. Students spend their time painstakingly taking down dictation and drawing designs, either from blackboard copying or through verbatim dictation. Predictably, they do not do well in exams. Only 8.6% of students were reaching minimum level of mastery in the 2005 SACMEQ. And since they get little reading practice, they read very slowly at advanced ages. University students in Mali were informally measured and read about 109 words per minute. (this is grade 4 fluency in the US). Needless to say, this is no way to gain 21st century skills.
Perhaps the biggest African problem is an information deficit at all levels. For all of us who are used to textbooks being abundant and reasonably priced the situation is hard to imagine. It’s simply impossible to improve quality of education with this deficit. Because knowledge is cumulative and instructional time is poorly used, students may learn little additional material in school.
Affordable and available textbooks should be a policy priority for the FTI partner countries, but the problem is complex. But how to proceed? Any ideas?
Disappearing books: Greed or policy mistakes or both? by Luis Crouch (Education for all Blog, April 12, 2011)
Illegal Sale of School Books Continues (All Africa.com, March 11, 2011)
Anderson, R. C., L. G. Fielding, and P. T. Wilson. 1988. Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly 23: 285–304.