What are the challenges facing our students?
What are the challenges facing our students?
In 2013, 25,000 high school graduates took the University of Liberia’s entrance exam. Every single one of them failed (BBC 2013). That year, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf admitted that the education system is “a mess” (BBC 2013). Indeed, 58% of 15-24 year olds have not completed primary education (EPDC 2014).
Monrovia Football Academy has developed an innovative solution to fill Liberia’s education gap. We uniquely use football – the most popular sport in Liberia – as a positive-incentive mechanism to encourage our students to attend school and improve academic performance.
In 2011, the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University argued that “well-designed rewards to students can improve achievement at relatively low costs” (Fryer and Allan, 2011). As a football academy, we design football-based rewards that have real consequences on the lives of our student-athletes. Every day, our teachers decide which student had the best performance in school. Whoever is chosen then gets to decide which type of ‘football challenge’ the entire team will complete for the last ten minutes of the next practice. Challenges include mini-games, shooting drills, defensive training, and other fun football-based activities, but different students prefer different challenges. In order to play their favorite one, the students compete to be the best in the classroom. This brings our football and educational programming into conversation, and it ensures our students value their education and commit to their studies.
Gender inequality is deeply entrenched in Liberian society, and it is especially prevalent in the education system. While 62% of Liberian boys between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate, only 37% of young women can say the same. Scholars and activists suggest this discrepancy exists because of gendered expectations within the household, the family, and the classroom itself (Gbowee, 2015; Abramowitz and Moran, 2012).
In addition, girls are often denied the opportunity to play organized football. Even though there is a functioning women's national team and an abundance of girls who want to play, football is commonly referred to as 'manball'.
We at Monrovia Football Academy are confronting gender inequality, and we have been thrilled by the difference in attitude we have seen in our girls. By training with the boys – and often outplaying them on the pitch – our girls have a sense of empowerment that they themselves have vocalized. In addition to having the boys and girls play together, our Liberian staff members constantly engage our students in discussions about gender, challenging them to critically analyze traditional roles.
Without MFA's domestic academy, talented footballers in Liberia are vulnerable to predatory agents offering development opportunities abroad. Culture Foot Solidaire, a French NGO, estimates that 15,000 West African footballers are illegally trafficked overseas every year, with many of them coming from Liberia. According to the BBC, players "gratefully accept invitations" from shady agents who offer them false contracts, confiscate their passports, and abandon them in foreign countries.
Despite these issues, a number of Liberian footballers have played for professional clubs around the world, including George Weah (PSG, AC Milan, Chelsea, Manchester City, AS Monaco), James Debbah (AS Monaco, PSG, Lyon, Nice, Anderlecht), and Christopher Wreh (Arsenal, AS Monaco).
Monrovia Football Academy provides Liberia's best young footballers with access to professional coaching at an affordable, domestic academy. Since opening in October 2015, we have developed a comprehensive football curriculum that disrupts bad habits, introduces fundamental techniques, and encourages our student-athletes to "think the game" at a high level. In addition, we have acted on our intention to build legitimate partnerships with the best clubs in Liberia and abroad. To date, we have had positive conversations with BYC (Liberia), Tottenham (UK), and Watford (UK).
Liberia's malnutrition rates are among the highest in the world. According to Liberia's Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, "more than 1/3 of Liberian children are stunted, 1/5 are underweight, and more than 1/2 suffer from micronutrient deficiencies" (Government of Liberia, National Nutrition Policy). While the government is making a concerted effort to address malnutrition through its National Nutrition Policy and the introduction of a Food Security and National Strategy, a large number of Liberians are not receiving adequate nutrients.
Good nutrition is vital for all athletes, but "the importance of proper nutrition is even greater for the adolescent athlete" (Smith and Jeukendrop, 2013). Scholars and top athletes alike argue that carbohydrate intake prior to high-intensity exercise is vital for performance and stamina. In addition, scholars advise that, after high-intensity training, endogenous carbohydrate supplies should be supplemented by additional carbohydrates and proteins (Beelen et. al., 2015).
At Monrovia Football Academy, we ensure our student-athletes eat nutrient-rich meals on a daily basis. About an hour before training, our kids eat a banana and drink water to ensure they have sufficient energy. Twenty minutes after the end of training, our students are eating big portions of classic Liberian meals (Potato Greens, Jollof Rice, Special Rice, etc.), each of which contain a large amount of carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables. These balanced meals reinvigorate our student-athletes by accelerating their post-training recovery and preparing them for a full afternoon of academic classes.
Academic classes and football practices are supplemented with life skills lessons on a daily basis. 'Life skills' is a vague concept, but we focus on four key, culturally-relevant areas: leadership, enthusiasm, accountability, and discipline (LEAD). Every day – during training sessions, at lunch, and in class – we make a concerted effort to reinforce these ideas. Student-athletes are encouraged to think critically about their interactions with other people, and then use their analysis to improve as leaders, be more enthusiastic/accountable, and remain disciplined.
For example, at the end of each class, our teachers and students collectively decide whether the students showed leadership, expressed enthusiasm, held themselves accountable, and were disciplined learners. Over time, this consistent messaging is meant to develop our student-athletes' life skills, enabling them to be leaders in their communities.
At Monrovia Football Academy, we aim to provide each of our staff members and student-athletes with quality healthcare. Since opening, we have insured each of our staff members through Activa Liberia. The plan covers more than 25 hospitals and clinics across Liberia, giving our staff members the flexibility to select their preferred health facility. In addition, our student-athletes receive on-site treatment on a daily basis from our medic, Agnes Togbah. Moving forward, we are exploring options to insure each of our student-athletes at a reputable clinic near the Academy.
While we look forward to providing coverage to all members of the Academy, that coverage comes with some shortcomings. When the Ebola crisis subsided in 2015, the Minister of Health admitted that the virus "exposed the weaknesses and fragility of the health system" (Liberia Health System Assessment, 2015). The majority of Liberians lack access to health facilities, and those who do are often disappointed by the quality of healthcare they receive. In 2012, Dr. Robtel Neajai Pailey, a prominent Liberian academic and activist, wrote quite bluntly that "things tend to go seriously wrong too often in Liberia's hospitals" (Pailey, 2012). We are aware that the healthcare system is weak, and that is why we offer basic services on-site. Over time, the system will be revitalized, and we intend to contribute to that revitalization by using local providers and demanding quality healthcare.
How do we measure our impact?
How do we measure our impact?
Our mission is to prepare talented boys and girls to lead positive change in Liberia. A major part of that process is developing the academic, athletic, and social skills of our student-athletes, and our impact evaluation methods for those skills are listed below.
An equally – and perhaps more – important part of that process is ensuring our student-athletes have access to new opportunities both in Liberia and abroad. Therefore, as our students grow older, our main impact metrics will start to focus on the number of students who gain access to academic, athletic, and leadership opportunities.
For now, our impact measurements concentrate on our ability to develop our students' skills and prepare them for life after the Academy.
In March/April 2016, we measured the satisfaction of our student-athletes' parents by conducting parent interviews. Despite numerous attempts, a few of our parents could not be reached for interview, so the data covers 24 of our 27 student-athletes from year one.
100% of MFA parents are happy their child has joined the Academy
100% of MFA parents say the Academy is better than their child's previous school
100% of MFA parents say they have seen an improvement in their child's attitude since joining the Academy
100% of MFA parents say they would recommend the Academy to a friend
We are monitoring our academic effect through a rigorous impact evaluation. Students enrolled in the program are being compared to those who were offered an invitation but did not enroll and to those next on the list (i.e., those to whom we would have offered an invitation if we had greater capacity). This regression discontinuity design will allow us to carefully measure the improvement of students' learning abilities compared to when they entered the program and to similar students who ended up in alternative schools and programs.
This near random experimental design was organized in 2015, and we expect to have enough data for in-depth, quantitative analysis at the end of the 2016-17 school year.
We will not see results from our near random experimental design until 2017, but we did receive an indication of our academic impact during the 2016-17 application process. Current students averaged an 80% on our 2016-17 entrance exam, while more than 450 prospective applicants from schools across Monrovia received a collective average of 46%.
We are using a mixed-methods approach to assess impact on the football pitch. Quantitatively, passing and controlling technique is assessed using an innovative counting system. For example, we assess passing efficiency by putting two cones four feet apart and asking the player to stand three yards away. The challenge is to one-touch pass the ball on the ground and through the two cones. Each player makes 10 passes with each foot, and their success rate is recorded. We run this 'test' throughout the school year to examine progress. Beyond these quantitative methods, we are using participant observation and other forms of ethnographic research to qualitatively assess impact.
MFA student-athletes completed a passing efficiency test on October 15, 2015, and then again on December 8, 2015. The basic idea is as follows: if, on average, we see more successful passes in December than October, then there is a correlation between MFA’s coaching and the athletes’ football performance.
On October 15, the average number of successful passes on the right foot was 7.3/10 and on the left foot it was 5.5/10. On December 8, the average number of successful passes on the right foot was 8.6/10 and on the left foot it was 6.8/10. Those numbers represent an 18% improvement on the right foot and a 24% improvement on the left foot.