In late February when President Ellen Johnson expressed disgust over the appalling condition of Liberia's education sector, many were convinced that the President was ready to make sweeping changes in order to restore some sanity to the sector.
The President sitting in a cabinet retreat with officials of her government bluntly described the Ministry of Education as 'A Big Mess' stressing that there was a need for total overhaul.
"All those things you've got there that's just talk, so I don't even want look at those targets y'all got for education because they're meaningless unless there is a complete overhaul of that ministry," said President Sirleaf.
Tarpeh left standing
"The reason you don't have enough money is because all your money go into ghost teachers that we can't get straighten up. So, I don't know you sitting back there, the man just talking (anyway)."
Weeks went by and then suddenly when everyone least expected, Sirleaf made the drastic change at the Ministry of education replacing all of the deputy and assistant ministers including the man she referenced during the retreat as 'just talking' Mator Kpangbai, Deputy Minister for Instruction. The only person left standing is the Minister Etmonia Tarpeh who herself inherited a broken system.
The Ministry of education is plagued with seemingly insoluble problems that the Sirleaf-led administration has been battling since its inception in 2006. This is evident in the number of ministers that have come and walked out of the ministry since 2006.
Dr. Joseph Korto who came to head the ministry in 2006 with a background as a teacher and a doctorate in education from the Catholic University of America in Washington DC could not save the Ministry.
His appointment came as an appeasement to the people of Nimba County after his instrumentality in securing victory for Sirleaf in Nimba in the 2005 elections but was in 2010 replaced with Mr. Othello Gongar.
Korto's woes ranged from allegations surrounding the mismanagement of scholarships funds to payment of replaced teachers and failure to or the poor constructions of primary and junior high schools around the country. Dr. Korto and two his deputies were all suspended for one week without pay for the non-completion of renovation work at the Barnesville Public school, despite assuring the President that all was well days before the school could reopen.
Then came in Mr. Gongar, who had previously held the position during the Samuel K. Doe regime and left at the height of the Liberian civil crisis but his strides to bring reform was seen as not good enough and was during Sirleaf's second term replaced with the embattled Tarpeh, who publicly declared that she could not operate the ministry from its dilapidated current office rather chose to operate from a location on 9th Street a former campaign office for the Unity Party.
President Clarifies 'mess' talk
In a message to the nation on the birth anniversary of Liberia's First President and its chief patron of education President Joseph Jenkins Roberts, on March 15, 2013 President Sirleaf stressed that the government is set to make real its promise of reform in the education sector but cautioned that it will require the effort of all Liberians.
"Many Liberians look to the education system and say, "government must fix it." We agree that the government can and must do more," said President Sirleaf.
"But we cannot fix this alone. It is time for government to join hands with the Liberian people and look for solutions together."
She said the country must create more room for experimentation, new ideas and learning.
"We want to attract the best people into the teaching profession, and tie their incentives to the success of their students. We will experiment with new funding mechanisms that help schools perform better," she said.
Like the President almost all Liberians are aware of the poor state the education sector is in. Many lay the blame squarely at the feet of the President for failing to take the right step and make the right changes to the system.
"So many times she has appeared at the University of Liberia commencement and always have condemned university students around here, yet she has done nothing to fix it," Christian T. L. Pierre, Head, Liberia Institute of Public Opinion laments.
"Eight years she has been in power and she come today to tell us that the system is a mess; especially when you have people appointed by her. Now you say you are cleaning up, you don't start from the top but you start from the ordinary man. The President is not ready. This is just another political talk."
Some Liberians feel the President need to go beyond the rhetoric to save a the sector which is now looks seriously broken even after all the many strides made by the government to make sure more children especially girls stay in school.
Go beyond rhetoric, critics say
"The education sector is not working to expectation. The President has been very lenient when it comes to the education sector," said James S. Roberts, Global Foundation for Human Rights.
Continued Roberts: "The President has been hearing about the teachers crying for pay; the issue of ghost names and corruption at the education ministry. Reshuffling deputy and assistant ministers and leaving the minister still standing does not solve the problem. She needs not to look for new ideas. Building an education system, you have to start from the primary level."
President Sirleaf in her message to the nation agrees with the many calls for reform in her sector stressing the strides the government continues to make to improve the sector especially as it relates to the issue of the payroll.
"We are renewing our efforts on cleaning up the payroll. We delayed increasing civil service pay, including the pay of teachers this year, because we believe that many of those who collect the salary and civil service benefits of teachers are not, in fact, in the classroom," she says.
She said many complain about the issue of too many "ghost" workers in the system, but adds that it goes much deeper than just 'ghost names', she said it continues to take the much needed benefit that should be aimed at improving the welfare or deserved teachers.
"There are many dedicated, hard-working teachers who put in long hours for little pay, and we applaud them. Unfortunately, there are also many who are absent from school every day," she said.
"They spend their time chasing paychecks, or processing Personnel Action Notices, or conducting their personal business."
The corruption and theft
President Sirleaf summing up the losses that the sector continues to experience said the problem extends from teachers to officials at the Ministry of Education and the counties.
"They are diverting for their personal use the resources intended for school buildings, furniture, textbooks and science equipment. They are stealing from the very children they were hired to help educate. In the end, they are stealing from all of us," she said.
With the number of sweeping changes made at the Ministry of education Liberians are waiting to see whether the President's new formula laid out would work. President Sirleaf did fall short of releasing some damning statistics on the sector.
"For every 100 children who enroll in primary school, only 60 will complete grade 6; only 20 out of the 100 will sit the WAEC exams at the end of grade 12, and only 15 will pass. Even for those who complete school, not everyone is learning what they should," she stressed.