A Brighter Generation for Ethiopia

Brighter Generation Graduation, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
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For the second year in a row, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education (MoE) has announced more shocking high school exit exam results, a grim portrayal of the country’s public education system, long neglected, with student performance lagging behind for decades. The MoE had recently embarked on an ambitious plan to bridge the gap and make systemic improvements. But positive results have yet to be borne out. Perhaps it is too naive to expect a short turnaround, but many argue, given promised reforms, this year’s results should have improved, nonetheless.

Ethiopian diaspora-founded organization, Brighter Generation, is determined to make a difference with a technology-assisted teaching approach and impact thousands of students across Ethiopia.  

Brighter Generation is a platform that rallies professional global volunteers, including members of the Ethiopian diaspora and second-generation college students, in knowledge sharing with Ethiopian leaders and innovators, both virtually and in person. This non-profit organization, recognized as a 501c (3) entity and registered in Virginia, USA, was established through the collaborative efforts of Dr. Berhanu Bulcha, a NASA space scientist who is globally recognized for his contribution on developing space technologies to find water on the Moon, and Dr. Tsega Solomon, a biochemist who works on drug development, with support from other diaspora professionals.

Brighter Generation virtual class in Adama, Ethiopia. On the left side of the screen, Diaspora instructor Yeabsira Mohammed, a student at Harvard and on the right Deborah Solomon, a professional in Public Health (MPH)

The twelfth-grade matriculation, or university entrance exam, is one common measure used in the country to gauge student performance. The test has been marred in systematic cheating scandals for years. Lately, there has been an attempt to minimize cheating, and the effort seems to be bearing fruit, revealing the real picture of where students truly stand, although the result is not pretty. According to the MoE, in 2023, out of 850,000 matriculations, only 3% (27,000 students) passed (scored above 50 percentile). The score was essentially unchanged from last year when a robust controlled setting for test-taking was first introduced nationwide. 

The Minister of Education, professor Brehanu Nega, who taught University in the United States, and was involved in opposition politics for years, said last year, “Measuring where things stood was the first and obvious step.…. It’s where everything starts naturally and trying to clean up the matric examination was a good entry point”. He added, “Now we have a good understanding of student performance by school location, but test performance is not everything, and a holistic approach, starting at grade level, is needed”. 

Identifying the problem has been a big step forward. But this year’s test score data is not to realize the problem. That was already established last year. It is rather to quantify how much progress was made from last year. By that measure, progress seems to be stuck. Approximately 27,000 students out of 195,000 available university spots qualified to get in. So, there is a vacuum, which means one year’s worth of remedial education is needed to qualify 86% of students for university after they graduate high school. This costly grace period was also required last year. When you delve into the data a bit more, it becomes even more daunting. Only 0.03% or 3,000 students nationwide actually scored above 84% or a B score. That means even those 27,000 who got into college are in because of leniency by international standards (Scoring above 50 percentile).

Data visualization by Abren. Data source:MoF. Numbers have been rounded.

Nonetheless, the students and teachers alike have had to contend with extraordinary circumstances. There was the covid pandemic related interruptions, and then conflict related school closures left many unprepared. The curriculum itself is something that no one talked about until very recently. Students begin their education in one of dozens native languages, adding the official language of Amharic a bit later. When they reach high school, everything suddenly becomes English, a language most students nor the teachers have a full grasp on. While this is not an issue for those attending expensive private schools, a vast majority of students struggle. The University entrance exam is almost entirely an English language-based test. It is also a lot more in-depth than the SAT, an exam most American high schoolers are familiar with. For instance, a student choosing the social science track in junior year will be tested on English, Math, History, Civics, and Geography. The test takes days, not hours. Speaking about exam week, Liyu Asrat, a student who recently took the exam in Addis Ababa stated, “Before they used to let students go home in between exam days, but new rules mean we have to stay in our assigned dorms the entire week”. This was done to minimize widespread cheating.

The need to move the needle forward is now looming, requiring an all-hands-on-deck approach. Education, alongside nutrition, is perhaps the one single area where real societal dividends can be had for Ethiopia. The generational aspect of education is crucial, and focusing on the younger students will pay dividends in the years to come. The shared reward is not all that apparent now. It may seem slow, but steady incremental gain is what it takes to bridge the large gap that exists today. 

One area for boosting progress is through technology. It offers a great opportunity to virtually connect talented and motivated teachers abroad with young students across Ethiopia in ways that impart real practical skills and knowledge, particularly in problem-solving, critical thinking, reading, writing, and community projects. Dr. Berhanu Bulcha, founder of Brighter Generation, says, “Now, if we pinpoint the issues, it goes back to qualified teachers – That’s where we come in; Brighter Generation provides a platform for global professionals with years of experience and academic excellence who can offer enrichment courses for students and local teachers to change the numbers you see.”

For long periods, education in Ethiopia had been largely based on monotonous memorization and regurgitation, where the focus was more on quantity. A shift in approach is needed to overcome practical challenges, however. Students need a good foundation, and tools such as ones offered by Brighter Generation are innovating ways to fill the gap where resources may be lacking. Dr Brehanu Bulcha agrees ‘educating the future generation is a collective responsibility, and members of the diaspora have a lot more they can contribute’. 

While based virtually, the courses offered by BG are hands-on and interactive. Accordingly, “in every center, we have two local teachers assigned to observe while the global instructor is teaching the class via video link – the local teachers are crucial to hands-on projects”, according to Dr. Berhanu Bulcha. The platform includes globally recognized educators, scientists, engineers, medical doctors, pharmacists, and business experts, all of whom contribute some of their time and effort to teach virtual real-time courses to students in 30+ locations across Ethiopia. The program had its third graduation ceremony on September 23 after completing a three-month program and graduated more than 750 students. In this ceremony, the program announced the release of a book, BILIH (ብልህ), timeless stories with moral lessons for all ages, particularly for the youth and young adults written in collaboration with their students.

The Brighter Generation program was launched in the summer of 2022, reaching 110 students across 9 locations in Ethiopia. In 2023, the virtual program expanded its scope significantly, impacting 750 students across 30 locations in Ethiopia. The in-person winter program was demonstrated through a six-week course in January 2023, featuring a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students who traveled to Ethiopia to teach over 130 high school students at four learning centers.

Over 100 global volunteers collectively contributed engaging and interactive courses, and fulfilling Brighter Generation’s mission is to nurture and motivate a generation of Ethiopian leaders and innovators who will address the core needs of their developing nation.

In its second-year anniversary, the Brighter Generation has taught hundreds of students with the support of the Global volunteers actively engaged, making a lasting impact on the next generation. According to Dr. Berhanu Bulcha, the organization aspires to include hundreds of professional volunteers across the world to reach thousands more students and support the education system in Ethiopia.  You, too, can join this initiative by signing up to volunteer.

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