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Curriculum Reform, Challenges, and

Coping Strategies
In the Ethiopian Educational System
Ethiopia is a nation of more than 70 million people
characterized by diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious groups.
The agrarian subsistence economy falls short of food self-
sufficiency and this remains a major problem for the country.
Following decades of monarchical rule and a seventeen-year
military regime, since the early 1990s Ethiopia has entered into the
process of transformation towards a more civil society. This
transformational process has led to numerous socioeconomic and
political policy reforms. Central to reforms in the education sector
are changes in the school curriculum, the decentralization of
education, the use of regional languages for instruction (as opposed
to the former use of the national language, Amharic), emphasis
upon democratic values, and multiple perspectives in addressing
diversity issues in education. These changes constitute a significant
turning point in the history of education of this country.
Recent reforms in education began with the Ministry of
Education (M.O.E) document, Education and Training Policy
(M.O.E,. 1994). This document begins by describing major
problems of the educational system. These include: problems of
relevance, quality, accessibility, equity, mode of delivery,
inadequate facilities, insufficiently trained teachers, and shortages
of books and other teaching materials. In response to these
challenges, this document recommends changes in the school
curriculum, language of instruction, teacher education programs
and the examination system. These reforms were deemed
necessary strategies for making education more responsive to
educational reform objectives which included: greater emphasis
upon problem solving at all levels, increasing the numbers of
teachers needed for greatly increasing demands, wiser use of
resources, increasing democratic culture, more efficient
dissemination of science and technology, and making education
more responsive to societal needs.
The reform policy priorities requires a change in the school
curriculum, improvement in the professional development of
teachers, the use of regional languages for primary education, and
specialized training of kindergarten and primary education
teachers. The policy further proposes conducting a national
examination at grade eight in order to certify the completion of
primary education.
In an effort to facilitate the reform recommendations, major
changes have been underway in recent years. First, decentralized
curricula guidelines are now in place for primary education across
all regions. This contrasts greatly with the former system, which
required a uniform curriculum practiced nationwide. Moreover,
Regional Education Bureaus now use curricular materials more
responsive to their diverse cultures. For example, rather than the
former requirement that Amharic be used as the medium of
instruction throughout the country, regional (vernacular) languages
of the regions (e.g. Tigrinya, Oromipha, Harari) are being used
instead. In addition, former one-year Teacher Training Institutions
(TTIs) are now being transformed into two-year Community
Colleges for the education and training of teachers for the second
cycle of primary education (Grades 5-8). Further, the national
examination for Grade 8 that was formerly administered only in
the national Amharic language is now being
administered in the regional languages. With these ongoing
reforms, the first group of schoolchildren experiencing the new
curricula completed secondary education (Grade12) in the 2002/03
academic year.
In the course of implementing the new policy, however, some
challenges appear to be emerging regarding the compatibility of
the decentralized curricula, use of regional languages, teacher
education, and the administration of the national examination. The
problems appear to be particularly acute at the second cycle of
primary education (Grades 5-8).
A change in curriculum should take into account the larger
sociocultural context but, should also not neglect the structural
contexts of the educational system (Cornbleth, 1990). During the
process of reform, these sub cultures of educational systems
become either compatible or antagonistic. Compatibility among
reforms prevails when a change in curriculum is followed by
corresponding reforms in other relevant sectors of an educational
system (Shiundu & Omulando, 1992). If antagonism prevails
among the recent reforms in the educational system of Ethiopia,
the realization of curriculum change and the objectives of
education outlined in the reform policy will be challenged. The
synchronicity among the reform efforts, therefore, deserves critical
inquiry since change initiatives, contrary to the aspired goals, may
turn out to be sources of constraints on teaching and on students’
opportunity for learning (Jacklam, 1996).
Cornbleth (2001) raises a critical question regarding what
factors get in the way of teaching for meaningful learning and
critical thinking that incorporates diverse perspectives and students
in terms of constraints/restraints. By extending
her conception of constraints/restraints, the present study
investigates the question of whether incompatibilities prevail
among the reform efforts that may get in the way of teaching for
meaningful learning in the Ethiopian educational system. To
achieve this objective, we examined disharmony among the reform
efforts and subsequent challenges in order to forward suggestions
about the coping strategies.
The present investigation is based on accounts of personal
experiences, field notes, and observations as a teacher educator,
textbook writer and member of curriculum council; and analysis of
policy documents and research reports. In order to conceptualize
the areas of incompatibilities among the reform efforts in the
Ethiopian educational system, categories of interrelated
components were used as the framework of analysis. Accordingly,
components of the reform are grouped into two categories-- (1)
language-related components and (2) teacher-curriculum-related
components. Language-related components include the language
used in schools, for the education of teachers, and for the
administration of the national examination at the end of primary
education. The teacher-curriculum-related components, on the
other hand, involve the demands of the school curriculum, the
capacity of schoolteachers, and the practices of teacher education
programs. The categorization and coding of the prevailing reform
efforts and the emerging areas of challenges in the Ethiopian
educational system are vital to better understanding the problem
and for the identification of possible coping strategies for more
effective teaching and meaningful learning opportunities for
students within the contexts of the reform efforts.
Languages of Instruction and Teacher Education
At the primary level (Grades 1-8) regional languages are
currently used as the medium of instruction. Primary education is
divided into two cycles. The first cycle ranges from Grades 1-4,
while the second cycle extends from Grade 5-8. According to the
Education Sector Development Program Action plan (1999, p.8),
those who teach at the second cycle should be trained in two-year
teacher education colleges. In light of this requirement, Teacher-
Training Institutes (TTIs) that used to provide a one-year
certificate program have been changed to two-year colleges for the
education of second cycle primary teachers. This development has
given rise to the claim by the colleges, as well as the trainees, of
being part of the higher education system of the country.
Accordingly, TTI’s now enroll only candidates who have
successfully completed secondary education, require practice
teaching and curricula and programs that are employed by other
two-year colleges. Further, these colleges use English language as
the medium of instruction. Graduates of the colleges who have
been educated in English, however, teach in primary schools in the
vernacular languages of the various regions of the country.
This incompatibility between languages of instruction and
language in which graduates will actually teach is becoming a
major issue. This issue of diverse languages of instruction was
debated during the Ninth Annual Education Conference organized
by the Ministry of Education (August, 1999). At this event, a
number of Regional Education Bureau officials expressed concern
graduates of Teacher Training Colleges (TTC’S) are less
capable of teaching in the vernaculars. In particular, representatives
from the Oromya Education Bureau (one of largest educational
regions) noted that teachers are unable to effectively teach the new
national curriculum since teaches are trained in English, but must
implement the curriculum in Afan Oromo.
Because of this issue, several conference participants demanded
that native languages should also be used in teacher education
programs. This demand, however, was controversial since it
violates the national language policy of using English at the higher
education level. The students in these programs are also reluctant
to be educated trained in regional languages since this is perceived
to be less acceptable in terms of both academic and social values.
The English language has long been associated with higher-level
learning in the country’s educational system. Thus, the use of
vernaculars at the college level would face some form of
Language of Instruction and National Examination
According to the 1994 Education Policy, national
examinations are to be administered at Grades 8 and 10. The
national examination administered at Grade 8 recently became
controversial in relation to language of instruction. Grade 8 marks
the end of primary education where regional languages are used as
the mode of instruction. In addition to the variations in the
languages of instruction among regions, there are also disparities in
the curricular materials used. This disparity includes content
coverage, areas of emphasis, and availability of resources.
Disparities are found in the way the texts are written, the
availability of
resources, and the patterns of implementation among regions.
The employment of different languages is also posing a challenge
in the preparation and administration of a single national
examination in the country. The question is which language to use
for the preparation of the examination? As different languages are
used for the education at the elementary level, the use of one
language for the preparation and administration of the national
examination presents major concerns. The preparation of separate
region-based examinations using different languages is perceived
to be challenging in terms of maintaining nationwide standards.
Lack of capacity and experience on the part of the Regional
Education Bureaus is yet another language-related concern. The
Regional Bureaus are recent establishments; thus, the availability
of experts in the management of the development, administration,
scoring and reporting of the national examination is another
challenge posed in the consideration of the option of introducing
region-based national examinations.
The issue of maintaining a standard for all students who have
completed Grade 8, on one hand, and the need to address regional
disparities, on the other, have been the major theme of the National
Conference on National Examination organized by the Ministry of
Education in February, 2000. Participants at this Conference
included Regional Education Bureaus, Higher Education
Institutions, and different departments of the Ministry of
Education-- including the National Organization for National
Examinations. Following the review of the technical papers of the
conference and debates, a remedial solution was forwarded. The
resolution proposed that a general framework for the examination
be prepared at
the national level and then the Regional Bureaus prepare their
respective national examinations from this framework in the
languages used for education in the regions. Since this
recommendation appears responsive to the current decentralization
of education in Ethiopia, it has been well-received.
Other proposals at this conference, however, debated the
position that there was a need to change the grade level at which
vernaculars are replaced by English. According to this argument,
the use of vernaculars should be limited to Grade 6. Subsequently,
English should be used as the medium of instruction beginning at
Grade 7 throughout the nation. This alternative offers two major
advantages. First, the use of English beginning at grade seven
would enable children to learn English earlier. This practice, it was
argued, would benefit secondary school children who aspire to
higher education. Secondly, this alternative would solve the
problem of disparities and standards at the Grade 8 national
examination. Apart from these two advantages, it was noted,
limiting vernaculars within the first six years of primary education
would not affect the education of children other than facilitating
early transition from the vernacular to English. With this option, a
national examination could be prepared and offered at Grade 8 in
the English language. However, this alternative of limiting
vernaculars at Grade 6 was left to the option of a change in the
policy of language of instruction. That is, the education policy of
the country requires the use of vernaculars at primary level up to
Grade 8.Thus, limiting the use of vernaculars at Grade 6 calls for a
change in the policy.
Curriculum Reform and Teacher Education
The Education Policy of 1994 requires new strategies for
teaching and learning. This policy encourages problem solving,
student-centered, activity-oriented, and life-related approaches to
instruction. According to Tekeste (1996), these are among the new
inputs and strengths of the policy. These directions have also
influenced the writing of textbooks, which must be responsive to
these changes. A central issue here, however, is how these new
strategies will be introduced and who will support changes in these
directions. Primary teachers today have not been prepared to use
these recommended methodologies. Both practicing teachers and
those who educate them have been schooled in approaches to
instruction in which the teacher transmits information and learners
memorize that which is taught. If recommended changes are to
come about, then changes must be made in both teacher trainer
facilities and through inservice training in the schools.
Those who are in the teacher education programs appear to
be less aware of what is happening in regard to the curriculum
reforms. A study (USAID, 2000) noted that while policy makers
have changed the curriculum for both the first and second cycle of
primary education, the curriculum for the teacher training
institutions and colleges have not changed in support of those
changes. Problems with a lack of change are equally present in the
secondary teacher education preparation programs. In this regard,
the Faculty of Education at universities have barely introduced
orientations reflective of changing policy requirements. Thus,
classroom teachers are being expected to teach in a manner for
which they have
not been prepared. The challenge, according to Little (1994),
is that when policy reforms substantially depart from the teachers’
prior experience, beliefs, and practice, and when the policy
proposes a learning environment for students with which teachers
themselves are less experienced, tensions arise that impede
teachers’ effectiveness and students’ opportunities to learn.
The new curriculum also requires the need to address the
issues of gender and other aspects of diversity in education. Yet,
many barriers must be overcome to advance increased sensitivities
to such areas. In teacher training programs, for example, diversity
topics are very rare in either textbooks or course syllabi.
A survey of graduating classes of the teacher education program of
the Addis Ababa University, for example, revealed low levels of
awareness regarding gender issues in education (Belete, 2000).
This is yet another gap between proposed curricular reforms and
teacher education practices.
In order to assist in the reform process, the Ministry of
Education has recently begun organizing a series of workshops to
orient key teacher/leaders at both the national and regional levels
to reform mandates. Specifically, these workshops are designed to
familiarize participants with the new curriculum in terms of both
pedagogy and subject matter concerns. Participants are expected to
share their knowledge with schoolteachers in their respective
localities and schools. While this approach is at least a beginning,
its impact is dwarfed by the potential changes that could be made
through more responsive teacher education programs. To that end,
the teacher education programs should introduce reforms
in their programs and philosophical orientations in line with
the expectations of the new education policy and the curriculum
that is being introduced into schools.
The Curriculum Reform and Capacity of Teachers
A major challenge at the middle school level (Grades 7-8) is
that teachers at that level are less qualified and, in some cases,
unable to teach the new curriculum for the given level. Teaching at
the middle school level requires a minimum of two years of
college, Yet, the majority of those who are teaching middle school
children have only one -year of college study involving general
aspects of the former curriculum of primary education. Moreover,
new curriculum requires specialized knowledge of school subjects.
Thus, since much of the content of grades nine and ten in the
former curriculum has been shifted down to grade seven and eight
in the new curriculum, teachers are often without adequate subject
knowledge. This problem of inadequately prepared middle school
teachers is commonly expressed by both teachers and parents of
middle school children.
To assist teachers in upgrading their skills to meet the middle
school demands of the new curriculum, distance education and in-
service programs are now being introduced (ESDP, Action Plan,
1999). Through these inservice approaches, thousands of teachers
are expected to receive upgraded training. The summer programs
of universities and colleges constitute the most significant part of
this upgrading scheme. By and large, the Teacher Education
System Overhaul program that has been launched by the Ministry
of Education recently is believed to have made a considerable
contribution to addressing the compatibility issue among the
demands of the new curriculum, increasing the numbers of school
teachers, and is changing practices of teacher education
programs. This program involves revisiting teacher education
programs in the colleges and universities with regard to reforming
their curricular and organizational set up. In a related development,
the Ministry of Education is aggressively expanding the higher
education system in the country; and one of the most emphasized
programs of the expansion is teacher education. Other than the
newly founded institutions, teacher education department and
faculties are being introduced into many of the colleges and
Summary and Recommendations
From the foregoing presentation of the reform efforts that are
taking place in the Ethiopian educational system and the emerging
challenges, one can observe some degree of incompatibility among
the reform efforts. Since reform efforts are so expansive, it is no
wonder that incongruities are likely to occur. In tune with the
political transformation in the country, reforms in education are
characterized by a shift from a centralized tradition towards
decentralization and a multicultural system of education. As a
result of such massive educational changes, the reforms introduced
in some of the components of the educational system result in
incongruities. As part of the ongoing process of reform, efforts
should be directed at identifying the areas of incompatibility and
relevant coping strategies for the successful implementation of the
reforms as an integral part of nation building and development
endeavors. Further, a holistic approach in conceptualizing the
incompatibilities among the components that are interrelated
would help identify the problem areas and the relevant coping
Language-Related Components
The Language Related Components refer to the language of
education, the language of the education of teachers, and the
language for the preparation and administration of the national
examination for primary education. These three components of
primary education are interdependent and should be studied in
relation to one another. This is important because, a change in one
of these three would affect the other two. Ecological relation
explains the relations among the three whereby all variables should
function and synchronize smoothly and harmoniously. Thus, the
efforts made to resolve the incompatibilities that are emerging in
the new educational reform in Ethiopia with regard to the language
of education, the language of education of teachers, and that of the
national examination for the primary education should take into
consideration the implications of the issues of language in both
political and pedagogical terms. The resolution of the prevailing
incongruity among these components of the reform can be sought
in at least two possible options.
Option I
One alternative to solve the problem is based on the
recommendations of the 1994 Training and Education Policy of
Ethiopia. According to the policy, primary education is offered in
the nationality languages. Also, the policy stipulates that the
education of teachers for kindergarten and primary education
should take place in regional languages. This policy, however, does
not specify the language for the preparation and administration of
the national examination. Nevertheless, it would be logical to infer
from the policy statements that if
primary education is offered in vernaculars, and teachers for
the level are supposed to be trained in those vernaculars, then the
examination should also be conducted in the same nationality
languages. This recommendation, however, requires a number of
further measures in the areas of teacher education, administration
of the national examination, and capacity building for the Regional
Education Bureaus.
The Teacher Training Colleges should introduce the use of
vernaculars as the language of training and education of teachers
for primary education. This can be accomplished with the use of
the English language. Accordingly, the national examination at the
end of the primary education needs to be prepared and
administered in the nationality languages that are used as the
medium of instruction for primary education, and for the training
of teachers for the given level. This measure calls for regionalizing
of the national examination. Also, this demands the need for
capacity building of the Regional Education Bureaus in the
knowledge and skills of the development, administration, and
reporting of region-based national examinations. Furthermore, if
this option works out and becomes acceptable, there is a need for a
centrally developed nation wide guide that serves as a form of
standard for all regions. The standard may contain minimum
requirements of the primary education curriculum that should be
essentially included in the region-based national examinations.
This option would accommodate disparities and diversities among
regions, and meet the recommendations of the educational policy
of the country.
Option II
A second option recommends the use of English language
nationwide as the medium of instruction at the middle school level
of grades seven and eight. Thus, the use of nationality language as
the medium of instruction would be limited up to Grade 6. This
measure would need to be accompanied by the use of the English
language for the education of teachers for middle level primary
education. With this option, the language for the preparation and
administration of the national examination would be in English,
and the examination would be developed and administered at the
Federal level. However, as this option deviates from the
recommendation of the policy, it requires a change in the policy of
the language of education at the middle school level.
Teacher-Curriculum Issues
The second category of analysis of the educational reform
efforts in Ethiopia includes demands of the curriculum, the
educational background of the school teachers, and teacher
education concerns. Congruity among these three variables plays a
crucial role in the successful implementation of the new
educational policy of the country. That is, the requirements of the
new curriculum should serve as the framework in for revising the
teacher education programs that, in turn, should be the basis for the
subject matter and pedagogical upgrading and reorientation
programs for the teaching force. Subject matter and pedagogical
domains for the competence of the teaching force need to be
fulfilled by the available institutions of teacher education in the
country. Thus, the role of teacher
education programs in the effective implementation of the
curriculum should be utilized in upgrading the existing teaching
force that is less qualified than expected by the new curriculum.
The teacher education programs, therefore, should look
inwards and examine their practices and introduce reforms in their
programs in light of the new curricular requirements. In this
regard, teaching strategies that are based on problem solving, and
that are life related, activity oriented and multicultural should be
made a part of the teacher education programs of the colleges and
universities of the country.
Critical examination of the recent reform efforts in the
various components of the Ethiopian education system reveals
incompatibility, particularly among the reforms in the areas of the
school curriculum, the teacher education program, the national
examination, and the language of instruction. The prevailing lack
of synchronicity among the reform efforts can be conceptualized in
terms of two interrelated issues-- Language-Related Issues and
Teacher-Curriculum issues. Thus, measures taken regarding one of
the issues is are likely to affect the other. Therefore, any solution to
the emerging problems of incompatibility among the elements of
the system requires a holistic approach. Measures taken to
synchronize the reform efforts in the decentralization of
curriculum, language of instruction in schools, language of teacher
education, requirements of the new curriculum, capacity of school
teachers, national examination, and practices of teacher education
institutions should minimize, if
not avoid, the constraints of the reform efforts on teaching for
meaningful learning. Also, this would pave the way towards
maximizing the return on education for the individual as well as
for societal needs in the country.
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