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Books and Culture

Liam Julian
The Private Schools No One Sees
In the world’s slums, the poor have taken to educating themselves.
19 June 2009

The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, by James Tooley (Cato Institute, 268 pp., $19.95)

University of Newcastle professor James Tooley journeyed to Hyderabad, India in early 2000 at the behest of the World Bank, to study private schools there. Or, more specifically, to study familiar private schools—that is, those that served the children of middle-class and wealthy families.

But while on a sightseeing excursion to the city’s teeming slums, Tooley observed something peculiar: private schools were just as prevalent in these struggling areas as in the nicer neighborhoods. Everywhere he spotted hand-painted signs advertising locally run educational enterprises. “Why,” he wondered, “had no one I’d worked with in India told me about them?”

Ignorance was surely one reason. Most of Tooley’s colleagues, even those who’d spent decades enmeshed in education policy, were simply unaware that these back-alley private schools existed. But the hush surrounding private schools for the poor also had murkier, less-innocent origins. Breaking the silence, Tooley found, could generate hostility. When he related his Hyderabad discovery at the World Bank office in Delhi, for example, one staffer “launched into a tirade”: such private schools, she said, were ramshackle and shoddy; they ripped off the poor by charging money for worthless instruction; their owners were motivated solely by profits; and their teachers were unqualified, unskilled, and ineffective.

Her sentiments jibed with the larger development community’s notions about private schools for the poor but not with what Tooley saw in the slums of Hyderabad, where he returned several times to visit schools, observe classes, and chat with students, parents, teachers, and owners. The schools’ physical structures were indeed mostly ramshackle, but they were assembled no worse (and often far better) than the homes of the neighborhood children who learned in them. The owners seemed responsible and often caring, the teachers engaged and capable. And the parents Tooley met were adamant that the tuition they paid—between $1 and $2 per child, per month—was money well spent. They would never send their kids to the local public schools, they said, where facilities were fancier but teachers were truant.

These organic educational institutions captivated Tooley. Over the last ten years, he has labored to learn more about them, to publicize their existence and their successes, and to battle against the idea that they are insignificant. He passionately recounts this decade-long study in The Beautiful Tree, a book that should shake up adherents of traditional wisdom on education.

“Development experts,” as Tooley calls them, have long believed that if citizens of developing countries are to be educated, their governments, helped by heaps of money from rich nations, must invest in free and universal public schooling. If the resultant public education is lousy—as it is in India, for instance—then it must simply be reformed through more money and more regulation. Meanwhile, the poor must be patient.

But the poor have run short of patience, Tooley found, and so they have rejected the development experts’ failed syllogism and created one of their own: You open a school, and we’ll pay you to teach our children. If they don’t learn, we’ll stop paying. Therefore, you will ensure that our children receive a solid education.

In slums around the world, from Lagos, Nigeria and Nairobi, Kenya to rural villages in Ghana and China and places in between, Tooley has discovered poor people opening small private schools that offer alternatives to dismal or inaccessible public education. The schools charge only pennies a day, and most also provide scholarships to orphans or children of the indigent. One in five students in the Hyderabad slums, for example, attends a private school on some kind of need-based scholarship. Whether in Kibera (Kenya) or Gansu (China), these schools all seem to boast committed and punctual teachers, efficient and attentive owners, and satisfied parents.

Tooley visited numerous public schools in these far-flung places as well, and they also share certain traits: a dearth of discipline; teacher complacency; and classes in which students sit and chat instead of learning. Development experts readily acknowledge the shortcomings of public schools in less-wealthy nations. But Tooley expresses bafflement at their proposed remedies—more regulation, more money, better teaching training—especially when impoverished communities have already improvised and created their own successful alternatives.

Just how successful? Do pupils in private schools for the poor actually learn more than those in public schools? To find out, Tooley assembled and trained research teams that eventually tested 24,000 fourth-graders from impoverished areas who attended a range of schools—private schools recognized by the local government, private schools not so recognized, and public schools—in India, Nigeria, Ghana, and China. His findings are stunning:

The results from Delhi were typical. In mathematics, mean scores of children in government schools were 24.5 percent, whereas they were 42.1 percent in private unrecognized schools and 43.9 percent in private recognized. That is, children in unrecognized private schools scored nearly 18 percentage points more in math than children in government schools (a 72 percent advantage!), while children in recognized private schools scored over 19 percentage points more than children in government schools (a 79 percent advantage).

As goes Delhi, so apparently go Hyderabad, Ghana, Nigeria, and China: private-school students drastically outperformed their public-school peers in every location. Through unannounced visits, researchers also determined that the private schools had smaller class sizes and more committed teachers than the public schools. (This proved true everywhere but China, where class sizes and teacher commitment were similar in all institutions.)

The data Tooley unearthed are fascinating. Not only do networks of private schools for the poor exist across the developing world—networks that emerged without any government- or NGO-sponsored help—but their students learn far more than do those of government- and NGO-funded public schools. These private schools for the poor are not only local, entrepreneurial, and efficient: they work.

The Beautiful Tree could have explored one question more thoroughly: when parents pay tuition, does it affect how they and their children perceive education? Tooley does a fine job mining the ways in which tuition creates school accountability, but might the payments not also render a parent more likely to value his child’s schooling and, therefore, to demand that his child be academically diligent? If so, the wisdom of providing free public education might be more tenuous than is generally assumed.

The Beautiful Tree is a refreshing aberration in the stolid ranks of development literature. Tooley writes engagingly and obviously finds the story he tells exciting. His enthusiasm is contagious. One cannot help but think that Tooley has provided the rudimentary outline of how education can be brought to many more millions of the world’s poorest.

Liam Julian is managing editor of Policy Review.

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