Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Private Schools for the Poor

Everyone knows that private schools are for the middle class and the rich. Especially in the Third World. Back in 2000 James Tooley found out that it ain't so. Three years ago he published his research conducted in India, Africa, and China.

In fact there is a thriving private school industry in much of the Third World. Only it operates under the radar--under the radar of government officials and under the radar of international development experts.

Now James Tooley has written a book, The Beautiful Tree: A personal journey into how the world's poor are educating themselves. It presents his research as a personal narrative.

Public education in the Third World is like public education in the developed world. It is a political patronage machine. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the public education teachers and administrators do an even worse job of teaching the poor than they do in the developed world.

But the Third World poor are not just sitting around doing nothing. They have built a private school industry of unregulated schools that outperform the government schools and come close to meeting the rich-kid private schools in performance.

We know that because James Tooley has measured it. He's tested kids in government schools, in unregulated and regulated privates schools, and he's done it in Africa, in India, and in China.

And now he's gotten money from foundations to assist the unregulated private school sector in the Third World. The idea is that education should be run by private entrepreneurs. It's quite a concept.

You see, Tooley has discovered that private, profit-making schools are just what the doctor ordered. The only way the school owner can make money is by giving the customers what they want. Otherwise they'll go to another nearby competitive school. That means that he needs to keep tabs on his teachers and give the parents what they want. What they want is effective, practical education that will help their kids get ahead.

In India, what parents want is "English-medium" schools. That means that the school teaches all subjects in English. Guess what.

In Hyderabad, 88 perent of recognized schools and 80 percent of unrecognized schools reported they were English medium, compared with fewer than 1 percent of government schools.

Why the difference? Well, in India, government schools have to be "mother-tongue," so kids get to be taught in the language of their birth. Sounds like a great idea: multiculturalism, diversity and all that.

Only one problem. Parents don't want mother-tongue schools. They want English-medium schools and they are prepared to pay for it.

[P]oor parents told me that they wanted their children to be proficient in English, which they perceived to be the international language, the language that would help their children get ahead in business and commerce and lift their families out of poverty.

It's quite a concept. Letting parents decide what they want for their children's education. Of course, it would never work here in the United States.

But can the poor afford it? Well, the typical fees charged by these schools are about $2.00 to $3.00 per month. An unskilled job might earn about $50 per month. It's a big expense, but worth it if it takes your family out of the slums.

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