Thursday, October 22, 2009

Private Education in Action

From the Orange County Register:

James Tooley used to believe the way to eradicate illiteracy and improve education was to make free public schools available to everyone.  Then he ventured into the slums of India.

On a national holiday he took an autorickshaw into the Old City – the slums – of Hyderabad, India. As he shocked his driver with his determination to explore the slums, he discovered that "the stunning thing about the drive was that private schools had not thinned out as we went from the poshest parts of town to the poorest. Everywhere among the little stores and workshops, were private schools!"

So began his journey of discovery.

Tooley that first day encountered Fazalur Rahman Khurrum, head of a ramshackle establishment grandly named the Royal Grammar School and also head of an association catering to private schools serving the poor, with 500 members in Hyderabad alone. Over the next 10 days Tooley visited 50 schools and was impressed by the enthusiasm of students and teachers alike.

It turned out that even though government schools were set up throughout the city, many poor parents had a low opinion of them and scraped together the 60-100 rupees a month ($1.33-$2.22 at exchange rates then) to send their children to private schools. And while many of these schools were begun by people with a special feeling for poor people and a desire to help them, almost none were charities (though all accepted for free or at reduced rates orphans and others who couldn't afford the regular fees) but had to make a profit to survive.

The experts told him the private schools were "businessmen ripping off the poor", that they are a "passing fad", and run by "unscrupulous people who cared only about profit".  I'm surprised there was no mention of "cherry-picking students".

Some of the experts were even aware of shortcomings in public schools. One report on four provinces in India noted that unannounced visits found "teaching activity" was occurring in only half of the government schools, and in a third of them the principal wasn't even around. Reports abounded of teachers sleeping during class time, showing up drunk or not showing up at all. This report even noted some valid reasons parents might prefer private schools:

"In a private school, the teachers are accountable to the manager (who can fire them), and, through him or her, to the parents (who can withdraw their children). In a government school, the chain of accountability is much weaker, as teachers have a permanent job with salaries and promotions unrelated to performance. This contrast is perceived with crystal clarity by the vast majority of parents."

Yet such observations never made it into the executive summaries of such reports.

Undeterred, Tooley took time from his official job – investigating schools for the privileged in every country he visited – to get into the slums to see what the poor were doing for themselves. In Ghana, Somaliland and Goa, he found similar developments: poor parents were sacrificing to send their children to private schools.

Finally, at a conference where he presented his findings, Tooley met Chuck Harper, senior vice president of the John Templeton Foundation, which was interested in "free-market solutions to poverty." He got a grant from the Templeton Foundation and began a research project to explore private schools for the poor and how they stacked up to government schools in quality of education.

Thus he assembled teams of researchers in India, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and elsewhere. In Nigeria he had to negotiate open sewers, mud and narrow alleyways, but he found a thriving community of private schools in the slums of Makoko in Lagos. He found private schools in tiny fishing villages in Ghana, and even in the far reaches of rural China, after officials confidently informed him that there were no private schools for the poor anywhere in that communist bastion.

On one occasion in Ghana, Tooley became impatient with a school proprietor who kept him waiting 20 minutes while she talked to "a very thin, unkempt older man." When he got up to tell her that he was upset by her rudeness and was ready to leave, she simply said, "I'm sorry, but this is a parent." She knew who was important in her world. International experts could wait.

In general, public schools outperformed private schools in one of 14 criteria -- playgrounds.  They were worse than private ones in any number of measures, including drinking water, chalkboards, desks, proper buildings, etc. 

Oh, yes. In results, too.

Tooley's teams tested students in government and private schools and found that when it came to educational attainments the students in private schools outperformed counterparts in government schools dramatically. "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. ... In English, the performance difference was much greater (children in unrecognized schools enjoyed a 35 percentage-point advantage over their public school counterparts, whereas children in recognized schools scored 41 percentage points more)." Private-school students even outperformed public school students in Hindi, though English was usually the medium of instruction.

Tooley's teams found similar results in Nigeria and Ghana (statistical details at And the government schools had far greater resources to work with – in some areas public school teachers were paid seven times what private school teachers were, and international aid agencies, both governmental and private, give money only to government schools.

And the end of the story:

There's a happy ending. In 2006 Tooley won a competition on private-sector development sponsored by the Financial Times. After presenting a paper in Singapore and having it reprinted in the Financial Times, he listened to a message on his answering machine from Richard Chandler, a New Zealander who founded Orient Global, a private investment company. "Professor Tooley," he said, "I've read your article in the Financial Times … well, I'm your investor."

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