Edtech companies like Coursera and Piazza aim to transform classroom learning inside and outside America’s universities, but one start-up has decided to take technologically-enhanced learning to the slums of Kenya and Uganda. There Bridge International Academies runs hundreds of private schools, equipping its teachers with a uniform curriculum delivered via tablet computers. A recent WSJ op-ed piece by the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek captures the promise of private schools in Africa, and also the perils they face as America’s education reform battles go global:
“Bridge’s for-profit educational model is robbing students of a good education and depriving them of their natural curiosity to imagine and learn,” said National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García in October. “This is morally wrong, and professionally reprehensible.”
According to Unesco, the literacy rate among second- and third-graders in Kenya is 32%; in Uganda it’s 27%. The teachers unions blame poverty. Only students who are free from want, they say, can be free to learn.
An alternative explanation is that poor-performing schools in Africa—and India, where Bridge expanded in 2017—are simply not geared for learning. In parts of the developing world, a rigid curriculum leaves many students hopelessly behind. No real attempts are made to monitor school performance. Teachers often lack appropriate skills and frequently fail even to show up to work.
Teachers unions, in their knee-jerk reaction to the expansion of private schools in Africa, seem to confuse cost for value. Yes, private schools may be somewhat more costly than public schools (many so-called “public” schools in the developing world are merely state-subsidized—not free, and they often come with hefty PTA fees), but the value they provide could be much higher than the state-run competition. And, remember, no one is forcing slum dwellers to send their kids to private schools: they’re making a choice to invest in what they think will deliver the best education for their children.
Furthermore, Bridge is working to combat the endemic issues of teacher absenteeism and chronic underperformance that plague schools in the developing world:
Bridge school teachers are provided with lesson plans and teaching scripts. They work eight-hour days. Their attendance is monitored; absences are rare. Student-performance data are collected, analyzed and used to improve outcomes.
In Kenya, progress has been notable. After two years in Bridge schools, 59% of students pass the national primary school exam. That’s 15 percentage points higher than the estimated public-school pass-rate. In 56 communities from 23 rural and urban counties, Bridge had a 100% pass rate among pupils who attended their schools for at least two years.
These unprecedented gains led World Bank president Jim Yong Kim in 2015 to single out Bridge for helping lift students in the developing world into the modern age. His words of praise enraged Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “The World Bank’s promotion of the fee-charging, for-profit Bridge International Academies in Kenya and Uganda is not an appropriate role for the institution,” she said.
As for the appropriate role of the AFT and the likes of Randi Weingarten, how about focusing on what they do best—blocking education reform in America—and cutting back on attempts to dictate the educational future of Africa? After all, Africans have had it with foreigners telling them what kind of education is good and not good for them (that kind of tut-tutting about Africans’ educational choices is reminiscent of the colonial era). In Kenya and Uganda, many parents are getting to send their kids to a good school for the first time—let’s trust their capacity to make the right call.