The Secret Schools: Across the World, Poor Parents are Paying to Educate Their Children

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The Secret Schools: Across the World, Poor Parents are Paying to Educate Their Children

August 10, 2009 4 min read
Ben Lieberman
Ben Lieberman
Former Senior Policy Analyst, Energy and Environment Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies
Ben Lieberman was a specialist in energy and environmental issues.




The Secret Schools: Across the world, poor parents are paying to educate their children

By Dan Lips

People across the world have been inspired by the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea -- the story of mountain climber Greg Mortenson's personal journey to promote peace in remote Pakistan and Afghanistan, "one school at a time." But Mortenson's heroic tale fails to offer a realistic solution to the challenge that has vexed the international-aid community: How can we ensure that even the world's poorest children have a chance to go to school?

University of New Castle professor James Tooley offers a surprising answer in his new book, The Beautiful Tree. He presents a story of different kind of heroism -- one that is emerging from within the developing world. From the slums of India to the shantytowns of Africa to the remote mountain villages of China, Tooley discovers that the world's poorest people are creating their own schools to give their children a brighter future.

Professor Tooley's unlikely journey begins in India. While working on a World Bank research project studying private schools serving the middle class and elite, the author worries that his work will do nothing to help the poorest children. Pangs of guilt drive him to leave the comforts of his five-star hotel to explore the slums of Hyderabad. There, in the dirty, narrow streets, Tooley discovers something that most development experts "knew" did not exist: a vibrant market of for-profit schools serving working-class children.

Professor Tooley recounts his visit to dozens of these schools. The majority were housed in modest -- or even shoddy -- facilities. But the author found teachers who were energized and attentive to students' needs. Principals actively supervised classrooms to ensure that teachers were providing quality instruction. In short, the schools operated like businesses -- driven to provide their customers with good service. Modest tuition payments (what amounted to a few dollars per month) from parents -- who included day-laborers, rickshaw pullers, and mechanics, all of whom typically earn about a dollar per day -- funded the schools.

Upon reporting his discovery to colleagues in international-development circles, Professor Tooley was met by disbelief. The conventional wisdom of the aid community is clear: Private schools only serve the rich. Expanding government support for free public education is the only way to ensure that the world's poorest children are educated.

But Tooley found that the private schools of Hyderabad's slums are not unusual. Journeys into the poorest corners of Africa and Asia revealed similar low-cost, fee-charging private schools. Tooley and a team of field researchers document how private schools, often unrecognized by the government, are educating a majority of the kids in some of the world's poorest communities.

The author argues that two powerful forces make these schools possible: entrepreneurialism and parents' desire to provide their children with a better future. School leaders are working to create viable businesses by providing a necessary and valued service in their communities. And parents are willing to spend a portion of their meager earnings to ensure their children receive an education.

Having proven that these low-cost private schools exist, Professor Tooley considered a new question: Why would parents be willing to make a considerable financial sacrifice when government-funded public schools offer a free alternative? He visited many public schools during his journey and encountered common problems, such as rampant teacher absenteeism, corruption, and mismanagement.

In one colorful anecdote, the author describes leading a BBC documentary crew into a Nigerian public-school classroom. Cameras roll as the teacher lies sprawled across his desk, fast asleep. An older student tries to tutor her classmates from a textbook. Thrilled to see a camera crew enter their class, embarrassed students try unsuccessfully to wake their teacher. According to Tooley, this scene is frighteningly common in the developing world.

But Tooley's case for low-cost private schools doesn't rest on troubling anecdotes like this. His field researchers conducted a testing experiment to compare the academic achievement of students from public and private schools. The results were overwhelming: The private schools regularly outperformed the public schools. And they delivered these results despite being dramatically outspent by the public schools. In Delhi, for example, public-school teachers earn roughly seven times more than their counterparts in low-cost private schools.

Professor Tooley's pioneering research has turned the development community's conventional wisdom on its head with a message of personal empowerment. Instead of being dependent on foreign aid and public schools, the world's poorest people are educating their children on their own dime. Tooley argues that the policy and international-aid community should focus efforts on supporting the private sector -- including offering micro-loans to school providers and sponsoring charity scholarships for the neediest students.

While the natural audiences for this book are researchers and development workers, The Beautiful Tree is written to appeal to a mainstream reader. Like Three Cups of Tea, Tooley's story reads like an adventure. We even see the author escape interrogation by a threatening official from the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Through a well-written and engaging narrative, the author invites readers to corners of the globe where few of us will ever travel. He introduces us to inspirational people -- parents, teachers, and school leaders joined in the common struggle to improve the lives of the next generation.

The Beautiful Tree deserves a wide audience and should be required reading for everyone involved in the struggle to ensure universal education for the world's poor.

Dan Lips is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. This piece first ran on National Review Online.


Ben Lieberman
Ben Lieberman

Former Senior Policy Analyst, Energy and Environment Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies