Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Private schools for the poor in the developing world

I’m not talking about Choate or Rugby, but SDP’s Ken Blanchard calls our attention to this piece, describing the research and experience of British education professor James Tooley, who has looked at the performance of small private schools for the poorest of the poor in the developing world. A couple of snippets from the article:

What Tooley stumbled onto in Hyderabad turns out to be typical not just of India but of all the other places he subsequently researched—including parts of China, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria. In every case, private education is a principal lifeline for the abjectly poor. In the areas of Ghana and Nigeria that Tooley’s team has canvassed, an outright majority of poor children are attending private schools run without support from the government. Often, the schools are run by just a few teachers. They put out shingles in the way that physicians do in the United States, and are paid directly by their charges.


Tooley’s research suggests that small-scale support for private slum schools—through scholarship programs, backing for school-voucher schemes, or subsidized microfinance—might do far more good than a big aid push directed at government-run education.

Tooley has been publishing his research in education journals but has also written for libertarian and conservative think tanks. Unfortunately, these associations have pushed him further outside the development mainstream. Perhaps most alienating, his findings (as he notes) conform very well to the views of the late Milton Friedman, who spent the last years of his life arguing that publicly funded vouchers and a market of privately run competing schools were the way to fix another education system in urgent need of repair: America’s. All the more reason why, so far as some development officials are concerned, Tooley’s obscurity is welcome.

For a taste of Tooley’s research, go here and here.

According to Tooley,

[Development experts] instead point out that private schools employ untrained teachers who are paid much less than their government counterparts and that buildings and facilities are grossly inadequate. Both of these observations are largely true. But does that mean that private schools are inferior, particularly against the weight of parental preferences to the contrary? One Ghanaian school owner challenged me when I observed that her school building was little more than a corrugated iron roof on rickety poles and that the government school, just a few hundred yards away, was a smart new school building. “Education is not about buildings,” she scolded. “What matters is what is in the teacher’s heart. In our hearts, we love the children and do our best for them.” She left it open, when probed, what the teachers in the government school felt in their hearts toward the poor children.


When it came to the key question of whether or not teaching was going on in the classrooms, both types of private schools were superior to the public schools, except in China, where there was no statistically significant difference between the two school types: 92 percent of teachers in private schools were teaching when our researchers arrived, compared with 89 percent in the public schools. When researchers called unannounced on the classrooms in Hyderabad, 98 percent of teachers were teaching in the private recognized schools, compared with 91 percent in the unrecognized and 75 percent in the government schools. Teacher absenteeism was also highest in the government schools. In Ga, 57 percent of teachers were teaching in government schools, compared with 66 percent and 75 percent in unrecognized and recognized private schools, respectively. And in Kibera, even though the number of government schools is too small to make statistical comparisons meaningful, 74 percent of teachers were teaching in private schools when our researchers visited them, and only one teacher was absent.


[I]t is not the case that private schools serving low-income families are inferior to those provided by the state. In all cases analyzed, even the unrecognized schools, those that are dismissed by the development experts as being obviously of poor quality seem to outperform their public counterparts.

And lest you think that this is all just about the developing world, Tooley offers lessons for America:

The evidence from developing countries might challenge the claim, made by school choice opponents, that the poor in America cannot make sensible and informed choices if school choice is offered to them. It may also stimulate debate about whether public intervention crowds out private initiative, a question raised by the findings from Kenya. If a public school is failing in the ghettoes of New York or Los Angeles, we should not assume that the only way in which the disadvantaged can be helped is through some kind of public intervention. In fact, we have already embarked on programs that support private initiative, with government support, with vouchers and charter schools. The findings here suggest this alternative approach may be the preferable one.

Above all, the evidence should inspire those who are working for school choice in America: stories of parents’ overcoming all the odds to ensure the best for the children in Africa and Asia, stories of education entrepreneurs’ creating schools out of nothing, in the middle of nowhere. If India can, why can’t we?


Update: Or actually backdate: John Moser caught this weeks ago.

Discussions - 1 Comment

The question, "Why can’t we?" is, I’m sure, rhetorical. As you know, the answer is because of the Democratic Party and its supporters, the teachers’ unions. A friend of mine is a high level public school official, and I hear about elementary school teachers who hate kids, and how, at those young ages, there are valid data showing that one year with a bad teacher causes irreversible educational harm. Bad teachers cannot be fired, per union contract; they can be reassigned to other schools though.

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