Reply to Diane Ravitch re. Bridge International Academies
I'm on the board of Bridge International Academies, which runs more than 460 low-cost private schools, serving nearly 100,000 students, in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and, soon, India and Liberia. Bridge addresses one of the world's most severe and vexing problems: that children in the ~800 million families around the world subsisting on less than $2/day (roughly half in India and most of the rest in sub-Saharan Africa) are getting little/no education, thereby almost certainly trapping them in desperate poverty.
Bridge has its critics. The more successful it is, the more threatening it is to the local teachers union and educational establishment, so they've been stirring up lots of trouble, threatening regulatory action, spreading rumors, etc. Bridge's global ambitions have also drawn the ire of Education International, the global union federation of teachers' trade unions.
Diane Ravitch, not surprisingly, has criticized Bridge, writing:
"I have blogged about Bridge, not favorably. I don't like the idea of opening for-profit schools in poor countries. Not just the for-profit part, but it lets the government off the hook so it need not provide a free public education system for all of its children. It will outsource it to Bridge."
Here is the email I sent her today in response, which she said she will post on her blog:
I suspect you're going to oppose Bridge no matter what I write because it's a mostly non-union for-profit business that typically charges poor parents tuition.
But what the heck – worth a try.
As background, Bridge runs more than 460 low-cost private schools, serving nearly 100,000 students, in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and, soon, India and Liberia (which is in the process of inviting school management companies like Bridge to run its schools; in September, Bridge will implement its model to try to turn around 50 currently failing public primary schools in partnership with the government).
One thing both you and I agree on is that poverty has an enormous effect on a child's ability to learn. This is exactly what Bridge has set out to help solve. Bridge addresses one of the world's most severe and vexing problems: that children in the ~800 million families around the world subsisting on less than $2/day (roughly half in India and most of the rest in sub-Saharan Africa) are getting little/no education, thereby almost certainly trapping them in desperate poverty.
Most of these children attend at least elementary school (K-8), which is now usually free even in the poorest countries, but there are two big problems: 1) they're really not free: the schools charge various fees for uniforms, textbooks and supplies, teachers demand bribes to pay attention to a child, etc.; and 2) the government schools are horrifically bad – not inner-city U.S. bad, but 10x worse. For example, teacher absenteeism averages 25-35% in surveys in various poor countries, plus 25-50% of the teachers who do show up aren't teaching – they're hanging out, running side businesses at the school, etc. Thus, the effective absenteeism rate is ~50% (Bridge's, in contrast, is 99% lower at 0.5%). And the half that are in the classroom are teaching a mere 2 hours and 19 minutes a day on average and are barely literate themselves: 65% of teachers in Kenya couldn't pass an exam based on the curriculum they teach.
Consequently, the parents of roughly half of these children worldwide instead send them to low-cost private schools, somehow scraping together the fees, which average ~$6/month (not much different than what they'd be paying anyway at the supposedly "free" government schools). These schools, typically microenterprises run by local entrepreneurs who might have a high school education at best, are scarcely better than the government schools, but at least the teachers show up every day (otherwise the parents won't pay).
This is where Bridge came in. Its co-founders looked at this market and asked: "How can we guarantee quality for these parents, as a price point they can afford?" They looked at the core challenges – teacher preparedness and absenteeism, absence of learning materials, lack of monitoring and evaluation, etc. – and designed a model to tackle them. By designing the model for scale, Bridge was able to invest up front in research and development, technology and training.
Essentially Bridge goes to some of the most marginalized communities in the countries it operates in, identifies local talent, trains them in pupil-centered learning and gives them the resources they need to be great teachers. It then provides a comprehensive central support system for these teachers, and uses technology (tablets and smart phones) to monitor attendance and learning outcomes.
The evidence is showing that it is succeeding: Bridge pupils reach fluency at twice the rate of their peers, as shown in the study, The Bridge Effect, posted here. This is the equivalent to 32% more schooling in English and 14% more in math (0.34 SD in reading, 0.13 SD in math effect size).
And most importantly to parents in Kenya, a few months ago Bridge students earned historic results on the KCPE, the exam given to all 8th graders in the country, which largely determines which students will go to high school, and of what quality. Bridge students were 2.5x more likely to earn a score that qualified them for National Secondary Schools (the highest-rated schools) and 2.4x more likely to earn a score that qualified them for County Secondary Schools (the next-highest-rated schools). Overall, Bridge students had a 60% pass rate (a score of 250+ on the 500-point scale) vs. 44% nationwide, with a 264 mean score vs. 242 (a 0.37 SD effect size). In summary, based on measured pupil growth in terms of standard deviations above the control, what happened with Bridge students on the KCPE is among the largest impacts ever seen in a large-scale education intervention globally.
Perhaps most importantly, Bridge is developing and supporting a cohort of confident and ambitious young people and giving them the opportunities for a better future. It secured over 100 scholarships for its graduating class to attend high school in the US and Kenya and is working on a long-term scholarship program. I recommend you watch this clip of a 13-year-old Bridge graduate and scholarship recipient, Grace, talking to a crowd of 1,200 women. I don't know many American kids that age with that such confidence, poise and eloquence. And here's a picture of Rahab, who performed for Liberian President Sirleaf last year and led her dance team to a top-10 placing at the national music competition last year:
Bridge has its critics. The more successful Bridge is, the more threatening it is to the local teachers union and educational establishment, so they've been stirring up lots of trouble for Bridge, threatening regulatory action, spreading rumors, etc. Bridge's global ambitions have also drawn the ire of Education International, the global union federation of teachers' trade unions.
In response to critics, let me be clear: neither you nor I would send our kids to a Bridge school. To make the schools affordable ($6/month doesn't go very far, even in poor countries!), extracurriculars are limited and the facilities are pretty basic. There's no glass on the windows. The campus is small. The floors are concrete. Children sit at benches. But, this is similar or better than what other schools look like in the area.
The teachers all teach off teacher guides, developed centrally to align to the country's educational standards and delivered wirelessly to a small tablet device like a Nook or Kindle. Thus, if you walked into a 3rd grade math class at any of Bridge's ~400 schools in Kenya at 10am on Tuesday, you would find the same lesson being taught. Each class might be at different places in the lesson according to the needs of the kids, but all teachers are on the same scope, sequence and lesson plan. They still have to maintain order, engage the class in discussion, help struggling students, etc. – but they don't spend any time developing a curriculum or lesson plans.
One of Bridge's core successes is getting teachers to master classroom management techniques. They are taught how to lead a class without beating the children, which is very common. Many Bridge students say that this is the first time they have teachers who listen to them, allow them to ask questions, and develop a positive relationship with them.
About 30% of Bridge teachers in Kenya have a teaching certificate. Interestingly, based on the careful tracking and evaluation Bridge does of all of its teachers, it can detect no difference between the certified teachers and those who aren't (Bridge does a three-week training program for all new teachers, whether certified or not).
To track the progress of every student, Bridge develops and regularly administers internal tests, whose results are collected centrally, so it can tell which students have mastered the material that was just taught, and let principals and teachers know which students need extra help.
To your argument that "it lets the government off the hook so it need not provide a free public education system for all of its children. It will outsource it to Bridge." I agree that, in a perfect world, the governments of Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia and India would provide a truly free, quality education to all children. OK, now let's get back to the real world. Have you ever been to any of these countries? I can assure you that it will be decades before any of these countries even come close to this goal. In the meantime, Bridge is ready, willing and able to provide this right now – at a cost far below what governments are spending (Bridge estimates that Kenya spends ~$350/pupil/year vs. Bridge at less than $100 – for a far better result). In light of the cost and outcomes, the more governments (like Liberia's) that engage Bridge as a partner to deliver publicly-financed education, the better. In fact, I hope that Bridge's future lies in this area – performance-based government contracts – rather than charging poor families for something that we both agree should be free.
For further information, the Economist did a cover story last year about low-cost private schools (click here to read it), and here is a link to a video Bridge made.
I'd welcome any questions or comments you have.