Saturday, December 15, 2012

Education by the poor and for the poor

With the people in Newton, Connecticut, I mourn the deaths of the children and others killed in a school there yesterday.

I will not comment - but only offer my prayers. 
However, I just finished an interesting book on education and had finished the review below before I heard of the killings. Though the review has no real relation to the killings, I decided that I wanted to publish it as soon as I could.

The Beautiful Tree: A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves by James Tooley is an intriguing book that I find very hard to review.

I recognize some of my biases toward the obligations of society, often managed through government agencies, to provide good education for all, especially the poor.

But I also recognize that all of my education was in private educational institutions – four different Catholic institutions and one private grad school.

This book is, generally, a compelling read, full of great stories of people who provide education with the poorest.

Against all odds and against the incredulity of many government and aid agencies, James Tooley found hundreds of private schools for the poor in the center of slums and in remote villages in India, Africa, and China. These were often small makeshift schools which one person had started to educate local children, sometimes because of the poor quality of the local public schools, sometimes because there were no schools that were nearby. Sometimes a person, often a woman, had started a kindergarten and then the parents asked her to offer first grade, and subsequent grades.

These efforts are admirable, most often with good results, despite the lack of decent facilities. In studies the author oversaw, these schools generally did better academically than most public schools that were also meant for the poor.

I was appalled, as was the author, at the attitudes of development specialists and public officials to the schools, who denied their presence or degraded the quality of their education, claiming that the owners were only in education for the money.

These private schools have some major advantages: smaller classes, dedicated teachers who show up every day, mostly local teachers, and a proprietor who is interested in the education of the children.

There is also a system of accountability: the parents can always take their kids out of the schools if the teaching is poor; then the school suffers. So the proprietor of the school has to see that the educational experience for the children is as good as possible.

There are problems: poor facilities, teachers who are not always highly trained, and in some places the schools are highly vulnerable to the demands of officials for bribes to be recognized or to avoid fines or closure.

These schools are, to a great extent, a response to a terrible public education system with incompetent teachers, some of whom don’t show up for classes or only do minimal teaching. The children suffer because many of these public school teachers cannot be fired or even held accountable for their failure to work. The teachers in public schools are often fairly well paid and have strong unions, but they do not always have the spirit of working for the common good that the founders of the small private school often manifest.

Supposedly there are parent-teacher associations in the public schools but these often have no power and are at times bought out by the teachers

 Tooley proposes small private schools as the way to deal with the education of the poor. He even cites Gandhi to support his position.

But I fear that he has a one-dimensional approach to the problem of the education of the poor. He appears to see the “profit motive in education” and these small privately-owned schools as “the silver bullet” for the problem, as the “Holy Grail.”

He briefly mentions non-profit schools but does no in-depth study of them. He only notes that in some cases their test scores are lower than ether the privately-owned or government schools.

I believe that Tooley’s analysis does not take into sufficient consideration that there is more than the free market at work in the schools he visited. From his descriptions of the owners and even from part of his analysis, these owners often come across as persons who are really interested in the betterment of the poorest children in their area. Many even provide free or subsidized education for the very poor. These people are motivated not merely by the desire for gain but, perhaps more so, by their concern for the common good. They cannot be reduced to entrepreneurs.

In the last chapter the author makes some suggestions, including vouchers for poor children. I’m not sure that is not a good idea. Yet he goes on to talk about the possibility of chains of private for-profit schools with their own “brand,” as ways to advance this type of schooling. He even talks about “franchises.”

I fear that this reveals a blindness to the problems of bigness, of the power of big money.  Could this be just another example of an ideological approach that unthinkingly advocates the free-market model, without moral constraints?

He also writes approvingly of Milton Friedman’s proposal of “privatization of education."

I believe that Tooley’s suggestions and analysis are clouded by a negative vision of the role of the state, as opposed to the Catholic viewpoint that society, including governments, have  a duty to promote the common good.

It seems appropriate, then, that the book is published by published in 2009 by the Cato Institute, a Washington DC–based think thank, that promotes, in their own words, “dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.”
I fear that this reveals a blindness to the problems of bigness, of the power of big money.  Could this be just another example of an ideological approach that unthinking advocates the free-market model, without moral constraints?

I hope not, but I have my concerns. I don’t think either big governments nor big financial enterprises can give enough voice to the poor. I guess I’m just too influenced by E. F Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and some of Gandhi’s writings on swaraj.

For Gandhi’s vision was different. His goal was swaraj, self-rule, in which people participate in the lives of their community and take responsibility for the community as well as their won families. Gandhi realized that the good of one and the good of the community are intertwined.

Gandhi knew the tyrannical power of outside governments and institutions. I think he’d be as suspicious of large foreign investors in chains of private schools as he was of the British models of centralized, standardized education.

He would applaud small efforts, efforts that don’t overwhelm the role of the people in the poor communities who want decent education for their children and are willing to sacrifice to send them to private schools. He would encourage the proliferation of small efforts of parents and communities, together with leaders or small entrepreneurs, to work together to provide a liberating education.

And so, instead of looking to the market for solutions, I think we must look to the already present bonds of community as well as the good will and community spirit of small entrepreneurs.

I am not opposed to private schools, but I cannot approve Tooley’s free-market, anti-government ideological approach.

I do hope that he can continue to support and promote small scale private and community-based but I wonder if his proposal of chains and franchises will lead to the bureaucracy and power of big money.

My next question, of course, is whether something of this can happen here in Honduras?

There are, of course, some very good public school teachers who are devoted to their students and do wonders. I have seen them and you can see the difference in their students: they are eager to learn, they grasp the course material, they want to continue to study after the sixth grade.

These teachers need to be lauded, encouraged, and rewarded so that they can continue to serve the children here.

But overall, we have a terrible educational problem here: poorly equipped public schools, few and widely scattered middle and high schools, terrible teacher-student ratios, teachers who do not get paid on time, teachers who arrive late and leave early, teachers’ position dependent on the patronage of the two major parties, strong teachers unions that often go on strike (often for good reasons), and a teaching style dependent on repetition and memorization.

What can be done to change this? That’s another post altogether.


Charles said...

The verdict on charter schools, which is in effect what happens with vouchers, is not encouraging.

Now, I happen to know an excellent charter school. Its entire student body is kids the public schools have given up on. So every kid that it graduates--and it graduates almost all-- is a success story. A miracle story, really. So I am not hostile to the idea of charter schools.

But the statistics are dismaying:

The group portrait shows wide variation in performance. The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.

What this says is that overall charter schools are worse than public schools.

Mary said...

Thanks, John, for sharing about this book. We have not been sending kids to this type of private school for a variety of reasons, but are trying an experiment with a few kids next year - where the private school is nearer their home & cheaper (for nursery classes for kids who have never attended school) than the government school.

Many parents give me similar answers to what you mention - but we also find them not having enough teachers (or failing to pay them when the families cannot pay). But it does allow many kids who wouldn't have any other option to go to school!