First Principles March 2007

The Ten-Cent Solution

Cheap private schools are educating poor children across the developing world—but without much encouragement from the international aid establishment.

If good ideas were all that mattered, everybody who has heard of Jeffrey Sachs would have heard of James Tooley as well—but they aren’t, and you almost certainly haven’t. In fact, even if you are keenly interested in education, aid, or Third World development, which are Tooley’s areas of research, you still probably haven’t heard of him.

This is not because his work is dull or unimportant. His findings are surprising, and they bear directly and profoundly on the relief of extreme poverty all over the world. (Name me a more important issue than that.) The reason you haven’t heard of James Tooley is that his work is something of an embarrassment to the official aid and development industry. He has demonstrated something that many development professionals would rather not know—and would prefer that you not know, either.

Tooley is a professor of education policy at England’s University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Several years ago he was working as a consultant in Hyderabad, India, for the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank. One afternoon, while wandering around the alleys beside the Charminar (a sixteenth- century monument and Hyderabad’s best-known tourist attraction), he came across a school for the children of slum dwellers. To his surprise, he found that this was not a state school but a private one—providing education to the extremely poor and collecting fees (of a few rupees a day, or less than a dime) for its services. Intrigued, he kept looking, and found other, similar schools. They were typically small and shabby operations, sometimes occupying a single classroom, staffed in some cases by just the teacher-proprietor and an assistant. Yet they were busy—crowded with eager pupils—and the teacher was actually teaching. (This, Tooley knew, was not something you could take for granted in the classrooms of Indian public schools.)

For years education officials in most developing countries (and workers in international aid agencies, too) have talked as though private education for the very poor barely existed. The only hope for equipping these unfortunate people with basic literacy and numeracy, they’ve said, was to improve the reach and quality of free, compulsory, state-provided schooling.

But that hope appears dim at the moment. Public schools in most poor countries, where they operate at all, have long been recognized to be ineffective. Teachers are frequently unqualified for their work. Perhaps worse, they are often uninterested in it: In many poor countries, teaching jobs are viewed as sinecures, and many teachers are disinclined to show up for work at all. They do tend to organize, however. Their salaries add up, and public schools in most developing countries make heavy demands on the public purse. The whole issue has therefore been seen as a daunting question of resources: Vast sums will be required to provide free universal education of tolerable quality in Africa and South Asia; there is no cheap alternative; and the help of foreign donors will be essential.

The many fee-based slum schools that Tooley saw within a few minutes’ walk of the Charminar made him wonder about all this. So he began researching the reach and performance of private schools for the extremely poor in India and elsewhere, supported not by an official agency but by the private Templeton Foundation. What he found was startling.

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Clive Crook is an Atlantic senior editor.

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