Sunlight streamed through an oversized classroom window in Kisauni—a slum in Mombasa, Kenya—as a group of 6-year-olds fixed their eyes on their teacher. As he rhapsodized about the intricacies of grammar, he snuck a glance at his Nook e-reader every couple minutes; it was imperative that he follow the guidelines written there. Without much prodding, his students enthusiastically recited the spelling lesson in unison. The cheerful ambience stood in stark contrast to that of most public schools in the poverty-stricken district.

The teacher—or academy manager, to be more precise—worked for Bridge International Academies, a for-profit company that has grown, in only six years, into a behemoth in Kenyan education. The company has done this by focusing on one core tenet: accurately evaluating teacher performance. Its first academy opened in the Mukuru slum in January 2009, and as of October 2014, Bridge has over 350 locations and 100,000 pupils in Kenya, with plans for expansion into other Anglophonic developing countries—Uganda, Nigeria, and India—slated for 2015. In each new location, the goal is the same: to solve the problems that plague primary schooling in the developing world, and make a profit in the process.

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A teacher delivers a scripted lesson in a Mombasa classroom. In keeping with national standards, Bridge students—some as young as four— learn English and Swahili. (Terrance F. Ross)

In the Mombasa classroom, two visitors sat on the sidelines, smiling broadly whenever a student answered a question correctly. Shannon May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, first came up with the idea for Bridge thousands of miles away in rural China. May, then a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of California Berkeley, was teaching English in the Huangbaiyu village in northeast China, where she was able to see the inadequacies of primary education firsthand. “It’s not that kids living in rural China were any less intelligent that people living all around the world,” May told me. “It’s that at the only schools available to these families there was very little education being delivered. The system was foreclosing opportunities for them before they were even 12. It’s not the children. All children can learn if they are put in the right situation."

Working with Kimmelman, an experienced ed-tech innovator who co-founded the Web-based student assessment platform Edusoft in 2000, May launched Bridge in 2008. The couple decided to launch the endeavor in Kenya, where the statistics tell a grim tale. A World Bank Service Delivery Indicators report in 2013 highlights a litany of factors: Every day, children in Kenyan public schools receive 1 hour and 9 minutes less teaching time than their private counterparts. Across a term (semester) this equates to 20 days less of teaching time. Teacher-student ratios are lower, and frequently the teachers fail to show up at all.


Service Delivery Indicators at a Glance

World Bank

Even when the teachers do come to class, it’s unclear how much they’re offering the children. The same report showed that only 35 percent of Kenya’s public school teachers showed “mastery of the curriculum they teach.” Seniority did not correlate with greater competence. As Kimmelman explained, there’s very little regulation of the teaching profession: “A teacher is just put in a classroom and told, ‘Okay, teach, let’s see how well you do by the end of the year.’”

Previous attempts to solve this problem have been expensive, and ineffective. According to the same report: “The government spends more than any of its neighbors. There’s a disconnect between Kenya’s spending on education and learning outcomes. More of the same is not enough.”

Bridge's inexpensive workbooks, developed in house, are covered by the $6 monthly tuition. (Terrance F. Ross)

With public schools in such struggling condition, the country has seen a rise in private schooling over the past decade. Enrollment has grown from 4 percent in 2005 to 12 percent currently. GEMS Cambridge International School, a private schooling company that currently operates in 14 countries worldwide, charges almost $6,500 a year for kindergarten, and that figure grows exponentially as a child moves from grade to grade. In a country where half the population lives on less than a dollar a day, even less-expensive private schools are rarely an option.

This is where Bridge has found its niche: somewhere between the exorbitantly expensive private schools and the absentee-ridden public ones. With a tuition of $6 a month, has positioned itself as an affordable alternative, offering the quality of a private school without the cost.

Mukhtar Abdi Olge, a national coordinator at the Kenyan National Examinations Council, laments “pathetic” teacher commitment in public schools and praises Bridge’s efforts: “They are not only fixing all the aforementioned challenges but also, in each day of their success, shame the government officials and teachers in public schools.”

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Bridge founders Shannon May and Jay Kimmelman visit one of their academies. (Terrance F. Ross)

While the scale of Bridge’s expansion is aggressive, it’s the company’s methodology—known as “scripted instruction”—that’s causing the most controversy. Before the first academy opened, Bridge purchased tablets wholesale (they used Nooks when I visited but Bridge are brand agnostic), modifying them with their own software. The goal was to not only provide the teachers with detailed instructions but also monitor their performance. Teachers must check in via their tablets when they arrive and run their lessons almost verbatim from the tablet’s lesson scripts. Back at Bridge’s Nairobi offices and Massachusetts-based headquarters, all the data is compiled and analyzed. With their company issued smartphones in tow the Academy Managers (the “principals” at the schools so to speak) are in constant contact with headquarters. Their phones also moonlight as a modem for the tablets, syncing various data including: lesson plans, tardiness and test scores. Whenever teachers arrive late to school, miss a class, or even take too long to scroll through a specific lesson, it’s all tracked by Bridge’s “Master Teachers”—the moniker given to members of the company’s analytic team—in nearly real time.

This system all but guarantees consistent results: If you were to walk into any location on a given day (and in the same level class) the teachers would be giving the same lesson. But by its nature, this approach stymies individuality and spontaneity. Dynamic educators who are adept at innovating on the fly and creating unique classroom experiences don’t necessarily exist in the Bridge system. They are eschewed in favor of teachers who can follow instructions well. Bridge’s argument seems to stem from a utilitarian philosophy: Based on Kenya’s dismal public school statistics, it’s better to give all children a basic, reliable education than hope for talented teachers to come along.

“If you look at our teachers versus teachers in another institution you might actually think, ‘Oh well, maybe that teacher has less experience, less education,’” said May. “But in the end, lots of studies have shown that teacher training doesn’t correlate to classroom success. We have teachers actually teaching in the classroom.”

Bridge’s reliance on technology seems particularly fitting in Kenya, a country known as the regional leader in technological advancement. Bridge’s model revolves around what’s known as short-cycle rich-data feedback. The company is also in the process of developing software so teachers know exactly which student to call on for a specific question based on previous test scores and levels of participation.

Bridge cuts costs by building its academies out of inexpensive materials and foregoing electricity. Each academy is painted "Bridge Green." (Terrance F. Ross)

This advanced technology stands in stark contrast to the schools themselves. The academies, constructed either with a cement or brick base with corrugated metal sides and roofs, aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing; in fact, there isn’t even electricity at any of the locations. A generator may be brought in on occasion if needed, but the rooms are outfitted with large windows that make them feel larger and bring in natural light. This lack of frills allows Bridge to scale rapidly. In January 2013 alone, 51 schools were built across the country. Before establishing each one, the company hired locals to scout out the communities, looking for various indicators—from village size and population to the amount time it would take for most students to walk to the school site.

Bridge have also been able to cut corners when it comes to teacher qualification issues. At Kenyan public schools, teachers are required to have official certification, but many poor institutions let this slide out of necessity. Many Bridge teachers are uncertified as well, and some have only have a high school degree. But Bridge scrupulously evaluates its potential teachers. The criteria are vast: In urban areas specifically they must live about 500 meters from the school, and regardless of location they all go through a rigorous roughly 300-hour training program where they are assessed every six days. Bridge doesn’t necessarily seek out for the most dynamic teachers but instead focuses on those who can deliver a lesson clearly and concisely, without wavering off course.

“Part of what we do is ensuring that teachers understand this is a profession, they’re going to be monitored and evaluated,” said May. “They’ll be rewarded when they do well, held accountable for what’s not going well and they can’t just not show up, they can’t just not teach.”

So far, it’s been working: Bridge’s students score an average of 35 percent higher on core reading skills and 19 percent higher in math than their peers in neighboring schools. But not everyone is on board. Kate Redman, a communications and advocacy specialist for UNESCO’s Education For All initiative, isn’t convinced by Bridge’s long-term prospects.

“A large-scale adoption of this method of teaching would signal a very narrow model of education—one where education is most certainly not created through classroom interactions,” she said. “Such an education is unlikely to spur the imaginations of the students or encourage critical thinking or social mobility. It is more likely to lead to rote-learning, and would likely leave little flexibility. There is no evidence it can serve as a permanent approach.”

Redman also warns against Bridge and other private schools for potentially “imposing external cultural values” on the country. While private schools can help, it can be a slippery slope as well—the onus should remain on public schools to keep improving. Kenya’s current education system dates back to 1984, when the Commonwealth nation emancipated itself from the British curriculum. There have been problems ever since, but Redman insists that Kenya needs to find its own footing. “The school curriculum is more than the inculcation of basic skills. It is also a reflection of culture and cultural diversity,” she said. “Only by creating a national curriculum, incorporating cultural understandings, can authorities address particular local and national challenges.”

Bridge's e-readers not only contain scripted lessons and monitor teacher attendance; they also contain information about each student. (Terrance F. Ross)

Bridge has already faced a number of cultural hurdles in a land where tribal ties run deep. Inevitably Bridge once found itself in the middle of a family dispute—one of their locations was completely burned down overnight by a resident who thought he was entitled to the land Bridge had leased from his mother. Eventually the mother attempted to renege on the deal and the case was sent to the courts. The company has also dealt with closures: Earlier this year, two of its locations were shut down in the Kuria District (only briefly, according to Bridge) due to registration concerns. One report claimed that Bridge officials were advertising free schooling in an attempt to bolster their numbers; when the residents were forced to pay, they complained to the government, which may have led to the shutdown.

“They have also lost many pupils due to parental dissatisfaction with the basic physical structures they call ‘schools,’” Redman said.

Bridge has denied these claims, citing sensationalism in Kenya’s media as the source. In places like Kenya, details do tend to get muddied quickly. Efforts to contact the reporters in question were met with no response.

For all its possible flaws, Bridge’s supporters insist that the company is filling a much-needed role in a country whose public schools simply aren’t working. Redman sees this as too simple an argument.

“That is the line given by anyone working in private schools,” she said. “While to some extent it may be true in certain circumstances, you have to ask yourself whether all the energy spent on such schools might not have been better spent.”

Mombassa Governor Hasan Joho observes a classroom and asks questions about scripted instruction. (Terrance F. Ross)

Harry Patrinos, a manager for The World Bank’s education sector, doesn’t share Redman’s concerns. He believes private companies like Bridge can have a “spillover effect,” inspiring governments to try new things.  “In the few countries where we’ve seen a great presence of private schools, the public sector response, either because of competition or pride, was, ‘We can do it [too]!’” he said, adding, “We need to explore all avenues. Maybe it is part of the puzzle that for some learners, a scripted program is great. But from all of those innovations, there are lessons to be learned. And whether you replicate those innovations or take those elements and put it into the public system—either way, the system will improve.”

Patrinos’s observations reminded me of my own visit to the Bridge schools in Kenya last year. I was joined by Hasan Joho, then the newly elected governor of Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city. As we roamed around visiting multiple academies, the popular politician was mobbed by locals. A murmur seemed to follow us everywhere: “Hasan Joho is in the slums!” Word of mouth spread quickly, and soon hoards of people were clamoring for his attention at every turn.

Joho handled the hoopla well, seemingly accustomed to it. As we entered the academy, he picked up the Nook with visible excitement. As the teacher gave him a brief demonstration, his eyes lit up. Later, the class briefly came to a halt (likely causing a glitch in Bridge’s tracking methods) as a soft-spoken child who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old nervously asked Joho a question about politics.

Before we left the academy and the crowds of adoring locals swarmed around him again, Joho told me he was impressed. “So far this is the best I have seen,” said Joho. “I will not shy away from saying that we will be emulating this and finding ways for our local schools to do the same.”