Over the weekend, the NY Times published Nicholas Kristof’s puff piece about Bridge International Academies (BIA), the private, for-profit education start-up trying to get a foothold in Africa and India. Kristof has definitely read the material provided by Bridge’s communications arm, and he was impressed when he visited some schools.
He also has such a dim view of children’s education in the developing world that any tech-savvy “solution” would be an improvement: “Imagine an elementary school where students show up, but teachers don’t. Where 100 students squeeze into a classroom but don’t get any books. Where teachers are sometimes illiterate and periodically abuse students. Where families pay under the table to get a ‘free’ education, yet students don’t learn to read.”
Fortunately, two in-depth pieces have been published recently to answer some questions about Bridge International Academies—who started it, what it is, where it operates, how its doing. Diane Ravitch references both articles in her recent response to Nicholas Kristof’s piece.
Ravitch, an education historian, also raises the most basic question about Bridge International Academies, so we’ll start there. Is it in the best interest of any society to turn over the education of its children to a for-profit company whose investors include the World Bank, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg? “I think Kristof is wrong because BIA is a short-term fix, not a solution. It cannot possibly educate the hundreds of millions of children whose parents can’t afford to pay. By providing this ‘fix,’ the governments are relieved of their obligation to establish a universal, free public school system with qualified teachers. If teachers are sleeping in their classrooms, who should take responsibility? Who should supervise them and make sure that every child has a decent education? That is the government’s job. Addressing the systemic problems of low-quality public education would accomplish far more than creating a for-profit corporation to offer scripted lessons to some. BIA is not a long-term solution…. This is a lifeboat strategy; instead of righting the ship, throw life preservers to a few (at a price).”
Over the last year, it has been difficult to track Bridge’s activities, as governments in Uganda and Kenya have withdrawn support, and then renegotiated the opening of Bridge schools. Ravitch references two recent and carefully researched articles, the first from Peg Tyre in the NY Times Magazine and the second by Maria Hengeveld from a Dutch magazine and reprinted in translation at Alternet. Both are very much worth reading.
Hengeveld’s deepest concerns are about the pressures on teachers and the financial hardship even a tuition of $6 or $7 per month places on families. Teachers are pressured to grow enrollment at the Bridge schools by actively recruiting. Hengeveld describes Anton, a teacher who no longer works for Bridge: “He was under too much pressure to attract new pupils and the ‘rigid payment system’ put him in uncomfortable waters with parents. Every month, about half of the parents couldn’t pay their fees on time, and would get upset with Anton when their children were, again, sent home from school. These tensions made it even more difficult to attract new customers and to persuade existing customers to bring in new ones.” Anton was eventually fired by Bridge for allowing three students to continue sitting in the classroom after their parents had failed to pay the fee. The students were discovered when Bridge administrators visited the school. Hengeveld describes hidden costs that parents are not told about in advance: “What’s more, Bridge is by no means as affordable as the company claims. In Kenya, the cost per student is between US$9 and US$13 a month once exam fees, uniforms, books and administration costs are included. The situation is similar in Uganda….”
Tyre provides some background about the students who attend the public schools in Kenya, the target student population from which Bridge International Academies is recruiting: “Wealthy Kenyans and foreigners send their children to private schools, which are taught in English and enjoy lavish resources. The working poor often opt to send their children to parochial or local private schools, known as informal schools, that take no money from the government but charge fees that are slightly higher than public school’s (fees)… Sending a child to Bridge was more expensive than the village public school, though less expensive than some informal schools. The poorest families simply couldn’t afford the tuition and additional payments that Bridge required.” Tuition at Bridge is described as “a monumental obstacle” for many families.
Tyre traces Bridge International Academies’ history as an education-tech startup. “The company’s pitch was tailor-made for the new generation of tech-industry philanthropists, who are impatient to solve the world’s problems and who see unleashing the free market as the best way to create enduring social change. Investors were impressed by… the audacity of (the founders’) plan. The idea of doing ‘high quality at low cost was really interesting….” Currently Bridge has schools in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India.
As you might expect in a school founded by tech-savvy entrepreneurs and investors like Gates and Zuckerberg, Bridge International Academies is an experiment in blended learning. Tyre describes teachers using tablets with pre-programmed lessons: “(A) third-grade teacher was reading from a computer tablet, reciting a lesson script that had been transmitted from the Bridge headquarters in central Nairobi, a 45-minute drive away. The instructor quietly spoke the lesson as he wrote on the chalkboard, explaining the math symbols that indicate ‘greater than’ or ‘less than.’ Twenty-three third grade students, all dressed in bright green Bridge uniforms, were doing their best to follow along. Because Bridge schools are standardized… the teachers were working from the same synchronized lesson guide that was being delivered in hundreds of Bridge’s schools in Kenya, allowing the company to ensure that students everywhere were receiving a uniform curriculum.”
The programmed curricula makes it possible for the company to save money by hiring teachers who are not certified. Tyre describes the English language curriculum, designed by “charter-school teachers in Cambridge, Mass.,” and “loaded onto the e-reader in East African classrooms each day… Bridge has writers in Nairobi who create the lessons that are in Kiswahili, but many lessons, to be delivered in English, are written in America. And it is challenging to develop lesson plans for teachers and children from a different culture.”
But Hengeveld describes growing concern in the countries where BIA is operating. In Kenya, “In August 2016, the Ministry of Education sent the company an ultimatum. Bridge was given 90 days to adapt the curriculum to Kenyan guidelines and ensure that at least half of the teachers had a diploma. If they didn’t meet those requirements, Bridge was at risk of having to close down all of its schools.”
Tyre describes a different reality in Liberia, where the Liberian government entered into a contract with Bridge. Students would participate without fees and tuition as the government paid for the operation of 50 schools—with expansion anticipated if the experiment was deemed successful. The government would provide school buildings and pay only Liberian-certified teachers, a condition imposed only after much protest from advocates who wanted to protect the interests of the nation of Liberia—its families and its children—from exploitation by a global giant. Justin Sandefur, an economist who was asked to evaluate the arrangement for the Center for Global Development in Washington, remains very concerned. He recently told Tyre: “there was no longer a governance firewall between the interests of a commercial company and the Ministry of Education, which is supposed to be advocating on what is best for Liberian children.” Despite the warnings of Sandefur and others, Tyre reports that the Liberian government has agreed to scale up its contracting with Bridge International Academies.
I wish Nicholas Kristof had explored these concerns in his recent NY Times column. He swallows the argument for technocratic efficiency and neglects to consider the colonialist dynamics of power and money.