What Nicholas Kristof Left Out in Column Promoting Bridge International Academies

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Over the last year, it has been difficult to track Bridge’s activities, as governments in Uganda and Kenya have withdrawn support, and then renegotiated the opening of Bridge schools.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.

Uganda Will Close For-Profit Schools Pushed by Gates, Zuckerberg, US, UK, and World Bank

In a statement to the Ugandan parliament last week, Hon. Janet Museveni, Ugandan Minister for Education and Sports, explained that the ministry will close 63 private primary and nursery schools at the end of the term due to problems with licensing, safety and sanitation.  The schools are operated by one of the world’s largest private, for-profit education companies.

As this blog reported in April, Bridge International Academies is funded by the World Bank; American venture capitalists, New Enterprise Associates and Lean Capital; and philanthropists including the Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Pierre Omidyar.  Bridge is associated with the publishing and testing giant, Pearson.  It has also been supported by the United Kingdom Department for International Development.  Justine Greening, a Conservative Party member of the British Parliament who headed up the Department for International Development before being appointed earlier this year as British Secretary of State for Education, has been influential in promoting Bridge Academies.

According to its website, Bridge International Academies has expanded rapidly in Africa.  It opened its first school in Nairobi, Kenya in 2010 and operated 130 schools in Kenya by 2013.  In 2014 it prepared to expand into Uganda and Nigeria—operating seven academies in Uganda by February, 2015. Bridge currently operates 63 schools in Uganda. Now it is expanding into Liberia and India.

The Global Campaign for Education and a number of international education and human rights organizations released a statement at the end of last week supporting Ms. Museveni’s decision to close all Bridge International Academies in Uganda.  Respecting Ms. Museveni’s decision to close the schools based on immediate problems with licensing and hygiene, these international advocates for public education as a human right examine much deeper problems in the schools: “Bridge International Academies is a for-profit commercial chain of low-cost private schools backed by investors such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Pierre Omidyar (eBay), as well as the World Bank, and the U.S. and British Governments. It aims at providing education to 10 million pupils by 2025 and already runs over 450 schools in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and soon Liberia and India. The company has been particularly criticised for using a non-transparent system of entirely scripted and standardised curriculum mostly designed in the USA, delivered by untrained teachers reading the script from a tablet, while selling this scheme as ‘world-class education’ to poor people in developing countries in a bid to seek profits.  The decision to close BIA schools (in Uganda) follows several statements from United Nations (UN) human rights bodies as well as a report from a UK parliamentary watchdog that criticised BIA, suggesting that the development of these schools may lead to human rights breaches.”

The Global Campaign for Education’s press release quotes Frederick Mwesigye, Executive Director of the Forum for Education NGOS in Uganda: “The Ugandan education system suffers from many shortcomings. However, it does not mean that any investors can come in and make profit out of the situation by delivering low-quality education while disregarding national authorities and standards.”

Bridge International Academies released its own statement responding to the Ugandan government’s plan to close its schools.  In the statement Bridge declares that it will continue to operate through the semester, as Ms. Museveni has said the Ugandan government will permit.  During that period the company plans to, “work with the relevant educational authorities to uphold our commitment to our parents and communities to provide a world-class education to their children.”  Clearly the company hopes to be able work out its problems with Ugandan regulatory agencies.

In her  2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the response of the global marketplace to natural catastrophes and any kind of widespread failure of government services in the developing world: “I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (p. 6)

Klein argues that rapid expansion of privatization worldwide, like the emergence of Bridge International Academies—supported by the World Bank, the U.S. and British governments, and venture philanthropists like Gates and Zuckerberg—is a form of colonialism that perfectly exemplifies neoliberal ideology:  “(T)he ideology is a shape-shifter, forever changing its name and switching identities. (Milton) Friedman called himself a ‘liberal,’ but his U.S. followers, who associated liberals with high taxes and hippies, tended to identify as ‘conservatives,’ ‘classical economists,’ ‘free marketers,’ and, later, as believers in ‘Reaganomics’ or ‘laissez-faire.’  In most of the world, their orthodoxy is known as ‘neoliberalism,’ but it is often called ‘free trade’ or simply ‘globalization’….  All these incarnations share a commitment to the policy trinity—the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations, and skeletal social spending….” ( pp. 14-15)

Corporate School Reform is Worldwide

In education, the ideology of free-marketeers—school choice in an education marketplace and privatization—has come to dominate policy not only in the United States but also across the world. Many people call this neoliberal school reform (connoting neo-libertarianism); some call it corporate school reform; others call it right-wing school reform; and some just consider it extreme, conservative thinking. In the U.S. we associate this thinking with conservatives—the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, and we know it has a lot to do with the economics of Milton Friedman, but in Europe, it is called “neoliberalism,” which is defined by a faith in privatization and globalized markets.

Naomi Klein helps sort out the confusion about terms: “(T)he ideology is a shape-shifter, forever changing its name and switching identities.  Friedman called himself a ‘liberal,’ but his U.S. followers, who associated liberals with high taxes and hippies, tended to identify as ‘conservatives,’ ‘classical economists,’ ‘free marketers,’ and, later, as believers in ‘Reaganomics’ or ‘laissez-faire.’  In most of the world, their orthodoxy is known as ‘neoliberalism,’ but it is often called ‘free trade’ or simply ‘globalization.’  Only since the mid-nineties has the intellectual movement, led by the right-wing think tanks with which Friedman had long associations—Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute—called itself ‘neoconservative,’ a world view that has harnessed the full force of the U.S. military machine in the service of a corporate agenda.  All these incarnations share a commitment to the policy trinity—the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations, and skeletal social spending….”  (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 14-15)

Klein’s book examines the operation world-wide of free market ideology by tracing examples of its operation when, as public institutions collapse after a natural catastrophe, free-marketeers step in to rescue the services (while making a profit): “I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, p. 6)

Today’s poster child for shock doctrine education “reform” is Liberia’s idea of bringing in Bridge International Academies to manage its entire school system. (This blog has covered the privatization of Liberia’s schools here and here.) Reporting for Foreign Policy in Liberia’s Education Fire Sale, Ashoka Mukpo describes the corporatization of Liberia’s schools as a response to the nation’s education crisis—intensified by the Ebola epidemic: “(T)he deadly Ebola epidemic of 2014… shut down schools for a full academic year and forced many female students to abandon their studies to become breadwinners.  Today, the Ministry of Education estimates that 60 percent of primary school-age children aren’t enrolled in classes and as many as 5,000 teachers on the government payroll are ‘ghosts’—meaning that although they don’t show up for work, somebody is pocketing their paychecks…. But if the extent of the crisis is hard to dispute, the country’s plan to fix it has proven a lot more controversial. ‘After Ebola, we can’t go back to what was, because it wasn’t good enough. We have to think about something new,’ said George Werner, Liberia’s education minister, who took office last year… Werner stumbled upon the idea of a public-private partnership somewhat haphazardly. He was at a meeting in the United States last year when he was introduced to Shannon May, a co-founder of Bridge.  They got to talking, and a private philanthropist who supports Bridge offered to fly Werner to Kenya to observe Bridge’s schools there.” Bridge online academies operate with a scripted curriculum; even without any training in education, novice teachers can be assigned to large classes where all the students have programmed tablets.

Earlier this spring when Liberia’s plan to turn over its entire education system to Bridge International Academies was reported in the press, the outcry from Liberia’s own education experts, the Liberian diaspora, and experts at international organizations including the United Nations resulted in some modifications to the original plan. Now, according to Mukpo’s Foreign Policy report, instead of turning over the entire system to Bridge, “3 percent of primary schools… (will) be turned over to private companies during a pilot year beginning this fall. Fifty schools will be run by Bridge International Academies, an American for-profit company backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates that builds and runs low-cost schools primarily in East Africa.  As many as 70 more Liberian schools will be turned over to a host of other private operators.  If the pilot is deemed a success, it will be scaled up to at least 300 more schools in September 2017.  It could cover the country’s entire primary school system by 2020, according to the timeline set by the government.”

Mukpo examines the potential pitfalls of “shock doctrine” school privatization in Liberia: “First, the one-year pilot program looks rigged to succeed, meaning that the march toward additional privatization seems almost inevitable.  Bridge and the other providers will be allowed to retain only the most qualified teachers in the schools they manage while letting go those who don’t meet new standards set by the Ministry of Education…. Their replacements will be drawn from a pool of 1,100 USAID-trained teachers who were due to be assigned to public schools… Second, as the program scales, the pool of strong teachers will inevitably shrink.  It’s unclear whether Bridge and the other providers will then resort to hiring less qualified teachers or begin recruiting staff from outside the education sector altogether—people who would not be unionized like most current public school teachers…. The battle over the future of Liberian education is a microcosm of a much larger international debate about the role of for-profit companies in reforming public services.”

George Joseph presents another example of corporate, neoliberal school reform in an extraordinary new report for The Nation, Teach for America Has Gone Global, and Its Board Has Strange Ideas About What Poor Kids Need. Again corporate school reform is posed as a response to an education crisis: “According to the Right to Education Forum, in the 2013-14 school year, India had 568,000 teaching positions vacant, and only 22 percent of working teachers had ever received in-service training.  This massive shortage means that as of 2015, more than half of Indian public schools were unable to comply with the 2009 Right to Education Act’s mandatory class-size ratios (no more than 30 students to one teacher in elementary schools and 35 in secondary schools).  Further, a whopping 91,018 Indian public schools function with just one teacher.  Also, more than 50 percent of Indian public schools lack handwashing facilities; 15 percent lack girls’ toilets; and nearly 25 percent don’t have libraries.  As in many developing countries, these failures fuel the problem of teacher absenteeism in India.”

But no matter!  One solution with widespread support among the elite is Teach for India, modeled after Teach for America, and part of a worldwide network, Teach for All.  As Joseph quotes the rhetoric used by Indian and Pakistani  entrepreneurs to promote Teach for All programming, you will notice something familiar: “‘Your classrooms may be hot and lack electricity, and you may not have enough desks or books, but we know that a high-quality teacher can do more to change a student’s life than fans and desks,’ declared former Teach for Pakistan CEO Khadija S. Bakhtiar, in an address to the organization’s incoming class of 2013 fellows.  ‘Be the teacher and leave your students independent, empowered, and inquisitive.’  It is this sort of promise that makes Teach for All so enticing to sponsors like the World Bank, which have long pushed developing countries to slash and privatize their public health-care and education systems… By promising innovative classroom techniques and inspirational leadership, the Teach for All model seeks to transform tremendous material deficits into a problem of character…”

In a moving profile of an Indian public school teacher, Joseph contrasts her professional realities with the inflated rhetoric that elevates public hopes not for her but for her less experienced Teach for India recruit down the hall: “In Ms. D’s second-grade classroom the effects of the cuts in education spending by Prime Minister Narenda Modi (a close friend of Teach for India’s corporate patrons) and the failure of the Indian state to properly develop a public-school  system were immediately noticeable, even in India’s financial capital (Mumbai).  Ms. D’s class has 22 desks and 36 students—about the same as the Teach for India classroom down the hall.  But unlike the TFI fellows, she has never had a ‘co-teacher’ or ‘para-teacher’ to help with this load.  The class size, Ms. D readily tells me, is clearly in violation of the Right to Education Act—but she goes on, attempting to do right by her students… Given this lack of assistance, Ms. D teaches her students in eight-minute stints, leaving them to practice lessons with each other as she hunches over her desk, furiously completing the paperwork necessary to get the state-provided amenities to which the students are entitled… Ms. D isn’t only a teacher; she is also a janitor and a clerical worker… As many scholars have pointed out, Mumbai’s refusal to bolster its public-school system disproportionately affects the poorest of the poor, who can’t afford private school….”

Joseph also profiles Ashish Dhawan, one of India’s most successful private-equity players and a philanthropist who has been successfully promoting the privatization of education in Mumbai: “Dhawan explains that education reform will allow the corporate sector to ‘unlock the true potential’ of India’s human capital.  Informed by his success during the country’s IT/outsourcing boom, Dhawan claims that the Indian government needs to shift its focus from ‘inputs’ like infrastructure and classroom size and turn its attention to producing higher ‘outputs.’   To do this, he has advocated the increased use of standardized tests, the introduction of cheaper forms of instruction like MOOCs…, and increased private-sector participation in Indian education, freed from teacher-licensing and class-size regulations.”

In India as in the U.S., money buys the power to promote radical change in the institutions that shape a society: “Dhawan currently sits on the board or education committee of virtually every pro-privatization ‘reform’ group in India….  Following Dhawan’s plan, Mumbai opened up 1,174 government schools to private operators, offering them the opportunity to do everything from provide specific school services to run schools entirely with their own privately hired (and often inexperienced and non-unionized) teachers.  The drastic move, which was decided without any popular referendum, generated controversy in the city’s public sector, particularly with teachers’ unions and progressive parties.  Despite protests by thousands of people in 2012 and 2013, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation adopted the privatization proposal in January 2013, fueling concerns that similar efforts will now be underway across the country.”

Privatizing Education in Liberia: Mega-Philanthropy and 21st Century Colonialism

I recently did some research on a subject I knew little about, social entrepreneurship.  I went to the library and checked out David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.  After all, a blurb on the cover from a NY Times review says it is “A bible in the field.”  Social entrepreneurship is often non-profit and is best known in a global sense—the Grameen Bank and all those NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are registered with the United Nations.  Bornstein explains that social entrepreneurs bring characteristics of business and competition into the way “the ‘noncommercial’ or ‘social’ business of society is structured. Around the world, this work has been dominated by centralized decision making and top-down, usually governmental, institutions. It has been managed a little like a planned economy.”(p. 276)

But, continues Bornstein, governments are often not ideal: “As in business, advancing new ideas and creating new models to attack problems require an entrepreneur’s single-minded vision and fierce determination, and lots of energy and time.  It is the kind of work that flourishes to the extent that society successfully harnesses and nurtures the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens… One of the essential differences between a planned and a market economy is the role of competition.”(p. 276)  As Bornstein defines it, social entrepreneurship imports the values of business into what he calls the social sector.

Social innovation  and social entrepreneurship in the developing world is very often underwritten by the philanthropy of tech entrepreneurs from the United States — the billionaires who have made fortunes at Microsoft and Facebook and their giant philanthropies.  Sometimes the approach is not-for-profit, but sometimes, favoring competition, the mega-philanthropists underwrite for-profit businesses that contract to undertake services traditionally operated by government, with the idea that business is far more efficient.

Two weeks ago, this blog described the World Bank-endorsed takeover of the public schools in the African nation of Liberia by a for-profit, American company.  Here are the facts as reported by Main & Guardian Africa reporter, Christine Mungai: “In January, Liberia’s minister of education made a far-reaching announcement, which nevertheless has largely flown under the radar—until now, when a top UN official has come out strongly in opposition to it.  Liberian education Minister George Werner announced that the entire pre-primary education system would be outsourced to Bridge International Academies to manage.  The deal will see the government of Liberia pay over $64 million over a five-year period; public funding for education will support services subcontracted to the private, for-profit, US-based company. Under the public-private arrangement, the company will design curriculum materials from April to September 2017, while phase two will have the company roll out mass implementation over 5 years….”  Mungai adds: “It would possibly be the largest, and most ambitious privatisation attempt in Africa’s recent history, and the move has elicited mixed reactions, for good reason.”  The project is defended by its proponents because it will begin with a 50-school, one-year pilot.

Stanford University has a whole department devoted to the idea of social innovation and entrepreneurship, a department with a publication, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which describes itself as informing and inspiring “millions of social change leaders from around the world and from all sectors of society—nonprofits, business, and government…  SSIR is published by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.”  The publication’s mission statement?  “To advance, educate, and inspire the field of social innovation by seeking out, cultivating, and disseminating the best in research- and practice-based knowledge.”

The Stanford Social Innovation Review recently published a piece by Kevin Starr, director of the Mulago Foundation and the Rainer Arnhold Fellows Program, in defense of Liberia’s outsourcing of its public education system to Bridge International Academies.  Starr reports that the Mulago Foundation was one of the original investors in Bridge International Academies and is among its largest investors, and he defends the foundation’s investment.

Starr’s argument is so internally consistent and so carefully grounded in the frame of social innovation that it is almost convincing, but then one needs to consider the assumptions.  “Bridge is an African education company that runs schools in settings of poverty—mostly in Kenya, mostly in slums… Established in 2008 in Nairobi, Bridge is now the largest private provider of education in Africa.  They open up in a new community every three days and will reach 110,000 kids this year… The Liberian government and Bridge entered into discussions that led to a public-private partnership agreement for the 50-school pilot, which will be funded entirely by private philanthropy… This is not ‘privatization’ of education. These are government schools with government teachers and government oversight.  Bridge supplies the curriculum…  and management systems.  This is about helping the public system deliver.  Moreover, Bridge has readily agreed never to open a private school in Liberia.”  We see that Bridge International Academies is a large education company that runs schools in several African nations—a private company with which the Liberian government has decided to contract.  Technically, as Starr insists, this is a public venture: the government is paying a corporation to operate its schools.  And Bridge Academies is, as Starr describes it, an African company—whose investors are Americans.  The pilot is being launched by American philanthropy.

And, according to Starr, Bridge International Academies’ operation is to be judged by its business efficiency as measured by cost savings, with performance on standardized tests the sole yardstick of school performance.  Buildings, according to Starr, will be cheap; teachers will deliver “state-of-the-art, closely guided lessons and activities” from scripts on tablets; teachers will teach for 8 hours each day; and “management systems will be extremely sophisticated, especially with regard to teacher behavior.”  We learned recently that one reason the Bridge Academies’ model is affordable for Liberia is that class size is anticipated to be 40-50 students, although in some instances teachers may work with classes as large as 70 students.  Teachers are to be trained in five week sessions and will not be expected to have college degrees.

Starr addresses those who have criticized the American philanthropists who are underwriting this experiment in African education: “A number of critics have pointed out that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have invested privately in Bridge, as though there is something sinister afoot. Um, that’s called impact investing, and its generally considered a very good thing.  In the impact-investing world, Bridge is the poster child for high-impact enterprises that have gone big (there aren’t very many).  It’s worth noting, though, that with more than 200,000 kid-years of high-quality education so far, Bridge has yet to make a profit.  No matter how well it goes, the work in Liberia is not going to put them over the top.”

The collaboration between the Liberian government and Bridge Academies  is also being framed as a sort of Shock Doctrine response to a Liberian national catastrophe.  You may remember that Naomi Klein defined the shock doctrine: “I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.’” (The Shock Doctrine, p. 6)  The Voice of America just published a defense of the Liberian-Bridge Academies venture as the solution to a collapsed education system in Nigeria: “About 1.5 million children are enrolled in primary school in Liberia but the government said only 20 percent of the children complete 12th grade.  Years of civil war have also taken their toll on the nation’s education system.  In 2013, nearly 25,000 students failed the University of Liberia entrance exams.”  Liberian education minister George Werner is quoted defending the plan he has put into motion: “This is a small experiment for a big problem and we have to try it.  We’ve tried many things and they are not working… (O)ur children can no longer wait.  Let’s try this; it’s a pilot.  If it works, which I believe it will, fine.” Werner is said to approve the fifty-school, first year pilot because, “What is being tried in Liberia is a partnership with the best, vetted private providers to deliver management systems that can improve accountability and governance.”

So… they (the nameless doers of good behind this project) are not immoral profit-seekers, even though their school is for profit. And they and their company get to define high quality education for children living in poverty in Africa, even if classes of between 40 and 70 children whose teachers are delivering scripted, rote lessons from a tablet would not be suitable for their own children in California or Seattle.  We might want to examine philanthropy by wealthy tech entrepreneurs in the United States as perhaps a new form of colonialism—the 21st century variety.  The standard being promoted is to hire private providers with business skills—“management systems, accountability, governance.”  But if, at the end of the one-year pilot, Liberia expands the experiment nation-wide, the nation will have sacrificed the development of a cadre of well-educated teaching professionals who know how to work with children.