Ten years ago James Tooley, a professor of education with a doctorate and a World Bank grant to study private schools in a dozen developing countries, took the standard path toward helping the poor: He flew first class and stayed at 5-star hotels.
But something happened in India as he visited private schools and colleges that cater to the privileged. At night, lying on 500-thread-count Egyptian-cotton sheets, he meditated about the "con" that he was now part of: Wealthy Indians enjoy foreign aid because they live in a poor country, the poor fall further behind, and the researchers live richly.
Then Tooley broke the rules. With guilt feelings and some spare time, he actually went into the slums instead of riding past them with his driver. He was surprised to see little handwritten signs announcing the existence of private schools: He thought private schools are for the rich. Guided through alleys and up narrow, dark, dirty staircases, he entered classrooms and found dedicated teachers and students.
Tooley found schools that survive not with government money or international bequests, but through $2-per-month fees paid by rickshaw pullers who scrimp and save to give their children a chance not to pull rickshaws. He went on to visit 50 Indian private schools in poor areas over the next 10 days. Did some foundation make them possible? No, these were for-profit schools created by poor but persevering entrepreneurs.
Tooley was astounded to see high motivation and better results than at the better-funded government schools. He then visited other private schools for the poor in cities and villages throughout India, Africa (Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya), and even China. In The Beautiful Tree (Cato, 2009), he describes how he regularly found government schools with better-paid but poorly motivated teachers, and private schools somehow surviving on very little income.
Why did Tooley slog through the mud when he could have hung out in hotel bars with other international researchers? I emailed him and asked. Tooley responded: "I was brought up as an evangelical Christian, baptized at 14, but lost my faith by 16. For the next thirty years I was a searcher. Age 46, I said a prayer again recommitting myself to Jesus. Ups and downs in the faith since then." No surprise: When someone goes beyond the call of duty, it's often because Someone else is calling him—and the path isn't always straight.
Throughout most of The Beautiful Tree Tooley shows rather than tells, but in the interest of space here I'll need to quote his summary: In poor countries "private education forms the majority of provision. In these areas parents have genuine choices of a number of competing private schools within easy reach and are sensitive to the price mechanism (schools close if demand is low, and new schools open to cater to expanded demand)."
Tooley's crucial conclusions: "In these genuine markets, educational entrepreneurs respond to parental needs and requirements. . . . Their quality is higher than that of government schools provided for the poor." And his findings are not merely anecdotal. Governmental officials showed little interest in his findings, but a Templeton Foundation grant allowed him to create research teams that tested 24,000 fourth-graders from a variety of schools in India, China, Nigeria, and Ghana. The result: Children in private schools scored 75 percent better than comparable students in government schools. You'd think this would excite other World Bank researchers—but like Darrow Miller, Hernando de Soto, and William Easterly (see "Don't be a Bepper," WORLD, Jan. 13, 2007), Tooley looks for bottom-up rather than top-down strategies, and that could put a lot of Big Economic Planners out of work.
The title of Tooley's book comes from his sense that parents don't need government officials to tell them what to do: A beautiful tree can grow without supervision from "development experts" who believe that poor children will be educated only if governments, with funding from rich nations, establish free, universal public schooling.
The better way: Poor parents pay teachers directly. Voucher plans "if done in the right way" can help, but that's a vital caveat, because it's easy to end up with good ideas killed via fraud and unintended market distortions. The essential strategy is this: If students don't learn, teachers don't eat.