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In Box

Learning Curve

Why more and more parents in 
poor countries are paying to send 
their kids to private school.

Photo: Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images
Photo: Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images

When Americans think about private education, what likely comes to mind are posh-sounding names like Milton or Collegiate, where the elites of Boston and Manhattan — for the low, low price of $40,000 a year — send their offspring to give them a small leg up in the race to Harvard or Yale. But in developing countries, private schools are a big deal too, and they play a very different role: For just cents a day, they’re giving some of the world’s very poorest children a chance to escape the absolute deprivation their parents have suffered their whole lives. And by showing what can be achieved in schools where teachers actually make an effort to teach and where principals actually care about results, they’re laying the basis for a revolution in global education.

For many countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, one of the most dramatic changes over the past couple of generations has been the number of children who go to school. Take the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, where practically all of the country’s primary-school-age kids had entered the formal education system in 2010 and nearly two-thirds were completing the full six years of primary school. That’s up from around a quarter completing only a decade earlier. Across sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, the percentage of children completing primary school has climbed from 54 percent in the early 2000s to 69 percent in 2011.

But enrollment doesn’t tell the full story. Although more and more kids worldwide are making the walk to school every morning, it’s not at all clear that they’re actually learning something in class. In Guinea-Bissau, independent surveys suggest only about a quarter of children are able to do even the most basic addition, let alone handle fractions. Less than one-fifth of Bissau-Guinean schoolchildren can read and comprehend simple words. It isn’t just small African states: In India, only around one in four 10- and 11-year-olds (most of whom completed their primary education) can read a simple paragraph, perform division, tell time, and handle money — all skills they should have learned after just two years of schooling. It’s a global problem: From Panama to Tunisia, Brazil to Indonesia, average scores on international math tests would put students from developing countries among the bottom tenth of Danish pupils, according to analysis from Harvard University’s Lant Pritchett. (Denmark has typical scores on these tests among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, making it a good developed-world comparison.)

There are lots of reasons why kids aren’t learning — especially in poorer countries. Many arrive at school malnourished or have illiterate parents who can’t help with homework. The schools themselves lack books, desks, even basic supplies. All too often, they lack teachers. In some countries, as many as 25 percent of teachers don’t even show up for work on a regular basis. But perhaps the biggest problem is that teachers and principals face little incentive to help kids learn. They’re paid to get through the syllabus — not to ensure their pupils retain any of it.

The good news, however, is that across the developing world, tens of millions of parents are refusing to accept that their kids sit in class day after day learning nothing. Instead, they’re moving their children to private schools. And these aren’t just wealthy parents. Extremely poor mothers and fathers are taking some of their limited income and using it to ensure that their kids can have a better life through higher-quality education.

In India, as many as two-thirds of urban kids and 28 percent of rural children attend private school. The median per-person income is about $565 per year, and the poorer districts and states have more rural private schools than the richer ones. In Pakistan, roughly one-third of children attend private primary school. Parents there spend about 10 cents a day on private education — sure, that’s less than one-thousandth of what it costs to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, but it’s a lot of money in a country where more than half the population subsists on less than $2 a day.

The investment is paying off. Kids in private schools are learning far more than their friends stuck in government-financed classrooms. In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, for example, the government used a lottery system to hand out vouchers to some parents to cover the costs of private school attendance. Analysis by economists Karthik Muralidharan of the University of California, San Diego, and Venkatesh Sundararaman of the World Bank shows those students saw significantly higher test scores in a number of subjects than their peers who remained in public schools. This despite the fact that education costs per student were one-third of those in government schools — and teacher salaries were only one-fifth as high. But maybe the biggest endorsement is this: Four out of five public school teachers in India send their own kids to private school.

The pressure on developing-country education systems to deliver learning results is growing. They are shamed by published test results from international organizations like the OECD and by local civil society groups like Uwezo in East Africa and Pratham in India. And it doesn’t look good for elected politicians when parents start voting with their feet — abandoning free public education in favor of fee-based private schooling.

But when it comes to reforming education systems, the answer isn’t necessarily mass privatization. Remember, the principle of universal access to free primary education is enshrined in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That means governments should be paying the tab for primary school — either public or private — and making sure that teachers and principals are put on notice: Either shape up or ship out. The real test is whether students are learning anything, not just attending.

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