An economics and business writer at the New York Times named Peter Coy wrote an article titled “This Company Knows How to Increase Test Scores.” The article celebrates a study of a for-profit company called Bridge International Academies (renamed NewGlobe) that operates a large number of schools in Africa. Coy says the study by various American economists finds that the NewGlobe schools produce remarkable test score gains. What he doesn’t say is even more important. Civil society groups from across Africa and elsewhere urged the World Bank to stop investing in for-profit schools. The World Bank announced three months ago that it would no longer invest in the company praised in this article.

Coy begins:

Some of the world’s most successful educational techniques are being applied today in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda and India, in schools serving poor children that are run or advised by NewGlobe Schools, a company founded by Americans with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. These techniques deserve to be applied more widely, including in wealthy nations such as the United States.

A new study led by a Nobel laureate economist, Michael Kremer of the University of Chicago, found that in Kenya, enrolling in schools run by NewGlobe for two years increased test scores by an amount equal to being in school for an additional 0.89 year for primary school pupils, and to being in school an extra 1.48 years for pre-primary pupils. The poorest children improved the most.

The secret of NewGlobe’s success? Standardization. Every lesson is completely scripted and standardized. The teachers are told what to say and they say it. Most of the teachers are not high school graduates; they are not certified. They are paid less than union teachers. Yet the students get higher test scores! A reformer’s dream!

Coy compares these privately-run schools to the large KIPP chain (which, as I understand it, having visited KIPP schools, is not standardized, and whose results are not always as good as regular public schools) and to New York City’s Success Academy, a chain that has very high test scores but also very high student attrition and very high teacher turnover.

Coy writes:

“The test score effects in this study are among the largest observed in the international education literature, particularly for a program that was already operating at scale, exceeding the 99th percentile of treatment effects of large-scale education interventions,” Kremer and his colleagues found.

NewGlobe clearly has built a better mousetrap, but it has taken a while for the world to beat a path to its door. It has encountered multiple obstacles, including from the U.S. Congress, although it is gradually winning followers.

One reason for the slow uptake in the early going was resistance from teacher unions, including the Kenyan National Union of Teachers. During the period studied, NewGlobe paid teachers only one-third to one-fifth of what Kenyan public school teachers were earning. Many of its initial recruits didn’t have teaching certificates. (NewGlobe says it adapted to the government requirements as they changed over time.)

Here is the study. The title: “Can Education Be Standardized?” The authors believe it can and should be.

Here is the abstract:

We examine the impact of enrolling in schools that employ a highly-standardized approach to education, using random variation from a large nationwide scholarship program. Bridge International Academies not only delivers highly detailed lesson guides to teachers using tablet computers, it also standardizes systems for daily teacher monitoring and feedback, school construction, and financial management. At the time of the study, Bridge operated over 400 private schools serving more than 100,000 pupils. It hired teachers with less formal education and ex- perience than public school teachers, paid them less, and had more working hours per week. Enrolling at Bridge for two years increased test scores by 0.89 additional equivalent years of schooling (EYS) for primary school pupils and by 1.48 EYS for pre-primary pupils. These effects are in the 99th percentile of effects found for at-scale programs studied in a recent survey. Enrolling at Bridge reduced both dispersion in test scores and grade repetition. Test score results do not seem to be driven by rote memorization or by income effects of the scholarship.

Here are a few quotes from the Kremer et al study:

Three-quarters of teachers in public and private schools had acquired more than a secondary school education compared to just under one-quarter of teachers in Bridge schools. Relative to public school teachers, Bridge teachers were younger, less experienced, and more likely to be novice (first-year) teachers. On average, their total compensation amounted to between one fifth and one third of the average public school teachers total compensation and approximately the same as teachers in other private schools serving this population. They worked longer hours, including Saturdays...

Subsequent to the period analyzed in our study, Bridge’s parent company NewGlobe reduced the number of private schools operated by Bridge from 405 to 112, and launched a new model in which it primarily acts as a service provider to governments. Under this model, which now accounts for the bulk of students reached by NewGlobe, teacher qualification, compensation, and working conditions follow standard public sector guidelines; governments similarly set curricular, school infrastructure, and child safety standards, and costs of standardization are covered by the state rather than through fees to parents.

Note that Bridge has changed its main model, the one lauded by the Kremer study and Peter Coy. Why is Coy waxing enthusiastic about a model that has been downsized? Bridge dramatically reduced the number of for-profit private schools (where families had trouble paying $5 or more a month, and students were suspended for non-payment of fees). Instead it now has inserted its standardized model into the public sector, where its costs are paid by the government, not families, and it has to meet standards set by the government. But its costs are far beyond what these governments can afford to pay. Coy missed that detail.

Another study of Bridge schools in Liberia was discouraging for Bridge. The condition of the free public schools in Liberia was dismal, which paved the way for outsourcing of schools to private management. About 25% of students in fifth grade could not read a single word in the public schools. It should not be hard to beat that low bar. The study found:

Outsourcing the management of 23 randomly-selected government primary schools in Liberia to Bridge International Academies led to learning gains of 0.35σ after three years, equivalent to reading roughly 2.2 additional words per minute. Beyond learning gains, Bridge increased dropout by more than half and reduced transition to secondary school (overall, Bridge had a -6.53 percentage point effect on the probability of being enrolled in any school after three years). Bridge had no statistically significant impact on corporal punishment and failed to reduced sexual abuse. Overall, any assessment of outsourcing public schools to Bridge must weigh its modest learning gains against its high operating costs and negative effects on access to education via increased dropout.

Bridge raised test scores, but the dropout rate was high, which probably increased test scores. Bridge was too expensive for the Liberian government: in its first year, it cost $640 per year. By year three, the Bridge cost was down to $161 per pupil. The Liberian government’s goal is $50 per pupil per year. This model does not look like the money-maker that its sponsors envisioned.

I first learned about Bridge International Academies when I read an article in the New York Times Magazine called “Can a Tech Start-Up Successfully Educate Children in the Developing World?” An American couple, Shannon May and her husband Jay Kimmelman, along with a third partner, had the audacious idea that a company that provided $5 a month private schools could dramatically disrupt education in Africa while creating a billion-dollar corporation. What was not to like?

Just as titans in Silicon Valley were remaking communication and commerce, Bridge founders promised to revolutionize primary-school education. ‘‘It’s the Tesla of education companies,’’ says Whitney Tilson, a Bridge investor and hedge-fund manager in New York who helped found Teach for America and is a vocal supporter of charter schools.

The Bridge concept — low-cost private schools for the world’s poorest children — has galvanized many of the Western investors and Silicon Valley moguls who learn about the project. Bill Gates, the Omidyar Network, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the World Bank have all invested in the company; Pearson, the multinational textbook-and-assessment company, has done so through a venture-capital fund.

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.

The basic idea of the Bridge Schools was standardization. The lessons were written by charter school teachers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then read out loud by Bridge teachers on an e-reader in their classroom. Every teacher taught the same lesson at the same time in the same way, as instructed.

The new study says the concept works. However, it has run into political obstacles. The Bridge idea is opposed not only by teachers’ unions but by every civil society organization in Africa, which opposed the concept of privatizing African public schools. No matter how poorly resourced they are now, they will be destroyed by privatization. If the private companies can”t make money, how long will they stay?

I shared the new Kremer paper with an eminent economist, who responded, in part:

This approach seems crazy to me. Read section 9 of the paper which describes and explains the dramatic downsizing of the endeavor. That section confirms my initial response that the Bridge approach is ultimately likely to do far more harm than good. Shouldn’t young children have an opportunity to learn through play and personal engagement? Moreover, how does the approach deal with the fact that children develop at different rates and have different talents? And why would anyone who cares about children want to teach in such an environment? This is all very scary and disturbing.

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg can’t be pleased to see that the model they funded has been reduced from 405 schools to 112 schools. The pupils it is supposed to serve can’t afford the fees. Nor can the governments in the nations where they are located.

Peter Coy should read more carefully before he touts an experiment that has already failed.

We are told again and again by libertarians that the free market solves all problems.

In Africa, it failed to provide better education at a price that families or governments can afford. Africa desperately needs more money for education, not for profits.

Bridge (NewGlobe) is not a model for American schools or the schools of any other nation.

Standardization is for electrical outlets and machines, not for children, teachers and education.