Archives for category: International

Yesterday our friendly reader Raj reacted with outrage to the post about Bill Gates telling poor people around the world to improve their lot in life by raising chickens. Raj said the source was a disreputable British rag, and I should be ashamed for referring to such “sensational” claims.


To satisfy Raj’s curiosity (and my own), I did a wee bit of Internet research, and in four seconds, I found the original source of the story: it was an article written by Bill Gates.


The guy with $70 billion says if he were poor, he would raise chickens.


Now don’t get get me wrong. Raising chickens is a swell thing to do, and I donate to the Heifer Fund to help buy animals for people in poverty. Of course, I can’t raise chickens myself because I live in an apartment building, and it is probably against the house rules to raise chickens in an apartment. Also, I am not poor, so he wasn’t talking to me.


Bill Gates is different from me. He has about $70 billion. World leaders listen to him. I would expect him to have more fully developed ideas about how to reduce poverty. There is a big difference between abject poverty and subsistence. Maybe raising chickens would help large numbers of people live at a subsistence level.


But with Gates’ billions and his huge staff, I expected deep thinking about the structural nature of poverty. Not chickens.



Some months ago, I received an email from a teacher in India. He asked for permission to translate my book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” I granted his request. He sent this post to describe what is happening in India, which may sound familiar to readers of this blog.

Grassroot experiences of global phenomena

Nexus of State-Corporates-NGOs damaging and degrading the public school education in India

Lok Shikshak Manch is a collective of school teachers, students, research scholars and others who attempt to see education in its larger socio-economic-political context. The group was formed in 2011 in Delhi, India. It has since been involved in various struggles against attacks on the public education system in India.

Diane’s book ‘The death and the life of the great American school system’ has helped us to make greater sense of our observations and experience over the last few years – particularly, since we came together as a collective some five years back. It has also allowed us to understand the import of the policy shifts we are witnessing as teachers in the public school system (in India in general but more particularly in the context of Delhi where we are based). We also totally agree with her understanding that there are limits to what education can do to remove inequality etc, so long as wider socio-economic disparities continue to exist around us. We too believe that it is the responsibility of the state to address all kinds of inequities, including in education, and this warrants a strong support to our public institutions.

India is increasingly seeing a proliferation of Non Government Organisations (NGOs), often funded by big corporations, other private businesses and individual donors, working in the field of education. Many of these are being actively encouraged by the government’s Public Private Partnership (PPP) policy to play a role in the public school system, whether at the level of providing ‘academic support’ to students or distributing those very materials as charity which the state is anyway constitutionally required to provide to all children in schools. For instance present Delhi government has come to depend upon NGOs for a range of things including testing children (Pratham), training Principals (Central Square Foundation), classroom teaching (Teach for India), improving libraries (Room to Read), activating School-Parents’ interactions (Saajha Manch) etc.

Education has caught the attention of Indian Corporates in terms of investment under CSR i.e. Corporate Social Responsibility. Chinese Magazine, Hurun reported that Indian Corporates invested 80% of their CSR in education in 2014-15.

In some parts of India, governments have been trying to fully hand over the management of public schools to corporate bodies. Some such examples exist in Delhi too. Municipal Corporation of another city, Mumbai, had handed over management of 1,174 of its schools into the hands of private players by 2013. While such outsourcing of public schools has not gone unchallenged, it has to be said that in spite of the Right to Information Act, a central legislation guaranteeing access to almost all the decisions of the government, it has proven difficult to gauge the exact conditions and parameters of these transfers.

It is noteworthy that most of these organisations lack robust academic credentials and promote a very corporatised culture in schools. For example, teachers in a government school in Delhi, which is part of 54 schools where a pilot project is being run with the intervention of some NGOs, are being asked to mark their entry to and exits from classes by registering their thumb impressions on a bio-metric instrument. They have also been told to carry a recording device on their collars and their classes have been put under CCTV monitoring. CCTVs have come to represent the era of devising technological solutions to sociological problems.

The vocabulary being used to push these interventions is perhaps quite uniform the world over – ‘improving learning outcomes’, ‘accountability and performance of teachers’, (an apparent concern for) ‘children from poor backgrounds’, ‘quality’, ‘efficiency’ etc. Anyway, the arguments advanced in support of private interventions in public schools in India seem to be very similar to those described and identified by Diane in her book on the USA.

We will like to share an example of one particular private project which was introduced in 15 Municipal schools in Delhi some six years ago. This is a program called Nanhi Kali which is run by the K. C. Mahindra Education Trust and Naandi Foundation. (Nanhi Kali, literally ‘Little Buds’, is a literary phrase in Hindi/Urdu used for young girls to signify their vulnerability and prettiness.) The program claims to support the schooling (till grade 10) of girls from impoverished families – which gets translated in action as all girls enrolled in public funded schools! – by giving them a ‘kit’ (stationery items, uniforms, bag, shoes etc.) and providing tuition. The tutors engaged by the organisers of the program are, in almost all cases, girls who are either enrolled in senior grades in schools or pursuing graduation courses through open learning/distant education institutions.

The advertisement of the program portrays a false and demeaning picture of the ‘girls in need’, claiming that they have been abandoned or that their parents are unable to send them to schools etc. Donors are then invited to ‘adopt’ a girl who would then be his/her ‘foster daughter’. In return, they get to receive regular photographs and reports on these girls. Not only are the students and parents completely uninformed of the basic idea and finances of the program they are encouraged to enroll in, the education department itself did not care to do a background check to protect the privacy and data-confidentiality, not to say the dignity, of these students. The insulting idea seems to be that now that these people are receiving aid, their other and finer human rights do not matter. The tutors who are working for the program at extremely pitiful wages – conveniently defended as ‘honorarium’ – seem to be under the impression that the students’ photographs are taken to prepare their school I-cards! Most of them have no idea of the details of the program. (And this seems to be true of almost all energetic or financially desperate volunteers working for philanthro-capitalist organisations.) Obviously, the tuition-support which these students were getting was not academically sound, and it could not have been otherwise, given the lack of academic and professional qualification of the tutors and the program’s emphases on primitive literacy and numeracy standards and pedagogy. We found that if students wanted to opt out of the tuition – which meant going back home after the regular school got over instead of staying back for another couple of hours – they were often not just disallowed but even humiliated, being told that having once accepted the ‘kit’ they could not now refuse to attend the tuition! On the one hand, the program claimed grossly inflated figures of girls enrolled under it – for example, in one school, while around 250 students stayed back for its tuitions, their report showed all the nearly 1500 students as participants! On the other hand, we had cases of parents whose daughters had been enrolled in the program without their knowledge and who would then come to school looking for them since they had not reached home by their usual time after the closure of the regular school.

We were able to engage with the parents of these students, fellow teachers and campaigned successfully with the department to get the program’s permission refused after a couple of years. In this process, some teachers have faced subtle threats and even been falsely and maliciously complained against by the organisers of the program. Moreover, the program continues to run in some neighborhoods, having once gained currency through a public institution, and there have been reports of the organisers trying to once again gain official permission to work in schools.

The other worrying trend which we are a witness to is the entry of Teach for India (TFI) volunteers in many Municipal schools. Most of these volunteers are said to be ‘bright’, young graduates freshly passed-out from colleges and other institutions of higher learning. While the wording of their permission-letter is careful enough to state that they will aid and assist the regular teachers of the English-medium sections in the teaching of English, Maths and Environmental Studies, there does come a situation when they sort of take-over the classes. (There is an increasing trend across states in India to have either ‘special’ schools which are English-medium or at least have one such section across grades in all other ‘normal’ schools. The trend is contrary to all the protestations of educationists and reports of various commissions and committees on the issue of the medium-language of education, and has to be seen in the light of a lack of serious commitment by the government to developing a system of education removed from colonial vestiges and free from the elitism of English, a tame response by the executive machinery to the ‘demands of the market’ and the peculiarly multi-lingual conditions in India.)

A teacher who used to teach, till some months back, in one such school where the TFI volunteers were working with the English-medium sections, shared his experience about a phenomenon which we term ‘student snatching’. Once, when he came back to school after a week’s leave, he was told by the TFI volunteer that she had tested the students while he was away and she wanted to exchange one ‘weak’ student under her charge with one ‘bright’ student from his class. The teacher was outraged by the suggestion, put his foot down and took the issue to the principal, who disallowed any such transfer of students but not before giving enough hints that she herself was under the impression that TFI had strong support from the bureaucracy in the department and thus their requests could not be easily negated.

Another example will perhaps make clear what the principal’s understanding of the situation meant. Sometime back, an NGO was granted written permission by the concerned authority (in the education department of the MCD) to work in five schools. When its representative came to the office which issues letters authorising such organisations to work in particular schools, he asked the official in charge of issuing the letter to mention ten schools in the letter instead of the approved figure of five. The official declared his inability to do so since their proposal had been cleared specifically for five schools. Thereupon the NGO representative made a telephonic call to a still higher official in the education department and let him speak to and pressurise this functionary in the office into releasing permission to the said NGO to work in ten schools. It is not rare to find even the education department officials, leave alone principals or teachers in the affected schools, to be kept in the dark about the details of the programs some of these NGOs seek to implement in schools. We have come across teachers, principals and even officials who did not know, for example, that the organisation working in their schools was not permitted to photograph students or bring un-authorised people to work with students in schools or to disturb the routine and functioning of the school (for days) in order to prepare the students for its promotional event in the school. No doubt, such impunity is helped not just by a culture of apathy and permissiveness in the corridors of the bureaucracy but also by the carefully worded ambiguity in the official letters which are issued to allow these NGOs to work in schools. Obviously, teachers and principals are bypassed when it comes to seeking their prior opinions and understanding of the proposed interventions by these private organisations.

It is clear that most of these organisations enjoy an undue and unaccountable reputation among the highest political and bureaucratic functionaries which makes it easy for them to influence the decision making process in their favour. Apart from the heft they gain merely due to their corporate background and bearing, they are also able to use the advantages of networking and insider-influence by recruiting education department officials who retire from senior positions in the bureaucracy. Such personnel come in handy to gain reputation, trust and access to much needed knowledge about the formal and informal functioning of the system.

Scholars in University departments of education who are working on some of these interventions have often made critical observations on the narrow focus of these programs. For example, TFI volunteers clearly emphasise the conversational aspect of English in their classroom interactions, thereby reducing the objective and pedagogy of the subject but in doing so they obviously gain some popularity with parents who see English speech as a marker of upward mobility.

Similarly, the exercise books recently introduced by the Delhi government to teach students of grades 6 to 9 for a couple of months this session are said to have been prepared under the direction of the NGO Pratham. These work-books, which are supposed to address the ‘learning deficits’ of students who have been negatively affected by the no-detention policy – in place till grade 8 under the Right to Education Act, 2009, but increasingly under attack and likely to be amended by the central government in near future – have not only been trashed by many teachers as too shallow, but have also been described by many students (in personal conversation) as demeaning to their intellect.

This intervention gels nicely with the annual report (ASER or Annual Status of Education Report) which Pratham brings out and which has been drawing a lot of negative attention to the ‘alarmingly low levels’ of achievement in Maths and Language among children enrolled in Public funded schools.

Diane consistently cautions against ignoring the socio-economic context of students while comparing their learning levels across schools. It was the public schools who catered to the education of children with special needs or children whose first language was not English in USA while Charter Schools tried to keep such students out in order to improve their results. We have similar problem with Indian think-tanks here. Reports like ASER remain silent on the question of caste and class context of children they test. They pass unqualified judgments with dangerous implications. What can’t be missed is how elected governments accept these conclusions as matter of faith. In a country where majority of households are not in a position to provide required nutrition to their children, any link between poverty and educational reality is being deliberately erased from public conscience and policy making.

Another matter of concern for us is the constant propaganda about the inefficiency and non-performance of the highly-paid government school teacher. Much like Diane describes in her book, these achievement reports and their statistics have become a part of the common but deadly arsenal of all those business leaders, management gurus and op-ed writers who, without having any credential or experience in education, passionately advocate vouchers for families and ‘performance-pay’, ‘temporary recruitment’ etc of school teachers. Not surprisingly, Pratham provides its untrained and unqualified volunteers to many public schools at the primary level to ostensibly improve upon these standards!

It is the same set of people who advocate the introduction of ‘vouchers’ and ‘choice’ in a system of schools left to the working of the market, if not the closure of public schools themselves. An experiment along the line of ‘voucher system’ was conducted in 90 villages of the southern province of Andhra Pradesh where parents were given ‘vouchers’ – called scholarships – for transferring their wards to a private school of their choice. A study released by J-PAL (Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab) in 2013 showed that only 60% of the parents applied for the vouchers in the first place and later 60% of the ‘benefitted’ parents rejected the option of changing the school. 20% of the remaining students who had used the vouchers returned back to their original schools within four years of the transfer. These figures imply that almost 80% of the students refused the benefits of the voucher program. The question is, can such short-term, isolated remedies take-over the State responsibility of providing equal and quality education to all children?

Most of these interventions are well placed in the context of the government’s declared and much-hyped projects like Skill Development, Digital India etc. Thus, the former requires students to be tested, classified and labelled early in their schooling careers in order to then move them to different programs corresponding to their ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ aptitudes. This is most likely to affect the higher-education chances of children studying in public funded schools and has already begun making its impact on schools and students. On the other hand, digitalisation is being used as a tool of an un-examined and mostly unethical intrusion into children’s privacy, their records, attendances etc, all in the name of ensuring e-governance. The compulsory enrolment of all people, including children not in a position to give (or withhold) consent, under a bio-metric (ten fingers and iris scan) identification register (now backed by a law, in spite of facing criticism and opposition from civil liberty groups and pending final judgment in the Supreme Court) is being proudly used by the central ministry of education (the Ministry of Human Resource and Development) to showcase a tracking of children and their test (and perhaps other) records not just by parents but accessible to all as a measure of transparency, accountability and convenience for the worried parents!

The document on school education released by the ministry as a framework for inviting public comments in the process of preparing a New Education Policy presents ‘learning outcomes’ as the first issue of discussion. It also includes questions on using technology to ensure teachers’ presence, has ‘school standard and management’ as another theme and asks states to identify areas in which they would like to seek international participation! Yet, there is some sliver of hope too. While we have found colleagues in general and our representative unions more unacceptably, oblivious to the dangers posed by many of these intrusions under the garb of NGOs, more recent exchanges with colleagues across schools tell us that even politically less active teachers are beginning to identify the vested interests behind these programs. This is surely in response to the direct assault they have come to face even in their classrooms, which has begun restricting their academic judgment and freedom as professionals.

Likewise, solidarity groups of organisations like the AIFRTE (All India Forum for Right to Education, a platform of national and state-level students’ and teachers’ organisations and other activists in the field of education, working for a fully state-funded common school system and resisting policies of commercialisation and communalisation in education) continue to engage in grassroots struggles and expose and oppose policies which are seen as harming the public character of education. An evidence of the power of these associational struggles can be had from the recent successfully-waged opposition to the decision of the Andhra Pradesh government to close or merge thousands of its schools in the name of ‘rationalisation’. Many such struggles are being waged across the country because many such anti-people decisions are being taken by state governments and the centre acting under the influence if not control of neo-liberal policies.

Thus, of course, while we appreciate and hope to make use of the remarkable public-spirited documentation of evidences by Diane in her book, there is one thing on which we would take a more political position than perhaps she allows herself as an academic. We would rather identify this whole swathe of often seductive changes, which are ultimately destructive of public education systems the world over, as the necessary machinations of the neo-liberal capitalist order. We in India trace the sharp turn in state’s policies from the beginning of the 1990s, when the government adopted, under the pressure of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, a structural adjustment program to reduce its welfare role. The policy is more (un)popularly referred to as LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation, Globalisation). Where they seem to halt their onslaughts and appear to negotiate compromises favourable to our schools, students, teachers and communities, even there the neo-liberal forces make all attempts to distort the character of education and the unity of the people.

A case in point being the Ambani-Birla Report on ‘Policy Framework for Reforms In Education’ (2000) which was framed by heads of two of the richest and most influential companies in India, Reliance and Aditya Birla Group, on the invitation of The Prime Minister’s Council on Trade and Industry. The report intended to lay guidelines for re-shaping the national higher education system. It claimed that “education must shape adaptable, competitive workers who can readily acquire new skills and innovate” for market economy thus paving the way for vocationalisation of education. A decade later, University of Delhi came to witness what Diane has called ‘cafeteria curriculum’ in the form of half-baked courses under a Four Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP) 2013-14 which students rejected on a large scale and got rolled back.

We firmly believe that the proper role of education and the unity of the people are sustained by public funding and public character of our institutions.

We also see in Diane’s work the proof, if any was needed, that all those who cherish intellectual vigour in education, even if not persuaded to name capitalism itself as responsible, will find it unable to ignore the ill-effects of the growing power and influence of corporate capital on our schools and education system. As she rightly says in her book, we cannot hope to sustain democratic societies in the absence of a strong and common public school system. No matter which part of the world we may belong to.

In his post this morning, Whitney Tilson, a member of the board of Bridge International Academies, described the reasons why for-profit education was doing valuable and constructive philanthropic work in African nations. He pointed out that teachers’ unions oppose for-profit schools for what he assumes for selfish motives, to protect their jobs. He said that one of the most vocal critics of Bridge’s activities is Education International, an international organization representing teachers’ unions around the world.

As it happened, I just received a letter from Angelo Gavrielatos, the project director for global response at Education International, and former president of the Australian Education Union.

Gavrielatos writes that Bridge International harassed a Canadian researcher who was studying their operations in Uganda and had him jailed under false charges.

As this incident was unfolding, Gavrielatos wrote me about it and asked me to keep the matter in confidence as he was concerned that the young researcher might be jailed indefinitely. He was trying to get him safely out of Uganda.

He wrote:

Just when it thought its business couldn’t get any worse, for-profit education provider Bridge International Academies has resorted to dangerous tactics to avoid questions of its practices. Last week, Canadian Curtis Riep, a University of Alberta doctoral student and researcher for the global teachers’ federation Education International (EI), found out the length the corporation is willing to go to silence its critics.

After arriving for a pre-arranged interview with school officials on 30 May, Riep was detained by police and later charged with impersonation and criminal trespass. Although he was dismissed after two days of questioning, the experience left him shocked.

“It shows to what extent they will go to muzzle and repress the truth about their operations,” said Riep, in e-mail correspondence. “Every school inspector and ministry official I have spoken with has told me about their unwillingness to cooperate and withhold information. This just happens to be another manifestation of that.”

Now safely back in Canada, Riep was unaware that days earlier Bridge published a ‘wanted ad’ in a national newspaper accusing him of impersonating one of its employees, an allegation proven to be false.

Addressing Bridge co-founder Shannon May in an open letter, EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen said that the company’s “actions have been exposed as not only unwarranted, but also irresponsible. We consider this whole episode and this behaviour totally unacceptable, and unworthy of an organisation which claims to have the interest of young people at heart.” Van Leeuwen has demanded Bridge to apologise to Riep in addition to compensating his legal expenses.

Bridge, operating so-called ‘low-fee,’ for-profit schools in Uganda, Kenya, is financially supported by the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and education conglomerate Pearson Ltd. It is also supported by the World Bank and DfID-UK. Bridge’s business model, which includes fee charging schools run by unqualified teachers delivering a scripted standardised curriculum, has faced heavy criticism. Also attracting significant criticism is the Liberian Government’s announcement to outsource its primary schools to Bridge.

Although it promotes ‘affordable’ education to some of the world’s poorest children, Bridge forces families to pay for inadequate scripted lessons read from tablets. Many children are left to learn in questionable environments, such as classrooms lacking proper materials, including desks and chairs.

Please open the article to read it in full and see the links to sources.

After the publication in The Economist of a glowing article about the for-profit schools that Bridge International Academies is opening across Africa, India, and other impoverished regions, readers reacted to the article with informed outrage and indignation. The respondents were some of the best informed international aid workers in the world. Please read what they said.

The responses can be found here.

I have recently been engaged in a public debate with hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, one of the leaders of the “reform” movement. In addition to founding Democrats for Education Reform, which supports charter schools and high-stakes testing, he helped to create Teach for America and sits on the board of a KIPP school in the Bronx (NYC). In our offline exchanges, he mentioned that he was in London for a meeting of the board of Bridge International Academies, and I told him that I oppose for-profit schooling. When someone runs a school to make a profit, the bottom line is profit, not children or education. Re Bridge International Academies, I believe that for-profit entrepreneurs should not substitute for the government’s obligation to provide free, universal education with qualified teachers. When they do, it relieves the government of its obligation to do so. Liberia, for example, has recently agreed to outsource its primary education system to Bridge. I think that is reprehensible because Liberia is off the hook. What happens to the families who can’t pay?

Whitney, my new BFF, sent me a letter explaining why Bridge is doing good work in poor countries, doing what the government does poorly or not at all. While I don’t agree with him, I think you should hear his point of view, unfiltered.

Tilson writes:

Hi Diane,

I suspect you’re going to oppose Bridge no matter what I write because it’s a mostly non-union for-profit business that typically charges poor parents tuition.

But what the heck – worth a try.

As background, Bridge runs more than 460 low-cost private schools, serving nearly 100,000 students, in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and, soon, India and Liberia (which is in the process of inviting school management companies like Bridge to run its schools; in September, Bridge will implement its model to try to turn around 50 currently failing public primary schools in partnership with the government).

One thing both you and I agree on is that poverty has an enormous effect on a child’s ability to learn. This is exactly what Bridge has set out to help solve. Bridge addresses one of the world’s most severe and vexing problems: that children in the ~800 million families around the world subsisting on less than $2/day (roughly half in India and most of the rest in sub-Saharan Africa) are getting little/no education, thereby almost certainly trapping them in desperate poverty.

Most of these children attend at least elementary school (K-8), which is now usually free even in the poorest countries, but there are two big problems: 1) they’re really not free: the schools charge various fees for uniforms, textbooks and supplies, teachers demand bribes to pay attention to a child, etc.; and 2) the government schools are horrifically bad – not inner-city U.S. bad, but 10x worse. For example, teacher absenteeism averages 25-35% in surveys in various poor countries, plus 25-50% of the teachers who do show up aren’t teaching – they’re hanging out, running side businesses at the school, etc. Thus, the effective absenteeism rate is ~50% (Bridge’s, in contrast, is 99% lower at 0.5%). And the half that are in the classroom are teaching a mere 2 hours and 19 minutes a day on average and are barely literate themselves: 65% of teachers in Kenya couldn’t pass an exam based on the curriculum they teach.

Consequently, the parents of roughly half of these children worldwide instead send them to low-cost private schools, somehow scraping together the fees, which average ~$6/month (not much different than what they’d be paying anyway at the supposedly “free” government schools). These schools, typically microenterprises run by local entrepreneurs who might have a high school education at best, are scarcely better than the government schools, but at least the teachers show up every day (otherwise the parents won’t pay).

This is where Bridge came in. Its co-founders looked at this market and asked: “How can we guarantee quality for these parents, as a price point they can afford?” They looked at the core challenges – teacher preparedness and absenteeism, absence of learning materials, lack of monitoring and evaluation, etc. – and designed a model to tackle them. By designing the model for scale, Bridge was able to invest up front in research and development, technology and training.

Essentially Bridge goes to some of the most marginalized communities in the countries it operates in, identifies local talent, trains them in pupil-centered learning and gives them the resources they need to be great teachers. It then provides a comprehensive central support system for these teachers, and uses technology (tablets and smart phones) to monitor attendance and learning outcomes.

The evidence is showing that it is succeeding: Bridge pupils reach fluency at twice the rate of their peers, as shown in the attached study, The Bridge Effect. This is the equivalent to 32% more schooling in English and 14% more in math (0.34 SD in reading, 0.13 SD in math effect size).

And most importantly to parents in Kenya, a few months ago Bridge students earned historic results on the KCPE, the exam given to all 8th graders in the country, which largely determines which students will go to high school, and of what quality. Bridge students were 2.5x more likely to earn a score that qualified them for National Secondary Schools (the highest-rated schools) and 2.4x more likely to earn a score that qualified them for County Secondary Schools (the next-highest-rated schools). Overall, Bridge students had a 60% pass rate (a score of 250+ on the 500-point scale) vs. 44% nationwide, with a 264 mean score vs. 242 (a 0.37 SD effect size). In summary, based on measured pupil growth in terms of standard deviations above the control, what happened with Bridge students on the KCPE is among the largest impacts ever seen in a large-scale education intervention globally.

Perhaps most importantly, Bridge is developing and supporting a cohort of confident and ambitious young people and giving them the opportunities for a better future. It secured over 100 scholarships for its graduating class to attend high school in the US and Kenya and is working on a long-term scholarship program. I recommend you watch this clip of a 13-year-old Bridge graduate and scholarship recipient, Grace, talking to a crowd of 1,200 women. I don’t know many American kids that age with that such confidence, poise and eloquence. And here’s a picture of Rahab, who performed for Liberian President Sirleaf last year and led her dance team to a top-10 placing at the national music competition last year:

Bridge has its critics. The more successful Bridge is, the more threatening it is to the local teachers union and educational establishment, so they’ve been stirring up lots of trouble for Bridge, threatening regulatory action, spreading rumors, etc. Bridge’s global ambitions have also drawn the ire of Education International, the global union federation of teachers’ trade unions.

In response to critics, let me be clear: neither you nor I would send our kids to a Bridge school. To make the schools affordable ($6/month doesn’t go very far, even in poor countries!), extracurriculars are limited and the facilities are pretty basic. There’s no glass on the windows. The campus is small. The floors are concrete. Children sit at benches. But, this is similar or better than what other schools look like in the area.

The teachers all teach off teacher guides, developed centrally to align to the country’s educational standards and delivered wirelessly to a small tablet device like a Nook or Kindle. Thus, if you walked into a 3rd grade math class at any of Bridge’s ~400 schools in Kenya at 10am on Tuesday, you would find the same lesson being taught. Each class might be at different places in the lesson according to the needs of the kids, but all teachers are on the same scope, sequence and lesson plan. They still have to maintain order, engage the class in discussion, help struggling students, etc. – but they don’t spend any time developing a curriculum or lesson plans.

One of Bridge’s core successes is getting teachers to master classroom management techniques. They are taught how to lead a class without beating the children, which is very common. Many Bridge students say that this is the first time they have teachers who listen to them, allow them to ask questions, and develop a positive relationship with them.

About 30% of Bridge teachers in Kenya have a teaching certificate. Interestingly, based on the careful tracking and evaluation Bridge does of all of its teachers, it can detect no difference between the certified teachers and those who aren’t (Bridge does a three-week training program for all new teachers, whether certified or not).

To track the progress of every student, Bridge develops and regularly administers internal tests, whose results are collected centrally, so it can tell which students have mastered the material that was just taught, and let principals and teachers know which students need extra help.

To your argument that “it lets the government off the hook so it need not provide a free public education system for all of its children. It will outsource it to Bridge.” I agree that, in a perfect world, the governments of Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia and India would provide a truly free, quality education to all children. OK, now let’s get back to the real world. Have you ever been to any of these countries? I can assure you that it will be decades before any of these countries even come close to this goal. In the meantime, Bridge is ready, willing and able to provide this right now – at a cost far below what governments are spending (Bridge estimates that Kenya spends ~$350/pupil/year vs. Bridge at less than $100 – for a far better result). In light of the cost and outcomes, the more governments (like Liberia’s) that engage Bridge as a partner to deliver publicly-financed education, the better. In fact, I hope that Bridge’s future lies in this area – performance-based government contracts – rather than charging poor families for something that we both agree should be free.

For further information, attached is The Bridge Effect, a cover story in the Economist last year about low-cost private schools, and here’s a link to an eight-minute video Bridge made:

I’d welcome any questions or comments you have.

Best regards,



So you think that only American teachers are disgusted by high-stakes testing, privatization, and loss of autonomy. If you think so, you are wrong.


Read this open letter from a British teacher to Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education from the Conservative party.



“Please accept this as written notice of my resignation from my role as Assistant Head and class teacher. It is with a heavy heart that I write you this letter. I know you’ve struggled to listen to and understand teachers in the past so I’m going to try and make this as clear as possible. In the six short years I have been teaching your party has destroyed the Education system. Obliterated it. Ruined it. It is broken.


“The first thing I learnt when I started teaching in 2010 is that teaching is bloody hard work. It’s a 60 hour week only half of which is spent doing the actual teaching. It eats into the rest of your life both mentally and physically. If it’s not exercise books and resources taking over your lounge and kitchen table it’s worrying about results or about little Ahmed’s home life keeping you awake at 2am. I’ve never minded this. I’ve always been happy to give my life over to teaching as I believed it to be such a noble cause. Besides we’re not the only profession who work long hours. What I didn’t realise back in 2010 is that the job would get harder each year.


“First you introduced the phonics check. I was in Year 1 that year and continued teaching phonics to the best of my ability. I didn’t spend much time teaching children to differentiate between real words and “non-words” because I was focused on, you know, teaching them to read. I sat and watched child after child fail that ridiculous “screening” because they read the word “strom” as “storm”. The following year I taught to the test. We spent weeks practising “words” and “non words” and sure enough our results soared.


“My second year brought with it the changes to the Ofsted framework and the obsession with data began. Oh the sodding data game! The game that refuses to acknowledge how long a child has spoken English or whether or not they have books or even food at home. The data game changed things. Attainment in Maths and English was no longer just important, it would almost entirely decide the judgement made about your school. Oh and whilst we’re on the judgements “Satisfactory” was no longer satisfactory – it was the far more sinister sounding: “Requires Improvement.”


“From then on things began to unravel at an alarming rate. The threat of forced academisation hung over each set of SATs results and the floor targets continued to rise. Gove cut the calculator paper (because calculators are cheating) and introduced SPaG. Grammar was no longer for writing – it was for grammar. Around the same time he also froze teachers’ pay and doubled the contributions we would have to make to our pensions. Teachers were suddenly worse off than they had been the previous year and under more pressure than ever before.


“So teaching became harder still and life in schools started to change. There were new hoops to jump through and somehow we just about managed to get through them. It meant sacrificing everything that wasn’t SPaG, English or Maths but we did it – we learnt how to play the game. Outside of the safety of our schools though there was a bigger game being played – one that we had no chance of winning: the status of the teaching profession was being eroded away. There was the incessant name calling and smears in the media from “the blob” to “the enemies of promise” and, of course, “soft bigots” with “low expectations”. You drip fed the message: teachers were not to be trusted and it worked: the public stopped trusting us.


“As bleak as it sounds, those years look like a golden age compared to what we have to deal with now….


“This year brought with it our greatest challenge to date – the new assessments. For most of the year we were completely in the dark. We had no idea what form the tests would take and how they would be scored (we’re still not entirely sure on the latter.) There was also the introduction of the SPaG test for 7-year-olds (which was sadly scrapped because of your own department’s incompetence.) The criteria for assessing writing has changed dramatically. Gone is the best fit approach and what has replaced it is an arbitrary list of criteria of the things children should be able to do – some of which are grammatical rules that your department have made up . Year 6 were tested on their ability to read long words and remember the names of different tenses. Whatever foundation subjects were still being taught have had to be shelved in favour of lesson after lesson on the past progressive tense.



“In some ways I don’t feel like a teacher at all any more. I prepare children for tests and, if I’m honest, I do it quite well. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of as it’s not as if I’ve provided my class with any transferable, real life skills during the process. They’ve not enjoyed it, I’ve not enjoyed it but we’ve done it: and one thing my children know how to do is answer test questions. They’ve written raps about how to answer test questions, they’ve practised test questions at home and test questions in school, they’ve had extra tuition to help them understand the test questions. They can do test questions – they just haven’t had time to do anything else….



“I know I’m not alone in feeling like this. A recent survey found that nearly 50% of teachers are considering leaving in the next 5 years. Just within my own family my fiance, my sister and my sister-in-law have all quit the profession in the last 12 weeks. Rather than address this issue you’ve decided to allow schools to recruit unqualified teachers to fill the gaps. The final nail in the profession’s coffin. I don’t want to stop teaching. I love teaching but I have no interest in being part of this game any more.



“Worse than being a teacher in this system is being a child at the mercy of it and to them I say this: we tried our best to fight these changes: we rallied, we went on strike, we campaigned and made as much noise as we could. I’m sorry it didn’t work and I’m sorry that I’m not strong enough to keep working in this system but as I’ve told many of you many times: when someone is being mean to you – you ask them to stop. If they continue to be mean you walk away. It is now time for me to walk away. I’ll keep up the fight though.



“Maybe in time things will change and, when that time comes, I can come back to the job I loved but until then sorry Nicky – I’m out.”



Stephanie Northen, teacher and journalist, enjoyed the spectacle of the Education Minister Nick Gibb failing to answer a question taken from the exam for 11-year-old children as he defends the value of the test on air. And she  rightly ridicules the obsession with rigor that emanates from government officials.



She wrote this article as the students in England were taking the national exam known as SPAG (spelling, punctuation, and grammar). Northen calls it “Rigor SPAG.”




She writes:



“Amid the gloom of unsavoury Sats and enforced academisation, comes one delicious moment of joy. Schools minister Nick Gibb doesn’t know his subordinating conjunctions from his prepositions. He can’t answer one of the questions he has set children. Despite this woeful (in his eyes) ignorance – though, tellingly, when his mistake is pointed out he says ‘This isn’t about me’ – he has managed to become and to remain a government minister. Need one say any more about the pointlessness of the Spag test?



“At least by this time next week it will all be over. The country’s 10 and 11-year-olds will be free to enjoy their final few weeks at primary school, liberated from the government’s oh so very rigorous key stage 2 tests. Like them, I am tired of fractions, tired of conjunctions, tired, in fact, of being told of the need for ‘rigour’. The Education Secretary and the Chief Inspector need to wake up to the fact that rigour is a nasty little word, suggestive of starch and thin lips. Its lack of humour and humanity makes parents and teachers recoil. Check out its origins in one of those dictionaries you recommend children use.



“Hopefully the weight of protest here, echoing many in America, will force some meaningful concessions from the ‘rigour revolutionaries’ in time for next year’s tests. Either that, or everyone with a genuine interest in helping young children learn will stand up and say No. In the words of CPRT Priority 8, Assessment must ‘enhance learning as well as test it’, ‘support rather than distort the curriculum’ and ‘pursue standards and quality in all areas of learning, not just the core subjects’. The opposite is happening at the moment in the name of rigour. It’s not rigour – but it is deadly.



“Of course, the memory of subordinating conjunctions and five-digit subtraction by decomposition will fade for the current Year 6s – and for Nick Gibb – unless they turn out to have failed the tests. Mrs Morgan [the Conservative Party’s Secretary of State for education] will decide just how rigorous she wants to be in the summer. Politics will determine where she draws the line between happy and sad children. Politics will decide the proportion she brands as failures at age 11, forced to do the tests again at secondary school.



“But still the children have these few carefree weeks where primary school can go back to doing what primary school does best – encouraging enquiry into and enjoyment of the world around us. Well, no. Teachers still have to assess writing. And if my classroom is anything to go by, writing has been sidelined over the past few weeks in the effort to cram a few more scraps of worthless knowledge into young brains yearning to rule the country.



“So how do we teachers judge good writing? Sadly, that’s an irrelevant question. Don’t bother drawing up a mental list of, for example, exciting plot, imaginative setting, inventive language, mastery of different genres. No, teachers must assess using Mrs Morgan’s leaden criteria, criteria that would never cross the mind of a Man Booker prize judge. Marlon James, last year’s Booker winner and a teacher of creative writing, was praised for a story that ‘traverses strange landscapes and shady characters, as motivations are examined – and questions asked’. No one commented on James’s ability to ‘use a range of cohesive devices, including adverbials, within and across sentences and paragraphs’.



“The dead hand of rigour decrees that we judge children’s ability to employ ‘passive and modal verbs mostly appropriately’. We have to check that they use ‘adverbs, preposition phrases and expanded noun phrases effectively to add detail, qualification and precision’. (Never mind thrilling, moving or frightening, I do love a story to be detailed, precise and qualified.) We forget to read what the children have actually written in the hunt for ‘inverted commas, commas for clarity, and punctuation for parenthesis [used] mostly correctly, and some correct use of semi-colons, dashes, colons and hyphens’. Finally, it goes without saying that young children must ‘spell most words correctly’.”





Andy Hargreaves, Professor at Boston College and recipient of many honors, including the Grawemeyer Award, writes here about the problems of English schools, which he attributes to its reckless pursuit of free-market policies, akin to those now dominant in the U.S. In this article, which appeared in the Times Education Supplement (U.K.), Hargreaves blames the free-market  strategy of “reform,” which demoralizes teachers and damages the profession.


He writes:


Britain has a teacher recruitment crisis. But it is not truly British. The complaint is much more spectacular in England. In Scotland, teaching is an attractive profession and while recruitment levels are disappointing, the issue is not as profound. The Scottish system is creaking; the English system has fallen over. What explains the difference?



The answer is simple. Scotland values a strong state educational system run by 32 local authorities that is staffed by well-trained and highly valued professionals who stay and grow in a secure and rewarding job. Teachers serve others, for most or all of their working life, in a cooperative profession that supports them to do this to the best of their abilities.



England no longer values these things. About half of its schools are now outside local authority control. England offers a business capital model that invests in education to yield short-term profits and keep down costs through shorter training, weakened security and tenure, and keeping salaries low by letting people go before they cost too much.



By comparison, Scotland models what is called professional capital: bringing in skilled as well as smart people; training them rigorously in university settings connected to practical environments; giving them time and support to collaborate on curriculum and other matters; and paying them to develop their leadership and their careers so that they can make effective decisions together and deliver better outcomes for young people.



In December, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published its review of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. I was one of four people on the review team. Like any system, Scotland’s isn’t perfect. But there is a strong foundation to build on – with a priority placed on valuing and developing teachers’ professional judgment.



The defenders of the status quo of market reform claim that teachers are overpaid; that they don’t improve over time; and that collaboration is over-rated.


All of this sounds very familiar to Americans. We have heard the same buzzwords of efficiency and outcomes and metrics used to demean the teaching profession, and now we are surprised when experienced teachers leave and new teachers do not appear to take their place. Perhaps this is the intended effect, because the manufactured teacher shortage creates market opportunities for vendors of technology to replace the missing classroom teachers.






When first minister Nicola Sturgeon opened the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement in Glasgow in January, she underlined the importance of the “professional judgment” of teachers. From Glasgow to Stornoway, teachers told our team that teaching today had been like a “breath of fresh air”, which replaced a system of “counting minutes and percentages” that had offered “no room for movement”.



While Scotland is in the vanguard of global educational improvement, England is in the guard’s van, at the back. Worldwide, England’s business capital view is now on the run. The evidence of high-performing nations such as Canada, Singapore and Finland hasn’t been on its side, and countries like Sweden that followed the free-school business model, and saw their results collapse, are reversing course.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are embedded in what Pasi Sahlberg called “the Global Education Reform Movement” (GERM). That means privatization and high-stakes testing.


This parent in the U.K. wrote an article in The Guardian about why he is opting his child out of the crazy testing. He doesn’t use the term “opt out,” but refers instead to a boycott of the exams. The Minister of Education Nicky Morgan is mad about testing, like our own Arne Duncan and John King. (To see the links, open the post.)



Hands up who knows what a subordinating conjunction is? I’m a journalist and I had no idea what one was, nor have I ever needed to. My seven-year-old son and daughter, however, were expected to explain what one is as part of their homework recently.


This is where education is, these days – by my reckoning, pretty much where it was in the 1950s – and I’m not alone in fearing it’s going to get even worse. That is why I am taking my children out of school on Tuesday, along with many others.


It’s not a decision any parent would take lightly, especially one who strongly believes in the importance of learning (and spends five mornings a week hurrying their children into school). But it’s an act of protest against a government agenda that’s putting undue pressure on children, subjecting them to a narrow, joyless curriculum, shutting out parents’ democratic rights and, ultimately, forcing every school to become an academy, effectively putting all of state education into private, democratically unaccountable hands – or rather, pockets. If Nicky Morgan’s white paper goes through, all this will come to pass, with no democratic mandate to speak of – it wasn’t in the Conservative election manifesto.


Parents are the largest contingent in the entire education system, and yet we’ve felt powerless to do anything
“I’ve never yet been on a doorstep where education has come up as an issue,” Morgan said last month. If nothing else, she’s succeeded in making it one.


Teachers are already horrified at what’s happening, and are fighting their own battle, when they’re not too exhausted from jumping through the government’s bureaucratic hoops. Most of them are doing their best to shoehorn in the stuff that actually interests and engages children, around the subordinating conjunctions and the rest of the crashingly dull curriculum.


Kids are stressed out by the amount of hoop-jumping they’ve got to do too. In a fortnight, like every year 2 pupil in England, my seven-year-olds will do their standard assessment tests, or Sats – a week of exams prioritising things like grammar, spelling, punctuation and handwriting. Which means matters as trivial as the size of a letter s could define them as academic successes or failures at an age when children in more enlightened countries have barely started school.

On top of that, my 11-year-old daughter will be sitting her year 6 Sats, which have been made more difficult this year (you thought subordinating conjunctions were bad, try “fronted adverbials”). She’s coming off the other end of the testing treadmill that primary education has become. Literacy and numeracy are all that counts. If your child excels at art or music or dance or science or poetry or geography or history or critiquing retrograde educational dogma – tough. Doesn’t count. If there’s any evidence that any of this is a sound approach to education, I’ve yet to see it.


Why shouldn’t parents make themselves heard too? We’re the ones whose children are being affected. We’re also the ones compliantly subjecting them to it. We’re also the ones paying for a significant proportion of the education system that we’re against. We’re the largest contingent in the entire education system, and yet we’ve felt powerless to do anything. We will not be subordinated, like conjunctions!


Last Saturday, I went to the launch of Parents Defending Education in London – the name speaks for itself. “Our schools don’t belong to the government,” their launch statement reads. “They belong to our children, to the community, to the parents, to the teachers and support staff and to future generations.” Michael Rosen persuasively joined the dots of the government’s broad agenda, and others who’d been through forced academisation shared their horror stories.
That was the first time I heard about the proposed “boycott” or “pupils’ strike” on Tuesday, inaugurated by the equally self-explanatory parent group, Let Our Kids Be Kids. Few Londoners seem to be aware of the campaign (though I’m told it has more support in the north and west of England). Nobody in my school was. When I met the headteacher to discuss it, I was expecting a frosty response. It was more a gasp of relief. Teachers and schools need parents to stand alongside them. Parents can say and do things they can’t.


At a school parents’ meeting the following night, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Dozens of us are taking our children out of school. We’re planning on getting together in the park for a day of “fun learning” – painting, bug hunting, that sort of thing.

Understandably, many parents are unable to do so as they’re working. Others, ironically, felt that taking their children out of school would detract from their preparations for their Sats. A few felt it would be “politicising” their kids. But virtually all parents not taking part in the boycott still pledged to sign letters of support for the action. We’re all in this together.


Incidentally, the definition of a “subordinating conjunction”, if you’re wondering, is a conjunction (that is “a part of speech that connects words, sentences, phrases, or clauses”) that “connects an independent clause and a dependent clause, and also introduces adverb clauses.” Any seven-year-old could tell you that. For example: I’m taking my children out of school for one day so that they get a better academic future than the one Nicky Morgan is mapping out for them.



While you were sleeping, Teach for America turned into Teach for All. It has located its program in nearly 40 countries around the world.


Teach for All poses the same problems in India, China, and Estonia as in the U.S.:


It undermines teachers’ unions, and it offers poorly trained recruits as a substitute for well-prepared teachers.


I received an email a few weeks ago from a teacher in India, who complained that the recruits from Teach for All were replacing unionized teachers and professionals. Why hire a certified and well-prepared teacher who hopes to make a career of teaching when you can get a low-wage member of Teach for All, who will be gone in 2-3 years, will never expect a pension, and will work 60-70 hours a week?


This may be the worst of all American exports.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 175,372 other followers