There are some things we all just know about education such as that the more individual attention students receive, the better they are likely to perform. Among those things we "know" is that private education is only available to those in middle and upper economic circles. Without financial assistance, the poor just don't have that option because they can't afford it.
In The Beautiful Tree, Professor James Tooley gently blasts away our assumptions about education with this journey into the educational world of the poor. Professor Tooley, an international educational expert, was researching private education for the World Bank when he stumbled upon an amazing number of private schools in the slums of Hyderabad in India. Poor families there viewed education as so important that they scraped up tuition money in hopes of bettering the future for their children. Parents did not care if the buildings were little more than shacks or lean-to's. They didn't care that there were no bathrooms or playgrounds. They did care if their children were learning and were willing to pay to see that it happened.
This discovery was the impetus for Tooley's research effort to try to discover if this phenomenon might be present in other slums. Education and government leaders in India, Africa, and China all insisted that such a thing could not be. They knew there were no private schools in their slums. But each time Tooley set out into the slums himself he discovered private schools, some thriving, some dying, but all operating as a free market in education to meet the demands of a market.
These private schools often exist in the same locale as "free" government-funded schools with modern buildings and playgrounds. Why would poor parents pay to send their children to school in makeshift buildings when they had another choice? Over and over again, Tooley found that government-funded schools respond poorly, if at all, to the needs of children or the wishes of parents. Government teaching jobs are too often a secure, undemanding, and unaccountable sinecure. Teachers don't show up, so children spend the day on the playground. Things break, but no one fixes them. No one really owns the schools so no one really cares to make them effective and efficient. Sometimes, the "free" schools demand other fees from parents, making them think twice about the value received for their money. Frequently, the private school is the better investment. Tooley reports, "The development experts I read appeared unanimous about the problems of public education for the poor. The World Bank called it ‘government failure,' with ‘services so defective that their opportunity costs outweigh their benefits for most poor people'" (p. 139).
Yet, these same develop experts insist that the solution is to pour more money into government-funded education. However, Professor Tooley has demonstrated that private education provides what is likely a better solution. Private schools have to be managed well and respond to their customers or they go out of business. They have to be efficient because they can charge only what the market will bear. This is exactly what is happening in the slums of Hyderabad, Ghana, Nigeria, and other equally impoverished places.
In addition, most of these private schools provide scholarships for the poorest of the poor. All of this directly challenges the international development experts who insist that the poor cannot possibly get an education without funding from the wealthier countries of the world.
Tooley summarizes: "Private schools for the poor are burgeoning across the developing world. In many urban areas they are serving the majority of poor schoolchildren. Their quality is higher than that of government schools provided for the poor—perhaps not surprisingly given that they are predominantly businesses dependent on fees to survive and, hence, are directly accountable to parental needs. Those worried…about how to extend access to education for the poor could usefully look to the private education sector as a way forward (p. 263).
Soon after completing this book, Professor Tooley was hired as president of Oreint Global's Education Fund with $100 million of private money to invest in developing low-cost models for a greater expansion of private education to the poor.
While The Beautiful Tree is the story of a research project, Tooley writes it as an engaging, adventure story as we get to know the people and places where he travels. More importantly than the fact that it's a "good read," this is an eye-opening book. Although the focus is on education for the poor, there are parallels the reader might draw to the reality of government-funded education in the most advanced, wealthy countries. Anyone interested in the future of education at any economic level really should read this book.