When President Obama visited Ghana last week, he went to teach. Africans could harness education "to create new wealth," said the president. "Yes you can."
But what if Africa has something to teach the president about education?
For decades we have taught Africa that it needs to copy the West's model of free, compulsory education. Everyone knows that he poor can't afford to pay for education. And anyway, there are some parents who don't understand the importance of education.
But now we know that what we knew just isn't true. In his new book, The Beautiful Tree:A personal journey into how the world's poorest people are educating themselves, James Tooley shows from his comprehensive research, that the Third World poor can teach us a lot about education. Because in the Third World the poor are educating themselves, with their own money, in spite of a dysfunctional government education system, meddling regulators, and ideology-driven international development experts.
Tooley's journey began in Hyderabad, India, in 2000, on an auto-rickshaw ride from his "posh hotel... to the Charminar, the triumphal arch" built in 1591 and now located in the middle of the Hyderbad slums. All along the route, in the middle-class suburbs, Tooley was struck by the number the signboards advertising private schools.
But the signboards continued into the heart of the slums.
For the stunning thing was that private schools had not thinned out as we went from one of the poshest parts of town to the poorest... I was amazed, but also confused: why had no one I'd worked with in India told me about them?
After a couple of inquiries, Tooley found himself in the tiny office of the owner of the Royal Grammar School, an "English-medium" school in the heart of the slums. "English-medium" means that all the classes are conducted in English-in the middle of an Indian slum.
I was introduced to the warm, kind, and quietly charismatic Mr. Fazalur Rahman Khurrum and to a huge network of private schools in the slums and low-income areas of the Old City.
The reason that nobody had told him about these schools is that nobody knew about them. Private schools are for the rich, he was told by experts all over the world.
But when Tooley told the development experts about his discovery he was in for a shock. They didn't want to know. These schools were selective, they were no good, they were "untenable in modern educational theory;" they were crammers, "ripping off the poor."
But Tooley found similar schools, thousands of them, in the Makoko slums of Lagos, Nigeria, and in Ghana, and Kenya. There were even private schools for the poor in the remote areas of China.
Nobody was going to believe his anecdotal evidence, so Tooley obtained funding to test 24,000 school children from all types of schools in Africa, India and China. His results were unequivocal. Except in China, the unrecognized slum schools out-performed government schools by a wide margin. They performed only a little below the regulated private schools for the middle class.
There is no mystery about this. Regulated or not, the slum schools work because there is a chain of accountability. "[P]oor parents [are] keen education consumers." School owners must deliver to their fee-paying customers. They must offer the programs that parents want, and they must deliver results in the government school qualifications exams. And they do.
One thing parents want in India is "English-medium" instruction.
In Hyderabad, 88 percent of recognized and 80 percent of unrecognized private unaided schools reported they were English medium, compared with fewer than 1 percent of government schools.
Why the difference? In India, the politicians and the experts have decided that children in government schools must be taught in their mother tongue, and not the language preferred by parents.
"Never trust experts," said British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury over a century ago. You can see why. When James Tooley took his findings on the road to conferences of education and development experts he ran into a road block. In fact a professor of education in Britain took Tooley aside after one talk.
He was trying to be helpful. "You're very silly, saying all of that. You'll never get another job. Be sensible, old chap."
Well, of course. If people were competent to educate their children who would need experts?
So Tooley has heard it all. Private education for the poor woutd lead to the death of government education. It would be a "market failure" because parents wouldn't choose education "of the right sort." The education wouldn't be "pro-poor." Try this one. Education is a human right, and thus must be free and compulsory. And of course, everyone knows that universal education in the West was achieved by government not the market.
If this sounds familiar, it is because we have all heard before. Our liberal friends use these arguments to justify their power, not just in education, but in all aspects of the welfare state. Tooley uses an entire chapter to argue against them.
For if James Tooley is right, and the poor are perfectly able to direct and fund the education of their children without supervision, then what is the point of government education, or even government health care, or the rest of the welfare state, except as a patronage system.
The liberal one-size-fits-all solution to education is a stark contrast to the authentic approach preferred by the Third World poor. The liberal solution is long on jobs for liberals, long on expensive facilities and short on accountability. Third World education of the poor, by the poor, and for the poor is different. It is long on jobs for the poor, short on expensive facilities and long on accountability.
Maybe President Obama should not be offering help to Africa, but offering to learn from Africa.
For instance, he and his advisers could consider that, in those ramshackle Third World private schools for the poor, they typically provide about ten percent of the places free for the children of the poorest of the poor.