In my recent post about The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, I described James Tooley's research revealing a vast network of low-cost private schools in some of the most desperately impoverished places on the planet. Despite the insistence of local education officials who denied the very existence of such schools, Tooley discovered that a large proportion (in some cases a majority) of poor children from Zimbabwe to China are being educated in schools that are completely private.
Tooley also made the clear case that parents of these children were not being exploited by greedy private school operators eager to make a buck off of the ignorant and desperate. To the contrary, The Beautiful Tree reveals that students in these schools are often learning at much higher levels than their peers in traditional public schools, the only kind of education international development experts seem to take seriously. Poor parents knew the value of the education their children were getting, and were willing to pay for it out of their meager incomes (tuition rates ranged from 4 to 20 percent of minimum wage and many of the poorest students attended for free).
The implications of The Beautiful Tree are considerable. First and foremost, the insistence of development experts that state-run schools are the only viable means of promoting universal primary education is demonstrably false. While it occupies only a small section at the end of the book, Tooley argues that rather than funnel more wasted money into failing public schools, international aid agencies ought to sponsor voucher programs that would assist poor families in sending their children to high-quality schools of all kinds, including private ones.
But there are many implications of this book for those of us living in the developed world too. Is it possible that we could have such a network of low-cost private schools as described in The Beautiful Tree to serve the poor here in the United States? Certainly breaking the state monopoly on education would be accelerated through school choice policies like vouchers and charter schools. But the schools described in The Beautiful Tree received no such supports. Parents simply chose to pay the modest tuition amounts (and indirectly subsidized those who couldn't).
The challenge in the U.S. is that such low-cost private schools simply don't exist right now, though there are promising models such as the Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, which aspires to offer a quality, student-driven education for under $2,000 per year in tuition. Such experiments face enormous challenges, though, in part because the regulatory frameworks governing schools in the U.S. are so vast as to make it very difficult for private schools to succeed outside of affluent communities.
The private schools described in The Beautiful Tree benefited, paradoxically, from the inefficiencies and corruption of government officials whom they could simply bribe to look the other way when their schools failed to meet their own country's byzantine school regulations. Escaping the regulatory power of the state here would be much harder, especially when the education establishment is so committed to stamping out all forms of competition.
Nevertheless, The Beautiful Tree is an excellent critique of the near-universal assumption that state-run schools are essential to providing education for the poor and should be carefully considered by every American concerned about the condition of U.S. schools.
It's increasingly clear to me that, whatever the strengths of public schools, kids can learn at high levels in other alternatives, including both private schools and home schools, often with minimal assistance from adults. Society is not weakened by this plurality of learning options, but is rather strengthened in vast ways by the diversity of options. And often the poor, who get the worst level of service from public schools, thrive the most in these alternative learning environments.
If you are really committed to promoting high levels of learning for all students, it's past time to look beyond the rigid structures of state-run schooling for fresh ideas. The Beautiful Tree is a good place to start.
UPDATE: Lest readers think I've come to completely abandon all faith in public education, let me emphasize that I believe in what the Black Alliance for Educational Options calls the "three sector" approach to school reform. That is, I believe in fighting for good schools of all kinds, whether traditional public, public charter, or private. (And I would add a "fourth" sector to include homeschooling and unschooling). To ensure this breadth of quality learning experiences, educators should advocate for a wide diversity of schooling options for all families.