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As this article in the Independent (UK) explains in detail, there is an exciting business opportunity in poor nations: developing and delivering scripted lessons at a low cost without government schools. The headline asks the central question: Is this “an audacious answer” to the problems of bringing schooling to the poorest children?
American investors think so. They like the idea of creating for-profit, low-cost schools where the lessons are exactly the same in every classroom, and the teacher is guided by technology to speak as he or she is told. This does not require credentialed teachers, and the training is minimal.
Charging $6 a month on average, Bridge InternationalAcademies, a multinational for-profit chain, is offering schooling about as cheaply as it can be done. Its founders hope to roll that out to 10 million children across Africa and Asia, the key to its own longevity and, it hopes, the global educational conundrum that has bedevilled policy-makers.
Bridge International now has some 400 schools across Uganda and Kenya. Investors worry, however, that the corporation “faces a potent threat to its survival in the shape of radical new teacher training proposals that would drive up the cost and put it beyond the reach of those that need it most.” The government of Kenya is considering requiring teachers to have pedagogical training, which would drive up the cost and threaten the entire enterprise. It would also signal to the world, says one investor, that no one should invest in Kenya.
Bridge currently enrolls 126,000 children; the profit begins when it reaches half a million. The market is promising.
Says the article: Bridge is arguably the most audacious answer yet to the question of how to bring education to the masses in countries where schools are plagued by overcrowding and teacher absenteeism. The lesson plans and script are prepared in the U.S., then delivered by technology to classes in Africa. Its teachers are “most school-leavers” trained by Bridge. School-leavers are what we would call dropouts, presumably high-school dropouts.
Step into any classroom at Bridge and the chances are that the teacher will be uttering exactly the same words that are being uttered in every single Bridge school. A handbook instructs the teacher to look up from the e-book every five seconds, to wait eight seconds for children to answer, and instead of asking the teacher to explain a mathematical concept, the lesson plan takes them through it step by step. “All I have to do is deliver,” said Mary Juma, a Bridge teacher.
While the scripted approach has earned Bridge acclaim, it has also attracted criticism. “It looks hi-tech, but it is really just someone following a lesson plan in a top-down way and not stimulating discussion,” says David Archer, head of programme development at UK charity ActionAid. “It is almost Victorian.”
While global studies of low-cost private schools have produced mixed results, Ms May is convinced that Bridge’s model works. It has commissioned independent evaluations that show children enrolled in its schools significantly outperform their state-educated peers in mathematics and English. The real test, though, will come in November, when a cohort of Bridge’s children will be ready to take the final primary school exams for the first time.
But here is the danger to investors:
Even as Bridge gets its chance to prove whether its model works, regulatory hurdles threaten to be its undoing. The Kenyan government is setting out new proposals that would radically recalibrate the financial calculations on which these schools operate. Most sweeping of all is a stipulation that half of all teachers in any one school should have a recognised teaching qualification and be paid accordingly.
As usual, it is those “wicked” teachers’ unions that threaten this bold and possibly financially rewarding experiment.