NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 14, 2009

The peasants and slum-dwellers of India, Nigeria, Ghana and China have homes without toilets and one bed to a family.  The way out of these circumstances, development experts say, is universal public schooling.  The World Bank and large philanthropic groups have expended vast resources, increasing the number of public schools in such nations.  The facilities they have built rival those in the West, and they have made sure the teachers employed in them have attended education school and been certified.

The only problem with these schools is that very little teaching goes on in them, explains James Tooley, an education professor at the University of Newcastle in England, in his new book, "The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves." 

For example:

  • About one third of the time, these public school teachers simply don't show up.
  • In their unannounced site visits, Tooley and his researchers found teachers who were often drunk, sleeping or just not teaching.
  • The power wielded by their unions allows these teachers to neglect students without fear of punishment, let alone dismissal.

Fortunately for the students, there are alternatives.  First in India, and then in poor country after poor country, Tooley shows us an expansive and indeed thriving market for private schooling for the poor:

  • In some slums, private schools enroll somewhere between 35 percent and 60 percent of all students.
  • Nonetheless, these schools are often unknown, even to the country's government officials; in the developing world as in the West, people are convinced that private schools are for the rich.

In contrast to the newly built public schools, the facilities of these low-cost private schools are usually as dilapidated as the homes of the students who attend them.  Yet in every country Tooley studied, these private-school students performed substantially better than nearby public school students on standardized exams in a variety of subjects, including English.  That is at least in part because the mostly uncertified private-school teachers within them are much more likely than their certified public school counterparts actually to be teaching when they are visited unannounced.

Source: Marcus Winters, "Book Review: Private Schooling for the Poor: The Beautiful Tree," Washington Times, July 9, 2009; based upon: James Tooley, "The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves," Cato Institute, April 25, 2009.

For text:


Browse more articles on Education Issues