Waiting for Superman in Lahore: do poor people need private schools? Guest post by Justin Sandefur

Public v Private provision of education is a hot and divisive topic. So let’s get started. Today, CGD’s Justin Sandefur (right) puts the case Justin Sandefurfor private. Tomorrow Kevin Watkins of the Brookings Institution responds. Be warned, their posts are pretty long and very passionate. Fasten seatbelts please: While traveling in Pakistan a couple weeks ago, I took advantage of a brief flicker of electricity to check my twitter feed, and found this from Duncan. DG education tweet     After years of watching broken public school systems fail to educate their children, parents in Pakistan and many other parts of the developing have taken matters into their own hands.   Low-cost private schools are growing by leaps and bounds, especially in rural areas.    The number of private schools grew by nearly ten-fold in Pakistan from 1983 to 2000, reaching about 35% of public enrollment,  doubled in India from 1993 to 2003, and tripled their enrollment share in Kenya from 1997 to 2006 — at the same time fees were abolished in Kenyan public schools!    Pearson’s plan is to invest in these low-cost private schools springing up across Africa and Asia, starting with a chain of schools in Ghana and Kenya.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor, Michael Barber, is also the architect of DFID’s support for a government voucher program in Pakistan that enables poor children to attend low-cost private schools.   The development industry is reflexively resistant to such private sector initiatives, as illustrated by the #dumbideas hash-tag and the quotes in the Guardian piece.  Here are three reasons to overcome that reflex.   Three myths about education in poor countries   Myth #1. The push for universal primary education (UPE) has been pretty successful.    If success is defined as herding kids into classrooms, then yes, maybe.  By one count, over half of countries were on track to meet the MDG for primary education as of 2011.  But going to school is not an end in and of itself.  And the push for universal primary school enrollment has been an abject failure in terms of what really matters — learning.    Kenya is a good example, where enrollment and learning diverge.  Behold the following challenging reading passage from Kenya’s public school curriculum.    JS education eg According to a national survey by Uwezo Kenya, only half of children in grade 3 can read this type of paragraph, although it’s on the grade 2 syllabus.  So while it’s great that only 3 to 4% of primary-school aged children in Kenya are not in school, it’d be nice if they could also read.   But the real scandal here, as highlighted by my CGD colleague Lant Pritchett and co-author Amanda Beatty, is not that half of third-graders effectively can’t read, it’s that staying in school doesn’t help much.  This is what Pritchett and Beatty call the ‘flatness of the learning curve’.  Of Kenyan children who couldn’t read the paragraph above in grade 3, only a third will learn to do so in grade 4 — in India, Pakistan, and Tanzania only 1 in 5 will learn to read with an additional year or schooling, and in Uganda only 1 in 12.  Even after 8 years of schooling in India, almost 1 in 3 pupils still won’t be able to read a simple paragraph like this.   Kids are going to school; they’re just not learning anything.   Myth #2. There is “very little evidence that private schools provide a better service than the public sector.”     The Guardian attributed this view to Kevin Watkins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  While I have enormous respect for Mr. Watkin’s work on UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report –it’s worth a read — this statement is increasingly out of date.   For places including India, Pakistan, and Kenya, there are at least two types of evidence that private schools offer much better service.  Call them the direct approach and the indirect approach.   The direct approach simply compares test scores between public and private schools.  The figure below shows learning achievement among students at the Bridge International Academies in Kenya — one of the schools Pearson will support –relative to their neighbors.  By grade 3 they’re scoring roughly 90% higher on reading fluency and 45% higher on comprehensionBridge graphic The obvious follow-up question is whether this is just “garbage in, garbage out”, whereby private schools pick the best pupils and produce the best scores.  To test this hypothesis, my colleagues Tessa Bold (Goethe University), Mwangi Kimenyi (Brookings), GermanoMwabu (U of Nairobi) and I did some relatively simple analysis of the gap in test scores between public and private schools.  We find a performance gap between public and private schools of roughly one full standard deviation, which is more than seven-times larger than the impact of the best-documented, successful interventions to improve public schools in Kenya, which find an effect of about 0.14 standard deviations. More importantly, this gap does not appear to due to selection of smart kids into private schools.  When private enrollment goes up in a district, overall test performance rises as well — a phenomenon that can’t be explained merely by sorting of good pupils into good schools.   In a similar study of test scores in India, Alex Tabarrok from George Mason University finds not only that private primary schools vastly out-perform public schools,  but again, that this result is mostly not due to “cream skimming” of the best pupils.  As more and more students flock to private schools — exceeding 70% of all pupils in some districts — the public-private gap doesn’t narrow.   The direct approach clearly signals huge gains from private schooling.  How but the indirect approach?     By economists’ logic of ‘revealed preference’, the stampede of pupils from the public to the private sector would seem to be a strong indication of what parents think of the quality of public schools.  A study by Michael Kremer of Harvard and Karthik Muralidharan of UCSD found that over 80% of government-school teachers in India send their own children to a private school.        As Muralidharan summarized for a New York Times reporter, “What does it say about the quality of your product that you can’t even give it away for free?”   Myth #3.  Private schools are too expensive for the poor.   Particularly for readers in the UK, the association between private schools and class snobbery is, I suspect, pretty hard to overcome.  But the explosion of new, low-cost private schools since the 1990s in South Asia and parts of Africa has very different class dynamics.    Research by TahrirAndrabi (Pomona College), Jishnu Das (World Bank), and AsimKhwaja (Harvard) shows that the average fee of a rural private school in Pakistan is less than a dime a day (Rs.6).  They also find that villages where private schools emerge have a significantly smaller gender gap in enrollment.   In Kenya, my colleagues and I examined fees paid by parents, and calculated that two-thirds of private schools cost less to operate than the median public school.   In India, the previous study by Kremer and Muralidharan finds that provinces and districts with lower per capita incomes have higher rates of private schooling.  Rather than being driven by wealth and privilege, they find that demand for private schooling is associated with the failure of public school systems. Private schools are significantly more likely to emerge in villages where public school teachers are frequently absent, or frequently not teaching when they show up. (See the graph.)  private v public    There is nothing egalitarian about consigning the poor to shoddy public schools where teachers are chronically absent, classrooms are overcrowded, the school day is short, and very little learning takes place.   The elephant in the room   There’s a risk of overselling the case for private schools.  After all, they do charge fees.   Separating the provision of education (by private schools) and its financing (by government), requires initiatives like voucher programs and charter schools.  That’s a whole separate post, but the challenges of designing a good voucher or charter school program are not trivial.  Countries as diverse as Sweden and Colombia have introduced vouchers in a way that improves overall quality without compromising equal access.  Chile got things wrong — after introducing vouchers, Chile saw a massive exodus to the private sector, and increased socio-economic stratification between schools, arguably because Chile allowed schools receiving vouchers to conduct selective admissions and charge top-up fees, encouraging schools to compete on who they could attract, not what they taught.  The real frontier in research is not about whether private schools work, but how we can support this market so it ends up looking more like Sweden’s rather than Chile’s. From Lahore to rural Balochistan, and Nairobi to the farthest reaches of the Rift Valley, parents are no longer waiting for superman.  They have accepted that neither the public sector nor the aid industry is going to sweep in and save their children from broken schools, so they’re taking matters into their own hands.  Hats off to DFID and Pearson for trying to figure out a way to help them. And tomorrow Kevin Watkins fights back. Which one is Superman? Which one is Lex Luthor? Think we may have to have a vote once the dust has settled.]]>

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19 Responses to “Waiting for Superman in Lahore: do poor people need private schools? Guest post by Justin Sandefur”
  1. Gareth Price-Jones

    It would be interesting to link this to work on cost recovery and the fact that people appear to value what they pay for rather than vice versa. Very much illustrated for me working in the health sector in Sri Lanka where poor people would pay to see in the evening the same state doctors they could see for free during the day. The assumption they made (with little evidence) was that they would get better healthcare if they saw the doctor privately. It may well be the same for education.

  2. Vimala Ramachandran

    Very interesting read indeed. I agree that public schools are failing our children and that is one of the major reasons for emergence of low cost private schools. However, I am not sure if that is the only reason. The quality of education in such schools is marginally better than public schools – but only marginally. The quality in private schools is influenced by the benchmark set by the private. Second;y, at least in India there is a huge gender gap. More boys are sent to private schools and girls have to make do with the public….

  3. My name is Ruth Nyambura, I’m 23 years old and a Kenyan.
    I have been blessed to come from a middle-class family where I have never have to really worry about medical bills because we have had medical insurance and also housing and education based on our social status. I have been privileged also to have attended private school, not the top tier private schools in terms of how much they cost but good private schools nevertheless; from primary to high-school and finally to University.
    I will state this very clearly, unless you go to the kind of private schools that I attended, other low-cost private schools in the country DO NOT provide good quality education. With regards to the ‘UWEZO’ report that you have just mentioned; it is obvious that we need to move from celebrating the fact that many more ‘bodies’ now occupy classrooms to ensuring that we match the quantity with quality.
    As it stands, only those in the middle-class and above can afford to go to private schools that offer quality education. This is not to say that low-cost private schools are not bringing in anything to the table, they are, but in my own opinion and experience from friends and children of family members who have attended/are still attending these schools, I would be lying if I told you that the quality of education can match up to more expensive private schools/what I attended.
    I feel that while in every society there is a role for both the private and public sector; I am of the opinion that we should be focusing on how to make public education better for our children.
    I failed to mention in the beginning that I am the only child from my family who went to private schools. My older brothers and sister did not need to because public education in their day was a force to reckon with and even middle-class families and upper-class took their children to these schools. Private education was for the few super wealthy children of expatriates and government officials.
    I wish the debate would center on how to improve our public schools. We get enough funding and were it not for corruption and poor planning, our public schools would still be a force to reckon with.
    As it stands, private education will remain the preserve for a select class and while low-cost private schools will give students ‘better quality’, which I think is very debatable, all it does currently in my opinion can be compared with treating symptoms but not the cause of the breakdown of the public education system, one of the most important elements of any society. The most disturbing thing is that in Kenya, it isn’t actually free public education because really we pay for it through taxes, so why on Earth are parents then forced to take their children to private schools in search of slightly better quality, which amounts to additional expenses?
    It is not a matter of do poor people need private education, it should be poor people need quality education, children whether rich or poor need quality and affordable education.

  4. Ruth — thanks for this incredibly thoughtful response.
    A few Kenya-specific thoughts…
    You introduce an important distinction between the elite private academies catering to the professional class — with selective admissions and high fees — and low-cost private schools with a broader reach. I think you’re a bit too pessimistic about what those low-cost schools are achieving with very limited resources. (Check out their KCPE scores! The public-private gap is not entirely drive by the elite schools.)
    But I mostly want to agree with your core point: this debate about private schooling shouldn’t distract from fixing the governance failures in the public system. Since this blog is based in the UK, it’s worth noting that when the FPE scandal broke, the UK cut off its aid to the Ministry of Education, and re-directed that money to low-cost private schools and voucher programs.
    I have mixed feelings about that strategy. It’s a tough call between begin ‘soft’ on corruption and abandoning efforts to improve and reform the public system which educates 90% of primary students. I’d be curious to hear what you think of these tradeoffs.

  5. Pauline Rose

    Very interesting comments, including the comparison with health. In education, there is some evidence that parents indicate a preference for private education because of a perception of it being good quality – which is really a preference for schooling in English. And also other evidence shows that parents may choose low fee private schools to maintain a distance from lower status social groups as access to government schools has expanded. As Vimla says, private schools may be better quality but the bar is so low that reform is needed. As the majority of the poorest either go to government schools or are amongst the 61 million out of school altogether unless the public system is reformed, inequalities will remain entrenched.

  6. Thank you for this informative argument. Like Ruth, I do wish there was a different slant – what about putting the debate into perspective? The Uwezo report states that many students simply can’t see the board – if private schools are simply “cream skimming”, why is this having an effect?
    I am no expert, but I try to keep asking questions.
    I look forward to hearing the response tomorrow!

  7. Hey Justin, thank you for the response.
    Well, I think that your definition of low-cost private schools and mine is in slight conflict. I will explain what this means as a Kenyan based on what our standard of living is and I will do so going back to my own experience in private schools.
    I left primary school exactly 10 years ago and the school which I attended, a mid-level private school used to charge 15,000 Ksh per term or the equivalent of $178 going by the current exchange rate. Today it charges 45,000 per term or $536.
    The last I checked, 90% of Kenyans earn less than 15,000 Ksh or $178 every month. Another 9 % earning anything between 15,000 and 100,000 while the remaining 1% earn over 100,000 every month.
    I will then ask you to go back to the schools that topped the KCPE between 2006 to as recent as last year’s results and I assure you that these private schools do not belong and neither are they considered low-cost private schools. Many of these schools are schools that my own private school while in primary competed with in the national exams.
    Almost all 47 counties in the country had the best results coming from private schools, schools that charge way beyond what low-cost schools charge and that are attended by children who come from middle-class homes or the very upper lower-class (if there is such a class).
    Take a look at the students who were top nationally and also in the 47 counties, you will be surprised to find out that up to 80%, in some, actually many cases the number going as high as 100% of them being students from higher-cost private academies, like the one I went to and not low-cost private schools.
    Again, I am not in any way trying to dispute the amazing job that low-cost private schools are doing in countries like my own but I also do not want to romanticize about their story.
    It is absolutely sad that unless you go to a good (expensive)private school in Kenya, chances are that you are getting very little quality in terms of education. This means that for those who come from families that cannot afford to the fees that these schools charge, chances of them breaking out of the cycle of poverty or moving up the social ladder remain dismal if not impossible. The other painful truth, in my humble opinion is that low-cost private schools while a noble idea cannot match up to the task of providing the much needed quality missing in our public education system while still remaining low-cost. For them to attain that level of quality, something has got to give and it will obviously have something to do with raising school fees charged and the truth is I have seen this happen in schools that used to be low-cost.
    It is not the priority of government to fund low-cost private schools, not when in a country like my own there are thousands of public schools with hundreds of thousands of students with hardly any textbooks, horribly few teachers available to teach them and those that are available are poorly paid and demoralized. It also should not be the work of parents in generally the low-income bracket to have to worry about raising funds for school fees to take their children to low-cost private schools, not when they pay taxes and their children have their right to universal and quality primary and secondary education as enshrined in our constitution. So then what happens to these schools?
    I feel that this is a very sensitive topic and I feel that I must again say that low-cost private schools have totally put to shame governments like my own by providing slightly better quality education despite the numerous challenges they face. But I am also alive to the fact that it is very very important to ensure that ALL children whether in private, public or low-cost private schools get almost the same if not the same quality for us to ensure that we live in a more balanced World. Giving our children quality shouldn’t be dictated by the size of people’s wallets/purses but sadly this is where we are.
    Below is the link to the results of last year’s KCPE results. Notice the number of schools whose names end with the name academy and and other fancy names?
    I look forward to your responses.

  8. It seems I have to respond again to the question about the FPE scandal. That right there is a disgusting story; that funds meant to educate a whole generation was embezzled.
    Its heart-breaking for me as a young person in Kenya to watch such an important sector being mismanaged.
    Without a reform of political, social and governance systems in the country, without us as citizens reflecting on where we have gone wrong with regards to our values system; it does not matter whether donors write a cheque to each school, money will still be embezzled.
    This country has had an anti-corruption agency for the last 8 years, a toothless body under the mercy of the political class. Almost every public office you visit has a huge ‘This is a Corruption Free zone’ sign at the entrance. Yet, we dropped 3 places last year in T.I’s annual transparency list, if I’m not wrong we are at no. 154.
    All these things we are doing are appealing to/trying to stop ‘what we do’ i.e. we are corrupt, we steal, we embezzle. Until and unless we get measures to appeal/address the ‘why we do it’, we will always be like the proverbial dog chasing its tail.
    Honestly that is all I can say about that particular scandal and the subsequent response. There are good people in Kenya and I pray that they get the chance to run this country very soon.

  9. Gaddeswarup

    I wonder whether this discussion about private vs public takes focus away from how good the current educational system is. I and my father have been in the educational field, I was dissatisfied with university courses and dropped out a couple of times. But then ended up with a Ph. D. and teaching some of the same meaningless courses that I protested against. I feel that every level from primary to university levels one has to think of different ways of teaching as well as curriculum. I do not think that one hat fits all. Different sort of combinations from Sugata Mitra type experiments to Khan Academy-Stanford type.. have to be tried and experimented with. Different combinations may suit different students. Just promoting private education may just peetuate many of the problems in public education.

  10. ken

    Justin — Beyond disputing the results, what are the specific factors and mechanisms (curriculum, management, hours, salaries, school-family ineractions, etc) that presumably allow private schools to perform better? I’m not expert in this area and have not read all the linked papers, but would like to know. The reason is that if we accept the statistical results about private schools’ better performance, the question I ask myself (perhaps one you’ve already answered) is whether the success is scale-able or, in contrast, if private schooling were to grow and become dominant it wouldn’t become subject to issues that negatively affect state schools?

  11. John McLaverty

    It’s the same old argument peddled over and over again by apologists for neo-liberalism. Roll back the state so far that it lacks the resources to provide essential services at even a rudimentary level. Next promote the private sector as the saviour of the poor. There’s no dispute that school quality is a key issue for all concerned about education. However surely this concern points towards strengthening and supporting the public sector. The world is full enough already of rent seeking private sector providers looking to turn a profit at the expense of the poor.

  12. kwame nkrumah

    I think Ruth has dealt with Justin’s comments brilliantly.
    I think to start from a logic of supposed public failure meaning the only option is that we have to give up and go private is the big problem here. Instead problems in the public sector should lead to pressure to improve public provision. For the poorest people, there is no short cut to making the public sector deliver quality education for all, as the history of all our countries shows. Ten years ago huge numbers of poor kenyan children did not go to school at all. Now they do. The majority of those out of school were girls. Now they get a chance to read and write. But many don’t. (Justin I have to say that these children, and no children should ever be alluded to as ‘garbage’ by the way!). This is clearly an argument for improving the public sector not sidelining it. And the huge pressure to improve quality is because of free primary education, which is now a right not a priviledge.
    Where I do agree with Justin is that the UK attitudes to private schooling are having an impact here- but not in the way he suggests. It is directly linked to DFID discovering a new found passion for private schooling. The UK government of the day has a huge ideological predisposition towards this, and the minister and the majority of the goverment all went to high class private school themselves.

  13. The fact that millions of poor people are sending their children to low fee education providers is well known. As Kevin Watkins says, this is a symptom of state failure. Justin Sandefur wants to institutionalize that failure by promoting the growth of low fee school. This is a return to user-fee financing by another name. Non-government organizations campaigned against this approach during the Jubilee mobilization. Why have they gone so quiet now?
    Here’s another question. DfID says that it costs poor households an average of £30 a year to send a child to a low-fee school in Kenya. Low fee? This is a country where half of the population is living on under US$1.25 a day. So an average family in an urban slum would need to spend one-fifth of their paltry income to send two kids to school, before paying for books and uniforms.
    Justin’s approach would leave poor families facing some stark dilemmas. Which of my kids should I send to school? Do I pay for school costs or for treating a case of malaria?
    Sorry, but is this what progressive financing is supposed to look like in the 21st Century.

  14. What Justin calls Myth #1 is not a myth but a reality. I would ask what the alternative would be! Children in forced labour, exploited without even the slightest knowledge of how to empower themselves? In Kenya, we advocated for (and still continue to push for) universal access for everyone; girls and boys, children with disabilities, children from nomadic communities, those bearing the greatest brunt of poverty (inflicted on them coz they were never born poor). When they are not in school, you can not even start to measure whether they are learning. The second greatest PUSH has been quality. Yes, there are challenges, but they are part of the teething problem. With Devolution coming in, more and more public resources are now being directed to provide for quality enablers; more and motivated teachers (20,000 to be hired by end of this year alone), curriculum review on-going, teaching and learning materials, etc. The alternative is not to ask the already highly taxed parents, struggling to eke out a living, to dig deeper into their pockets for additional funding (private sponsorship). Why do we pay high taxes if they can not be used to render quality public education for all its populce?

  15. James Stanfield

    I wonder, for those who want to force parents to attend a government school, how long do they envsage parents having to wait until their local government school is providing a quality service? Is it 5, 20 or 100 years? Or perhaps you expect them to wait indefinately?

  16. Allan Findlay

    The people are already voting on this debate and more and more choosing Private. In Lagos there are less than 1,000 public primary and pre primary and over 10,000 private schools.
    The majority of the growth in school population numbers are being catered for by the private sector. Already over 65% of pre and pry are going Private with the majority low cost ($30 – $60 per term).
    When it comes to quality of education and teacher qualitywe are not seeing much difference but a lot more testing to do.
    When it comes down to regulation the majority are unapproved seeing approval = taxation and unrealistic requirements like provision of science labs. To my mind we have to get the environment right so quality low cost private schooling can assist in the massive challenge of educating the children of the developing world. It is already happening in a big way – we need to ensure quality education whereever it happens.

  17. max lawson

    This is a fascinating debate, many thanks to Duncan, Justin and Kevin.
    For me this is simply a burden of proof argument. Publicly provided, free schooling has been at the heart of the vast majority of successful development stories. Advocates of low cost private provision are asking us to break with the evidence of history and embark on a deeply unproven and risky alternative using public money. The significant burden of proof is on them.
    There has been a huge increase across Africa since 2000 in public investment in Education, often spurred by debt relief. This money has led to millions more going to school. Kenya is often used as a proxy for Africa, perhaps because it is so easy to reach for commentators, so I would also like to underline the many other countries in Africa who have made huge strides in educating their children, from Burkina Faso to Mozambique.
    We should be celebrating this massive increase in access, and then working even harder to address the quality challenge. This means more than anything more teachers, better paid. Nothing improves education quality more than the quality of the teaching. Yet teacher salaries and conditions are something that donors have constantly sought to attack rather than support. Thank god for debt relief, government action and budget support which has helped redress this.
    There are a set of theoretical assumptions in the pro-private argument that are unproven. That choice can be real for poor people. That choice does in fact increase accountability. That willingness to pay is the same as ability to pay, not a reflection of poor parents desperation.
    The standards the pro-private lobby hold the public sector to are not applied to the private. Corruption, power and patronage are hardly unique to the public sector for example- ask Bob Diamond. Neither is regressive incidence. Teacher quality is as much of an issue. At the same time a huge burden of regulation is assumed. The same government that cannot apparently provide services due to its inherent and intractable weakness can nevertheless be relied upon to actively monitor and regulate a multiplicity of public providers to ensure that children get quality education.
    It really is time to move on from this largely theoretical and ideological view that in essential services private is good, and public bad. Lets get on with rapidly increasing the quality of free public education for the huge numbers of children who are getting to go to school for the first time.

  18. James Stanfield

    @Max. But I still dont understand why there is still this fanatical obsession with government schools. I understand the arguments for government funding but not for government provision. You say that you need to have evidence that freedom works in education. Does this also apply to freedom in religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the freedom to choose which government you want? You suggest that “It really is time to move on from this largely theoretical and ideological view that in essential services private is good, and public bad”. I entirely agree but you then contradict yourself by adopting an equally idelogical position of private bad, public good. Why not simply work to help improve all schools, both public and private?