A controversial American school chain and the battle to teach Africa’s children

A controversial American school chain and the battle to teach Africa’s children

By Nimi Hoffman

(Original article: Quartz Africa.  December 21, 2016)

Should Bridge International Academies be allowed to experiment on African children? That’s the crux of a question academics, politicians and parents have been trying to answer for the last year.

Bridge, which is backed the World Bank, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg among other luminaries, has been at the center of intense controversies across Africa. Earlier this year, the Ugandan government ordered Bridge to close down 63 of its schools, citing the use of unqualified teachers working in unsafe premises at unregistered schools. Bridge refused to stop its operations and took the government to court. This month, the High Court ruled in favor of the government, but Bridge plans to challenge the ruling.

The stakes are high, since the outcome of this court battle in Uganda will reverberate across the continent. This American firm has expanded rapidly since 2008, and has 450 private schools in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and India, with ambitious plans for expansion into Liberia. To expand quickly, they use community members who are trained for six weeks (pdf). They then hire them at wages around 30% lower than local teachers (though they are paid more regularly than many public school teachers) to deliver the curriculum by script via tablets.

“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,” said a report from Vox. So the American firm promises to herald a genuine revolution in education. Much like McDonalds was to fast food, Bridge enables the mass roll-out of cheap, highly standardized curricula across Africa using low-skilled workers.

While Bridge claims that parents and teachers want schools to stay open, a broad coalition of teacher unions, parent associations and NGOs in Uganda and Kenya have called for the company to stop operations on the continent. This was followed by an independent report by Education International (pdf), which found that, contrary to Bridge’s claims about being affordable for poor families, these families have to invest about 25% of their earnings to send one child to a Bridge school. The report also found that Bridge provides poor quality education in unsafe and unhygienic buildings, and that their curriculum is divorced from the country’s context in ways that echo colonial education.

Nevertheless, earlier this year Liberia announced it was outsourcing its entire education system to Bridge. Teachers protested this decision by going on strike. And the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, has condemned the program, arguing that it “violates Liberia’s legal and moral obligations” to provide public education to its citizens. He added that these plans are “a blatant violation of Liberia’s international obligations under the right to education, and have no justification under Liberia’s constitution.”

However, Bridge is backed by powerful investors, including the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development. And as the economic difficulties across Africa deepen, the pressure to privatize and outsource public education will only increase. So while the Bridge program in Liberia has been scaled back and altered slightly, it is likely that it will still be implemented.

It is striking that Liberia plans to implement Bridge as an experiment, or randomized controlled trial (RCT). This means that economists will first test to see if the new Bridge model works as a pilot before rolling it out nationally. To do so, they will likely assign one group of children to Bridge schools, and another group to conventional public schools. Because the children are randomly chosen, economists don’t need to worry that maybe something else is responsible for their marks (like whether their parents are well-educated or not). So experiments can precisely quantify the results of a given intervention and how cost-effective it is likely to be. For this reason, experiments are considered the new “gold standard” for research on policy reforms.

In principle, it sounds like a great idea to get solid experimental evidence before implementing a large-scale reform in education. But in practice, nothing is quite so simple.

Take the example of a large-scale experiment in Kenya in 2011, which involved some of the same economists who are now playing a role in the Bridge experiment in Liberia. The Kenyan experiment tested the effects of cutting teachers’ salaries and hiring them on short-term contracts. The program was run by the Kenyan Government and World Vision Kenya, an evangelical Christian NGO based in the United States. The evaluation was funded by the UK’s Department for International Development and conducted by economists from Oxford, Stockholm and Nairobi.

The experimenters theorized that contract teachers would cut costs while improving learning outcomes out of fear of dismissal. But the government was forced to shut down the program after teacher unions and parents’ associations engaged in year-long protests and successfully took the government to court. The court ruled that employing a subset of teachers on contract and at much lower wages was discriminatory and violated constitutional provisions for equal and fair employment. Worryingly, when the experimenters wrote of the failed experiment, they described democratic opposition from teachers and parents as a form of political meddling that “undermines” the reform.

What is remarkable is that many of the actors who designed and implemented this experiment did not live in Kenya, did not receive the low wages they set for teachers, and therefore did not need to send their children to the schools they were experimenting on. So they were free to implement reforms without experiencing any of the consequences. Apparently, there are two moral standards: one for African children and teachers, and another for the people who experiment on them. In fact, as a columnist in the New York Times made clear this year, experiments on children are only palatable in African contexts, because “if experimentation is justified anywhere, it’s there.”

In a recent paper, Angus Deaton and Nancy Cartwright warn against the paternalism of experiments, writing that “RCTs should not become yet another technical fix that is imposed on people by bureaucrats or foreigners … most RCTs in economics have been carried out by rich people on poor people, and the fact should make us especially sensitive to avoid charges of paternalism.”

But the problem of experimentation in Africa is manifestly not simply a problem of paternalism. It is a problem of powerful actors who resist, and in some cases,undermine the principles of equality, democracy and the rule of law. And they often seem to do so without consequence.

Such cases invoke a painful history of experimentation in Africa. In the 1930s, colonial scientists conducted wide-ranging experiments in British colonies that provided the underpinning for contemporary tropical medicine, agriculture and ecology. These experiments were extensive and influential enough for historians to call Africa a “living laboratory”.

This time round, African children are at the centre of experiments. There are serious questions to be asked about whether private companies and development agencies should be allowed to experiment on African children.

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