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

July 26, 2012

Welcome (sort of) to the London Olympics

July 26, 2012

Holding out for the super-voucher: Kevin Watkins responds to Justin Sandefur on private v public education

July 26, 2012
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Kevin Watkins (right), senior visiting research fellow at the Brookings Institution, responds to yesterday’s guest post by Justin Sandefurkevin_blog

After reciting the familiar evidence on the learning achievement problems in poor countries, Justin Sandefur offers an even more familiar ‘one-stop’ solution – a market-based fix, with low-fee private schools, vouchers, and the apparently talismanic Pearson corporation leading the way to a better, smarter future. It seems that only for-profit school providers and corporate entrepreneurs know the secret of raising education standards of marginalized kids in poor countries, and that public provision is part of the problem rather than part of a potential solution.

Nothing in the research cited by Justin makes the case for his prescriptions. Let’s start by being clear about our differences.

I admire Justin’s work. I also share many of his concerns.  The learning crisis is one of the great development challenges of our day. And like Justin I want to see some bold new experiments in education – a sector paralyzed by the conservatism of aid donors, government indifference, and weak leadership from the UN and the World Bank.

In the event, Justin’s idea of a bold experiment turns out to be a rehash of voucher-scheme proposals first advocated by Milton Friedman over half a century ago, mixed US-style Charter Schools, and Swedish free school reform models.

I have no interest in defending the indefensible quality of public education provided in many of the poorest countries. But when public education systems are broken they need fixing, not bypassing or franchising out to the private sector. And if we care about equity, there is no credible alternative to a public system that offers opportunity for all rather than choice for some.

The twin crisis in education
Justin’s take on the 2015 education progress report suffers from an excess of charitable spirit. On his account poor countries get something like a B+ on access and an F on learning. The F is justified. The B+ is not.

There are currently around 61 million primary school age children out of school. Since 2005 progress towards universal primary education has slowed globally and stalled in sub-Saharan Africa, where out-of-school numbers are rising. Meanwhile, millions of children enter school only to drop out before completing a full primary school cycle.

The reason for the slow down, as highlighted in the 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, is governments’ failure to tackle the inequalities based on wealth, gender and location that are keeping marginalized children out of school. The former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has called on Africa’s governments to address these disparities by adopting targets for greater equity in education.

There is no escaping the extent of the learning achievement deficit. If anything, Justin understates the scale of the problem by focusing only on children who are in school.

Consider the case of Malawi. Just 41 per cent of Standard 6 children were able to achieve basic competency level for reading in the last regional learning assessment. The really bad news: over half of the school intake has dropped out by this stage.

Of the 126 million primary school age children in sub-Saharan Africa, around two-thirds are likely to enter adolescence unable to read, write or do basic numeracy, irrespective of whether or not they complete primary school. Research by Jishnu Das in India and Pakistan suggests that close to one half of the children in these countries face the same prospect. 

education AfricaThe implications of the learning crisis have not been taken on board by the development community. Quality education can break the cycle of poverty, narrow social inequalities and provide a foundation for dynamic, inclusive growth. But what passes for education now is a travesty. And in an increasingly inter-connected and knowledge-based global economy, low levels of learning achievement are a prescription for slow growth, youth unemployment, and more inequality across and within nations.

What is driving the crisis in learning? The causes are complex and vary across countries? Many of the children entering public education systems over the past decade arrived carrying huge handicaps, including household poverty, parental illiteracy and pre-school malnutrition – an affliction for around 175 million children. These are disadvantages that impact heavily on learning.

The school environment is another concern. Across much of sub-Saharan Africa, the pupil-teacher ratio exceeds 40:1 and there is less than one book for every three children. Overcrowding is typically worst in the early grades where children from non-literate homes need most support.

The quality of teachers and teaching is one of the most critical school-based determinants of learning.  Unfortunately, teacher absenteeism is rife. Many teachers lack subject knowledge. Trained to deliver teaching by rote, they are ill-equipped to deliver active learning. In-service support is lacking. To make matters worse, public education systems typically skew resources and the best teachers towards the most advantaged pupils, best-performing schools, and most prosperous regions.

The private sector rescue act
Justin builds his case for private sector solutions by attacking what he describes as myths, some of which bear a striking resemblance to straw men. He also offers a few myths of his own.

Take his claim that low-fee private schools are readily affordable to the poor. In fact, there is no shortage of research documenting the struggles of poor households to pay ‘low-fee’ providers. One village-level survey in rural western Uttar Pradesh, India, has found that low-fee schools are unaffordable to the poorest two quintiles, and that the growth of private provision has reinforced education inequalities linked to wealth, caste and gender.  When asked, many of the parents paying for low-fee private school say that they would prefer the option of sending their children to a public school that offered decent education – a revealed preference that Justin ignores.

Evidence from urban informal settlements is equally compelling. In Lagos it costs the equivalent of around 10 per cent of the minimum wage to send one child to an approved low-fee private school. This is in a country where one third of households with children who have dropped out of school cite education costs as the reason for their non-attendance. In Kenya, Moses Oketch and others have highlighted the lack of access to public education for low-income households in informal urban settlements, leaving them with no choice other than to attend private schools. The resulting cost barriers are restricting progress towards universal primary education. The bigger question is this: why should we tolerate a state failure that leaves some of the world’s poorest households facing prohibitive user-fees to secure their children’s right to education?

What about ‘the myth’ that private schools perform no better than public schools. As far as I am aware, no credible commentator has ever questioned that there is a private-public school performance gap. The question is whether that gap disappears with the introduction of appropriate controls for differences in the school environment, student characteristics and the household environment.

Some of the evidence Justin presents on this is borderline slapstick. His Bridge school graph is taken from the company’s advertising education africa 2pamphlet. The data, apparently drawn from ‘the early days’ of a study, has no controls for socio-economic status. Read the pamphlet though. It includes the following insightful observation from a Bridge School parent:

“My kids understand everything [at Bridge International] so well.  It makes sense to them.  They used to be confused.  Now Danny knows all the answers; he loves to study”

And all for just US$4 a month!

To be fair to Justin, he does cite credible research. It’s just that the research evidence does not support his sweeping reform prescriptions. The important study by Jishnu Das and others on Pakistan documents significant public-private school performance gaps. But the authors explicitly caution against assuming that the private sector can be scaled-up with no impacts on quality. 

Justin’s co-authored paper on Kenya hardly lends weight to his preferred market-based policy option. The data provided measure the test score premium of all private schools (including high-cost schools serving the elite) over public schools up to 2005 in the Kenyan primary school leaving exam. Interestingly, the premium fell as the private school share in enrolment rose from 2003, suggesting that private providers struggled to maintain quality as they absorbed more children from poorer households. The wider point is that the surge in enrolment that followed the elimination of user-fees in 2003 brought over a million of the country’s most disadvantaged children into public schools, while those exiting to private schools came predominantly from less disadvantaged households.

Simple comparisons of private school fees and public school costs can also obscure another source of private advantage – namely, higher levels of per pupil spending. Recent survey data for 11 countries shows per capita spending on children going to private schools averaging six times the level for their public school counterparts. 

Justin ends his blog with a sweeping appeal for more voucher schemes, US-style charter schools and Swedish-style free schools. This will be music to the ears of enthusiasts for Michael Gove’s vision for education in the United Kingdom. Here, too, though Justin’s reverence for the private sector gets in the way of evidence-based argument.

Vouchers have been a near universal prescription for increased inequality in education, even in countries with a strong capacity for regulation. The best overview of the evidence is available here.  There is no credible evidence that charter schools are raising standards or reducing education disparities in the United States. In fact, the only national-scale study, conducted by Stanford University, reported that only 17 per cent of charter schools out-perform matched neighborhood public schools.  And the Swedish model that he apparently sees as the preferred market option has been criticized for increasing inequalities and lowering standards, with an influential business-funded pro-market think tank joining the critics.

There is an alternative
We could, of course, spend another blog post swapping evidence on the relative performance of public and private schools. But I doubt that Duncan will let us. And anyway it would be beside the point.

Perhaps we need to start out by admitting that there are no quick fixes. Private schools clearly have a role to play in achieving the public v privateeducation for all goals – and far more should be done to ensure that education strategies include a proper regulatory framework for private providers. Ultimately, though, governments need to take responsibility for fixing school systems that are failing

We know the strategies that can lead countries out of the low learning trap. This McKinsey report has some powerful examples.  Reform of teacher recruitment, training and support, the development of national learning assessment systems to identify failing schools and pupils, a stronger focus on pre-school provision and early grade teaching which are amongst the most important determinants of learning and future well-being, and more equitable public financing all have a role to play. As Barbara Bruns of the World Bank has documented, this is the public education reform path that Brazil has followed – and the country is now one of the world’s fastest climbers in the international learning assessment league table.

Now that’s what I call bold experimentation – and it has delivered results.


  1. Hard to add more to this exceptional demolition job.

    As I said in my previous comment on Justin’s post, is that the new found support for private schooling from DFID owes everything to the change of UK government and nothing to any substantial new evidence or revelations.

    Virtually every country that has rapidly developed in history and rapidly expanded the education of their citizens has done this through expanding the public sector. Conversely, charging for education and private education have historically been closely linked to exclusion and inequity, just as is the case in health. So there is a huge burden of proof problem here for the advocates of private provision. They are basically suggesting we abandon the lessons of history and embark on a risky path that has rarely worked before.

    Finally one criticism of Kevin- my experience in Ghana and in other countries is that the vast majority of teachers are incredibly committed passionate individuals who work for very low salaries in impossible conditions. I doubt either Kevin or Justin would ever turn up to work if they had to face the obstacles these people do. Transport costs to schools for teachers in Ghana can approach half of their take home salary, and by the end of the month they may have no choice but not to attend. It angers me to see northern academics continue to disparage with sweeping statements the many many hard working teachers, the majority of who are women in primary schooling without attempting to see their side of the story.

  2. Thank you Kevin for your insightful and well written words! I was kept awake last night with thoughts and frustrations from Justin’s blog post. Nobody can argue that private schools can be of good quality. However, the problem of course lies (as you make very clear) for marginalized and poor children. Education systems cannot work unless parents or governments (such as in the Netherlands) can fund them. For parents that are struggling for survival, paying education fees seems only a dream. Therefore, how can we expect a market based system that requires parent’s contributions to reach the poorest and most marginalized! Although innovative private schools that work to provide for the poor in collaboration with governments (or work in countries like Somalia where the government is just so weak) I feel have their place – they in no way should be argued as a solution for not building up public education systems.

  3. Thanks Justin and Kevin for igniting this debate. ARK is collecting evidence on a public-private partnership (PPP) model that puts equity at its heart. ARK and PEAS are managing networks of not-for-profit secondary schools in rural Uganda. Here the government introduced a Universal Secondary Education (USE) PPP policy in 2007 that enables non-state actors to deliver education on behalf of the government. In 2011, 35% of USE students were in 743 PPP schools. Access has improved significantly – 2010 saw a 54% increase in secondary examination students since 2006. Equity is being addressed by not charging tuition fees as the government pays a per student subsidy to these schools, and by targeting underserved rural areas. It is early days and there are implementation challenges, especially around the need to drive up quality and to ensure adequate government subsidy is paid. However, PEAS’ first school set up in 2008 is already demonstrating academic achievement greater than the national average, at a lower cost than government. We firmly believe that rather than excluding the most disadvantaged, plurality in education delivery can positively encourage equity and enable young people to access their right to education.

  4. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. I assume we all want to improve every kind of school, whether government, private, religious or charitable. Some people specialise in improving government schools and others focus on helping to improve provision in the private sector. Instead of attempting to dictate what kind of education chidlren across the developing world receive, why not simply let parents choose? After all this is a basic and fundamental human right which is confirmed in paragraph 3 of Article 26. Or perhaps do those people who want to force parents to attend government schools perhaps believe that these parents are not as elightened as themselves to decide what is best for their own children and therefore should not be allowed to choose? How very colonial!

  5. I do agree that improvement in public schools is possible through Reform of teacher recruitment, training and support. Futher administrative system should not be disjointed from the teacher support system. If it is so, then administrative system should be suitably oriented with the approach adopted by support system. It would be useful to make teachers part of effort to bring about change, rather than just the reciepient of orders and directions from the top of educational system. There would be critical mass of teachers who would be eager to grow as progressive teachers, be the change and promoter of change. Teachers growing as learning community at School and Cluster/Block level (with periodic external support) could become engine of sustained improvement. In this regard work of Manabu Sato, Ph.D. Professor, The University of Tokyo is of interest (School Reform toward Learning Community:In Defence of Public Education against Neo-Liberal Policies, 3Rd APS Global Education Conference 2010, Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Center June 4, 2010).

  6. An excellent response by Kevin to a very misleading blog by Justin -which systematically mis-represented the evidence and put forward a simplistic ideological view. There are massive challenges to improve the quality of government education systems. The answer does not lie in diverting taxpayer money (from DFID) into supporting a parallel private provision for those who can afford to pay. The big gains in enrolment in recent years have been where user fees were abolished and millions more children went to school – so no-one can claim that charging fees is acceptable. The poorest will be excluded and girls will be excluded – and the evidence on this is clear!

    We know a lot about what works in improving government schools – for example strengthening teacher training, making the curriculum more relevant, deepening the accountability of the school and building awareness of education rights (beyond just access). Let us focus our resources on supporting what we know works. Education can and should be the most powerful equalising force in a society. Creating or incentivising an unequal, divided education system undermines this.

    Besides, to divert public funds into private schools is simply illogical on its own terms – because it will distort the market, subsidising existing providers. If you want to celebrate the free market then don’t interfere with it!

    If Pearsons want to make a strategic contribution to education that serves their own enlightened self-interest then they should put resources into improving the quality of public education rather than support the short-term ideological agenda they seem to be following at present. Mass increases in literacy have not occured as a result of private provision – but rather as a result of government action and the building of comprehensive public education systems. These are the systems that will create consumers for Pearson publications – and these are the systems that are the main users of the textbooks they produce. And there is so much that a company like Pearsons can do to support improvements in the quality of public education. It would be so much better for Pearsons to do this – than to support the discredited James Tooley and his dodgy private schools in Ghana.

  7. Kevin: I found it odd that you start your response by asserting that Justin has a “prescription”. On the contrary: Justin concentrated on presenting evidence that many poor parents are resorting to private schools, and that the low-cost ones (often run not by “corporate entrepreneurs” but by the women with some secondary education in the village) seem to be “ok”,as good or better than the local public school. he was (gently) suggesting that developing country officials and donors and UNESCO and its leaders and followers get over their knee-jerk anti-private school reaction, and consider additional options for supporting children’s education in poor countries additional to the single, centralized approach in which the public sector monopolizes the provision of schooling (leading in many cases to problems of patronage, or as Duncan would put it, of power and politics overwhelming good intentions). Barbara Bruns has also emphasized based on a review of hundreds of studies that a key to successful schools is their accountability to parents and communities, and that in many school systems in Africa and South Asia, public systems haven’t found a way to create that accountability — and local low-cost private schools have.
    (I haven’t a clue what Pearson is or is about, but suspect references to Pearson confuse rather than enlighten.) fundamental point

  8. ” he was (gently) suggesting that developing country officials and donors and UNESCO and its leaders and followers get over their knee-jerk anti-private school reaction, and consider additional options for supporting children’s education in poor countries additional to the single, centralized approach in which the public sector monopolizes the provision of schooling (leading in many cases to problems of patronage, or as Duncan would put it, of power and politics overwhelming good intentions).”

    Maybe, but, OTOH, there is a certain school of development policy wonk whose knee always jerks in the direction of the private sector and markets. Which would be fine, if the evidence of superior private sector performance was unambiguous (but it isn’t), or if the private sector was free of the issues of power and patronage. But it’s not.

    And so we end up having to deal with evidence. And, as far as this battle of competing bodies of evidence goes, I’m inclined to say that Kevin Watkins wins.

  9. Nancy: Justin has a very clear prescription. It’s there in black and white in his post.
    For the record, I’m not anti-private school – and I think I made it pretty clear that I’m not advocating for unaccountable, top-down public school systems. I’m all for considering a full range of options for reforming failed public systems. What I’m not in favor of is assuming that for profit education is the best starting point for delivering decent quality education to kids from poor households.

  10. Dear Nancy.
    I have what is kind of a genuine question.
    I can sort of gather from the blog, why “knee-jerk anti-private education reaction” would appear in a comment. But, is it true for “developing country officials and donors” too?
    I know from many other village level public services programmes that that hasn’t been the case. Which would explain some of the strong reactions here.
    I’m neither anti-privatisation, -private-public partnerships, -community-driven development, -etc, but, I consider it a fact that villages in resource constrained areas in effect have more often been left to ‘their own devices’ than to ‘flourish in progress.’

  11. From the post: “When asked, many of the parents paying for low-fee private school say that they would prefer the option of sending their children to a public school that offered decent education – a revealed preference that Justin ignores.”

    This is not revealed preference. Revealed preference for “A” is when both “A” and “B” are in the feasible choice set and the household picks “A.” Of course most households would prefer a good, (nearly) free education, regardless of whether it is public or private. It seems we all agree that for many households, “good, free education” isn’t in the feasible set, even after decades of effort by good people and many billions poured into the cause.

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