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‘Academies-in-a-Box’ Are Thriving—But Are They the Best Way to School the World’s Poor?

April 16, 2014
by Eli Wolfe
classroom Photo courtesy Bridge International Academies

An estimated 2.5 billion people on the planet live on less than $2 a day. Is it possible to give the younger ones a high-quality private education?

One company says yes. Bridge International Academies, a for-profit franchise of private schools founded in 2007 in Kenya, is trying to transform “knowledge for all” into a cost-effective reality. Its answer: the “academy-in-a-box.”

Company co-founder Shannon May, who earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from UC Berkeley, explains the formula: Instead of hiring expensive teachers with degrees, Bridge contracts experts to develop scripted lessons that instructors follow on computer tablets. Lessons are identical for each grade, down to the words of encouragement instructors give their pupils. It’s so streamlined that all the gears in the institution—lessons, attendance, time sheets, tuition payments, and teacher oversight—can be conducted with cheap mobile phones, cutting human administration to a bare minimum. The result is an affordable education at $5 per month.

This is the key to Bridge’s vision for education: maximizing the scale of private education to a national level to make it affordable.

“We believe in following the data. We looked at where children are learning the least, where the problem is biggest.”

It’s also an approach that troubles some U.S. education experts, who fear that it amounts to the “McDonaldization” of learning—transforming teachers into the school equivalent of fast food workers.

By the end of the year, Bridge will have enrolled 100,000 students—or roughly 1 percent of Kenya’s population—in 350 schools. If you rank Kenyan industries by number of franchises, Bridge is one of the largest in the country.

“If you took all the best ways you could possibly teach a lesson and wrapped them all together in one playbook, and then you gave that to a teacher—and not just one teacher, 10,000 teachers—you have such a higher learning outcome,” says May.

It’s also the key to Bridge’s business model. To become self-sufficient with low tuition costs, Bridge must grow. By 2025 the company says it plans to have 10 million students in academies spread across 12 different countries.

Running an education empire was the furthest thing from May’s mind when the idea for Bridge first dawned on her. She was working in Huangbaiyu, a remote village in northern China, where she planned to measure the effects of urbanization and development as part of her Berkeley studies.

Roped into working as an English teacher at the local state primary school, May witnessed the corrosive effects of poverty on education. Under-paid teachers frequently failed to show up for class while those who did lacked the training or the enthusiasm to educate their pupils. The dropout rate was appalling, but even the students who stuck it out were barely literate in Chinese, let alone English.

“They weren’t happy about being teachers and they didn’t embrace their role of being a really critical person in this child’s life who can kind of make or break whether they have opportunities in the future or whether they remain poor and vulnerable,” May says.

The effects of poor education are striking. It limits employment opportunities, raises the mortality rate for infants and adults, increases incidence of deadly diseases, child labor, and increases inequality for women.

Shaken by her experience, May opted out of pursuing a career as a professor or as a policy wonk at the World Bank in favor of creating and implementing her own solution.

Shortly after getting married in 2007, May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, who is also her business partner, spent their honeymoon traveling through half a dozen African countries where they interviewed teachers, principals, and parents about their educational needs to gather information for a business plan.

“We believe in following the data,” May says. “We looked at where children are learning the least, where the problem is biggest.”

The pair settled on Kenya as an incubator for their company because it has a sizable market for private schools, sufficient population density, and a pool of potential instructors. And like every country on the list, Kenya possesses a weak education system.

“In Kenya, literally 50 percent of children fail the primary exit exam,” May says. “Most children are getting to the age of 12, 13, 14, still functionally illiterate, still without a basic grasp of mathematics.”

“You can’t meet the diverse needs of the range of abilities, talents, knowledge, and motivations that you find in any given classroom if you treat everyone the same.”

She says scripted instruction was chosen for Bridge because it provides the best possible support system for children in Kenya’s poorest neighborhoods. “We have to create environments where a child who has nothing at home still can learn in the classroom.”

Bridge’s education model isn’t universally adored. Many educators object to the notion that trained teachers can be replaced with scripts.  

“If you believe that teaching is a profession then this is anathema to your ears,” says P. David Pearson, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley. “The idea is that in professional learning you don’t teach people to follow a script: You teach people a set of principles and practices that you want them to apply flexibly.”

Pearson said Bridge fits in the category of a training model, where instructors are trained to stick closely to a curriculum. Training models are an attractive option in countries like Kenya that don’t have a well-trained teacher work force. But Pearson noted that some experts say this is precisely what can lead to “McDonaldization.”

For many experts from Western institutions, this is the most distasteful element of scripted instruction: treating educators as unthinking conduits between the curriculum and the student.

“When you see a teacher just going through a script, dispassionately, that takes away that human element, it takes away the passion, it takes away the engagement,” says Kristin Rosekrans, an international education consultant who came to Cal for her Ph.D. 

The image of Bridge instructors as automatons reciting lessons isn’t entirely accurate. May pointed out that instructors are regularly assessed on their knowledge of the curriculum and their ability to facilitate classroom activities, and demonstrate that they can handle a classroom full of energetic youngsters.

But there’s no getting around the fact that the protocol governing Bridge instructors is highly restrictive. According to a Bridge marketing pamphlet, instructors are trained to follow their scripts “100% word for word.” This also entails enunciating words according to Bridge’s pronunciation standard. Even physical gestures are regulated: Instructors are directed to snap their fingers to gain attention and to make eye contact with students after every question.  

This homogenization makes instructors more effective at conveying Bridge’s curriculum, but it also limits their capacity to adjust their teaching style for individual students.

“You can’t meet the diverse needs of the range of abilities, talents, knowledge, and motivations that you find in any given classroom if you treat everyone the same,” Pearson says.

So has Bridge’s education method actually boosted student performance?

Exam results from the internationally recognized Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) and Early Grade Math Assessment (EGMA) seem promising at first glance. According to Bridge’s website, its students outperform their peers in government schools by up to 205 percent in reading fluency and up to 42 percent on math word problems.

A closer look at the results reveals a less cheery picture.

Erin Murphy-Graham, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley, notes that the 205 percent figure, for example, represents students on the lowest end of the performance spectrum who are reading roughly 25 words per minute, compared to the 15 words per minute read by students in government schools. Murphy-Graham says Bridge’s use of statistics are some of the most misleading she has ever seen.

“If you look at the comparisons all throughout, I wonder if these are statistically significant,” she says. “It looks like there might be some marginal improvement, but overall the scores are still very, very low.”

Bridge’s popularity with parents may have less to do with academic results than with the school’s appearance of stability. Bridge ensures 100 percent teacher attendance with an elaborate system of check-ups and a large pool of on-call substitutes. This is an obvious perk compared to Kenya’s government schools where teachers have an absenteeism rate of 47.3 percent. The rate isn’t much better in private schools, where teachers miss more than 30 percent of classes.

May contends that parents are also drawn to Bridge because the school seeks out their feedback. As a for-profit institution it also gives them the power of clients: If they don’t like the product, they’ll take their money elsewhere.

Other experts wonder how useful this power is if stakeholders don’t have a point of comparison for Bridge beyond uninspiring public and private schools.

“It’s often very difficult for parents who are choosing schools,” Murphy-Graham says. “How do they know what quality is? They could be looking at a school that has fancy technology or gives some sort of incentives for enrolling.”

Some educators are worried about the long-term impact of for-profit schools in developing countries, especially those without strong traditions of public education.

“A situation could happen in education where the best businesses become the most successful and crowd out what could be really innovative grass-root approaches because of their inability to compete in the market place,” Murphy-Graham says.

All that said, even experts critical of scripted instruction admit that it’s difficult to ignore it as a resource. Rosekrans, who helped the government of Ghana develop a partially scripted curriculum for students, acknowledges that sometimes a short-term solution is better than nothing.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘Oh no, teachers shouldn’t have scripts, it’s not professional development.’” Rosekrans says. “However, when you’re in the shoes of those kids and those parents, and you need your kid to learn, it makes sense.”

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