Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Low fee private schools

Low-fee private schools have been increasingly heralded as a major answer for the poor quality of education in the Global South.  Many arguments have been put forward, from the lack of accountability in govt systems, through to the wonderful pro-poor impact entrepreneurial spirit that will save the world (and which only the for-profit entrepreneurs running such schools apparently have).  Hardly a week goes by without someone exalting operations such as Bridge International in Kenya, or citing James Tooley's "Beautiful Tree".

So, what does rigorous, objective, independent evidence actually show?

1.  Such schools do NOT systematically deliver better quality education once the characteristics of the families using such schools are controlled for.  This is known as selection bias, and basically means that children who go to these schools are typically from slightly better off families (perhaps richer, or slightly better educated parents, or healthier etc).  The children in govt schools are often poorer, less healthy, come from less educated families etc.  Once you control for this to make a like-for-like comparison of the educational impact of these schools, they show statistically more or less the same performance as govt schools.  So, the vast majority of these exorbitant claims of better quality are just plain WRONG.

(There is currently one working paper which seems to show some impact of the increase in private schools in Kenya, although the possibility of what are known as endogenous variables or omitted variables does remain.  The authors are pretty good, and some good economists have been involved in advising them - but I believe the paper is still in peer review, and the admission of this broader lack of evidence around such schools is clearly and fairly acknowledged in their opening preambles).

2.  What is statistically much more proven, though, is that these schools are definitely cheaper all-in to run that govt schools.  The biggest factor in this is teacher salaries - which are much higher in govt schools.  This is usually because of the political strength of teacher unions.  So what can be said about these schools is that they can provide the same quality of education in a much more cost-effective way for a society.  (But that perhaps says that the real problem is with the political strength of teacher unions).

3.  These schools do NOT reach the poorest.  The poorest families (who often also have more children) cannot afford even the low fees, which would represent an unviable percentage of their total income.  So the poorest are often left to go to the govt schools (which often become the "sink schools" in their areas - as even happens in many parts of London!).

A number of interesting points are raised by this.

1.  Why, in the absence of evidence, do the promoters of these schools still make such strong claims for outperformance?  Well, because they're promoters.  Ideology and interest are the prime motivation.  Bridge International's class sizes are already reaching 60, and tipped to reach 80!  And let's be clear, that is an operating model decision to make the profit targets - not a decision to improve the quality of education.  The only school systems in Africa where class sizes are higher are those bastions of quality: Central African Republic and Malawi (check for yourselves here).  Promoters with financial interests in these schools are of course going to claim they're great.  How about some rigorous, independent evidence then?

And I do wonder whether the ideology of marketisation is at work here.  Instead of working to strengthen the effectiveness of the state, they either undermine it or side-step it.  But in their own countries they would never dream of doing that.  The principle of public schooling is upheld and fully exploited in the US, France, UK (house-prices doing the socioeconomic filtration).

2.  There is, however, no denying that the quality of the government school systems generally sucks.  The systems are hugely unresponsive to parents - teacher (and headteacher) absenteeism is massively high, time on task is low, and many parents rightly dismiss the school management committees as toothless (with quality only going up when communities were trained to do it themselves).

3.  So what can be done?  Well, there are quite a few "pedagogical" improvements that are under way, such as teaching basic primary in mother tongue and introducing English (or French) gradually; or basic remedial techniques and so on.  And many are experimenting with different incentive structures - basically as part of institutional reform.

Institutional reform - including greater accountability - is certainly needed.  But I do wonder whether there is a middle ground between the private- and public- sector boosters.  Vouchers.  The state can, and should, have the responsibility to facilitate quality primary education to all.  But if it can be done in a way that maximises parental exit options, doesn't play into strong political economies of unions, and allows for the benefits of competition (league tables etc) then wouldn't that be better?  The state doesn't need to be the provider of education itself, but can certainly finance it.  And so long as that was accompanied by genuine equitable access (through non-discrimination laws or positive discrimination) and objective reporting of school performance, then maybe parents and families would finally have informed, competitive choice they could actually exercise?

It seems to me that the fabled philanthropists and impact investors would be better off trying to work towards such changes that would actually impact millions of children.  But that would detract from their "theories of change" (meaning: agenda to impose their world-view) and financial interests.

This may seem like a diatribe.  But it's then worth reading the points that the head of CGAP makes in this blog post - notice the specific call-out he makes of private schools and the references to actual demonstrable quality & impact... time you read yet more boosterism about low-fee private schools, just remember the emperor has at most a thong on, and it's not a pretty sight.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Elegy for Impact Investing

This is a little ditty that came to mind - in my head it's set to a certain chord structure, but I can't write music so maybe I'll post the tablature

Here we all go, marching off
dressed as sheep
dressed as sheep

We're all going to save the world
you and me
you and me

What's our super, secret sauce
-ology, ology, ology

Do we need to show it works?
not while we've got currency
currency, currency

Will we be informed by facts?
only if they're cuddle-y
cuddly, cuddly

Do we need to answer back?
<collapse in fit of giggles and fade to rose-tinted warmth>

. . . . . . .


"The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class."

"The will of the capitalist is certainly to take as much as possible. What we have to do is not to talk about his will, but to enquire about his power, the limits of that power, and the character of those limits."

. . . . . . . .

More prosaically:

Sloppy thinking


Where's the data?

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Education & citizen surveys

@oso had asked for some information on the impact of things like Uwezo which I had promised to post something on, and @BinyavangaW also posted a recent rip-roaring series of tweets on "Generation Privatisation" which included this.

I don't know the details of Uwezo's own impact evaluation (although given the quality of their funders, they will have something in place).  But very happy to share some more info on the impact of these types of citizen-based initiatives.

Uwezo itself is based on a precedent-setting exercise called ASER which was started in India in 2005.  ASER is a remarkable platform - an annual, NGO-led survey of actual learning levels in every district and block in India.  Their statistical approach is solid, and they are often able to penetrate parts of the country that the state itself approaches with caution.  If you're interested in quality of education in India, or social inequity, their annual surveys are a must-read.

Ok, so far so nice - so what's the impact been?

ASER was catalytic when it first came out because it showed that in spite of all the rhetoric around education, and govt spending on it, children were actually learning bugger all.  And, quelle surprise, the poorest, most disadvantaged children were worst off.

They weren't the first to point this out (Lant Pritchett was asking similar questions back in the mid-late 1990s).  But prior to ASER's sustained spotlight, these discussions remained in the realm of expert esoterica and the hallowed realms of "policymakers".

The ASER surveys brought it front-and-centre to the public realm.  And not just in an anecdotal case-study way.  But in a systematic, statistically serious way.  Where the quality of the data-analysis could not be ignored or disputed away.

This was echoed and picked up by many.  Cutting a long story short, this has been instrumental in getting the education sector focused on outcomes, not just outputs (the latter incidentally often play to vested political economies).  Are children learning - that's the key point.  And are the children who are the most disadvantaged, and therefore who would benefit the most, learning - or is it just their better-off peers who are accelerating further and further away?

The upshot of this has been that there is a much greater focus now on quality of education.  "Education goals" are being replaced (or certainly at the least complemented) by "learning goals".  See here for a proposal for "Millennium Learning Goals" from CGD, see here for a "Global Compact for Learning" from Brookings, see here for the incorporation of quality into the most recent incarnation of the multilateral Global Partnership for Education, see here for USAID's increased emphasis on learning.  There are plenty of others.

Now, many many folks have been involved in this struggle to focus on quality.  So there is no way you can attribute this to any single person or organisation.  But, if you talk to people who have been involved in this struggle, the ASER reports are universally cited as a major reference point by person after person in paper after paper.

So, job done?  Well hardly!  Just because the topic of quality is now being spoken of by many, does not mean that quality is being delivered.

In fact, far from it - NOW is when initiatives like ASER, Uwezo (and comparables being done in West Africa, and perhaps even in Latin America) become vital watchdogs - they're fundamentally necessary to check whether all this talk is actually translating to substantive results on the ground, or is just that most favourite commodity of politicians (and large swathes of the private, public, philanthropic and non-profit sectors): hot air.

(As an example, see here for a geeky paper on the incredible diversity of learning levels within public education systems - and see here for commentary from India on the perverse effects of a recent "right to education" act that govt passed which overlooked quality...).

Oh, the multilaterals themselves do talk about monitoring (see here or here for examples).  But their monitoring remains an ivory tower discussion among the technocratic anti-politics machine that is development.

Change happens through dynamic, contested processes on the ground.  This is where citizen based movements are vital.  But they need to be authentic, embedded in their cause and frankly autonomous of funders & govts.  They will - eventually - be accountable to their own public, who will vote with their feet, ears, tongues and arms on whether the work is relevant to their lived experiences.

(I have to add one last point.  People will sometimes ask: what is the sustainability of these initiatives, and since they clearly can't be self-sustaining, this is clearly not a structural solution.  Bollocks.  In the Global North there is a sustainable model - the govt pays for it through the independent audit office, or independent inspectorates for education and league tables etc.  Every parent in the North checks these when looking at school options, or which districts to live in etc.  They don't ask what the sustainability of these is then, do they?  Independent, easy to access, relevant measurement is vital - it is the right of citizens who a govt would tax or claim to represent).

So, to conclude a long post, Binyavanga is right that such surveys should exist.  They need to  exist, they need to be supported, and they need to be rigorously objective and independent of providers (and funders).

(PS - to borrow a turn of phrase from a certain author, one day I will also write about "low-cost private education" models in the Global South since those are often cited by agenda-driven ideologues and investors as "the answer", but that is for another day...)

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Transparency as Camouflage...

Aaron Swartz.  I hadn't even heard of him until recent events, and was a bit wary about the twitter-storm and almost cod-Shakespearian lamentation.  Strangely, reminded me a bit about the declaiming when Diana died.

Not wanting to judge superficially, I read some of his writing showcased on this memorial blogpost by the excellent David Sasaki.

Man is a nuanced and complex beast, so who knows what he was like as a man (yes, it's sad that he died - no more or less sad or precious than every other anonymous sufferer of depression who tops themselves).  But Swartz definitely makes solid, solid points in those essays.

The need to focus on the real underlying struggles, and mobilise whatever is needed to address the structural problems.  To fight the real fight, to not be captured or anaesthetised by "transparency" or "openness"...transparency as camouflage, an opiate, ultimately as yet another tool for manufacturing consent...?  You should read those featured writings yourself, I don't need to synopsise his (very readable) writing.

Btw, an irony is that the lamenters seem to be all falling over themselves proposing ideas to "honour" him and his struggle.  By, of course, glomming him on to pet projects, typically aimed at superficial, technocratic transparency - see here for an example.  Based on those writings, he was more focused on the underlying struggles, than just a fight against "those who control information"...(perhaps such would-be subversion is unsurprising - after all, war is peace).

Anyway, RIP Mr. Swartz - there are others still around who seem to share his core motivations, as this good piece shows (see the second-last paragraph for example), so hopefully they will continue.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

From Tech & Transparency to Elite Competition

This is a good post by David Sasaki that, diplomatically, points out much of the hot air and vacuousness espoused by the tech for transparency industry (oh, it is an industry - self-serving, self-legitimising and self-perpetuating).

David's call for specificity is good - it is only by holding people's feet to the fire that this "movement" (aka sector) can be held accountable for what it does, and does not, deliver.

Reading his synopsis of Weinstein & Goldstein's paper did prompt a few follow-ups in my head.  First, are W & G really objective, having been involved in setting up what they write about?  My suspicion is that objectivity will inevitably (and very humanly) be compromised.

This is heightened by Eduweb being cited by W&G as an example of the impact of these initiatives.  If that's the best they can point to, that's pretty disappointing.  A web-portal that reports physical location of schools etc.  Great.  Like the average citizen can really do something about that.  In education, the key is quality of learning.  What are children actually achieving?  Why do some parts of the country show children with better learning than others?  Those start going to questions that really matter - and also start to go into sociopolitical issues.

The irony is that in Kenya there IS a learning-measurement initiative that tries to measure and map just this.  Uwezo is entirely citizen-based, and is a much better example of collective action aimed at achieving something.  Sure tech portals could display the results of Uwezo better (a picture does tell a thousand words), but without the grassroots organising of the measurement and the efforts of the team, there would be nothing (except for irrelevant govt data posted on Eduweb).

To fetishize tech is like raving about the publisher.  Sorry, its the content that comes first.  Otherwise its just a coffee-table glossy.  Cart must not be put before the horse.  The real organisations working on issues that are sociopolitically relevant are the ones that need support and strengthening.  The shiny tech for openness movement seems, to me, to have a huge opportunity cost - it sucks up the oxygen (and the $) that should really be going to these citizen-centred political (with a little p) efforts to improve their own lives.

Organizations like the Hewlett Foundation, Twaweza and now CIFF who are also supporting Uwezo are to be applauded for supporting the movements that count.  Not the movements that are the most shiny and new.

This led me to the third reflection upon reading David's post.  Which is that for this tech for transparency/openness/governance etc etc movement to really have a positive impact on people's lives, they need to engage on topics that are at the heart of - OR CAN CATALYSE - elite competition.

If the underlying topic is not something that the competing elites can use in their fights with each other, then it's a useless topic as far as improving governance in the developing world is concerned.  And therein lies the need for guts.

Too many of these shiny initiatives work with superficial aspects of people's lives - not the deep structural inequities.  For tech for transparency to be truly meaningful or relevant or impactful, this energy has to lock on to these structural factors, and embed itself into the grassroots movements that are doing the old-fashioned, dirty, sweaty, slow and at times dangerous legwork.  3-1-1 (or ipaidabribe) clones ain't no use to poor folks in developing world who are more focused on jobs, housing, food, safety, water...

Tech can lower transaction costs and search costs.  Yes.  But the people are semi-sovereign.  This tech sector needs to engage with changing that last point - by bringing new contestation arenas into the fight.  And just focusing on tools won't be sufficient (in fact these same tools can be used by the heavenly chorus to manipulate and distract...).  This sector, this movement, these $ - whatever it wants to style itself as - has to lock-on with those topics.

And in case you think this is just personal opinion on the need for elite competition, look at this working paper (by the authors of Why Nations Fail).  It looks at Sierra Leone and tribal chiefs.  In areas where there is less competitive tension at the chief level, people have lower outcomes than in areas where there is more competition among the chiefly levels of society.  Interestingly, these former lagging areas also have "civil society", but its been captured!

Until and unless the tech for transparency movement engages with, and fully embeds itself within, topics that are at the heart of elite competition (or can spark elite competition) in the Global South, its as useful as a Ferrari in the Sahara.

Five Years On...

It's been over 5 - five! - years since the last post on this blog.  I had sort of just left it on the shelf gathering cobwebs.  But figured it might be worth resuscitating and posting the odd bit of content every so often (let's see how frequently that is, but hey I did say that this might only be updated intermittently!).

Why this horror-movie style revival from the grave?

Well, I already have a separate (anonymised) blog where I post occasional observations from my travels.  And so I did think about just updating to that.  But the two are on different themes.  This one seems much more focused on "development" whereas the other one is more, well, observational.

And I guess, five years into this second spring career shift into the "development" sector (which sadly has also meant an exposure to the "philanthropy" sector), I'm at a point where I want to make occasional sector-related arguments.

And posting them as comments in others' blogs seems, well, a bit troll-like.  And just talking to people, while infinitely more enjoyable, also means these are often transient conversations.  While just collecting random tweeted observations is, well, even more pointless...

So, I'll try and post a few things, and let's see if discipline is maintained...