Worlds of Education

Hacked Off: Can US Entrepreneurs Help Fix Education in Africa? Answer?

published 22 December 2018 updated 22 December 2018

By Susan L. Robertson, University of Cambridge

‘World Hack’ – a weekly BBC World Service radio broadcast  by presenter Kat Hawkins and reporter Sam Judah caught my attention  earlier this week for several reasons.

The first was its title, which came in the form of a question: Can US Entrepreneurs Help Fix Education in Africa?  These entrepreneurs, we quickly learn as the programme gets going, are Shannon May and Jay Kimmelman – co-founders of Bridge International Academies – a for-profit US-headquartered education company with operations in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria and India.

In 2014 CNBC News described Kimmelman and May  as part of the next generation of rebels, leaders and innovators, disrupting the status quo. There is little doubt that May and Kimmelman have been doing just that; disrupting the status quo.

Their approach to delivering what their website describes as “a life changing education” in “underserved communities” is to arm teachers with wifi connected tablets so as to follow tightly scripted lessons delivered to a classroom of pupils. Whilst some teaching scripts are described by May as being developed ‘in-country’, most are downloaded from Bridge’s Boston headquarters in the US.

This is education at scale inspired, says Kimmelman in this World Hack interview, by global chains like McDonalds and Starbucks. Kimmelman goes on: “Private education for the poor. It is the biggest education market that no-one has ever heard of. Five years ago, Shannon and I decided that an aggressive start-up company that could figure out how to profitably deliver high quality, ultimately creating a billion-dollar global education company. …We take lessons other large global service providers use like McDonalds and Starbucks. We build for scale, we systematise, we standardise… ”.

Those of us following Bridge International Academies aggressive approach to delivering their billion-dollar global education business have commented on the yawning gap between their stated commitment to under-served communities and their failure to service the very poor, their inflation of evidence around performance, flouting of national regulations, poorly paid teachers in comparison to those in the state funded system…the list goes on.

But it was World Hack’s complicity with May, on insisting that the blame had to be sheeted home to teachers, that I want to draw attention to. As the programme opens up, reporter Sam Judah describes in detail a visit to a classroom in a state-funded public school in Nairobi. Conveniently, the teacher is absent.  Case proven.  “Where’s the teacher?” Judah asks.

“Why isn’t the teacher here?  So you’re giving the lesson?” The sound of a young pupil reading out a maths problem from the front cuts in.  “Does the teacher have a problem?” Judah asks.  The child responds. “The teacher does not have a problem – the teacher has work somewhere…”. Judah does not pursue this reflection by the student as possibly signalling a more complex set of causes for teacher absenteeism in Kenya, or indeed in other countries where poor teacher pay and public vilification have caused the teacher pipeline to be particularly leaky.

Several minutes on in the broadcast, May states: “The majority of children in the developing world experience the teacher being absent about half of the time…imagine that….when you are supposed to be there. The teacher is not in the room. They may be asleep…or reading a newspaper…or on the phone…or just doing something else”.

Presumably this is all the evidence needed: an expedient visit by Global Hack’s reporter, Sam Judah, to a Nairobi classroom, and May’s insistence teachers are the cause of the crisis in education in Africa, to legitimate Bridge’s global industrial model;  teacher-proof, standardised, and scalable, aimed at the poor who ‘buy’ education as the tag private suggests it is better.

With the blame now sheeted home to teachers regarding the state of African education,  teachers now bear the burden of the solution. Justice is to be found in the market, and not the state.  Seen in this light, Bridge International Academies -  May insists - is a response to “…the moral call of our time”.

But what kind of moral response is this? How moral is it to target the poor, and boost their hope of social mobility through the valorising of the idea of ‘private’ as part of their education experience? And if a poor family takes out a loan to fund their child’s Bridge learning experience, what kind of moral order is this?  Why is it okay to profit from the poor in pursuit of creating a global education brand? And why vilify teachers when quite likely they are caught up in the structural problems many African countries face?

And how moral is it to promote a ‘one size fits all’ learning experience for students, as if context and culture does not matter? Surely this ‘schooling’ approach generates its own learning crisis, substituting one crisis for another. And why did the BBCs Global Hack fail to open up a public debate rather than find themselves following along in Bridge’s slipstream?

For once my questions posed above are also echoed and answered the World Bank’s 2018 Global Development Report – Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. They worry about the pressure on education systems to open up to for-profit private providers as solutions in that they have the tendency to undermine public sectors rather then boosting them.  As they say, “efforts need to be directed at deeper system-level problems, both technical and political, that allow poor quality systems to persist”.

Small wonder I felt ‘hacked off’, to use a slang term, with the BBC’s Global Hack. A public broadcaster like the BBC World Service can and should do better than that. I would have expected some engagement with the 2018 WDR and its focus on the learning crisis.

This might have led Global Hack to explore the complexities and perplexities of the so-called learning crisis, including why it is that a global for-profit company, modelled on McDonalds and Starbucks, is the answer. Reading the WDR would have alerted them to the conclusion that when all the evidence is considered, private education does not deliver better education results than publicly funded education – all things being equal.

And in response to Shannon May’s moral call, Global Hack might have asked why Bridge does not put their efforts into boosting the capacity and accountability of governments to deliver strong public provision aimed at the right of all children to access quality education and confident and creative teachers to be part of life-changing learning.

This is where political will and profit motives part company. Both might invoke moral outrage, but Shannon May’s call rings hollow when what is at issue is the development of a billion-dollar education company through targeting the poor and their education aspirations.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.