Low Cost Private Schools in the Developing World

Private schools for the poor are growing rapidly throughout the developing world. The Economist has a review:

PrivateSchoolingPrivate schools enroll a much bigger share of primary-school pupils in poor countries than in rich ones: a fifth, according to data compiled from official sources, up from a tenth two decades ago (see chart 1). Since they are often unregistered, this is sure to be an underestimate. A school census in Lagos in 2010-11, for example, found four times as many private schools as in government records. UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for education, estimates that half of all spending on education in poor countries comes out of parents’ pockets (see chart 2). In rich countries the share is much lower.

Overall, there is good evidence that private school systems tend to create small but meaningful increases in achievement (e.g. herehere, here, here) and especially good evidence that they do so with large costs savings. The large costs savings suggest that with the right institutional structure, which might involve vouchers and nationally comparable testing, an entrepreneurial private sector could create very large gains. Karthik Muralidharan who has done key work on private schools and performance pay in India puts it this way:

Since private schools achieved equal or better outcomes at one-third the cost, the fundamental question that needs to be asked is “How much better could private management do if they had three times their current level of per-child spending?”

The Economist notes that another promising development is national chains which can scale and more quickly adopt best practices:

…Bridge International Academies, which runs around 400 primary schools in Kenya and Uganda, and plans to open more in Nigeria and India, is the biggest, with backers including Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. Omega Schools has 38 institutions in Ghana. (Pearson, which owns 50% of The Economist, has stakes in both Bridge and Omega.) Low-cost chains with a dozen schools or fewer have recently been established in India, Nigeria, the Philippines and South Africa.

Bridge’s cost-cutting strategies include using standardised buildings made of unfinished wooden beams, corrugated steel and iron mesh, and scripted lessons that teachers recite from hand-held computers linked to a central system. That saves on teacher training and monitoring.

The Economist is somewhat skeptical of scripted lessons, known as Direct Instruction in the education world, but in fact no other teaching method has as strong a record of proven success in randomized experiments (see also here and here).

Need I also point out that online education can bring some of the best teachers in the world to everyone, everywhere at low cost? An article in Technology Review titled India loves MOOCs points out that students from India are a large fraction of online students (fyi, we are also finding many Indian students at Marginal Revolution University)

Throughout India, online education is gaining favor as a career accelerator, particularly in technical fields. Indian enrollments account for about 8 percent of worldwide activity in Coursera and 12 percent in edX, the two leading providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Only the United States’ share is clearly higher; China’s is roughly comparable.

Education is changing very rapidly and its the developing world which is leading the way.


Of course, this approach would never work in the US.

How much do you think Chinese and Indian workers will donate to American private schools to provide scholarships to American students with family incomes twice what they earn?

I see lots of ads telling me "for $10 a month you can pay for one student in Africa getting a good education", so will there be ads on Asian TV "for $500 per month you can pay for one student in America getting a good education"?

Do Asians and Africans see ads on TV telling them that for $100 a month they can pay for the $250,000 cost of curing hep b in the USA like the ads I see saying "for $10 a week you can pay for all the health needs of a child in Africa: vaccinations, bed nets, nutrition supplements". Of course, it has been said that contributions to animal shelters in the West exceed the private donations to help the people of Africa and Asia where many animals rescued in Western animal shelters are eaten to get protein to get healthy (unless they eat something with ebola et al).

"Of course, this approach would never work in the US"

We're already developed, what need is there for us to try it?


... The Post published a front-page essay by guilt-ridden teen Melissa Mejia lamenting how she received a passing grade in the teacher’s government class — even though she rarely showed up, didn’t turn in homework, and missed the final...

In her essay, Mejia said: “I don’t like receiving what I would call a handout, but that’s what happened. New York City gave me a diploma I didn’t deserve.”

McHale’s acknowledgment that she pushed Mejia through appeared to confirm the worst fears about the city’s public schools — that even unsatisfactory students are routinely handed diplomas.

The teacher said she believes that her student spoke out because “I think she felt a sense of, ‘Why isn’t the standard higher?’ But if we set the bar higher, we would be a failing school.”....

The US did have essentially a fully private system, with near universal education in the 19th century...

No it didn't.


Do you have any evidence for your assertion?

There has always been a false conflation between government subsidies for education and government running of education ("public schools" or, more properly, government schools since "private" schools still serve the public). Only the former is truly needed for educating the poor. The fact that private schools are growing so rapidly in poor nations suggests that private schools may actually be more egalitarian than public schools.

Many if not most developing countries don't have the same tradition of public education as we do and, hence, don't have the institutions necessary to provide for good public schools (including funding); indeed, many if not most public schools in developing countries are dreadful. In addition, many developing countries continue to be heavily influenced by traditions established during the colonial era, including the tradition of private schools for the colonialists. And these two historical difficulties don't even take into account the suspicion of education (public or private) found in many developing countries. For these and other reasons private schools are probably essential to jump start universal education in many developing countries. Whether private schools are the right solution for the long-term, however, is a different question. But debating today what's best for the long-term is unproductive; worry about the long-term when it arrives.

"...don’t have the same tradition of public education as we do.."

In American colonial times thru the early 18th Century -- 'private'
education was the rule. Schooling then was plentiful, innovative, and well affordable by common people. Alexis deTocqueville marveled at how well educated average Americans were.

Common Schools {compulsory, public, but religion-based} schools were the
exception, located mostly in New England. Massachusetts established the first modern government school system in 1852. Most citizens resisted, but the Massachusetts militia eventually persuade parents to surrender their children to government control. By 1900, nearly every state had compulsory government elementary schools; compulsory high-schools soon followed.

The alleged "tradition" of American government public schools is false.
Government schools were imposed top-down as a government mechanism of
Americanization & Protestantization of the diverse population groups composing the U.S. Control was and is the primary objective of public school institutions worldwide.

The (vague) impression I remember from reading Democracy in America was that that New England had public education for centuries before Tocqueville got there.

But that doesn''t mean there were centralised education departments or teachers unions. My (equally vauge) impression is that each town hired teachers based on their reputations, and thus teachers had to compete in a market with many buyers and many sellers.

Also, every small town principle would have been the head of her own education department, i.e. pretty much independent. That is not too far from the charter school model.

"Common Schools {compulsory, public, but religion-based} schools were the exception, located mostly in New England. Massachusetts established the first modern government school system in 1852. Most citizens resisted, but the Massachusetts militia eventually persuade parents to surrender their children to government control. By 1900, nearly every state had compulsory government elementary schools; compulsory high-schools soon followed. "

Living in NH and knowing a bit about town meeting and how old papers have been traditionally kept from my dad showing me old church records he oversaw as pastor, as he would read meeting minutes from the time of the civil war, for example, I googled a bit...

And found a document that is a guide to the NH town of North Hampton's "ancient" town meeting records, with a few highlights the volunteer archivists thought noteworthy (the State legislature is paying for fire proof safes and advise on how to protect documents from decay with funding for materials needed):
Highlights / Additional Description
1783? List of years (1781-1783), names, and amounts followed by “silver” and an “X”. Appears to say baptists on bottom left. May be list of Baptists excused from paying the ministerial tax which was retroactive to 1783.

1794 Bills include ones relating to schools, repairs, and the poor.

1799 Includes Power of attorney Mary Fogg naming Thomas Leavitt

1802 Transfer of property for $200; Bridge repair request

1804 Pauper agreement

1807 Meetinghouse bills

1808 Abatement booklet

1809 French’s salary, names of those who do not pay ministers tax for 1808

1811 Rate book including tax warrant

1816 Town Meeting, Nov re how to pay for bell; notice about auction for pews, Dec

1817 Attachments, Thomas Marston, John Dearborn that may relate to Revere bell

1818 Bills / receipts include crow heads bounties, building “a pew for old women in the meeting house”, work on bridges including Little River Bridge, soldiers’ dinners, taking Paul Long’s declaration of services in Revolutionary War, keeping Paul Long, Phoebe Long

So, to say education was not paid for by government but by the church is a bit bizarre when the government collected taxes to pay for the Church, and then because some were baptists who were not of the Church, collected taxes to pay for the schools because even baptists kids needed to be educated.

Free schools for everyone were a resisting Protestant development. The Catholic church, as well as the Anglican church resisted education for the non-elite. The children of the elite, in areas of the US settled by Cavaliers, or royalists supporters of Charles I in the First English Civl War were privately tutored or sent to private schools, even boarding schools in New England. The children of the common people had little access or poor schools and, of course, African slaves were denied any instruction.

Here is a quote from Sir William Berkley, governor of the Virginia Colony in the mid 1600s, appointed by Charles I:

"I thank God, we have not free schools nor printing;
and I hope we shall not have these hundred years.
For learning has brought disobedience,
and heresy and sects into the world;
and printing has divulged them
and libels against the government.
God keep us from both!"

A 19th century author writing of the above quote in a novel set in the mid-17th century attributed this to a Catholic character, which reflects the attitudes of the times:

For Miles was a consistent conservative and Cath-
olick, and believed that honest people should have
their ears open and their reading eyes shut, that they
might be instructed aright for this world by gentle-
men, and for the other by priests.

"Many if not most developing countries don’t have the same tradition of public education as we do and, hence, don’t have the institutions necessary to provide for good public schools"

Most developing countries don't have the institutions and, hence, don't have the institutions.

I think AT's point is that there exist viable private schooling institutions, even if Americans aren't familiar with the model. Naturally, institutions that don't exist somewhere will need to be established in order to exist there! ( :S ) But that's the whole point.

Isn't another conclusion that education doesn't matter much in terms of outcomes, so don't overspend?

*formal education

I think informal education - learning by doing, learning a lot about one's craft, having good mentors, being mentally stable and able to persist through difficulty and uncertainty - are extremely important to outcomes, and correlates very weakly with formal education.

Learning by doing, was in the US, and still is in other parts of the world, tightly regulated.

Ben Franklin is widely known for failing to fulfill his contract to be educated by doing. He had to flee his home of Boston for the Quaker's lawless Philly where individuals were given priority over commercial contracts. He still owed his (step?) brother several years of labor for being taught the printer's art and was years away from earning the credentials to actually be a writer and publisher.

But after fleeing big government oppression, he then ended up creating bigger government institution - those regulations on how buildings are built and where are all thanks to Ben Franklin working through how to keep other careless people from burning down his property. And if he had lived longer, he would have figured out school taxes were needed to make his print shops much more profitable by creating more customers who could read.

There have been some real concerns expressed by the United Nations and researchers that the effectiveness of private education developing world is not as well documented as some people would make you believe. As the article mentions in many places these paid schools have been found to financially drain some of the poorest people in the world. They're also great concerns about the the role in place for women in the schools since many times they will not take girls nor higher female teachers. Finally the most troubling is the general shortage of regulations and oversight in these countries of the schools which has been cited as the area of greatest concern and abuse. That is why this year there is a UN resolution calling upon member states to set up regulations overseeing private schools predictly targeted for those in the greatist poverty.http://globalinitiative-escr.org/landmark-un-resolution-urges-states-to-monitor-and-regulate-private-education-providers/

God forbid that education occurs without the UN's blessing. The UN is a relic of the Cold War and deserves to be mothballed.

Typical UN nonsense. More regulations in poor, corrupt countries simply lead to more opportunities for graft.

Private schools are thriving in these places because the government is odious. Only the UN would want to give this same government more authority.

Most of the UN membership are these odious governments. That is why the "developing" world is always "developing".

The UN is of course itself odious.

LOL at the reactions to Ted Mauro's comment... "anything that dares to say market is the same as God is odious" hahahahahha ;)

is not the same as god

In the developing world there are also public-private partnerships. The government pays the teaching staff and the private organisation, often a church mission, pay for the maintenance staff and infrastructure. It works well and many can compete with strictly private schools in academic achievements.

Well...how about madrassas?
By the thousands, in the USA...
Private education, everyone?

Hey! Keep the hands of the government out of my future-Syria-tourists-to-be kids ;)

Funded by the State Department. So still public to an extent.

So, if you plot a school's per-capita expenditures on one axis, and performance on the other, there's no relationship, ever.

And we're talking significant variation in expenditures - from $3,500 per student to in excess of $14,000.

Source: I work in education consulting.

"I work in education consulting" is not a source. If anything it's like an anti-source. Source: I am clueless

Client data is private, so I can't share anything, but suffice it to say I have examined thousands of schools and this pattern is consistent across geography and time.

Nonsense about it being an anti-source. Particularly when the advice is of the form "There is a lack of evidence that X works" as it is here. Consultants have an important role in fighting off bad, politically attractive advice even if they do not have a solution themselves.

We've lost contracts before for being honest to school boards.

One case in particular involved a major metropolitan area pouring money into an large-scale intervention that had absolutely no statistical effect. Their response to our research finding? Keep the program, terminate our contract.


I've done audits for public entity construction projects that went dramatically over budget. There are often so many, ahem, issues that one does not know where to begin. It is part of the territory and you can either play ball, exit gracefully, or be handed your hat.

Much in conservative economics is difficult to take seriously - for example when an author citea Mises in what is allegedly a positive piece - but the problems of public choice are quite serious.

Buildings made of wood, steel, and iron! What a visionary idea! No longer will these students have their education interrupted by wolves huffing and puffing and blowing down their schools made of straw.

Maybe we can replicate the success(tm) of this direct(tm) instruction (tm) with world economies! scripted lessons!

Good for Coursera. But I knew that MOOCs and the like were scraping the bottom of the barrel, at least in the U.S., when I started receiving emails to sign up for "Work Smarter, Not Harder: Time Management for Personal & Professional Productivity" and "Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Private Businesses, Part I".

Whatever happened to advanced calculus or advanced chip design?

They're less useful than time management, and so in less demand.

The purpose of courses in high schools and colleges is to sort students, not to impart information.

Education has two main inputs: teachers and students. In the developed world, the teachers are all generally competent, show up, and actually try to teach their students. Some few are utterly incompetent, or absentees, or slackers, but those are largely balanced by the few who are really, really good teachers.

So in the developed world, where there's enough time with the teachers, and the teachers know their material well enough, the results will depend on whether the rules handicap the teachers, and on the students. Pretty much every report of miraculous results will come from cherry-picking better students, or somehow concentrating those few really, really good teachers. (Or from someplace with particularly stupid rules handicapping the teachers, and getting rid of those rules.)

However, in the less-developed world, there are far more teachers who are incompetent, or only show to collect their check, or who are slackers, and there are more likely to be rules which handicap the teachers who actually can and want to teach, especially in government schools. So it's not that hard for a private school to do better than the government schools for less money, merely by making sure their teachers know the material, show up, and teach the kids.

Those gains aren't available (any more) in the developed world. That low-hanging fruit was picked decades ago. Also, I'd expect that increasing the funding per-pupil available to third-world private schools will reach a plateau of effectiveness once all the teachers at those schools are as competent and diligent as in the developed world. Past that, more money won't change results much, until you reach the point where you can start hiring superstar teachers or having student-teacher ratios down to 5:1 or thereabouts, or start gaming your results the way developed countries do.

Alex, I'm not sure if you made a mistake of automatically associating the term "experiment" with random assignment, but I highly doubt that Direct Instruction is a "proven success in randomized experiments". The links you provide mainly refer to Project Follow Through, which DID NOT have random assignment. There was failure to randomise in two ways. In the first place, there was no random assignment of treatment status. More importantly, among the treated sites, there was no random assignment of the type of treatment (education model). Page 111 of this book (Social Program Implementation: Quantitative Studies in Social Relations, https://books.google.com.sg/books?id=RTG0BQAAQBAJ) mentions that local districts were allowed to choose which model to implement. Page 112 goes on to list some important systematic differences (region, racial composition, presence of strong pre-school program) between sites where different models were implemented.

Comments for this post are closed