One of the popular targets of foreign aid is education, and understandably so. Yet as with most solutions sprouting from Western planners and do-gooders, the reality on the ground is a bit different than we typically imagine. Likewise, the solutions are often closer than we’re led to believe.
In his book, The Beautiful Tree, James Tooley chronicles his own investigative journey throughout the developing world, seeking to uncover the local realities of educational opportunity. Originally commissioned by the World Bank to investigate private schools in a dozen developing countries, Tooley began with the assumption that such schools were designed for and confined to the middle classes and elite.
What he found, however, was a situation far more rich and varied.
Beginning in the city of Hyderabad, India, Tooley’s targets initially appeared as expected: private schools designed for the prosperous and privileged. One day, however, on a holiday off from his usual research, he ventured into the city’s slums, spontaneously stumbling on a private school created by and for the local community. He soon met the school’s headmaster, who explained the widespread dissatisfaction with public schooling, from over-crowded classrooms to chronically absent teachers to the severe lack of accountability or parental control.
With this new friendship, his journey took a surprising shift, leading to trips to more than 50 “under-the-radar” private schools in impoverished areas throughout the city. These were not the schools on his original list. These were not schools for the rich and privileged. These were small start-ups in the poorest parts of Hyderabad, and they were growing. “There seemed to be a private school on every street corner, just as in the richer parts of the city,” Tooley writes. “I visited so many, being greeted at narrow entrances by so many students…But did they really deliver a quality education? I needed to find out.”
And so, the journey began, proceeding across India and into many other countries, from Nigeria to China to Ghana. The result: Unbeknownst to the prevailing elites, private schools were bubbling up right under their noses, emerging spontaneously and organically in some the poorest and most destitute communities. Founded by local entrepreneurs and educators and funded by parents dissatisfied with the government alternatives, the schools were flourishing. As for Tooley’s questions about quality, the results were astounding.
See the following excerpt from the PovertyCure series:
Whereas many Westerners are tempted to approach these challenges by offering handouts or implementing top-down initiatives, Tooley’s research demonstrates the power of bottom-up action and initiative. Although resources from the West can surely be put to proper use, we should recognize the far more powerful and transformative impact of the countless entrepreneurs, teachers, and parents already on the ground.
Rather than dwelling in lack and scarcity and struggle, these are people who are seizing what’s already in their hands, stewarding it for the growth of their communities and the flourishing of their children. These are people not waiting for the system to change or for the insulated and privileged few to rescue them via policy or donations. Instead, these communities are innovating solutions and creating opportunity from the ground up.
These are “searchers,” through and through.
This isn’t to say that such areas aren’t still struggling with severe problems, whether in educational opportunity or otherwise. It’s also not to say there aren’t specific ways the West can leverage its wealth and resources in fruitful ways. But it is worth noting that, regardless of the resources we might have to offer, these communities have plenty to teach us as well.
In America, we complain about our own educational system at nearly every level of society. We have plenty of our own educational “slums” where the poor suffer under the power of elites and a bloated bureaucracy that’s indifferent to the plight of the student or the single mother. Even in areas where education is deemed “acceptable,” we find plenty of room to wage policy warfare over public schooling and the shape and contour of curriculum.
These are important, necessary battles, and much of our effort and energy is well spent on winning them. The unjust power and control of unions and government power brokers is a tangible target and a primary obstacle to the flourishing of our children and society at large.
But what else might we do from the bottom up, regardless of how that pans out? What can we be doing in the meantime, with our own children, or the children of our own neighborhoods, and what sacrifices might that entail?
What else might we give and build and cultivate right here, right now, to ensure a better future for our kids?
As the inspiring entrepreneurs and educators in Hyderabad might ask: “What are you waiting for?”