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The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themsleves Paperback – 7 Sep 2013
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Description for The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People Are
About the Author
James Tooley is a professor of education policy at Newcastle University. There he is the director of the E. G. West Centre, which is dedicated to choice, competition, and entrepreneurship in education. An award-winning scholar featured in PBS and BBC documentaries, he has written several books, and his work has been covered in Newsweek, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. He was a professor in leading universities in England, Canada, and South Africa, and also lived in Hyderabad, India, where he worked with the entrepreneurs and teachers who inspired this book.
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I grew up in India, and was educated entirely in private schools (for obvious reasons you can learn about by reading this book). Unlike private schools catering to the poor that this book examines, I went to ones that were for the middle class. (Note that “middle class” in this context means something different from what a typical westerner would think of.) My school fees were on the order of $10-$15 per month. Because of my father’s job-related moves, I changed 9 schools during my K-12 education. Of those 9 schools, 4 were for-profit secular schools and 5 were non-profit religious schools (1 Anglican, 1 Catholic, and 3 Hindu). The education I received in each school was excellent. Nearly every teacher I had was great and instilled a desire for learning in me. I still remember them with fondness.
The recurring theme of this book is the love that poor parents have for their children that motivates them to pay money out of their meager pockets to send their children to entrepreneur-run private (mostly) for-profit schools, instead of sending them to “free” government schools. This is the same love that my parents felt that motivated them to make huge sacrifices for my sibling and me, and this is the same love I feel for my children.
The second recurring theme you will find in this book is that profit on the one hand, and ethics/charitableness/humanity on the other, are not mutually exclusive. Profit is not an ignoble motive, and the desire for profit does not automatically invalidate the humanity of a person providing a service, nor corrode their intentions. There is ample proof of it throughout the book; in fact, a case study school in Makoko in Lagos State (Nigeria) admitted 9% of its students with ZERO tuition (see page 252). In my own personal life, my mother used to tutor children part-time, and I remember her tutoring a poor child for an entire year for free. My father’s eye surgeon in the city of Bhopal ran a private for-profit clinic, and he used to care for poor patients for free, without any government mandate or reimbursement, and without any discrimination based on religion or caste.
Some people have knee-jerk negative reactions when they hear words like “private” and “profit” and “corporation”. This book should resoundingly disabuse such people of their notions (assuming their minds are not sealed shut a priori). As Frederic Bastiat wrote in Economic Harmonies, “the profit of the one is the profit of the other”.
As an immigrant in America, I was surprised when I first found out that education here is heavily dominated by government schools. And now as a father of American children, I am shocked by the level of educational spending when compared to what parents and taxpayers get in return for it. The inflexibility, increasing centralization, and “one-size-fits-all” approach of government schools, combined with a lack of parental choice (partly due to crowding out of the private sector) is really bothersome.
In sum, this book offers substantive proof on the efficacy of private schools for the poor in the so-called “third world”. I really hope that transnational development agencies have paid attention to Prof. Tooley’s work.
A similar approach of private schooling and school choice, in my opinion, will also benefit the United States. I hate to conclude on a pessimistic note, but I doubt that it will ever happen given the overall blurring of the lines between society and government, the entrenched interests of the educational establishment, and political comfort zones that Americans would rather fight to stay in than cross. America will likely tinker around the edges, instead of unshackling voluntary, private, educational alternatives.
Tooley is part anthropologist, part scientist, part economist, part political scientist as he explores a virtually uknown world--a world that officials living in the countries he is visiting repeatedly tell him does not exist. But the world of private schools for the poor does exist, and Tooley goes to great lengths to explore it and bring it alive for us.
Tooley not only explores that this phenomenon exists (and that it is not an anomaly, but a presence in every poor village he explored), but why it is happening. Tooley talked to school "proprietors," parents who elect to send their children to private schools, and children who have attended both public and private schools. Tooley found that low quality of public education was the largest reason for parents sending children to private schools. Much like the United States, Tooley explains that corruption and bureaucratic jockeying is plaguing the public school infrastructure in Africa (from regulators taking bribes to teachers' unions shielding teachers from accountability). Towards the end of the book, Tooley unveils the results of his 150 school (and several thousand student) study whereby he gave students in public and private school tests and compared their results. Even those who can already guess the results will be surprised!
One of the most infuriating parts of The Beautiful Tree is the attitude and resistance Tooley found in the politicians and academics he encountered along the way. Politicians uniformly told him that his research was a waste of time ("Private schools here only serve the rich," which Tooley would quickly document was not the case.) Academics offered much resistance to "Tooley's research citing the "good reasons" why it was dangerous to share research on the efficiency of private schools for the poor, regardless of what the data says. (Tooley rebuts these "five good reasons" in a closing chapter.) Much of the time, the politicians' and academics' knee-jerk reaction to private schools for the poor amounted to the belief that they knew better how to educate the children than the parents of the students, who one politician called "ignoramuses".)
This is a highly interesting book with a message which needs to be heard. As Tooley points out, the existence, and quantity, of these private schools goes a long way in showing that private schools can and do educate the poor for a much more reasonable cost than public schools. And the fact that parents willingly choose to send their children to for-profit schools even though a "free" option exists gives lie to the myth that private schools educating the poor are too expensive or low-quality. A very interesting and eye-opening read.