Headline: Letter From Liberia

The post below is by guest blogger Mike Goldstein.

Disclosure first: from 2013 to 2016 I served as chief academic officer at Bridge International Academies, which operates elementary schools in Africa and India.  I still volunteer there, as an advisor and “host parent” for some Bridge alumni who’ve won full scholarships to American boarding schools.  So please take my views with a grain of salt.

That said, I thought Nicholas Kristof said it well last month in the NY Times:

<<I understand critics’ fears (and share some about for-profit schools in the U.S.). They see handing schools over to Bridge as dismantling the public education system — one of the best ideas in human history — for private profit.

But I’ve followed Bridge for years, my wife and I wrote about it in our last book, and the concerns are misplaced. Bridge has always lost money, so no one is monetizing children. In fact, it’s a start-up that tackles a social problem in ways similar to a nonprofit, but with for-profit status that makes it more sustainable and scalable.

More broadly, the world has failed children in poor countries. There have been global campaigns to get more children in school, but that isn’t enough. The crucial metric isn’t children attending school, but children learning in school.

Here in Liberia in the village of Boegeezay in Rivercess County, I dropped in on a regular public school that officially had 16 teachers assigned to it. Initially, I saw four; a couple more trickled in hours later.

…In contrast, the Bridge schools I visited were functional. The teachers can themselves read. School begins on time, at 7:30 a.m., and continues until 3:30 instead of letting out around noon, as at many government-run schools. And students have books.>>


In the USA, there’s a healthy debate about traditional schools versus choice/charters/vouchers/reform.  One aspect: to the consternation of some reformers, many American parents are satisfied with THEIR nearby public school, even with low academic results.

In my experience, though, that is not typically true with Liberian parents.  The typical family craves a different option.

Some years ago, after RCTs showed that KIPP kids indeed had large achievement gains, when controlling for who attended, the AFT Shanker Institute blog conceded that KIPP was perhaps a good thing, and wondered what might be learned from those schools.

My hope is that if similar RCTs show large gains for Bridge kids, that the debate similarly shifts.  We shall see.

More backstory on the politics here.

One Reply to “Headline: Letter From Liberia”

  1. Much of the criticism in Liberia is based on the fact that 1) Liberia is scaling-up in year 2 despite claiming they would wait for the RCT midline results, 2) there are serious concerns about transparency (how these operators are partnering with the government), and how these providers are and will be held accountable. On the latter points, most of the providers are international providers (Bridge is just one of them) yet there are concerns about outsourcing the education system and learning materials to these organizations that have no real relationship (and at times understanding) with/of the community. This is a concern raised by several people and organizations, not just international critics, but community members and civil society actors. The goal should be to allow for a more open debate and discussion about PSL, its providers, and the future of the education system in Liberia, ultimately allowing for the Liberian people and communities to decide. Instead while critics may be a little overzealous in their criticism and questions, proponents of PSL have continually attempted to halt, demonize, and refuse to address some of these very real and important concerns, continually going back to learning gains (without a cost-benefit/cost-effectiveness analysis). More information is needed regarding PSL, more debate is needed, and yes basing decisions on RCT and research is important. Yet, we should all realize that the RCT is only one evaluation, and even if learning gains are seen, Liberians and the international community need to be willing to ask at what cost do these gains come at? Do they impeded sovereignty, do they improve community participation/buy-in, etc.? These questions are important. There are several issues that need to be discussed and simply stating the RCT will provide the final decision point is problematic. But yeah there needs to be a healthy debate regarding PSL and its future and this needs to happen internationally and most importantly at the local/national level.

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