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Innovative Approaches to Low Cost Education: Examples from around the Globe

Harry A. Patrinos's picture

This was originally published on Pearson's Affordable Learning blog.

In many developing countries, the government remains the main financier and the dominant provider of education. The demand for quality education continues to increase while resources remain scarce, making education inaccessible to a significant part of society.

An innovative way of financing education is via cash transfers to schools based on enrollments or by providing cash to families to purchase schooling – in other words- through vouchers. Another way is to reach education providers directly and ensure they deliver the services by fulfillment of a contract such as Charter Schools (in the USA), Academies or Free Schools in the UK or concession schools in Colombia, which are examples of this mechanism.  The objective in both cases is to extend financial support from the government to providers and parents and promote access to quality education. Advocates of these systems argue that this will lead to efficiency gains, as schools – public and private – vie for students and try to improve quality while reducing expenses.

Most of the examples of voucher programs and contract based school-management come from developed, high income countries such as the United States or from parts of Europe, however, more recently examples from middle-income countries such as Chile and Colombia have emerged.

In order to truly further development, we need to see more experimentation in education delivery from low-income countries. This trend is emerging, for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), while the public sector has historically been the major provider of education, the diverse private sector now increasingly appears to be stepping in, to fulfill a demand that the public sector is unable to meet.

Over the past decade, private school enrollment has grown rapidly in Kenya.  This trend was driven by the abolition of fees in public primary schools in 2003, and the subsequent decline in the perceived quality of public schools.  Survey data on households' education expenditure show that Kenyan private schools operate at low cost relative to public schools: nearly two-thirds of pupils in the private system pay fees less than the median per-pupil funding level in government schools. A recent paper estimated the causal effect of private schooling on test performance for Kenyan primary school students using nationwide standardized test scores and found an exam performance premium of one standard deviation delivered by private schools.

In South Asia, partnerships between public authorities and non-state providers such as NGOs, communities and commercial operators are helping expand education opportunities and quality.

International donors, including the World Bank, are working with the Government of Punjab in Pakistan to improve education for school children through a range of initiatives, from cash stipends and low-cost private schools to more effective school councils. The World Bank’s Punjab Education Sector Project helps provide stipends to 380,000 female students in grades 6-8, free textbooks to all students in public schools, improved access to quality education for over 857,096 students – more than half of whom are girls – in 1,768 low cost private schools, as well as capacity support to 54,000 school councils. Foundation-Assisted Schools of Punjab Education Foundation have expanded from 18 to 29 program districts in the province, reaching 857,096 children in 2011 from 576,669 children in 2008. Impact evaluation results for these schools show that the program has raised enrollment by 40 percent and student achievement by 0.3-0.5 standard deviations within two years, roughly contributing to one-to-two additional years of learning at school. This is an example of how low cost private schools are adding great value to education systems around the world.

While maintaining that basic education services remain a public responsibility, governments have at their disposal several options for ensuring that education imparted is of an acceptable quality without actually being the main provider of education. Publicly financed but privately provided education is one such option. Private management of public institutions is another. In addition, there are several mechanisms for financing private involvement in the education system. In other words, a case can be made for public finance in education, but the provision of schooling need not be public. Nevertheless, all innovative models should be rigorously evaluated.
 

Comments

Submitted by Steve Klees on
Public intellectuals have a long history of speaking out in the public interest about the issues of the day. Today we have a new phenomenon -- private intellectuals -- like Harry Patrinos, Michael Barber, and James Tooley -- who speak out against the public interest to promote the private market. Of course, they try to convince us that up is down and that market solutions in education are actually in the public interest. But what they offer is a superficial argument based on ideology, illogic, and biased evidence. Take the supply-side claim that “the private sector is stepping in to meet demand that the public sector is unable to meet.” This is linked to the common demand-side claim that “even some of the poor are voting with their feet by sending their children to fee-paying private schools instead of free public schools.” Supply meets demand in this happy tale of “expanded choice.” To the contrary, this is a story of restricted choice. Why is the public sector unable to meet demand? Why are some of the poor sending their children to private schools? Why? The answer is because for the last 30 years we have so decimated public education and other public services that, in many places, public schools have huge class sizes, untrained teachers, few learning materials, and dilapidated facilities. Nor are public schools free as local fees continue to be ubiquitous. Parents have fewer choices than ever before, and, in this context, it is not at all surprising that some send their children to a private school. But what is a rational private choice is far from the public interest. These private intellectuals would have us give up on our public schools, forget about what has given many nations a common heritage, a functioning democracy, and a multicultural environment. Of course, public schools have not been perfect at doing so, but turning education over to the private sector, as these private intellectuals advocate, is a great step backwards. Even with public regulation, private schools will offer much less of a common experience. And most importantly, they will further stratify the system into rich and poor. Public schools are far too stratified as is. But in every country that increases private education, that stratification is exacerbated. “Low cost education for the poor” simply increases stratification among the poor. Private intellectuals actually have a “solution” for this problem – as incredible as it is. After spending much of their intellectual capital recounting how reliance on the private market can be very innovative, efficient, and, yes, even equitable, they then turn around and want to finance their private market publicly! That is, they say let the government pay for people to go to private schools (although not pay enough to go to the wealthy private schools where they send their children). Well, which is it? They claim the inefficiency of government and the efficiency of the private sector. Yet they hold out their hands for government subsidies. And this is personal. I have become convinced that most private intellectuals do not think they should be paying much in the way of tax dollars for public schooling, and, if they have to, they should get a rebate from the government to subsidize the tuition at their children's wealthy private school. Decades of research overwhelmingly shows that private schools are generally no different nor any better than public schools. This may appear counter-intuitive, but that is because, in most countries, private schools get more advantaged students than public students. When research asks how would similar students do in the two environments, by controlling for background characteristics, public schools do as well as private schools (and as well as charter schools). The reason Patrinos and his private intellectual pals find differently is because they only look at research done by themselves and their supporters. The myopic and biased nature of World Bank research has been critiqued for decades for this very reason, and it continues without abatement. I challenge them to fully release the data they cite and to fully describe the methods they use, and I predict that even their own data can be reasonably used to argue the opposite of their conclusions. There is nothing innovative about cheap, low-cost education. Studies have shown that private schools are no more innovative than public schools, perhaps even less so. This blog by Patrinos was first published on the website of Pearson called Affordable Learning. Pearson is specifically oriented to making money by selling education. In whose interests are such solutions? Cheap solutions are no way to move us forward to the improvements education needs. Agencies like the World Bank have focused on private solutions over the long haul as a way of breaking the power of organized labor, that is, teacher unions. Look, for example, at the writing of Shanta Devarajan, World Bank Chief Economist for Africa, and see the contempt that the Bank has for teachers and their organizations. And this is directed much more broadly, as the Washington Consensus has long preached free markets and flexible labor, the latter a euphemism for shutting down unions. What we have is a bunch of true believer, free marketeers directing global education policy. We need the Human Development Network of the Bank, where Patrinos works, to re-evaluate its Learning for All 2020 Strategy. I, along with Joel Samoff of Stanford University and Nelly Stromquist of the University of Maryland, recently edited a book, with contributions of 14 scholars from around the world, on exactly that topic: The World Bank and Education: Critiques and Alternatives. Patrinos and the other private intellectuals would do well to read it. Steven J. Klees University of Maryland

Submitted by Jacob Carter on

Thank you for complicating this post, Prof. Klees. I would add that the notion of scarce resources is also debatable, if not a farce. The resources exist but are not being collected and allocated to strengthen public programs. To add to your examples about public/private performance, recent data from public and private schools in Guatemala indicate a negligible difference between the performance of high school graduates on both math scores and reading and writing indicators. Of course, a closer look at these numbers is needed to better understand the student population but the outcome is remarkable and requires discussion. The mantra, and associated supporting discourse and research, that private=better needs to be seriously questioned.

To add to the discussion, the notion of public and private have become ever more blurred as NGOs that are independent of the state and development aid are popping up to provide educational programming, interacting with the public sector in new ways. Of note is that these groups are not-for-profit organizations and many of them are, to a certain extent, coordinating with the state at the local and regional levels to support them in their efforts to deliver public services through an alternative route. My own research questions have to do with these interactions and I hope to be able to add to the discussion in the near future.

Jacob Carter
Center for International Education
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Submitted by Jacob Carter on

Thank you for complicating this post, Prof. Klees. I would add that the notion of scarce resources is also debatable, if not a farce. The resources exist but are not being collected and allocated to strengthen public programs. To add to your examples about public/private performance, recent data from public and private schools in Guatemala indicate a negligible difference between the performance of high school graduates on both math scores and reading and writing indicators. Of course, a closer look at these numbers is needed to better understand the student population but the outcome is remarkable and requires discussion. The mantra, and associated supporting discourse and research, that private=better needs to be seriously questioned.

To add to the discussion, the notion of public and private have become ever more blurred as NGOs that are independent of the state and development aid are popping up to provide educational programming, interacting with the public sector in new ways. Of note is that these groups are not-for-profit organizations and many of them are, to a certain extent, coordinating with the state at the local and regional levels to support them in their efforts to deliver public services through an alternative route. My own research questions have to do with these interactions and I hope to be able to add to the discussion in the near future.

Jacob Carter
Center for International Education
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

This is an interesting post. I can see why Tooley has been added to the list, though why this should also include Barber is unclear...
There are some interesting international trends, I believe. A pattern is emerging indicating that the source of the capital (and revenue) at a time of growth for education is not in itself the key feature of quality. What does seem to have impact is the combination of both even-handed, aspirational regulation and local decision-making. If the regulation is perceived as fair and is also able to recalibrate its metrics - for example, the way the inspection framework changes every so many years in the UK - then expectations can be raised consistently. This is essential for the second ingredient, local decision-making. If decisions can be made locally, then schools do develop the capability and, crucially, the mindset to make the changes. It may be that the local decision-making is both the key ingredient and the greatest variable. And it is startling to see the confident decision-making that seems to be emerging from local ownership in so many different education contexts. But there is a real danger in the organic change going on in some parts of the globe. There is a kind of shakeout going on that may lead eventually to a stable system. The danger is, local decision-making may be equally under threat from monolithic state regimes as heavy-handed corporate bodies.

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