After reciting the familiar evidence on the learning achievement problems in poor countries, Justin Sandefur offers an even more familiar ‘one-stop’ solution – a market-based fix, with low-fee private schools, vouchers, and the apparently talismanic Pearson corporation leading the way  to a better, smarter future. It seems that only for-profit school providers and corporate entrepreneurs know the secret of raising education standards of marginalized kids in poor countries, and that public provision is part of the problem rather than part of a potential solution.
Nothing in the research cited by Justin makes the case for his prescriptions. Let’s start by being clear about our differences.
I admire Justin’s work. I also share many of his concerns. The learning crisis is one of the great development challenges of our day. And like Justin I want to see some bold new experiments in education – a sector paralyzed by the conservatism of aid donors, government indifference, and weak leadership from the UN and the World Bank.
In the event, Justin’s idea of a bold experiment turns out to be a rehash of voucher-scheme proposals first advocated by Milton Friedman  over half a century ago, mixed US-style Charter Schools , and Swedish free school  reform models.
I have no interest in defending the indefensible quality of public education provided in many of the poorest countries. But when public education systems are broken they need fixing, not bypassing or franchising out to the private sector. And if we care about equity, there is no credible alternative to a public system that offers opportunity for all rather than choice for some.
The twin crisis in education
Justin’s take on the 2015 education progress report suffers from an excess of charitable spirit. On his account poor countries get something like a B+ on access and an F on learning. The F is justified. The B+ is not.
There are currently around 61 million primary school age children out of school. Since 2005 progress towards universal primary education has slowed globally and stalled in sub-Saharan Africa, where out-of-school numbers are rising . Meanwhile, millions of children enter school only to drop out before completing a full primary school cycle.
The reason for the slow down, as highlighted in the 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report , is governments’ failure to tackle the inequalities based on wealth, gender and location that are keeping marginalized children out of school . The former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has called on Africa’s governments  to address these disparities by adopting targets for greater equity in education.
There is no escaping the extent of the learning achievement deficit. If anything, Justin understates the scale of the problem by focusing only on children who are in school.
Consider the case of Malawi. Just 41 per cent of Standard 6 children were able to achieve basic competency level for reading in the last regional learning assessment. The really bad news: over half of the school intake has dropped out by this stage.
Of the 126 million primary school age children in sub-Saharan Africa, around two-thirds are likely to enter adolescence unable to read, write or do basic numeracy, irrespective of whether or not they complete primary school. Research by Jishnu Das in India and Pakistan  suggests that close to one half of the children in these countries face the same prospect.
The implications of the learning crisis have not been taken on board by the development community. Quality education can break the cycle of poverty, narrow social inequalities and provide a foundation for dynamic, inclusive growth. But what passes for education now is a travesty. And in an increasingly inter-connected and knowledge-based global economy, low levels of learning achievement are a prescription for slow growth, youth unemployment, and more inequality across and within nations.
What is driving the crisis in learning? The causes are complex and vary across countries? Many of the children entering public education systems over the past decade arrived carrying huge handicaps, including household poverty, parental illiteracy and pre-school malnutrition – an affliction for around 175 million children. These are disadvantages that impact heavily on learning.
The school environment is another concern. Across much of sub-Saharan Africa, the pupil-teacher ratio exceeds 40:1 and there is less than one book for every three children. Overcrowding is typically worst in the early grades  where children from non-literate homes need most support.
The quality of teachers and teaching is one of the most critical school-based determinants of learning. Unfortunately, teacher absenteeism is rife. Many teachers lack subject knowledge. Trained to deliver teaching by rote, they are ill-equipped to deliver active learning. In-service support is lacking. To make matters worse, public education systems typically skew resources and the best teachers towards the most advantaged pupils, best-performing schools, and most prosperous regions.
The private sector rescue act
Justin builds his case for private sector solutions by attacking what he describes as myths, some of which bear a striking resemblance to straw men. He also offers a few myths of his own.
Take his claim that low-fee private schools are readily affordable to the poor. In fact, there is no shortage of research documenting the struggles of poor households to pay ‘low-fee’ providers. One village-level survey in rural western Uttar Pradesh, India, has found that low-fee schools are unaffordable to the poorest two quintiles, and that the growth of private provision has reinforced education inequalities linked to wealth, caste and gender . When asked, many of the parents paying for low-fee private school say that they would prefer the option of sending their children to a public school that offered decent education – a revealed preference that Justin ignores.
Evidence from urban informal settlements is equally compelling. In Lagos it costs the equivalent of around 10 per cent of the minimum wage to send one child to an approved low-fee private school . This is in a country where one third of households with children who have dropped out of school cite education costs as the reason for their non-attendance . In Kenya, Moses Oketch and others have highlighted the lack of access to public education for low-income households in informal urban settlements , leaving them with no choice other than to attend private schools. The resulting cost barriers are restricting progress towards universal primary education. The bigger question is this: why should we tolerate a state failure that leaves some of the world’s poorest households facing prohibitive user-fees to secure their children’s right to education?
What about ‘the myth’ that private schools perform no better than public schools. As far as I am aware, no credible commentator has ever questioned that there is a private-public school performance gap. The question is whether that gap disappears with the introduction of appropriate controls for differences in the school environment, student characteristics and the household environment.
Some of the evidence Justin presents on this is borderline slapstick. His Bridge school graph is taken from the company’s advertising pamphlet. The data, apparently drawn from ‘the early days’ of a study, has no controls for socio-economic status. Read the pamphlet though. It includes the following insightful observation from a Bridge School parent:
“My kids understand everything [at Bridge International] so well. It makes sense to them. They used to be confused. Now Danny knows all the answers; he loves to study”
And all for just US$4 a month!
To be fair to Justin, he does cite credible research. It’s just that the research evidence does not support his sweeping reform prescriptions. The important study by Jishnu Das and others on Pakistan documents significant public-private school performance gaps. But the authors explicitly caution against  assuming that the private sector can be scaled-up with no impacts on quality.
Justin’s co-authored paper on Kenya hardly lends weight to his preferred market-based policy option. The data provided measure the test score premium of all private schools (including high-cost schools serving the elite) over public schools up to 2005 in the Kenyan primary school leaving exam. Interestingly, the premium fell as the private school share in enrolment rose from 2003, suggesting that private providers struggled to maintain quality as they absorbed more children from poorer households. The wider point is that the surge in enrolment that followed the elimination of user-fees in 2003 brought over a million of the country’s most disadvantaged children into public schools, while those exiting to private schools came predominantly from less disadvantaged households.
Simple comparisons of private school fees and public school costs can also obscure another source of private advantage – namely, higher levels of per pupil spending. Recent survey data for 11 countries shows per capita spending on children going to private schools averaging six times the level for their public school counterparts.
Justin ends his blog with a sweeping appeal for more voucher schemes, US-style charter schools and Swedish-style free schools. This will be music to the ears of enthusiasts for Michael Gove’s  vision for education in the United Kingdom. Here, too, though Justin’s reverence for the private sector gets in the way of evidence-based argument.
Vouchers have been a near universal prescription for increased inequality in education, even in countries with a strong capacity for regulation. The best overview of the evidence is available here . There is no credible evidence that charter schools are raising standards or reducing education disparities in the United States. In fact, the only national-scale study, conducted by Stanford University, reported that only 17 per cent of charter schools out-perform matched neighborhood public schools . And the Swedish model that he apparently sees as the preferred market option has been criticized for increasing inequalities and lowering standards , with an influential business-funded pro-market think tank joining the critics .
There is an alternative
We could, of course, spend another blog post swapping evidence on the relative performance of public and private schools. But I doubt that Duncan will let us. And anyway it would be beside the point.
Perhaps we need to start out by admitting that there are no quick fixes. Private schools clearly have a role to play in achieving the education for all goals – and far more should be done to ensure that education strategies include a proper regulatory framework for private providers. Ultimately, though, governments need to take responsibility for fixing school systems that are failing
We know the strategies that can lead countries out of the low learning trap. This McKinsey report  has some powerful examples. Reform of teacher recruitment, training and support, the development of national learning assessment systems to identify failing schools and pupils, a stronger focus on pre-school provision and early grade teaching which are amongst the most important determinants of learning and future well-being, and more equitable public financing all have a role to play. As Barbara Bruns of the World Bank has documented, this is the public education reform path that Brazil has followed – and the country is now one of the world’s fastest climbers in the international learning assessment league table .
Now that’s what I call bold experimentation – and it has delivered results.
Photo Credit: Arne Hoel / World Bank 
This post was originally published on From Poverty to Power