Education wonkwar: the final salvo. Kevin Watkins responds to Justin Sandefur on public v private (and the reader poll is still open)

August 10, 2012

     By Duncan Green     

The posts are getting longer, so it’s probably a good time to call a halt, but at least you have the weekend to read Kevin Watkins‘ response to Justin kevin_blogSandefur on private v public education provision (and to vote – see below). If you have even more time, it’s worth reading (and relishing) the whole exchange: Justin post 1; Kevin post 1; Justin post 2 and now this.

Dear Justin

Thank you for the response. I’d also like to thank Duncan for setting up the discussion, along with the many people, on both sides of the debate, who have contributed their ideas and experiences. Whatever our differences, I think all of us share a conviction that decent quality education has the power to transform lives, expand opportunities, and break the cycle of poverty. There is no greater cause, or more important international development challenge, than delivering on the promise of decent quality education for all children.

Before I forget, let me add one personal note. Just between you and me, I never really suspected you of being a fifth-columnist for the Pearson Corporation, though you were a little over-exuberant in your treatment of their private school program. I also never had you down as chapter head of your local Milton Friedman revival society. My criticisms were directed at your advocacy for an education reform model based on vouchers, the transfer of public funding to for-profit private providers, and charter school-type arrangements for poor countries.

Unfortunately, your response reinforces many of my initial concerns. Same goals – different roadmaps You start by setting out three areas of agreement on goals and values. I’m happy to sign-up on all counts. Like you, I believe that governments have a responsibility to ensure that every child has an entitlement to free basic education and a chance to learn.  I also believe that equality of opportunity matters as an end in itself. What children are able to achieve in school should depend on their efforts and talents, not on the wealth of their parents, their gender, where they live, what language they speak or the color of their skin.

In the 2010 UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report we made the case for introducing equity based-targets into the Millennium Development Goal framework  – and I’m glad to say that this idea is gaining some traction. Where we differ is on the means to our shared ends. Like our blog contributor Ruth Nyambura from Kenya,  my starting point is that we should be focusing on how to improve the quality of provision in the public education system. Your starting point is that for-profit, low-fee private providers are a cost-effective alternative.

While I recognize the critical role that these schools play in delivering education for millions of poor people, I see them as a symptom of state failure – not as a foundation for the reform of national education systems. We may agree on the destination, but we have different road maps for getting there. Before turning to what I see as your misreading of the evidence, it strikes me that there is a wider question that we both need to reflect on.

Much of our debate focuses on school management. Of course, the issues are important. But I can’t help wondering whether the endless dialogue on ‘public-versus-private’ provision is diverting attention from far more important themes that affect education and learning outcomes – and from the policies that can make a difference.

Let me give a few examples. We know that one-in-every-three children in low income countries reach school age having experienced extreme malnutrition, most of them before the age of two. This has devastating and largely irreversible consequences for cognitive development of learning achievement in school.

This largely ignored crisis can be tackled through early childhood interventions – a point underlined by a recent randomized trial survey from a Save the Children program in Mozambique. If we want to get all children into a learning environment we need to reform public spending programs that skew resources towards schools in wealthier regions; and we need demand-side financing interventions – incentives for keeping girls in school and getting kids out of child labor – that break down the disadvantages associated with poverty, gender and other markers for disadvantage.

If we want to raise learning standards, surely the discussion should focus on how to recruit, train, remunerate and support teachers. One of the reasons that so many of the children in school are failing to learn is that teachers are ill-equipped to develop basic literacy and numeracy skills in the early years, setting the scene for failure. uwezoWithout wanting to develop a shopping list, I would add the accountability dimension. From central ministries down to classrooms, public sector education providers in poor countries are for the most part notoriously unaccountable to parents.

So are their low-fee private sector counterparts: the idea that a shift from public to private provision brings greater accountability is naïve. Civil society coalitions and non-government organizations have played a positive role in challenging the culture of impunity among education providers. In some cases – like UWEZO in east Africa and Pratham in India – they have done this by making available information on learning. In others they have supported the development of parent-teacher associations and used social accountability tools to hold providers to account.

And it strikes me that this empowerment aspect of reform merits greater attention. The narrow focus of the private-public debate in low income countries has a parallel in the United States. Here the ‘school reform’ movement appears to attribute 90 per cent of the crisis in public education to teachers, the absence of school choice, and school management issues, with 10 per cent attributed to poverty, social breakdown, and social disadvantage. As Dianne Ravitch has powerfully argued, they have the numbers back to front.

Evidence and ideology

Let’s get back to the evidence. You spend a fair bit of time defending your claim that charter schools, free schools and vouchers are delivering impressive results and contesting my counter-claim. Justin, let’s face it, you are scraping the barrel. A few weeks back The Economist ran a major piece claiming that charter schools in the US were dramatically out-performing public schools.

They also have over-exuberance issues. Like you, they challenged the methodology of the Stanford University CREDO survey – the one that found charter schools were twice as likely to under-perform as out-perform a matched neighborhood. And like you they allowed ideological preference to override the evidence. An independent review of the methodology found the CREDO study sound – and other robust research exercises for the United States broadly reflect the findings.

What about the wider evidence from developed countries on private schools? One survey from the OECD shows that some three-quarters of the learning achievement associated with private provisions disappears once schools are controlled for the socio-economic intake of pupils. The rest of the disadvantage disappears when public schools are allowed space for innovation, including some autonomy over the curriculum.

Rather than go around the houses swapping evaluation references, I invite readers to look at the sources we have provided on charter schools, private providers, Swedish free schools, and vouchers and make up their own minds. Whatever their take, I would make one cautionary observation. This is an area in which context and capacity matters. It is one thing to expand school choice within a high performing public system and a highly egalitarian society like Sweden, but the same policies are likely to produce very different outcomes in Nigeria or Ethiopia (or, for that matter, the United kingdom). Bear in mind also that no major developed country has resorted to voucher programs on any scale.

Back to Kenya

Having initially told us that poor people are readily able to afford low-fee schools, I’m glad that you now recognize this is not the case. I notice also that you do not contest the very low levels of learning achievement registered by for-profit, low-fee providers.

As you know, several studies have looked at the underlying sources of the lower per pupil cost of running low fee schools, and at the underlying sources of their relative performance. Almost the entire gain can be traced to two sources: lower teacher salaries and lower rates of absenteeism. Apart from the work of Jishnu Das and others in Pakistan and India, there is a dearth of research comparing low fee private school results with matched public schools (controlling for socio-economic background).

From a public finance perspective there are two relevant questions that have to be addressed. The first, as you say, is whether low-fee private schools deliver equivalent or better results at a lower cost.

The second concerns the capacity of low-fee schools to scale-up provision. You cite your co-authored paper on Kenya to answer both questions in the affirmative, claiming that presents decisive evidence of a low-fee school advantage.  I doubt it. Your data are from 2005. Most low-fee private schools operating in Kenya’s informal centers at this time were unregistered. Their pupils took exams in public schools – and they were reported as public school scores (I stand to be corrected on this).

Moreover, your median student was paying US$40 a year at a time when, according to the same Kenya Household Budget Survey that you use, half of Kenya’s population was living on less than US$38 a month. At this income level, sending two kids to a low-fee school would have cost 20 per cent of an adult income, before counting the costs of uniforms and books. How many people living below that threshold were paying US$40 a 

education africa 2year for private education? Bear in mind also, that most of the 2 million new entrants into Kenya’s education system since 2003 have been absorbed into the public school system. Given that these children come from the most disadvantaged homes in the country, there are inevitable consequences for learning achievement levels.

In the UK, DfID is considering supporting low-fee private schools in urban slums. My hope is that they will review carefully the underlying evidence on cost and performance.

I hope that they will look also at evidence on the condition of low-fee private schools in informal settlements. Some of the schools I have visited in Kibera and Mukuru lacked toilets and clean water, along with textbooks. Moses Oketch and his colleagues have provided a detailed – and disturbing – assessment of learning conditions in low-fee schools in informal settlements.

As I understand it, the DfID view is that the Kenyan government is unable to scale up provision of public education in informal slum areas – hence the decision to support low-fee providers. Sorry, but I just don’t buy it. Kenya’s failure to deliver decent quality education to slum dwellers and poor rural areas in the north-east has nothing to do with capacity or financing, and everything to do with political leadership.

While we are on the subject of Kenya I was struck by your comment about the government’s decision, in your words, to ‘penalize private school graduates in secondary school admission’. I assume that you are referring here to the law requiring that a majority of the places in Kenya’s elite national secondary schools must go to students from public primary schools.

As you know, entry to National schools, which are public, has traditionally been dominated by pupils from high-cost private schools. Private schools accounted for 120 of the top 130 schools in the last Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) results, and for over half of National School entrants.

This is an arrangement that has served Kenya’s elite very nicely thank you. The ability of rich households to pay for good quality private primary education has provided their children with access to high-quality, public-financed secondary education. Incidentally, per pupil expenditure in Kenya’s secondary schools is seven times higher than in primary education.

While I also have some reservations about the design of the quota policy, surely some affirmative action is consistent with a commitment to equal opportunity.

The road ahead

As I said earlier, this is really a debate about pathways to the shared goals that you outline. You start from the premise that private sector provision can provide a powerful impetus for reform, while recognizing the need for caution and making it clear that you do not favour ‘mass privatization’. I accept that the private sector and non-state actors have a critical role to play in education – but question the degree to which low-fee private schools can deliver the results we both want to see. Some of the comments on our posts were a bit over-polemical for my taste.

In your sign-off you pick up on a somewhat eccentric offering from James Stansfield, a member of the Adam Smith Institute and lecturer in education at Newcastle University (as you probably know, he and his colleague James Tooley do not share your reservations about mass privatization).  Mr Stanfield appears to believe that private education is a fundamental human right – and that states have a commensurate responsibility to protect that right.

Rising to his theme,  you cite the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (no less) to imply that I am bent on ‘taking away kids’ human rights /to education/ based on an ideological opposition to the private sector’.

Call me defensive, but I think this is getting a bit desperate. I hope that we can agree that, whatever our differences over approaches to reform, we are both committed to the right to education.  For the record, I have no reservations about supporting the right of parents to send children to whatever school they choose.

The real debate here is about whether transferring public money to for-profit private providers will help or hinder the development of education systems that offer all parents the freedom to choose schools to deliver decent learning. When public provision fails, middle-class households can opt-out and exit to the high-quality private sector. That option is not available to the vast majority of poor households – and vouchers will not change this picture.

Does this rule out partnerships between state and non-state providers? Of course not. In some contexts – South Sudan and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are cases in point – non-government, not-for-profit providers provide the backbone of education provision. Donors should be supporting them far more actively.

In Pakistan, state failure in education is so pervasive and low-fee private schools are so prevalent, that there are obvious efficiency and equity gains from ‘buying-in’ delivery while fixing the underlying failure.  Every situation is different. And governments and donors need to consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of the non-state delivery options available. education-pakistan-edu

Optimists and pessimists

You suggest that I am overly-optimistic about the scope for reform of under-performing education systems. Maybe you’re right. Then again, maybe you’re too pessimistic. You are certainly too selective in your reading of the evidence. I cited the McKinsey Report because it provides examples of countries which, from a very low base, have simultaneously improved access, raised learning achievement and enhanced equity.

For some obscure reason, you decided to focus on the parts of the report covering Lithuania, England and Singapore, which are all irrelevant in the context of our debate. The case studies on Ghana, Madhya Pradesh and Western Cape illustrate the types of reform that have delivered results.

The real starting point for a debate on the learning crisis in low-income countries should be teachers and teaching. Few of the teachers that I have met in developing countries choose to be ineffective. They are products of the education systems in which they operate. Many have the weak subject knowledge and learning skills that come with a poor quality education. They are poorly trained. They frequently have limited access to information to assess what their children are learning against benchmark standards; and they seldom receive in-service support to help them improve their teaching methods. In many cases, they are also poorly paid and living in challenging environments. And all too often teachers are unaccountable to parents.

The institutional failures behind these and other problems can be addressed – but not through the type of model favoured by some advocates for low-fee schools. Much of the per-pupil cost advantage in these schools comes from the far lower levels of teacher remuneration they provide. Scaling up this model implies cutting average teacher salaries.

Adopting this approach at a time when governments need to increase teacher recruitment, raise the quality of new entrants to the profession, and improve learning standards is surely self-defeating.

I suspect that everyone who has participated in this debate shares a sense of outrage and frustration at the state of basic education in developing countries. Every time I visit a slum or a poor rural village in Africa or Asia I’m struck by the level of ambition, resolve and commitment demonstrated by desperately poor people trying to get their kids a decent education.  And I leave wondering what we have to do to get their political leaders to demonstrate similar qualities.

If our shared goal is to deliver quality and equitable basic education for all, transferring responsibility and public finance to low-fee and, for the most part, low quality private providers is not the answer.

And that, for the moment, is it, with huge thanks to Justin and Kevin for a really top quality debate (even if they can’t write to anything approaching blog length). Keep voting, and if the authors want to slug it out for the last word, they will have to join the rest of you in the comments section. [poll id=”14″]]]>