Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Beautiful Tree by James Tooley

Since I could not sustain my curiosity of reading this book, I bought it and finished reading it. It is one of the best books I have ever read on the subject of education. As the signature line says, it’s the “personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves.’ Thanks to James Tooley, the author of the book for his brave attempt to bring in some of the ignored realities across the nations. Without his radical thinking and self motivated efforts, he would not have found out an alternative that already existed to the current public education system.

James’s dedicated efforts and brilliant research in India, Nige­ria, Ghana, Kenya and China chal­lenged some of his pre­vi­ously held beliefs about the impor­tance of improv­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion in the devel­op­ing world. Con­trary to the insis­tences of pol­i­cy­mak­ers, bureau­crats, and development experts, James found that there are very many low-cost pri­vate schools oper­at­ing in even extremely poor areas.  I could very much relate to this because of my own experience and the places I grew up during my childhood. Places were filled with private schools (they used to call ‘convent’ schools). Even if they do not teach anything in English, they were named as ‘English’ Schools. After reading this book, it became very evident that it’s the same case with all the developing countries. The objective is to give ‘Education’ to all and the only option for the poor is to opt for the free education at the government schools. But parents and children across the countries are also concerned about having alternative options and the quality of education at the government schools. As James writes, “The poor engage in self-help and vote with their feet,” leaving the state services for self-funded and self-created alternatives.

James begins his journey in India and takes us on an unbelievable journey to the East Asia and African countries. He closely observes the efforts of poor communities in education, and finds competent, committed entrepreneurs in slums who have started schools in two-room apartments as well as entire buildings, catering primarily to lowest income neighborhood children. In his stories of these schools, he explores the young, passionate teachers, inspiring entrepreneurs, and self evolved teaching models that work to ensure that students are engaged and learning. A large number of the schools James surveys are unrecognized, since getting the permissions required for a license remain highly cumbersome. Yet he finds that even among the unrecognized private schools, average teacher attendance, and English and math proficiency surpass the apathetic government school system.

Although the existing system tries to give free education for the poor, it is inaccessible for a large mass of people. And in some countries it is expensive (requirements like uniforms, books, transport) compared to other private schools in the community. In our case in India, the universal education has been historically sidelined in government budgets, and school policy has suffered in the tug of war between the center and the states. And if such state-funded education has suffered from politics or bad policy, the only alternative we see is the explosion of private schools.

It was a very moving experience to read the stories of his journey to these countries and the way he achieved his vision. It was also deeply disturbing to know that so called development experts, the funding agencies and the government were not very helpful for James to carry out his research. All of them resisted him to perform this research in their countries. Sadly, none of them were even aware that the private schooling is creating such a huge impact in their own countries. Every person James meets with in any of the countries he visited kept repeating the same statement again and again – “there are no private schools for the poor. Private schools are only for rich people”. Some of them were even rude to him as well. Without making all those enemies, James could not have become closer to many others who were in need of his wonderful work. Well, what was discovered later was something miraculous.

It was delightful to read the chapter ‘The Men Who Uprooted The Beautiful Tree’. I was even more thrilled to know that the expression The Beautiful Tree was coined by Mahatma Gandhi. Starting with Gandhi and his efforts in making education available for all, James tells us stories about all those philosophers and thinkers in the past and made a world of a difference to the education system. I was also kind of surprised to learn that Dr. Andrew Bell in the 18th century learned from a school in Madras (now Chennai) region on how a community can self-educate themselves. He called it as the ‘Madras Method’ and published about the same. He was so impressed with this method that he returned to London in 1797 and published the description of his ‘Madras Method’. Following that, he was in great demand to introduce the system in British Schools. By 1821, 300,000 children were being educated under this method. His ideas were adopted around the Europe, and as far away as the West Indies and Bogota, Columbia. And eventually this method did so much to raise the educational standards across the world. The chapter ends of course with Macaulay’s accomplishments and his greatest contributions ever to the field of Education with some unbelievable statistics.

The last chapter deals with the potential solutions for all the challenges on hand. Some of them, includes, Milton Friedman’s voucher system and James’ discovery of alternative low-cost private education. To achieve 100% universal education for all by 2015, as one can understand from the book, countries need not depend only on the public education. They have a lot of alternative ways to look at it. Some of the problems that they need to address include dysfunctional/inaccessible public schools, educational quality and reliability on the system. What James proposes and also experimented in a smaller groups (of course ensuring complete care while implementing) are as under:
  • To extend the private schools to created targeted vouchers for the poorest 
  • The schools (private) can cash these vouchers from the agency providing them ensuring they are sustained and work more towards earning more vouchers by creating good name by providing good education. 
  • Furthermore the targeted vouchers can also include supplements for textbooks and even midday meals, to allow poorest to have the education that the wealthier-of-the-poor parents can afford.
James has given a very detailed explanation on all the potential solutions in the last chapter and also has worked on the potential objections that may arise out of them. But like what he says in the end “Even as things stand now, with current levels of aid funding and without touching any government funds currently being spent on public education, so with no need to reform and public finance, I reckon we could afford to send every out-of-the-school child to private school”.

It surely is an inspiring journey into the lives of families and teachers in the poorest communities who have successfully created their own private schools in response to the failed public education. James Tooley with his outstanding efforts of growing ‘the beautiful tree’ has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The book is a delightful read and gives a lot of hope.

Author: James Tooley
Pages: 302
Publisher: Cato Institute
Published: April 2009



Sudhi said...

This sounds very interesting!

It is difficult to believe that there are private schools for poor.

I think James Tooley has done a great job.

Vibha said...

Visiting your blog from BookReviews and quite liked the experience here. I especially liked how you have quoted the excerpts from the books that you have been reading. Good idea.