Reinventing Education in Kenya

If you need a clear sign that new ideas are needed to save public education in Kenya, look no further than Tuesday’s announcement by U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger that the United States is suspending almost $7 million in aid to the Kenyan ministry of education until fraud in the Free Public Education program is addressed.

That seven-year-old program brought an influx of previously disenfranchised students into the national education system, but in the process created as many problems as it solved: class size rose, teacher recruitment stalled, and the program became dependent on outside donations from foreign governments and international organizations. That’s before you even reach the corruption that has siphoned off almost $1.5 million, or the program’s doubtful educational results.

A new venture called Bridge International Academies is reinventing the model for education in Kenya by taking a page from franchise-based corporations.

Bridge International Academies
Father dropping off a child at a Bridge International Academy school with a “barn” style roof for air ventilation, an innovation in an area where many buildings have no windows or air vents. Credit: Bridge International Academies.

Bridge is rigorously studying and evaluating how to deliver the best quality education to Kenyan primary-school students at the lowest possible cost, but the most innovative aspect of their program is that they are examining every aspect of opening and running a school with an eye toward replication, so that new schools can be opened, many at a time, of a consistently high quality.

“Everything we do is done with the plan to scale to thousands of schools,” one of Bridge’s founders, Shannon May, told me. “Like other successful, large-network or franchise-based corporations, we are resolutely data-driven and process-oriented in order to achieve our mission. … We know of no other organization that is putting together what we call the entire school-in-a-box: all the systems and processes, from land acquisition and construction, to curriculum development and teacher training, to educational performance monitoring and evaluation, to school management training and auditing, to financing and accounting systems.

Bridge was founded in 2007 by three Americans: Jay Kimmelman, the entrepreneur behind the software company EduSoft, which helps U.S. public schools analyze student-performance data; Phil Frei, a technologist whose last venture enabled Malawian farmers to reduce the amount of wood they consumed in curing tobacco (Malawi’s chief export), thus combating deforestation; and Shannon May, an anthropologist who specializes in sustainable development. Together they have assembled a social-enterprise project that borrows techniques from business and social science to create a network of high-quality schools that remain accountable to parents.

So far, the results are promising. Three weeks ago, Bridge opened five new schools at once (they opened their first two, one at a time, in 2009), and average enrollment is already 119—a sign that parents have found reason to prefer Bridge schools to the more established private schools in the area. Early testing shows that Bridge students are substantially outperforming their peers across Nairobi in core reading and math skills. According to May, these students are even closing the achievement gap in English reading performance with students of the same age in the United States.

Rigorous evaluation, which international development projects sometimes shortchange, is a central part of Bridge’s model. (For more about how social-science analysis can make development and anti-poverty efforts more effective, watch Esther Duflo’s 2009 PopTech talk.) To measure educational and financial success, Bridge sets ideal costs for buying land and building schools, costs and schedules for hiring and training teachers and school managers (who are also hired locally), standards for teaching and teacher oversight, and standards for student performance. Bridge uses “direct instruction” to maintain a rigorous and consistent education in independently administered schools, scripting each class carefully so that, according to May, “we know exactly what is being taught at any given minute in the classroom, and exactly how it is being taught.”

Bridge International Academies
Inside of a classroom with engaged students. Credit: Bridge International Academies.

To reduce corruption, Bridge runs what it calls a cashless school. All payments, incoming and outgoing, including payroll for all kinds of workers (teachers, school managers, construction workers), money for construction materials and school materials, and receipts of school fees, are made through the M-PESA mobile-phone payment system or Equity Bank. Signs in schools remind teachers and parents that Bridge employees should never ask for money, with a phone number for reporting violations. Off site, Bridge staff members use regular attendance reports to double-check that no student’s fees are diverted.

Can poor families afford these fees? A family pays 295 Kenyan shillings a month to send a child to a Bridge school. That’s less than $4, or about one day’s pay—usually the cheapest option, or among the cheapest ones, available in a given area. And relying on parents rather than outside organizations for funding makes the project more sustainable, reduces opportunities for corruption by shortening the path between funder and school, and above all, makes the schools accountable to parents above all others.

“By running [Bridge] as a for-profit, the target population is changed from a beneficiary to a customer, and in that change they gain all the power,” says May. “It is the customer that can keep us in or put us out of business. It is the customer, our parents, who are in charge, and that is exactly how we want it.”

Parents are willing to pay for their children to attend Bridge schools, says May, because just walking past the school they can see evidence of the quality of the enterprise. These signs of quality may seem modest by our standards, but they are significant: Children are in class during class time. Teachers are in class, too, and they are actively teaching. Lessons are interactive, with frequent responses from students. “From the parents’ perspective,” says May, “this means that there is never a time they walk by a classroom and see a teacher wondering what to write on the board, or confused about the correct answer to a problem, or sitting at their desk while the students ‘self-study.’”

In December, Omidyar Network gave Bridge International Academies a $1.8 million grant [updated February 1, 2010] equity investment (which will be repaid along with additional returns) to scale up its network of schools. Seven schools exist so far; in May, between five and ten more will open. After that, Bridge hopes to launch at least ten schools at a time and very quickly start launching 20 to 30 schools at a time. Within five to eight years, Bridge intends to open hundreds of schools annually and expand into other parts of Kenya and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of establishing 1,800 schools by 2015. Crystal Hutter, the investment lead for Omidyar Network, says that if the program succeeds, it could serve as a model for other parts of the world and other areas of social enterprise. -- Joshua J. Friedman is a writer in New York City. He is a former editor of The Atlantic and Boston Review.

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