By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009 6:40 AM
Memphis high-tech entrepreneur Bob Compton, producer of the stirring documentary "Two Million Minutes," has been suggesting, in his genial way, that I am a head-in-the-sand ignoramus. This is because I panned his film as alarmist nonsense for suggesting, based on profiles of a grand total of six teenagers, that the Indian and Chinese education systems were superior to what we have here in the much-beleaguered United States. When we debated the issue on CNBC, Bob told me I should get on a plane and see for myself instead of relying on my memories of living in Asia in the 1970s and 1980s and my reading of recent work by other reporters.
Sadly, even in the days when The Washington Post was flush with cash, there was no money to send the education columnist abroad. But I am happy to report I don't have to go because an upcoming book from education scholar James Tooley goes much deeper into the Chinese and Indian school systems than Bob or I ever have, and takes my side. Tooley shows that India and China, despite their economic successes, have public education systems that are, in many ways, a sham.
Tooley's book, "The Beautiful Tree," reveals him to be the kind of traveler who often strays off the main roads, driving official escorts crazy. He covers not only China and India, but also Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. He wants to discover how the world's poorest people are educating themselves, and surprises himself repeatedly.
His story began in 2000 with a commission from the World Bank's International Finance Corp. to study private schools in a dozen developing countries. The British scholar went to India first, staying in five-star hotels and evaluating the well-funded, exclusive urban private schools for the elite that so impressed Bob Compton. Tooley was restless, however. It bothered him that the schools he examined were getting international assistance despite serving mostly affluent families. He decided to explore the slums of the city of Hyderabad, and discovered back alleys full of a very different species of private school. They were tiny enterprises in converted private homes. They catered to the children of day laborers, rickshaw pullers, peddlers and mechanics. The parents earned only about a dollar a day but were willing to spend two dollars a month to send their children to these makeshift mini-academies.
Tooley wanted to know why. There were free public schools with well-trained, well-paid teachers available to these parents. The problem, the parents told him, was that unlike the little private schools for the poor, which did their best to earn what the parents paid them, the public schools seemed set up for the convenience of teachers, not students or their families. Tooley said parents told him, "Teachers partied at [the public] schools, . . . or taught only one class out of six. . . . But aren't the teachers well-trained? I asked. Yes, they might be very good at studying but they are not very good at teaching."
Could this be? Tooley toured one of the public schools the parents were avoiding. "Upstairs, the first class we visited had 130 students cramped together, all sitting on the floor, there being no desks or chairs anywhere in the school. The teachers are absent today, I was told apologetically," he wrote.
Tooley has since organized large studies of private schooling for the poor, a phenomenon that has escaped much scholarly attention. His 2004 effort to launch such research in China brought him to the back roads of Gansu, one of the poorest provinces. He was told that there were NO private schools in the province, such things being against government policy. With the help of a resourceful Chinese graduate student at Newcastle University, where Tooley was teaching, he wandered off again into places scholars do not go, and found plenty of little private schools like those in India.
These informal schools were often started by young peasants with educational ambitions who could not qualify for, or afford, college. They saw private teaching in their homes as a way to spread literacy, gain local prestige and earn extra money. One of the schools Tooley visited charged $2.25 a term and had 52 students, 38 girls and 14 boys. The overabundance of females stemmed from the fact that although there was a government-run school in the area, it charged four times as much, so families followed the old custom of spending precious cash on educating only their sons.
When Tooley reported his findings to the provincial education bureau in hopes of getting permission to do a full survey of private schooling, the official in charge reacted in a way that was familiar to me. China is very different from what it was when I was the Post correspondent there 30 years ago, but the old bureaucratic traditions live on. The Gansu official regarded Tooley coolly and said, "We will need to be convinced that there is a research project to be done. In your case, it is hard to see how this is possible because the People's Republic of China has achieved universal basic education. This means that public education serves all the poor as well as the rich. So there are no private schools for the poor, because the People's Republic has provided all the poor with public schools. So what you propose to research does not only not exist, it is also a logical impossibility."
That adventure ended happily, at least for Tooley and those of us with hopes for the new China. Tooley's graduate student, needing the research for his doctoral thesis, used his own connections in the bureaucracy and bypassed the recalcitrant official. The study went forward, revealing at least 586 private schools for the poor in Gansu province.
"The Beautiful Tree" is too rich to summarize adequately, but this is what I got out of it: Bob Compton found some excellent science and math schools in India and China, but he barely nicked the surface of the way those countries teach most of their children. American public schools have many flaws, but anyone who reads Tooley's book will never again consider trading what we have here for what passes for universal education in the world's two most populous nations.