The NY Times published an op-ed article written by Tina Rosenberg entitled, “Where Private School is not a Privilege”, which describes how private school education is both free and accessible in many developing countries. Even though it is located in the “opinion” section, this article pretty much just relays the facts about emerging private school systems in developing countries, namely schools created and run by one company, BRAC. The article is fantastic. But even more fantastic is the fact that BRAC (and other entrepreneurs of education) even exists.

My post here is really to just summarize the highlights in hopes that all education enthusiasts will take a serious look at these methods. Obviously many of the methods and practices are not wholly compatible with Western educational systems and educational expectations, but the attitudes which have driven these new methods into existence are 150% applicable and necessary, if we are serious about improving our local school systems.

BRAC is a non-profit institution that started out in Bangladesh and is spreading rapidly to other countries. It is funded in part by humanitarian donors from large, rich countries, but mostly through the various businesses and stocks the company has acquired on its journey:

Dairy farmers needed milk chilling stations, so BRAC built them; BRAC dairy now has 22 percent of Bangladesh’s milk market. BRAC’s programs needed Internet connections; BRACnet is now one of the country’s largest Internet service providers.

BRAC’s mission: to education very rural, very poor, populations in developing countries by addressing all of the obstacles that prevent these communities from attending school, directly. While issues like affordability and access are well-established inhibitors to education in a developing country, less well-known factors include racial or ethnic discrimination, sexism and sexual harassment  as well as various forms of abuse from male teachers. Rosenberg sums up these basic improvements:

Teachers are female. The schools aggressively recruit girls, who make up two-thirds of the student body. Ethnic minorities study in their own language for the first few years; disabled children receive free surgery and medical devices. Each village has a school; “the school goes to the children; the children don’t come to the school,” said Safiqul Islam, BRAC’s director of education.

The general aura of a BRAC school is of the Montessori-mold – fewer grades, fewer standardized tests, and tons of focus on individual improvement. Teachers in these schools give their kids regular tests, but rarely let the students view their scores – instead, teachers use the scores to assess where their methods are strong or weak and what concepts individual students are struggling with.  

BRAC selects teachers from the local communities and give them two weeks of training before the school year begins. While BRAC sometimes comes under fire for hiring women who teach through song and dance, rather than rote memorization and textbooks, and who have less than a high school diploma, but BRAC insists that quality teachers are not always those with the highest degrees and formal training.

Additionally, BRAC schedules each school’s academic year and day based on the work schedules of the community. Days are short – only three or four hours, and they are respectful of the harvest and planting seasons in these communities – many of which rely on agriculture as the major industry.

Perhaps most crucially, is the long-term student-teacher bond: teacher’s work with the same group of students from 1st grade until 5th grade. When that batch of students graduates and moves onto secondary school, the teachers begin anew with a new set of students. I can’t underline this point enough – consistent student-teacher interaction necessarily makes the group more cohesive and likely makes the curriculum more interesting for the teacher to teach. 

Early returns are very positive – BRAC students graduate the 5th grade at 97%, compared with only 67% of public school children. They perform better on tests and generally have confidence and interest in school – all of which are intangible qualities that set these children up for success once they enter government-run secondary schools.

All in all, I think we can learn a lot about how to make education work by molding it to our communities, rather than trying to mold our communities to the educational system. Rather than trying to streamline all communities to fit one cultural/educational model, each school specifically addresses and incorporates the culture, industry, practices, strengths and weaknesses of the community the school serves. The result is a more integrated, practical, and inclusive school model which is not only more successful, but more popular and more respected within the community.