Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Bill Gates gets poor marks for ignoring education"

That's the somewhat improbable title of a piece last week from The Guardian:

The new "big idea" in Gates's offering to the G20 is that schools should be thought of as "social enterprises". The private sector, so the argument runs, offers not just cheaper and better education, but a healthy profit for investors to boot. This replays a theme that Gates and "a billionaire boys' club" of Wall Street investors, philanthropists and education entrepreneurs brought to education debates in the US with debatable results.

There are two stand-out features associated with this. The first is a cavalier approach to evidence. Privatisation is not a hands-down winner in the research examining the quality of state schools versus private schools in developing countries. Secondly, like other philanthropists, Gates has tended to demonise "failing schools and teachers" while attaching limited attention to the more pervasive causes of educational under-achievement – child poverty, housing, parental education and rising inequality.

Whatever the merits of Gates's take on America's schools, applying his market-based strategy in the poorest countries is a prescription for social inequality. Education systems in these countries suffer from chronic under-financing and poor quality teaching. But if the system is broken the challenge is to fix the system, not to use it as a pretext for indulging in "market-based" education experiments that undermine the ability for good public policy to succeed. That is why more progressive philanthropic foundations – such as the Ratan Tata Trust and the ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth – are working to improve state schools, rather than to create a parallel private school system.

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