Interesting rhetoric from Rising Academies (part of the private school movement in developing countries), on the WDR2018 report

From Paul Skidmore of Rising Academies:

The report strikes a surprisingly cautious note on the potential contribution of private schools. Surprising in part because I had been reliably informed that the World Bank was secretly a vast conspiracy to push the privatization agenda of its paymasters in Big Edu(TM), but more because this seems to be one area where the Report seems to depart from what the evidence actually says. For example, the Report claims “there is no consistent evidence that private schools deliver better learning outcomes than public schools” and that such evidence as exists “may conflate the effects of private schools themselves with the effects of the type of students who enroll in private schools.” Far be it from me to question the authors’ interpretation of the literature (he says, preparing to do precisely that) but on the first claim it would seem that there is at least moderate evidence that private schools out-perform public schools, and that this performance advantage is mediated but not wholly eliminated when you control for observable student characteristics. But anyway, this minor quibble just goes to show that those of us who believe there is a complementary role for non-state school operators need to do a better job of building our evidence base. And the central claim of this part of the report – that “overseeing private schools may be no easier than providing quality schooling” – speaks to the fact that whether as a partner in initiatives like Partnership Schools for Liberia, or just as a regulator of private schools, we are talking about government as an enabling state, not a smaller state.

About the claim: “there is at least moderate evidence that private schools out-perform public schools.” I wish there had been more contextualization (all over the world? in developing countries? when private are for-profit? when private are parochial? are Islamic madrasas and Koranic schools also “private education”? do they out-perform public education? on all/most dimensions of learning?).  Why not just say, “In Liberia the private schools supported by Rising Academies seem to be performing as well as public schools, at similar costs to the government.”

On these general claims about private education, I sometimes also wonder whether the costs include the overhead costs and outside funding… or is it like Grameen, where the cost accounting sometimes excluded all the grants and implicit subsidies?  And the future costs of the private owners someday trying to cash in on their investment.  At FAVL for example when we report (as we do occasionally) costs of establishing and operating community libraries in Burkina Faso, we never include the opportunity cost of my own time, as volunteer director, and yet that could be important for scalability.  As others have pointed out, this is akin to the tongue-in-cheek Duflo-Banerjee problem… lots of the non-profits evaluated in Poor Economics are/were run by high-performing “friends of DB.”

Obviously it is just a blog post so I am not saying Skidmore should have a 200 page report instead with footnotes.

I have no particular dog in the private-public education race in developing countries.  Houndé, in Burkina Faso, has an pretty good government lycée and also a good private secondary school.  Burkina Faso has seen a huge growth in private post-secondary institutions that is responding to a demand for higher education, and delivering good quality. There is room for both.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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