Low-cost private schools are good, but only as long as they adopt mother-tongue as the medium of instruction.
Encouraged by articles on education on libertarian blogs such as CATO@Liberty, I procured a copy of The Beautiful Tree, a much acclaimed new book written by Prof. James Tooley and published by the CATO Institute, Washington D.C.
Tooley's research and field work shows that the world's poorest people are turning to private schools even when free government schools exist (yes, Kannadigas are among the world's poorest people as are other Indians, the Chinese, as well as the usual suspects in Africa). While the central point of the book is well taken, the book is disappointing when it comes to the issue of medium of instruction. While educationists are shouting at the top of their voice that mother-tongue is best, Tooley expresses no disappointment and takes no action about the fact that these private schools are mostly run in the English medium.
That the poor are turning to private schools certainly appears counterintuitive, as the book argues, since the poor are expected to be poor and incapable of paying for private schooling! Tooley shows that this conventional wisdom is being proven wrong the world over, as parents understand the importance of schooling and are unwilling to send their children to low-quality government schools.
Tooley gives empirical evidence that private schools are better than government schools, and that the poor worldwide are turning to the former and dumping the latter. He argues that government schools suffer from many ills such as absentee teachers, distant teachers (both geographically and socially), poor conditions, low standards, and failure to even reach the poor. Those who have ever taken a peek into government schools in Karnataka don't need to be told these things. Yes, these things are a given in government schools. Private schools, on the other hand, solve nearly all the above problems simply because the school is accountable to the parents who actually pay for its services.
So far, so good.
My grouse about the book began when I realized that the author neglects the fact that the private schools he loves so much have all dumped mother-tongue education in open defiance of the very basics of effective education. I see no disappointment in him while he observes that most of these schools are run in the English medium. Tooley seems to be least concerned about this crucial aspect of education. In fact, he is even appreciative of this decadence because he observes that it seems to be what parents want (English medium). While government schools offer that which parents apparently do not want (Mother-tongue medium), Tooley argues, it is private schools which offer what they want. It is here - in talking about the medium of instruction - that I'm afraid Tooley ceases to be an educationist; instead, he appears only to be an advocate of free-market economics irrespective of whether the people who want or don't want things know what their liberty means to them at all.
Libertarians need to explain why they questioned the judgment of American schoolchildren when Barack Obama addressed them recently. If libertarian thought basically takes what the public says as gospel truth, why did they question the judgment of schoolchildren? And how can they not question the judgment of parents when it comes to medium of instruction, especially when there is a sea of scientific evidence that shows that mother-tongue education is best? Why didn't they leave the children to decide for themselves what to learn from Barack Obama and what not, irrespective of what he planned to say during the address? Why bother to fight to get portions of his planned address edited out? If the answer is that they're only children, I would argue that those parents (mostly illiterate themselves) who do not understand the importance of mother-tongue education are only children too - when it comes to these matters. Why is puberty being used as the dividing line between those whose wants can be taken at face value and those whose wants' validity can be questioned? Utterly illogical - once you see that there is equal illiteracy on both sides of this artificial dividing line.
Also, Tooley's research hasn't even scratched the surface of what parents really want. Will they really want English medium education if say Kannada medium education was good enough and promised a fruitful career? I have no doubt that the answer is no. Tooley's fieldwork is left wanting in this respect - he does not ask this question; he does not question the judgment of those parents at all. That's being 100% libertarian, alright, but is that being an educationist?
In reality, private schools exist in the darkest of slums in the world today because they are run in the English medium, and because illiterate parents are unable to differentiate between good education and English. To them, a few words of English learnt by their children suffices as proof of good education - because of the imperial history of these people and the general eulogization of everything western / european. What is this, if it is not an open defiance of the laws of science? Given this, the fact that the world's poorest people are turning to private schools - which provide English medium education - is really not so counterintuitive after all!
Note that I am not denying the ills of government schools, or that those ills accelerate parent movement towards private schools. Far from it. Of course government schools have all the problems which Tooley points out, and of course low-cost private schools make sense. I'm only pointing out that a true educationist needs to know where to draw the line when it comes to accepting everything people say as gospel truth. Rectifying the thinking of people is what education is all about. If you consider everything people already know as gospel truth, what's the point in a school?
Also, there is a reason why governments run schools in the remotest of rural areas: private schools cannot sustain themselves there. If private enterprise could have entered those rural areas and displaced government schools, it would have already happened. Despite all their ills, only governments are able to provide any sort of education in those areas. Even to this date, 69% of all schools in Karnataka are directly run by the government, and a further 14% of all schools require government aid to run (source: http://schooleducation.kar.nic.in/sch0708.html). If the government of Karnataka were to pull out of education today, 83% of Karnataka's schools would have to be shut down, with no private enterprise picking up this market share. There is a reason, too, why the government runs Kannada medium schools in Karnataka: it is impossible to find enough teachers to educate Kannadigas in the English medium (not that it is scientifically the best thing to do even if it's possible). Also, it is impossible for Kannadigas to be educated in the English medium effectively - and that's one stone from the mountain of evidence available about the effectiveness of mother-tongue education.
Lastly, the very thesis that developing countries are doing the right thing when it comes to education is laughable. Why should Karnataka turn to Somalia or Nigeria to understand what's the right thing to do? Why should Karnataka not learn from developed countries such as those in Europe and the US itself - where schools are run predominantly by the government? Sure, even there the ills of government schools surface; but Karnataka would become heaven overnight (okay, relatively - compared to what it is today) if its government can rise from the darkness and corruption it currently languishes in to making the mistakes which the government of say Sweden or Texas or California makes when it comes to education. It would be a great graduation if the government of Karnataka can stop making the fatal mistakes it is making today and start making the mistakes which the governments of developed countries make! Why should developing states learn from how the poorest people in the world are educating themselves, and not look up to how the richest people in the world are educating themselves?
In summary, educationists cannot overlook the scientific fact that mother-tongue education is best, even if that's what the public wishes to do (there isn't sufficient evidence that that's their wish, either). Also, public opinion - when it contradicts science - cannot be taken for granted by educationists, whether they're libertarian or non-libertarian. Thus, it makes no sense to accelerate the proliferation of low-cost English-medium private schools anywhere in Karnataka or indeed, anywhere in the developing world (which mostly speaks no European tongue). Those low-cost private schools have to be run in the mother-tongue medium to be effective and to be compliant with the basic laws of the science of education.
Note: I'll follow up with another post on the term Beautiful Tree itself (Tooley borrows it from M. K. Gandhi), and examine how beautiful the tree really was, if it was at all. Stay connected.