This book, aptly named The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, is a compelling blend of narrative and research. Author and researcher James Tooley details his personal journey discovering private education in some of the poorest regions of the world. Discovering may not be the appropriate description, as he points out in his book. Many development experts had already noted (more like footnoted) that private schools existed among the poor but were dismissed as insufficient compared with the supposedly superior government schools. However, for Tooley and many people he encountered, it was a discovery.
Tooley, eloquently and amiably, describes his journey across several countries, including: India, Ghana, Kenya and China. At each he met with government representatives where he was frequently told that he was mistaken- private schools for the poor do not exist in their country. Tooley’s patience seemed endless, since almost certainly he could drive to nearly any poor neighborhood and find a private school with minimal investigation despite the assertions of the skeptical critics.
During Tooley’s travels in schools throughout the world, and despite obvious differences, common themes develop. First, he is often met with disbelief regarding the possibility of private schools existing except for among the rich and upper middle class, at one point he was even told that he misunderstood due to linguistic differences. Second, when he actually finds these schools they are quickly discredited as being of poor quality, both in outward appearance and in substance. Third, he is often told that those running these school are exploiting the position of the lowest classes, particularly since the schools are almost exclusively run for-profit. These critiques only increased as he presented his findings to development experts. Some even called his work “dangerous,” “a threat to the public school system” (which it thankfully is), and was even told he was “pulling up the ladder behind him.”
However this book is not primarily focused on the critics, though it does address them and does so well. Instead, it is mostly about the internal desire of parents to care for their children and the inherent yearning to learn and improve their circumstances. It is about the market demand for education and the supplier’s response. It is about the beauty of market mechanisms in providing a better product even for those in the most destitute of circumstances. And, it is also about how even the poorest are often taken care of when they fail to have enough. Unwavering in its description of the ingenuity of the human race and the efficient use of resources, this book details well the great benefit of private education among the world’s poorest.
Tooley’s narrative begins in Hyderabad, India, wandering through the local slums he stumbles upon private schools. He engagingly describes his discussions with the proprietors, why the schools exists, how it started, how many students they have, how much the students pay, and the general costs of running the schools – all the while garnering important insight into the minds of education consumers- particularly since the alternative is cheaper or even free government schooling. “Why devote your personal income to private schools?” Tooley frequently inquires. The responses vary but consistently point to the perception that the private schools are better. His exploration not only demonstrates the economic thinking shared between India, Ghana, China and other places, but it highlights the differences as well. Not all government schools were equal. Sometimes proximity was the major obstacle, such as in China. Other times the facilities for the government schools were significantly better than those of the private. In others, both were woefully inadequate. What remained constant was the willingness of some of the world’s poorest citizens to pay for their own education.
Even more astonishing was the willingness of these for-profit schools to subside, in part or entirely, the tuition of the poorest of the poor and still come out with a profit. This allowed for even those who earn little by even their standards (often less than $2.00/day) to attend a private local school. Around 20 percent of the students received some sort of privately funded school provided aid.
In contrast to the private schools, Tooley describes the often nicer public schools, most free of charge, and very often funded with international aid. Many of which posted the name of the benefactor be it a private foundation, such as the Gates Foundation, or a world aid organization, in front of the building. Such was often the contrast between the free, and often nicer, public schools and the poorer, more fee-based private schools. Why, then, would parents place their children in the private schools at all?
As it turns out – for a lot of reasons. This is where Tooley’s research helps describe the seemingly unreasonable decision to pay for what was already seemingly free. Many of the private schools were closer, providing safer and less time-consuming routes for children. However, Tooley also researched both the quantity of students in these schools as well as the quality of the schooling. Both results were surprising and the details are best left to the book, but Tooley found that a substantial portion of students in some of the poorest areas of the world attended private schools. Interviews with parents and unannounced visits to the schools described better teaching environments in the private schools, with some teachers in the public schools sleeping in class while the children played. And most importantly, and in answer to the many critics, the students performed just as well or better in almost every measured categories, independent of the country. Most amazingly, these private schools’ operational costs were much than those of the government schools – and Tooley’s calculations did not even include the administration costs at the government level.
Nonetheless, good news is not good news for all. Presenting his findings caused a stir with the development experts. Some were kind in their admonitions, essentially suggesting he stop before he ruin his career. Others where more accusatory. Throughout the book the reader is faced with two kinds of surprises: First, the surprise at his amazing findings from his narrative and the confirmation in his research. Second is the surprise at the never ending resistance to his findings. His findings are challenging. They challenge many preconceived notions about education. It suggests that public education spends too much for inferior results. They show that education is not the public good we consider it to be, but that there are strong internal incentives for education. It also affirms that even the poor are capable of making good financial decisions and are more than poor “ignoramuses,” as described by some public education advocates. And without a doubt the findings certainly challenge the current educational status quo.
Tooley borrowed the title of his book from Mahatma Gandhi who described the pre-colonial education system as the “beautiful tree” that perished from the interventions of the top-down model imposed by the British. But this is more than anti-colonialism. It is an accurate description of centralized meddling in markets and the resulting unintended consequences. Tooley describes the pre-colonial educational system in a chapter of his book, outlining how it was supplanted by the centralized version imposed on India and other countries. Both the pre-colonial version and the modern low-cost private systems in places around the world live up to the metaphor. It is a beautiful tree indeed, springing from the ground where the public model has obviously failed. This metaphor accurately describes the unplanned outcome that results from systems where feedback is provided through consumption and pricing. In the public systems there is less feedback as a result of the teachers not being as responsive to the students’ needs. They were more often tardy, absent or sleeping in class, as they were left without the appropriate incentive to cultivate a fertile educational environment for this tree.
I would put this book at the top of any “to-read” list. It is well written, coming off as simultaneously smart and conversational. It also challenges assumptions we have long taken for granted without much challenge. Even for the more skeptical the book is compelling. Though it does not delve deeply into American and British public education it does suggest privatization as a suitable replacement for our current public system. Certainly the poorest among us have shown us it is possible. I highly recommend The Beautiful Tree especially for the skeptic.
James C. Devereaux is an attorney and freedom fanatic. Questions, complaints and hysterics can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @jcdevereaux1. All views are my own.