book review: James Tooley’s “The Beautiful Tree”

I just finished James Tooley‘s “The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves,” which I had been meaning to read ever since it received some publicity from The Cato Institute upon their publishing it last year. Tooley is a lovely writer and an obviously thoughtful man, whose research in India, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and China challenged some of his previously held beliefs about the importance of improving public education in the developing world. Contrary to the insistences of policymakers, bureaucrats, and academics, Tooley found that there are very many low-cost private schools operating in even extremely poor areas. Parents and children, when interviewed, clearly understand the importance of education, seem to like having educational options, and are competent judges of education quality. In fact, Tooley’s research shows that, in general, the private schools studied outperformed public schools as measured by student test scores.

Sadly, the successful private schools are sometimes crowded out by public schools (that are often not any better, as I will discuss below). Other times, the “free” public schools are, in effect, unavailable to parents because they are too far away from students’ homes, require expensive uniforms, are not accepting new students, or accept only students of a certain class. Yet, even some of the best private schools have trouble operating under conditions of overregulation, political corruption, bribe-expecting inspectors, and scarcity of capital for investment. Still, many of them find a way to provide free and reduced price places to the poorest of the poor students.

According to Tooley, development experts are mostly either unaware of the existence of low-cost private schools, or they criticize them on a few main grounds, including that the teachers are uncertified and low-paid, that the facilities are inadequate, and that the education received is of low quality. However, there is no reason to believe that the low-cost private schools are in general any worse than the public schools in these regards. First, certified public school teachers frequently ignore or abandon their classes altogether, with major absenteeism problems. As such, their certification is not doing the students much good. The lower pay of private school teachers is in line with what the market will bear and keeps this form of private education sustainable. Moreover, the private school teachers are more often residents of the villages and towns in which they work, which beneficially decreases the “social distance” between them and their students. As for facilities, it is simply unreasonable to insist that schools in these areas must have, for instance, playgrounds of a certain size or a certain number of toilets. These amenities are not congruent with the standards of living for the area and are prohibitively costly for private schools  (besides, many public schools lack them as well). Finally, as for the education being of low quality –  Tooley forcefully argues that this criticism of low-cost private schools mostly just betrays experts’ distrust of poor parents’ judgment, or even contempt for them. Experts assume that parents who pay for a service that they can get for free must be getting taken advantage of by private school proprietors. However, the test scores from Tooley’s research, as well as his team’s observational accounts of public and private schools, clearly vindicate these parents’ judgment. Low cost private schools are, in fact, often better than public schools.

While Tooley’s research and arguments are very solid, I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone. In particular, I wouldn’t recommend it to libertarian folk who are more interested in political philosophy than education. Ten out of twelve chapters of the book rather slowly recount Tooley’s experiences in the field, right down to individual names, encounters, students, schools, etc – hence the subtitle “a personal journey.” If you are looking for hard hitting theoretical argumentation in favor of school choice, look elsewhere. That’s not to say that Tooley doesn’t make good arguments – just that they’re already familiar to people who are interested in, and sympathetic to, school choice and private education. Libertarian theories about education predict many of Tooley’s findings; as such, he will seem to libertarians as being in the less interesting business of confirming existing theories, rather than covering any exciting new ground.

But where Tooley really shines is in bringing market-based education ideas to those who are primarily interested not in politics but in education, people who might otherwise find libertarians’ ideas too abstract, impractical, elitist, undemocratic, unsympathetic, etc. The book’s blend of appeals to emotion and reason, empirical and qualitative evidence, and the past and the present makes it an exceptionally well-balanced addition to the education literature in this area. I would encourage all of my education friends to give it a try. It will at the very least enlarge your education imagination.

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