the teach tour uncovering how & why we've failed to educate children worldwide@theteachtour

is there method to the madness in circumventing the government?

For centuries we’ve allowed someone else to make certain decisions for us. We may not have always agreed with those decisions, but we’ve accepted the purpose in a central, chosen group of people to hold a community together with rules, structure, and reason. We’ve abided by the decisions of the central power, we’ve attempted to change them, or we’ve simply up and left the location entirely, to a new place with better rules, simpler structure, clearer reasoning.

For those of us attempting to change the status quo, there are two clear options to decide between; make change from within the system, or make change without the system. Granted, there are of course crossovers, straddlers, and those who start on one side, get frustrated, tired, and fed up, and move to the other. But for the most part, there are two distinct options on the table for which most grab one and run with it in hopes of infinite impact and immeasurable scale.

In the education space we see the same phenomenon occur. The secret about the term “NGO” or Non-Governmental Organization is that they are most often exactly that, minus the “Non.” Perhaps they do not take money from the government, but their main focus, if they are involved in education, is working within the government system to make systemic change in the way things work. In India, we have Pratham, Naandi, Byrraju and people like Professor Paul Gunashekar of EFL University teaching government teachers to become better teachers of English to children.

On the other side of the coin, we have For-Profits, Trusts, and sustainable Non-Profits, all encompassing the “screw the system, we can do this better” perspective. These organizations often struggle to bring their service or product to a viable affordable price point while creating something that provides high enough quality to their end customers. If we were talking middle-to-high income, the discussion is generally moot. In the low income, however, this is a serious issue upon which many intelligent minds debate, including those at the symposium we attended last week. On this side, we have companies like Hippocampus, Rumi Education, Christel House, iDiscoveri, and The Teacher Foundation.

The most common argument made from the latter group to the former is, “You might have the best model, product, service in the world, but without a sustainable model, you might go under one day and end up hurting mass numbers of families more than helping. Then what?!” (See: Byrraju Foundation Failure) “Furthermore, the governmental system is seriously flawed, what with bribery, low wages, ulterior motives, and undereducated folk all around. How do you plan to get around that?”

This is valid. For a long time I agreed with these statements in fact. But let’s hear from the other side. What they might say in rebuttal is, “Your model might be sustainable, you may have even scaled in the middle income sector, but do you really believe you will ever reach the scale that the government has reached in the low income sector? Soon?” Yes, quality must meet affordability in order to run a sustainable company, but what about scale, fast, and immediate, for all the children who need education today? What about the fact that the government will always exist, and for the foreseeable future, has the widest reach, so why not work on systemic change from within?

We have yet to see a product developed for the low income sector working outside of the governmental systems reach any sort of scale. Why is that? What we have seen is the Affordable Private School sector grow over the past 10-15 years to a large number of schools and children today. But the quality and affordability varies heavily, and we have yet to see a solid randomized controlled trial displaying the true impact on a child of an APS over a regular government school. On the other hand, the government at the moment is injecting thousands of benched teachers into the system to bring pupil:teacher ratios down to 35:1. Apparently it’s as easy as that, but can these teachers teach well?

Lastly, among many others, what about value? The most common argument made all over this sector we call “development” is that of value. Do people place value on that which they receive at no cost? As a society, today, do we place so much value on money that all else is worthless to us unless we must give up some of our hard earned wages in order to gain access to it? When we speak of low income families, must we assume parents are so ill-informed in the value of education that they must put money down to see the value and become involved?

Let’s be honest, public schooling has worked in some places. Why not others?

Either we’re all fighting against each other while the solution lies far off in left field or we are fighting different battles at the same point in time and getting no where fast, sustainably, feasibly, meaningfully.