The Bridge International Controversy: Ignore ‘Fabricated Information’ – Bridge is Disrupting the Failing Status Quo
Throughout the coming year, NextBillion is organizing content around a monthly theme, dedicating special attention to a specific sector alongside our broader coverage. In this post, which helps launch February’s focus on education, Bridge International Academies Co-Founder Shannon May defends her organization from recent criticisms of its business model and practices, particularly from the global federation of teacher unions Education International. Click here for a counterpoint written by Sylvain Aubry, a research and legal adviser with the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which participated alongside Kenyan organisations to collect data on Bridge’s operations, which was used by Education International for a report that was highly critical of Bridge’s business model and practices. Neither May nor Aubry were shown the other’s post prior to publication– we asked them both to make their best cases publicly, and are publishing the posts simultaneously. If additional points of discussion emerge, the authors are welcome to respond to each other’s posts in comments.
The conversation about education in the developing world has never been louder. Questions around who provides it today, who should provide it in the future, what it should cost and how many children can benefit are ones that are being debated both locally and globally. However, one thing is certain: As things stand, millions of children across the developing world are being failed when it comes to education. Innovative solutions and approaches are evidentially essential, but the way in which new systems are discussed, embraced and introduced was always going to be subject to controversy. Providing education is complex. Changing the status quo is inherently a challenge to entrenched interests and existing models.
Bridge International Academies sits at the heart of those conversations about education in the developing world. Our innovative model is proving that education can be delivered at a very low cost in the poorest parts of the world and, more than that, the level of education provided can be better than other alternatives. Bridge believes that all children possess amazing potential, but not all have the chance to reach it. The current status quo in basic education across much of the world results in a lack of opportunity for children; Bridge finds that unacceptable. Our organisation is committed to changing this situation, in the face of increasing adversity, for the millions of families who need better options.
Bridge has definitively proven that it is possible to provide high-quality education even on a parent’s limited budget, and in doing so solve an increasingly urgent crisis for families, communities and countries in the 21st century. For many, public schools may not be available or may not yet be performing as needed. Bridge uses pupil-level academic gains to measure our efficacy, rather than absolute scores. Numerous studies have established that absolute scores are typically more of a proxy for wealth and education than a measure of value added by the school. The pupil growth measurement effort, by contrast, seeks to isolate the “Bridge effect” on a child’s learning.
This effort to measure pupil gains has three main components.
First, a randomised control trial of Bridge is currently underway by outside economists from Harvard University, the University of Virginia, Columbia University and the World Bank. This is acknowledged as the “gold standard” of evidence.
Second, Bridge’s younger pupils have been assessed by an independent third party using the Early Grade Reading Assessment and Early Grade Math Assessment (EGRA/EGMA). This measures the foundational literacy and numeracy skills of pupils. Bridge also measures their academic peers in neighbouring schools to understand both absolute and relative pupil performance. These measurement tools were developed by the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) in conjunction with USAID, and have been used by education ministries and multilateral agencies around the world. This effort is a multi-year, pupil-matched study conducted by a third party company. For reading in early grades, the gains from attending Bridge are equivalent to 64 more days of learning in a single school year. For mathematics, the gains from attending Bridge are equivalent to 26 more days of learning in a single school year.
Third, Bridge measures the gains our pupils make on the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exam. KCPE is the high-stakes national exit exam for primary schools. Scores determine admission to Kenyan secondary schools. The test is administered by outside examiners hired by the Kenya National Exams Council. The test is a mix of multiple choice and essays, normed to an average of roughly 247, with a standard deviation of roughly 65 points. We now have two years of data to compare Bridge pupils to public school students in Kenya.
In 2015, the first year Bridge graduates sat the national exam, the pass rate of Bridge pupils was 60 percent, compared to the national public school pass rate of 44 percent. Using a control group of 152 schools, we estimated that Bridge pupils made gains of 0.37 standard deviations relative to their public school counterparts.
The results from 2016, the second year Bridge pupils sat for the national exam, were strikingly similar: a 0.38 standard deviation gain and a pass rate of 59 percent, compared to an estimated public school pass rate of 44 percent.
We also know that for every additional year in a Bridge class, there is a tremendous increase in pupil performance scores, with children attending Bridge for five years scoring 28 points higher than children attending only two years.
Notably, in 2016, 56 different Bridge-managed schools in urban and rural communities with parent income below poverty levels had a 100 percent pass rate on the national exam for all students attending at least two years.
The “Bridge effect” is not happenstance. It is the result of a systematic and evidenced-based approach to learning which sees Bridge pupils continuously assessed in every subject, on a monthly basis, in addition to mid-term and end-term exams, using the data to drive individualized and small group instruction that is targeted to the children’s specific needs.
However, inevitably the successes being realised by Bridge have drawn scrutiny and criticism from those who have a comfortable niche within the status quo. Never has this been more evident than in Uganda. Bridge started in Kenya in 2009 and has more than 400 operational academies with over 70,000 pupils and over 6,000 staff. It launched operations in Uganda in 2015 and has 63 schools, over 12,000 pupils and 800 staff. Parents in Kenya and Uganda have asked for an expansion of Bridge services, and thankfully many government leaders have supported the policies, regulations and programs that enable Bridge to work as a partner to parents and governments in delivering high-quality education.
To understand the situation that Bridge faces in Uganda, the operational context of providing education has to be understood. Whilst there are many strengths within the Ugandan education system, there are also persistent challenges. The latest Uwezo report, “Are Our Children Learning? Five Stories on the State of Education in Uganda in 2015 and Beyond,” provides a good starting point. It highlighted three key challenges that are hampering the quality of education in primary schools in Uganda: insufficient knowledge on the part of teachers, particularly in the areas of pedagogy and curriculum content; a very high rate of teacher absenteeism; and the lack of pupil textbooks.
In and of themselves, these would provide core challenges to the delivery of an effective education system, but coupled with a more recent report released by the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) the challenges are further increased. The UNEB report indicated the need for radical changes in the way teachers are prepared – including reconsidering how teachers become qualified to teach, showing only 21.8 percent of newly trained teachers in Uganda were proficient in numeracy at a Primary 6 level and only 38.8 percent of newly trained teachers reached that proficiency level in literacy. It is important to note that Primary 6 is the second-to-last year of primary school in Uganda and is meant for pupils age 11. Evidence such as this, from national government bodies themselves, makes it understandable that the international teachers union, Education International (EI), is on the defensive.
These combined findings demonstrate a clear need to radically address the challenges facing basic education in East Africa. In the context of the western world’s education systems, such findings would be unacceptable and we must find it equally unacceptable in the developing world. We need to ensure future generations within these countries are given the necessary foundation that will enable them to contribute to their countries’ development.
In developing its education model, Bridge has been acutely aware of challenges such as those revealed by Uwezo and UNEB, regarding the training of teachers to deliver affordable quality education to learners. As a result, not only is Bridge more cost-effective than most government schools, its commitment to excellence provides better results.
It is important to note that Bridge believes every child has the right to a high-quality education, and that is why it partners with parents, donors and governments. Bridge does not hold an ideology that private schools are innately good. It does not believe that parents should have to pay for school. It does believe that all schools should be regulated, and that a focus on learning outcomes and encouraging competition and increasing access to schooling should form the foundation of regulation.
Importantly, Bridge believes there should be truly great, truly free public schools. Bridge exists to bridge the gap in what is available now to parents and what should be. By demonstrating that high-performing schools are possible even on a developing country’s limited budget, Bridge has empowered governments and other schools to make informed, data-driven decisions on how to improve learning.
Confronting the challenges of failing schools and unsupported teachers head-on and designing a system that combats them in the face of vested interests, unionisation and entrenched systems is always going to be a challenge. As a part of the status quo, EI has started to pay real attention to Bridge’s operations, fearing the challenges we pose. Recently they published a couple of reports about Bridge operations in Uganda and Kenya, calling for the respective governments to shut down schools. EI is a powerful international body and the Ugandan government took these allegations seriously and – without an investigation to substantiate the claims of this lobby group – proceeded to attempt to close Bridge schools in Uganda. That attempt has been unsuccessful. The Ugandan courts ordered a “stay of execution” and we are working closely with the government of Uganda to resolve any outstanding issues.
EI employed the same tactics in Kenya, and the Kenyan government has promised both an independent investigation into EI’s allegations and to release an independent report on its findings. Bridge hugely supports that approach, which reflects the strong partnership that the organisation has with the Kenyan government.
While Bridge encourages independent scrutiny and analysis of both its model and its operating methods, it is self-evident that reports produced by a powerful lobby group with a vested interest do not meet the standards of independent scrutiny. The reports produced by EI fail to treat the parents who have chosen Bridge as an education provider for their children with respect, and they fail to acknowledge the proven learning gains that Bridge delivers for children. In commissioning their reports, Bridge was asked for neither input nor data, and it seems clear that the reports were designed to bolster a preconceived view based in neither evidence nor fact, but formed on the back of ideological belief.
It is inevitable that all those children’s advocates and education leaders who seek to transform the educational opportunities for those children who are currently being failed, including Bridge, will have to continue to convince those who are ideologically opposed to change. However, it would be better to focus on delivering real change and opportunity for children and parents, rather than seeking to falsely attack a proven model of evidence-based learning.
The information below corrects the fabricated information conveyed in the EI reports. (Bridge’s full response to the false allegations being peddled by EI in Uganda can be read here; the response to EI’s Kenya report can be read here.) As informed by our mission and proven track record endorsed by global institutions and more than 100,000 parents, Bridge endeavors to continue serving and improving the lives of these underserved communities.
Partnerships with Local Governments
- Bridge operates according to Kenyan and Ugandan laws. Bridge has detailed records of official interactions with all the pertinent government agencies necessary to operate a private school.
- Bridge teaches the Ugandan and Kenyan official education curricula in each country. Bridge has gained recognition as a publisher and all its supplementary materials have been shared with official bodies (the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development and the National Curriculum Development Centre for Uganda) for review and evaluation.
- Bridge complies with regulations around qualified teachers, too. In Kenya, almost 40 percent of teachers are P1 (primary) certified, above the 30 percent threshold set by government regulations in March 2016. In Uganda, over 50 percent of Bridge primary teachers are Grade III certified (the basic requirement for a primary teaching post) and the rest are in the process of being licensed and attending in-service training. Additionally, these teachers have passed Bridge’s own demanding numeracy and literacy proficiency tests.
- Teachers also undergo further specialized training before entering Bridge classrooms. Bridge has frequent recruitment drives to enable hiring of more government-trained teachers who meet the rigorous standards needed to lead a classroom.
- As noted above, Bridge pupils outperformed their peers in KCPE exams in Kenya. The same level of incredible academic gains against comparative schools are expected in Uganda come 2017 when Bridge’s first students sit for the final Primary Leaving Examinations.
- The Bridge model provides innovative solutions to the most pressing educational problems in both countries:
- Tech-based monitoring prevents teacher absenteeism;
- Detailed teacher guides and training fill content and pedagogical knowledge gaps;
- The thousands of books provided to each school and included in the term fee ensure pupils always have access to high-quality learning materials.
Supporting Bridge Teachers and Staff
- Bridge salaries are competitive. Teachers earn higher salaries than 70 percent of teachers in Uganda, and 90 percent of teachers in Kenya from similar schools. Unlike most affordable private schools, teachers are paid in a timely manner every month. Progressive technology systems that track teacher absenteeism and monitor school operations employed by Bridge guarantee that pupils are taught and keep track of their performance.
- Bridge staff have formal employment contracts along with all the statutory benefits that stem from them. Bridge provides: job security, social security contributions, paid maternity and paternity leave, and paid time off. Teachers have additional benefits including daily meals, a full scholarship for a family member and continued opportunities for professional development.
- Buildings are safe and conducive to learning. They have been approved by the relevant local district government planning committees and have been endorsed by registered architects. Bridge has occupation permits approving the use of structures as schools.
- All Bridge parents have determined for themselves that Bridge is affordable. Research from the communities Bridge serves in Kenya show tuition fees average $6.39 per month and community families have an average of 1.8 children going to school. Bridge families spend only 8 percent of their income – on average, across the network for all family sizes – on education. A family with three children in a Bridge school in Kenya would spend up to 15 percent of their family income to finance education – not 27 percent as the EI report claims. In Uganda, Bridge serves over 12,000 households countrywide with an average nominal income of $131, for the average monthly fee of $6.20. The average Bridge parent lives on $1.42 per day, below the international poverty line of $1.90.
- Bridge academies are located all over Uganda and Kenya where they can meet the needs of parents, donors and governments, and not only in areas with foreign perceived “market opportunity and economic viability,” as critics claim. Bridge is well known for working in areas where most other NGOs do not yet work.
Bridge remains open in both Uganda and Kenya, and is successfully operating elsewhere. Time and again, Bridge has proven that it is a good government partner, delivering improved opportunities for children through strong and efficient education. Bridge will continue to work with governments to be wherever underserved communities demand affordable, high-quality education, in particularly hard-to-reach areas.
Bridge wants to ensure that all countries in Africa achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, of providing quality education as a foundation to improving people’s lives and sustainable development. Bridge stands together with government partners and remains committed to serving families who need it most. Bridge is grateful for the hard work of all the Kenyans and Ugandans who are leading a movement of change, to ensure that a status quo that is failing the children in these countries does not remain.
Shannon May is a co-founder of Bridge International Academies.
Photo: A Bridge classroom in Kenya, courtesy of Bridge International Academies.