“Pop Up Schools Could Radically Improve Global Education,” Wired, December 2013.
A low-frills, low-cost, high-tech model for taking private school to the masses.
Most of the buildings in Machakos, the former capital of Kenya, are made of concrete, with neat fences, informal gardens, indoor plumbing, and electricity, however erratic. By contrast, the local schoolhouse of Bridge International Academies is beyond basic: walls of corrugated tin, a plywood frame. There’s no electrical wiring in sight. A pair of latrines adjoin an open courtyard that doubles as a lunch and recreation area. A few young children loll on the patchy grass, engaged in unhurried conversation.
Yet this school is by no means a failure — in fact, it recently passed a 700-point inspection and is running exactly as planned. This is just one of 212 Bridge Academies that have opened in Kenya during the past four years. Bridge’s “schools in a box” spring up seemingly overnight: In January of 2013, the company launched 51 schools at once, while in September it opened another 78. Bridge now educates roughly 50,000 students in Kenya every day, and its global aspirations may transform the entire project of education for poor youth around the world.
Bridge’s CEO, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Jay Kimmelman, compares his company to Starbucks and McDonald’s — organizations that offer a consistent experience no matter where in the world you encounter them. Beyond its 212 branded academies in Kenya, Bridge has set its sights on Nigeria, Uganda, and India. The founders intend to be serving half a million children in 30 countries by 2015, and 10 million by 2025. “We’ve systematized every aspect of how you run a school,” Kimmelman says. “How you manage it. How you interact with parents. How you teach. How you check on school managers, and how you support them.” And this operational approach gets results. Bridge tests kids six times a year, and a third party performs Early Grade Reading and Math Assessments annually. According to those evaluations, Bridge students are beating out their peers at government and other private schools. In reading fluency, the gap is as high as 205 percent.
The most notable aspect of the Machakos school is that students pay to attend. Since the United Nations made universal enrollment one of its Millennium Development Goals in 2000, governments in Kenya and in much of Africa have eliminated school fees. But outcomes in Africa’s public schools remain deeply disappointing. Dated curricula focus on impractical memorization, and the public school teachers are underpaid and undertrained — spending more energy on managing packed classrooms than on instruction. Supervisors often look the other way when teachers avoid teaching the hard subjects or don’t show up to class. Dropout rates are staggeringly high: In Ghana, for example, which has 5.4 million students in primary school, there are just 1.3 million in junior high and only 730,000 in high school. Abolishing fees has boosted enrollment, but the broad divergence in outcomes worldwide — between developed economies and the “bottom billion” left behind — continues to grow.
Bridge aims to narrow this divide with a radically new take on private school. Tuition is just $5 per pupil per month. There are no student iPads, no science labs. Preschoolers work with clay or blocks; older children learn math with bottle caps and recycled egg crates. Often students write on Dickensian slate boards instead of paper. One of the teachers I met, “Ms. Elizabeth,” completed only high school, and the greatest technological firepower at her disposal was a decidedly analog yardstick.
Instead of fancy tools, Bridge offers a system built on easy replication: a template for setting up schools cheaply, enrolling children seamlessly, hiring instructors, creating a curriculum, and making sure children learn it. The schools themselves may be lo-fi, but Bridge’s back offices are very high tech.
Before launch, Bridge invested $15 million in systems development, teacher training, and in-class materials, and built an operations template for every school. (Bill Gates is an investor in the company, as are Khosla Ventures and some other traditional venture capital firms.) All student testing and teacher evaluations would filter through Android-based software monitored by engineers and assessors at Bridge headquarters. Since I met Ms. Elizabeth in 2011, Bridge has equipped teachers and school managers with tablets to manage lessons and track performance. Students take analog tests and teachers upload assessments to a central database. “Accountability is the key,” says Kimmelman. “It’s really weird, and really amazing, and it works.”
Bridge’s headquarters are in Nairobi, in a booming industrial area thick with warehouses, mattress factories, and tire distributors. Like its schools, the offices are surprisingly austere — I interview Kimmelman across an unvarnished wood table. “It doesn’t matter if kids are sitting in a building that you call a school,” he says. “They can be sitting under a tree, so long as they’re getting educated — that’s what matters.”
After graduating from Harvard in 1999 with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering, Kimmelman went to San Francisco and spent four years building Edusoft, a web-based student assessment platform that he sold to Houghton Mifflin for $20 million in 2003. Afterward, he and his girlfriend (now wife), Shannon May — another Harvard graduate, who was completing a PhD in anthropology from UC Berkeley — migrated to rural China, where they saw the punishing effects of poor primary education firsthand. May was researching a flashy, government-backed “eco-town” designed to propel a village into the modern global economy. But, she found, “the majority of residents couldn’t even read the postings of the development project to engage in the debates about whether this program was good or bad for them.”
She and Kimmelman found themselves strategizing about how to best help undereducated young people around the world. The winning idea — basic education as a business — sounds counterintuitive, but it was central to planning for the couple and their cofounder, Phil Frei. For parents hovering around $2 in income per day, a potentially transformative education for their kids was just one of many things they couldn’t afford. The demand, however, remains enormous — the global market for low-cost private education is $51 billion annually. To meet the demand, May says, “we drive the price point low enough so parents can become consumers.”
Bridge’s corporate system allows them to nearly eliminate overhead. The work typically done by secretaries, bursars, principals, and other administrators can be handled remotely, leaving only three nonteaching staff at each school. Parents can transfer fees directly from their mobile phones, an innovation that builds on Kenya’s particularly robust mobile money platforms. (Bridge parents on average make $1.23 per day, but 94 percent of them own mobile phones.) If a teacher fails to open or sync a digital lesson within 15 minutes of its scheduled start, someone from headquarters will take note and call the school to see what’s up. If a teacher is absent, Bridge keeps a paid pool of substitutes standing by. “Our commitment to our parents is that their children will be taught,” May says. “So we invest in, essentially, lots of plan Bs.”
At Bridge Academy Machakos, the school manager when I visited was Teresia Jacob, a 23-year-old university graduate with a bright green Bridge T-shirt and a bright smile to match. Jacob had responsibility for the 45 children and four teachers in Machakos, as well as for selling the school to local parents. The heart of her pitch is simple: Bridge schools teach kids. Whereas the average government primary school has a 47-to-one student-teacher ratio, Bridge’s is 30-to-one — and it teaches students for two additional hours each day.
Bridge isn’t the first nonpublic school in Kenya or in Africa. For years, local communities have created low-cost, mom-and-pop ventures that backstop government failures. Bridge cannibalized this informal tradition but also brought it to scale.
The Bridge obsession with consistency and performance produces its most alien attribute: scripted lessons. Because effective lesson plans are a notoriously difficult aspect of teaching, Bridge eliminates any guesswork — dictating classroom instruction down to the noun and to the minute. In Ms. Elizabeth’s subtraction class, she consults the Bridge manual as kids chant and repeat her phrasing with Pavlovian discipline. Her classroom protocol has been written in advance by Bridge’s dedicated curriculum team. This may sound overly doctrinaire, but there are distinct advantages. For teachers, “the examples don’t come off the top of their head, or when they woke up at five in the morning to try and prepare their class,” May says. The scripted approach also allows for incredibly efficient teacher training: Bridge’s seven-week course is lightning-fast compared with traditional accreditation programs.
SCRIPTED LESSONS MAKE THE CLASSROOM FEEL LIKE A MILITARY DRILL, BUT THEY WORK.
This aspect of the Bridge program may rattle Western assumptions about what a good education looks like. My classroom encounter did feel strangely militarized. But academic research continues to find scripted programs effective: After studying an American scripted-learning program called Success for All, a research group at the University of Michigan gave it high marks, saying that the program “appeared to accelerate students’ reading achievement in the early elementary grades.”
And within Bridge’s pool of 2,500 teachers — typically high school graduates younger than 30 — coming up with a lesson plan and recalling a wide variety of instructional content can impede the larger goal of teaching and role-modeling. “You might know how to multiply fractions, but you might not know the best way to teach a 9-year-old,” May says. “But that’s what we’re asking teachers to do every day around the world.” Bridge schools force an expanded vision of both schools and markets in Africa. And for parents and students in the least served parts of the world, this simple, scalable, and accountable model has proved itself worthy of its modest tuition.