What Do I Think of Education and Bridge International Academies? Pt. 4

The following is part four of a five-part post about education in development and Bridge International Academies.

The first and most obvious criticism of the Bridge model of education is that a scripted curriculum creates a non-dynamic learning environment for children.  The western model of education is presmised on the idea that critical thinking is essential to success.  The very idea of a liberal arts education is a distinctly Western concept.   So, naturally, when people here that our teachers are high school graduates who are taught to teach by reading to children from a script, they automatically assume that the quality of the education is poor.

It is true that the standard of education at a Bridge school is going to be far below that of more expensive schools.  But when compared with the alternatives – which include government schools staffed by unmotivated teachers and other non-formal schools offering little in-house teacher training – Bridge offers an education that is subject to rigorous testing and review.  For example, our curriculum is written by a team of Kenyan education professionals and managed by Teach for America alumni, all of whom have Masters Degrees in education.  It has a video team that films lessons to be reviewed by the curriculum writers.  They look for level of engagement among the students and adjust the approach to maximize comprehension and retention.  Student exams are digitized and reviewed both to identify weaknesses in the curriculum, but also review teacher performance.  Lastly, the school managers audit the teachers on a regular basis to ensuring that they are performing adequately.

Lastly, and most importantly, Bridge undertakes a rigorous longitudinal testing study of 5,000 students every six months to monitor improvements in reading and math.  Using a test developed by the Research Triangle Institute and USAID called the Early Grade Reading Assessment and Early Grade Math Assessment (EGRA / EGMA), Bridge compares the performance of 3,000 of its own students with that of 1,000 students at government and other non-formal schools.  The results, which are shown on the website, show strong performance gains in basic reading skills, compared with its peers and less strong, but still measurable, gains in math.  I know this because I was responsible for leading this student testing and performing the analysis.  Using this data we can then tailor our curriculum to address our problem areas and improve the curriculum.

This level of analytical rigor is simply not possible at other non-formal schools.  Why?  Because Bridge is able to leverage economies of scale.  It can invest huge amounts of resources into improving its model because it knows that all changes can easily be rolled out across every single school in a day.  When I first met Jay in January 2011, Bridge had just broken 10 schools and opened its first school outside Nairobi.  By the time I left, the company had 73 schools across Kenya.

This level of growth means two things.  First, since the unit economics are such that each individual school is profitable at a relatively small size, more schools mean additional revenue that can be poured back into the company.  And second, any major policy changes can be backed with incredibly rich data sets.  As the company’s business analyst, I was working with datasets with sample sizes in the tens of thousands.  For someone trying to use data to better understand how our parents think, pay, and act, and understand what makes a good school, I was in heaven.

In the next post, I will give some concrete examples of how Bridge uses data to perfect the model.  If you have questions, feel free to email me at josh@developeconomies.com.

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