The Beautiful Tree by James Tooley is a Powerful Look at Education in the Poorest Neighborhoods on Earth


Perhaps we’re doing third world development all wrong.

That was the thought that stuck with me most after I finished reading James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People are Educating Themselves, a surprisingly readable book about the role of private schools in education in some of the world’s poorest neighborhood. In The Beautiful Tree, Tooley tells his story about discovering private schools in some of the world’s poorest neighborhoods and discovering that in case after case they are doing well, are educating the poor, and are often, if not always competitive with the much better funded government schools that are found nearby.

It’s a proposition that surprised me, and for good reason: the private schools in my neighborhood—which is already among the higher income brackets in the state—are prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, I have a high degree of confidence in the public schools available to my family, but what about places where public schools are failing or are inadequate? What choices do those people have?

Tooley found himself in some of these places while researching private schools in India for the World Bank. One day, he wondered into one of the poorer neighborhoods Hyderabad’s Old City and found it overflowing with small, parent-funded schools. At first, such schools seemed to be the exception rather than the rule, but as Tooley began to look for schools in other countries where his World Bank research took him, he found similar schools and similar stories, often existing in spite of the protests of government officials that private schools could not and did not exist for the poor (Tooley finds them specifically in India, Nigeria, Ghana and China, though this latter case is unique from the others).

Ironically, the book is not a critique of what is going wrong in the world, but rather seems expository of something that is going right and without the interference or help of the state. Parents, dismayed at slovenly, under-motivated and underperforming schools, banded together to form schools that are accountable to them, and the results are astounding, providing education to student who would not otherwise have opportunity.

Did I mention that these private schools are not subsidized, let alone acknowledged, by the government? Rather, parents scrimp and save, putting a premium on the education of their children. No one is going to get rich teaching at private school, thought: Tooley quotes fees at $10 per year in some cases, and generally in the range 4-20% of the minimum wage of the country. Some schools even offer scholarships to help students who still cannot afford the fees.

How do private school students rate against their peers? Tooley tested 24,000 students in India, Nigeria, Ghana and China in math and language proficiency. In India and Africa, children in private schools almost always excelled over those in public schools; in China, private schools were more likely to be limited to remote locations where travel to public schools was not safe. The one place that the government did better than private schools was in providing playgrounds for schools.

Tooley seems to attribute the cause to a general lack of accountability among government teachers, whereas private school teachers were held directly accountable by parents. With no incentive to excel among government teachers, they often delivered high rates of absenteeism, failed to teach altogether, or allowed classes to collapse into chaos. Tooley also notes that government inspectors meant to assure teaching standards were easily paid off and kept away from government classrooms.

If there’s more I would have asked from Tooley, it would have been how to replicate the successes that he saw in India, Ghana, and Nigeria. If there’s a way to bring about serious and long-term change to the third world, it should be replicated.

Tooley tells his story in a series of anecdotes that is appealing and makes the reading easy. not to mention powerful. Even if third world development is not your cup of tea (it’s not mine), The Beautiful Tree is fascinating.


The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People are Educating Themsleves Book Cover The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People are Educating Themsleves
Peter Tooley
Cato Institute
September 7, 2013

Everyone from Bono to the United Nations is looking for a miracle to bring schooling within reach of the poorest children on Earth. James Tooley found one hiding in plain sight. While researching private schools in India for the World Bank, and worried he was doing little to help the poor, Tooley wandered into the slums of Hyderabad's Old City. Shocked to find it overflowing with tiny, parentfunded schools filled with energized students, he set out to discover if schools like these could help achieve universal education. Named after Mahatma Gandhi's phrase for the schools of pre-colonial India, The Beautiful Tree recounts Tooley's journey from the largest shanty town in Africa to the hinterlands of Gansu, China. It introduces readers to the families and teachers who taught him that the poor are not waiting for educational handouts. They are building their own schools and educating themselves.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.