Book Review | The Beautiful Tree by James Tooley [Contributor]

Beautiful TreeThe Beautiful Tree  is a book about what’s right with the world. Amazingly, what is right with the world is found in the slums of Nigeria, India, Kenya, China, and Zimbabwe. The poor educating themselves without government assistance is the name of the game.

In the early 2000s author of The Beautiful TreeJames Tooley (a British educator and researcher), discovered that the slums of India contained thousands of private schools, funded exclusively through student tuition, and operating without government oversight. Told such schools did not exist by government education bureaucrats, Tooley decided he would study these schools determine how well they educated poor children.

What Tooley found was incredible. Not only did these private schools exist everywhere he searched (even in the most remote section of the poorest province in Communist China), they provided an education superior to, or, at the minimum, comparable to government schools. And they did this while spending far less per pupil than government schools (sometimes 1/9to 1/8 of government school per pupil spending). In fact, Tooley’s research indicates the more intertwined a school is with the government, the more poorly its students perform.

In line with what one would expect when comparing a free-market with a government monopoly, Tooley also found less corruption and waste in the private schools. For example, teachers actually showed up to work and taught in the private schools, while in the public schools, yeah, not so much. Apparently, even in third-world countries, teachers are notoriously difficult to fire because teacher unions exercise their political muscle and threaten politicians. Also, teacher positions are often political patronage jobs, which is never good for productivity or efficiency.

Tooley also found private schools provide a tremendous amount of philanthropy. By one estimate, private schools in Nigeria provided free education to approximately one out of every five students. Their parents were simply too poor to pay, so the school provided their education for free. This is an incredible case of the poor helping the poor without any government assistance or oversight. And this is happening right now, all over the world.

As you can tell, this book is part travel diary, part research dialogue, part free-market-in-education exposé. The personal stories of private school owners fighting government officials to stay open (a common theme in the book is how bureaucrats attempt to close schools for minor regulatory violations, such as not having an adequately sized P.E. field) are numerous and touching. The stories of poor families from around the world sacrificing to send their children to superior private schools, as opposed to inferior government ones, are truly inspiring. Conversely, Tooley’s accounts of rich, white European development experts first absolutely denying the existence of private schools for the poor, and then denying poor people’s ability to make sound education choices and educate themselves through private education, is absolutely maddening.

If you want a book that will teach you the power of educational entrepreneurship and the determination of the poor to better themselves and their children, then The Beautiful Tree  is waiting for you. There is so much to learn from this book, if we will but allow the poor to teach us.


Posted previously at Publius Online.

Adoption-Pic-150x150Marco is Managing Partner at Brown Law, LLC, a foodie, and the dad of the cutest kid in the world. You can find him at Brown Law and at Eating Salt Lake City


The Beautiful Tree Book Cover The Beautiful Tree
James 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.


  1. This looks like such an inspiring book. I had no idea that people were starting schools with private tuition and without the government. And wow those are telling statistics about the waste that government brings to education. I hadn’t heard of it and I’m so glad you brought it to my attention. Wonderful review!!

    • It takes a lot for us Americans to think outside of the public ed box, I think. But the more we know and understand how good education happens, perhaps the more likely we are to start making the changes necessary to bring about better methods.