Update: At the suggestion of Diane Ravitch and others, I sent a message about this NY Times lack of conflict of interest disclosure to their public editor, Liz Spayd, on August 30 and again on October 1. I have so far received no response. The only change I noticed is that the Times added to Rosenberg's bio on her June 14 column praising Bridge International Academy that she co-founded Solutions Journalism, but not her earlier columns. And more to the point, there is still no disclosure that SJ is funded by the Gates Foundation, or any disclaimer related to the potential conflict of interest between her promoting companies in her column funded by the Foundation or Gates himself. If you'd like to send your own message to the public editor, you can do so by emailing email@example.com Thanks!
Recently, the NY Times published a
on how private donors influence the supposedly
dispassionate policy reports of DC think tanks, which fail to
clearly reveal potential bias arising from
the sources of their funding.
Yet the NY Times has a similar problem of its own.
Check out not one but two cheerleading
columns by Tina Rosenberg about the Bridge International Academy (BIA), a
controversial for-profit chain of schools, which claims to educate 100,000
children in 400 schools across Africa and Asia, and has plans to enroll ten
million pupils by 2025. The first
column by Rosenberg touting BIA was published in the Times in 2013
second one just this
past June 14.
About this chain
schools, which received a no-bid contract from the Liberian government to
operate free schools in that nation, she wrote,
Bridge is different.
Teachers are closely monitored, supervised and coached. They get scripted
lessons on tablets, which tell them what to say and do every minute. Bridge has
master teachers who create lessons; the classroom teacher’s job is to deliver
them. This allows Bridge to hire high school graduates at low salaries. They
get a three-week course in teaching methods and managing a classroom….
Werner [the Liberian
Education Minister] visited Bridge schools in Kenya and Uganda, talking to
parents and teachers. “I was awed by what I saw: the ability of children to
read and write, the commitment of teachers, the measurement and evaluation
mechanisms, the organization,” he said in an interview last week.
Rosenberg then countered the widespread criticisms of this
company this way:
Bridge is bringing rote learning to Liberia: Just the opposite. Scripted lessons do not
mean rote lessons. (Here’s a video.) Lucy Bradlow, Bridge’s director of public relations, said
that in a typical Bridge lesson, the teacher solves a problem on the
blackboard, and then three more at the blackboard with students. Then the
students work on problems in their textbooks, while the teacher walks around
checking for understanding.
Liberia is privatizing its country’s schools: The problem with private education is that
it creates inequity, one tier of education for rich and another for poor. In a
sense, Liberia is creating a solution: All the Partnership schools will be
free. As it does for all schools, the
government will provide schools in the pilot with teachers, administrative
staff and school buildings, all paid for from the education budget….
The project should
have been envisioned sooner, and the process should have been fairer. But if
experimentation is justified anywhere, it’s there. It’s hard to look at
Liberia’s educational system and say: Do nothing new.
In reality, this is a radical experiment for Liberia: to essentially
out-source its entire public education system to a private for-profit company,
with the first step offering a no-bid contract to BIA.
The hybrid privatization
plan, which has been described as one of the most expansive and ambitious
anywhere in the world, calls for 3 percent of primary schools to be turned over
to private companies during a pilot year beginning this fall. Fifty schools
will be run by Bridge International Academies, an American for-profit company
backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerburg [sic] and Bill Gates that builds and
runs low-cost schools primarily in East Africa. As many as 70 more Liberian
schools will be turned over to a host of other private operators. If the pilot
is deemed a success, it will be scaled up to at least 300 more schools in
September 2017. It could cover the country’s entire primary school system by
2020, according to the timeline set by the government….
The backlash to the
plan was swift. Liberian civil society organizations were irate, claiming the
government had broken public procurement laws by making a unilateral decision
to hire Bridge as the sole operator of the schools. The National Teachers
Association of Liberia, the country’s largest teachers union, has threatened a nationwide strike and unions from across
the world have sent Werner letters denouncing the plan.
The first time Rosenberg wrote about this company in 2013,
she focused on its operations in Kenya, where the company runs a chain of
private schools that during that time period reportedly charged tuition of
$5.16 a month for each child. As we
shall see, this is not an insignificant amount considering the low incomes of
most Kenyan families. Then she cited
some questionable non-peer reviewed studies by BIA that claimed to show better
Does Bridge work? The
answer is probably. Bridge arranged for its students to be tested alongside
neighborhood students in government schools and other low-cost private schools
at the beginning and end of second grade. Bridge students generally
outperformed the others, in some cases by a wide margin. (Bridge provided me with the private school numbers, which are not on
its Web site.)
But the numbers may be
somewhat misleading. Private schools almost always outperform public schools —
but much of the reason has nothing to do with schools: these students are
richer, and tend to have more involved and better-educated parents.
A good experiment
controls for this selection bias and tests only the effects of the school.
Bridge does this — but not entirely. Still, the differences are dramatic enough that it is likely that
Bridge is right.
“Likely that Bridge is right”? I would
hope that such self-generated studies might be approached with a bit more
skepticism; or offered up to an academic expert for comment. Here, for example, is a critique of the evidence for the efficacy of
BIA schools, which concludes: “No reliable evidence of
efficacy supported by independent academic research conducting randomised
Clearly, most African public schools
are not ideal learning environments. As
Rosenberg herself points out, “Public schools in poor countries are
mostly overcrowded — there can be 100 or more children in a class.” But then she explains that at Bridge
International, the company seeks to achieve profit by increasing class size, and
(Bridge argues, with good
supporting evidence, that
teacher-student ratio — unless the number of students is overwhelmingly high —
matters much less than other factors.)
Hmm, like what?
Teacher quality? When Bridge
hires high school graduates and give them three weeks of training?
To keep tuition costs
low – about $6 a term – Bridge depends on large class sizes. An ideal class
size is 40 to 50 pupils, but the classes can get to 60 students. The physical
infrastructure is modest too – often just simple building made of sheet metal
and timber, which can be constructed in a few days.
Bridge International has been confronted with even more
In September 2015, the Kenyan
stopped the planned expansion of these private schools in order
to issue new regulations to ensure quality.
Shannon May, one of the two BIA co-founders, objected, by saying that
they needed to enroll at least “500,000 pupils to break even.”
This “break-even point” seems excessive, given the low
salaries of the teachers, and the millions of dollars provided by investors,
including Pearson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg ($10 million), the World Bank
($10 million) and even US taxpayers, via the federal government’s low-interest
loans through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation ($10 million.)
As Singh wrote, the Liberian plan “is
unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed. …Provision of public
education of good quality is a core function of the state, and abandoning this
to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of
the right to education.”
In April 2016, the Minister
of Education in Uganda, Rose Nassali Lukwago, ordered the
owners of Bridge International to immediately halt their expansion, concerned
about the school’s “legality … the quality of infrastructure, teachers' issues,
methodology and curriculum."
In May, 100
African organizations signed
a statement, blasting the World Bank for subsidizing
the chain’s operations.
They pointed out
that contrary to the implications in
by the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, the tuition was
a considerable sum for the average Kenyan or Ugandan family:
“Schools fees at BIA range from about $6.5 to
$9, depending on the grade. To this should be added the cost of uniforms, sold
by Bridge, which cost about $18.5 per year, the equivalent of another $2 per
month over 9 months, and exam fees of $2 to $3 per term. Other costs for
textbooks, payment transfers, or other items may be added, and so a
conservative estimate of the real monthly amount received by BIA for each child
ranges rather between $9 and $13 a month – excluding food, which BIA provides
for an additional $7 per month. The total monthly bill including school meals
thus ranges between $16 and $20.
assuming a cost of $6 per month, the speech reveals the World Bank’s profound
lack of understanding of the reality of poor people’s lives. When President [of
the World Bank] Kim argues that schooling at Bridge costs “just” $6, the underlying message is
that $6 a month is a small amount of money worth paying for schooling, even in
contexts of great poverty. Such a statement is ill-informed and dangerous… for
half of Kenyan households, even assuming a cost of $6 a month, sending 3
children of primary school age to a Bridge Academy would cost at least 24%
of their monthly income. Taking into account more realistic monthly costs
of about $17 that include school meals, sending their children to a Bridge
Academy would cost half Kenyan households at least 68% of their monthly income.
But it’s often more. 47% of Kenya’s population live below the poverty line, and
for some counties in the rural areas the poverty rates escalate to as high as
70%.5 This means that for 47% of the population, any expenditure to
access education, even $6, means sacrificing another essential right for their
survival, such as health, food, or water.”[emphasis mine]
For a typical Uganda family, they added, “the total cost of sending their children to Bridge Academies
would be at least 26% of their monthly income (assuming a cost of $6 a
month), and more likely around 75%.”
|Wanted ad showing Curtis Riep placed by BIA|
Then, on May 30, Curtis Riep, a Canadian academic was
arrested in Uganda
while researching the conditions of BIA schools for
non-profit organization called Education International.
Five days before his arrest,
Bridge International had placed a ‘wanted
’ in a national newspaper, accusing Riep of ‘illegally’ impersonating one
of its employees.
All charges were
dropped after Riep explained to the police that he had made appointments with
school personnel using his name and explaining his mission.
(For more on Riep’s arrest, and BIA in
general, see this
On June 9, the United
Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child
(CRC) criticized the UK
government for investing in the chain, and urged the government to “refrain from funding for-profit private
schools” and “prioritise free and quality primary education in public schools
On July 14, Front Page Africa reported that the
had demanded that BIA allow a randomized control trial,
the “gold standard” of research,
if their results were in fact better than other schools in the nation – and
that BIA was resisting this requirement.
9, the President of Uganda
announced that all 63 BIA schools would be
closed at the end of the school term and would stay closed “until the ministry
is satisfied that they have put in place what is required to operate a school
as per ministry’s guidelines,” according
to a transcript
of her speech.
referred to the poor infrastructure, the curriculum which “could not promote
teacher pupil interaction” and inadequate hygiene and sanitation, which she
said “put the life and safety of the school children in danger.”
“This decision, which is backed up by
field visits of Ministry officials, confirms the grave concerns we have had
about Bridge. We have long been worried that BIA schools did not respect the
Government Guidelines on Basic Requirements and Minimum Standards for Schools
for example regarding infrastructure, purposefully used unqualified teachers in
order to reduce costs, in violations of Ugandan laws, and were developing a
massive for-profit business without the agreement and proper oversight of the
It turns out that the Brookings Institution, the major focus
of the recent NY Times critique about DC think tanks, also put out a glowing
report on Bridge International
June. As pointed out by Graham
, the report was funded by the MacArthur Foundation and
Both organisations have made direct
investments in BIA programmes. Furthermore, according to Brookings 2015 Annual
Report, one of their most
generous donors is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Brookings receives funding from the Gates
Foundation, and Bill Gates has personally invested in this school.
Strangely enough, though the arrest and release of Riep occurred before
the NY Times article appeared on June 14, neither one was mentioned by Tina
Clearly she must have known
about this since it was reported in the Washington
on June 6, as well as several Canadian papers on June
Also omitted from her article
was any mention of the decisions of the Kenyan and Uganda governments to halt
the expansion of Bridge International schools.
even if the NY Times piece was flawed, incomplete and perhaps biased, why did I
lead with the claim of an unannounced conflict of interest?
column appeared in a section of the Times called Fixes which is described this way: “Fixes looks at solutions to social
problems and why they work.” The columns are written by Rosenberg and David
Bornstein. When Bornstein writes a
column, this explanation appears next to his words:
And where is the conflict? It turns out that Solutions Journalism has
million in grants from the Gates Foundation since 2014 –
with the latest
grant of $850,000 provided in July 2016, shortly after Rosenberg's second laudatory column on BIA. And
as mentioned earlier, Gates himself is
an investor in this for-profit chain.
Yet none of this is mentioned in either of her columns.
these two columns are not the only times Rosenberg has promoted the priorities
of Bill Gates and his Foundation.
disruptive, online education is highly controversial. But the flipped classroom
is a strategy that nearly everyone agrees on. “It’s the only thing I write
about as having broad positive agreement,” said Justin Reich, a fellow at the
Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard who studies technology and
Nearly everyone agrees on “Flipped Classrooms”?
Reich later qualified the statement, and wrote
: “I would say
there are very few people that are arguing that flipping classrooms is creating
new harms. There are, however, plenty of people that think there isn't any
there there with the flipped classroom.”
Rosenberg also wrote a glowing column in the New York Times
in March 2015 in support of New
Classrooms, a company spun off from a program in the
NYC public schools, where it was called “ School of One”, in which students get
much of their math instruction from computer programs and online tutors. Gates has repeatedly praised the value of
this program, most recently
in April 2016 in a speech in which he called New Classrooms a
that “represents the future not only of
math, but a number of subjects.”
In support of New Classrooms, Rosenberg cited a research study
by Doug Ready of Columbia, and described the results this way:
evaluated students using a comprehensive test called Measures of Academic
Progress, which many schools take at the beginning, the end and sometimes the
middle of the school year.
found that in their first year of using School of One, the seven New York City
schools made progress statistically similar to the national average. The second
year, however, School of One did much better. It added eight more schools, and the
collective gains for the 15 schools were 47 percent higher than the national
average. They were also highest among the worst-off students, which is exactly
what you want to see. M.S. 88 did slightly better than the national average in
math improvement the first year, but in the second year did 60 percent better.
That’s an extra six months of learning.
Yet Ready himself points out in the
study that “It is important to stress again
that these findings cannot be attributed to TTO [Teach to One,
another name for the program] without the use of experimental
or quasi-experimental designs. In other words, we cannot state definitively
caused the above-average achievement gains noted above.”
Rosenberg did not include these reservations in her column. Nor did she mention another study – a true randomized controlled experiment,
examined whether the School of One had any impact on the student achievement
during a two-year period in NYC schools (2012-13 and 2013-14). In contrast,
this study concluded that
“School of One had no statistically
significant effects on student achievement—positive or negative–relative to
traditional math instruction
Worse yet, in none of her columns was
there any disclaimer or mention of a potential conflict of interest, given that
the Gates Foundation is also a major funder of Solutions Journalism. One would think this might be a problem for
the NY Times, whose
Disclosure of Possible Conflicts
Staff members must be sensitive
to these possibilities. In some cases,
disclosure is enough. But if The Times considers the problem serious, the staff
member may have to withdraw from certain coverage.
contributors are also asked to sign
stating that they are abiding by The Times’s guidelines on
conflicts of interest.
The fact that she did not include any
disclaimer in her columns on BIA, blended learning or School of One also
appears to violate the code of professionalism of Solutions Journalism itself.
In a page on its website entitled Ethics,
the following statement is made:
Journalism Network is a nonpartisan organization committed to transparency and
editorial independence. We do not support or advocate for any particular idea,
model, organization, or agenda….
grant recipients, whether newsrooms or individual journalists, should
adhere to the highest standards of conduct as set forth in by bodies such as
the Society of Professional Journalists…
believe that it would be a disservice to society to exclude critical reporting
on social innovations funded by these sources. On the other hand, it is
critically important that such relationships not conflict with the principles
of independent journalism. SJN’s grant recipients, whether newsrooms
or individual journalists, should adhere to the highest standards of conduct as
set forth in by bodies such as the Society of Professional Journalists.
require that our grant recipients remain completely transparent about any
potential conflicts of interest that could arise in the context of reporting on
an issue of interest to a Solutions Journalism Network funder.
The highest and
primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
– Avoid conflicts of
interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
None of these actions were taken by the New York Times or
Solutions Journalism, and Rosenberg herself has consistently failed to provide any
disclosures of conflicts of interest, no less make any effort to avoid them in
the first place by refusing to hype the favorite projects of her donors.
Instead, the Times has run her excessively one-sided columns, promoting companies that have received Bill
Gates’ personal investments or those from the Gates Foundation, which is also a
major funder of the organization she helps run. Hypocrisy or lack of oversight? You be the judge.
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