Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Bridge International, for-profit chain of schools in Africa may violate student privacy rights among other abuses

A little less than a year ago, I blogged about how the journalist Tina Rosenberg, who regularly writes for the NY Times Fixes column, had repeatedly praised the for-profit education company, Bridge International Academy, while glossing over or omitted negative information, including the arrest of a doctoral student falsely arrested for investigating conditions at the school. Bridge International, or BIA as it is commonly called, currently runs over 500 private schools in India, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda, with the professed goal of reaching 10 million students by 2025. The company hires high school graduates and provide them with just a few weeks of training, and then send them off to teach to read scripts off computer tablets.

Rosenberg wrote glowingly about  this company in her column while failing to disclose how she and the organization she co-founded, Solutions Journalism, have a conflict of interest:  Bill Gates has invested in BIA, along with Pearson, Mark Zuckerberg and others, while the Gates Foundation has granted Solutions Journalism more than $2.5 million in funds since 2014.

Last year, Liberian government outsourced fifty primary schools to be operated by Bridge, and  recently decided to allow them to expand the number even more, without waiting for the results of a randomized trial as originally promised.  The decision of the Liberian government to expand the company's operations without actual evidence of their schools' quality led to a public statement of protest from the academic community.  Bridge's operations in Liberia has also been criticized by Kishore Singh, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, who sent a letter to the Liberian president, stating that by outsourcing its educational system to a for-profit company, the country was committing a “gross violation” of its education obligations under the Sustainable Development Goal number four, which states that by 2030, the nation would “ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.”


On July 27,  the NY Times magazine ran a comprehensive on-the-ground description by Peg Tyre of these schools in Kenya, along with some of their problems.  Tyre described how many families can't afford the tuition, students were sent home immediately if their parents fell behind on payments, teachers deliver rigid scripted lessons with no time to answer questions, and in buildings that often feature inadequate unsanitary conditions.

A couple of weeks later, Tyre's account was challenged by a breezy NY Times column by Nick Kristof whose argument could be summarized this way: the Liberian education system is a disaster, so Bridge's schools must serve as an improvement.  (The same argument, by the way, is often used by charter school supporters to privatize public schools, rather than invest in improving their conditions.) This column sparked a Twitter debate between Prof. Daniel Katz and Kristof, into which I occasionally interjected.

Among the other troubling concerns with Bridge is the company's plans to achieve profits by using the personal student data of students for marketing purposes, as described here by the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
This concept is troubling, to say the least, and it can be easily imagined how Bridge International Academy might share data on families that lapsed on tuition payments with banks and used to deny them credit and/or loans.

More recently Liberia's teachers have come out publicly against the expansion of Bridge, and yesterday 174 organizations from 50 nations, including Network for Public Education, on whose board I sit, came out with a letter urging investors to cease their support and divest in Bridge given the company's lack of transparency, inadequate research evidence, poor conditions, and violation of student and teacher rights.  As well as divestment, the letter from the organizations , whose logos are below,  goes on to make the following demands of investors:

● Immediately and independently verify BIA’s compliance with national laws and standards,
including human rights, educational, disability, and labor standards;
● Ensure that issues of equity, systemic discrimination, and exclusion are addressed;
● Demand that BIA immediately uphold standards of transparency and publicly disclose information about its operations, including accurate information on actual levels of fees and real costs for parents, teacher salaries and qualifications, enrollment data of children with disabilities, student attrition and completion rates, legal status and policy compliance in different countries, etc.
● Demand that BIA immediately stop intimidating civil society organizations and researchers, including teachers’ unions, and collaborate with any interested researcher in order to provide reasonable access to its schools and all information required to make independent assessments of its claims;
● Engage in dialogue with civil society organizations to review the concerns about BIA and to explore alternative ways to make a valuable contribution to education;
● Demand immediate action to remedy the above violations, within a reasonable timeframe and with adequate monitoring, or alternatively withdraw existing investments;
● Transparently share information about existing or future evaluations of BIA, and engage in dialogue about these evaluations with all stakeholders, including civil society organizations;
● Cease future investments of public or private resources in BIA and other fee-charging, commercial private schools that are failing to reach the most disadvantaged and contributing to socio-economic segregation, undermining the public education system, or undermining the rule of law;
● Invest in programs that fight poverty and inequality by promoting high-quality, equitable, free public education, including programs that help local and national governments improve public schools and expand to under-served areas;
● Constructively engage with civil society organizations to promote the realization of the right to education.

Surely, that would be a good start!

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