Innovation in Education? Bridge International’s Academy-in-a-Box

For six years, an innovator in charter school education has moved quickly to educate some of the world’s poorest children – for less per month than it costs to buy a Venti Frappuccino. Bridge International, a Silicon Valley startup with aggressive goals, has just had its founders named Social Entrepreneurs of the Year by The World Economic Forum for its innovation and success in educating children in Kenya. The company, which now boasts the “largest chain of private schools in Africa,” according to Izzy Best reporting for CNBC,” is poised to enter three more African countries this year.

http://www.cnbc.com/id/102361103#

“The first Bridge International Academy opened in 2009 using a “school-in-a-box” franchise model. The objective, says Best, was to give “children a quality education for roughly $5 a month, beginning with early childhood development classes through 8th grade.” Now, founders Jay Kimmelman and his wife, Dr. May Shannon Kimmelman, have established more than 350 locations with more than 100,000 pupils in Kenya and have received significant recognition for Bridge International, which was named one of the 25 Most Audatious Companies by Inc. Magazine in 2014.

Supported by big name investors, including Bill Gates and Pierre Omidyar, the company looks to provide quality schooling to children living in extreme poverty. According to The World Bank, Best reports, “one billion people will live in extreme poverty in 2015, while 2.2 billion people live on less than $2 a day…For many who live in developing economies, this means that access to good schools remains elusive, as the effects of poor education limits employment opportunities and increases inequality for women. Bridge International seeks to remedy this problem with a low-cost educational model.”

Bridge International has achieved this by using technology, including tablets and smartphones to run curricula and administration packaged in their program. They have standardized the lesson plans and put them on a timed system where their teachers are delivering proscribed lesson plans at exactly the same time using the tablets. Administrative tasks, including tracking teacher scheduling and subsequent evaluation is included, so they can be sure their “Academic Masters,” as teachers are called are delivering the program as expected.

“What we’ve done is taken a systems approach and looking at all the parts of the educational process and say, ‘What parts do you need to deliver world-class quality education, but at a price point that a customer is getting an experience that you’d get at any great school anywhere in the world?’ ” Best quotes  Kimmelman as saying.

Today, Best reports, “more than 100,000 students are enrolled at nearly 350 Bridge schools, all in Kenya. They are staffed with approximately 4,500 teachers who leverage technology and use digital devices to deliver class lessons created by education specialists. Student evaluations are electronically tracked and monitored by school administrators.” The Kimmelman’s intend to expand the program soon into India, Uganda and Nigeria.

According to the company’s website, they “invested large sums of capital in research, development, technology, and curriculum before even the first pupil was admitted,” to achieve “efficiencies both in terms of the overhead costs required to run an academy and in terms of increasing the….The vast majority of non-instructional activities that an Academy Manager would normally have to deal with are all automated and centralized through a combination of our Academy Manager’s smartphone application and our Teachers’ tablet application.  This frees our Academy Manager to focus on the critical work that must be executed locally – overseeing classroom instruction and building and managing relationships with parents and the local community.”

Their scripted curriculum delivered via tablet has “step-by-step instructions explaining what teachers should do and say during any given moment of a class.”

Terrance Ross, reporting in October in The Atlantic on what the Kimmelmans had achieved with Bridge International said, a report by the World Bank indicated in contrast that only “35 percent of Kenya’s public school teachers showed “mastery of the curriculum they teach….Previous attempts to solve this problem have been expensive, and ineffective.”  According to the same report, he said: “The government spends more than any of its neighbors. There’s a disconnect between Kenya’s spending on education and learning outcomes. More of the same is not enough….This is where Bridge has found its niche: somewhere between the exorbitantly expensive private schools and the absentee-ridden public ones.”

According to Ross, “So far, it’s been working: Bridge’s students score an average of 35 percent higher on core reading skills and 19 percent higher in math than their peers in neighboring schools. But not everyone is on board. Kate Redman, a communications and advocacy specialist for UNESCO’s Education For All initiative, isn’t convinced by Bridge’s long-term prospects.

“Redman also warns against Bridge and other private schools for potentially “imposing external cultural values” on the country. While private schools can help, it can be a slippery slope as well—the onus should remain on public schools to keep improving.”

Others have questioned Bridge International’s formulaic approach. Jason Beaubien, NPR’s Global Health and Development Correspondent for “Marketplace,” described this way, “Their business model takes the franchise model of Mcdonalds; merges it with a tablet computer’s efficiency at delivering information; automates daily operations through a smartphone and then plunks the final product down in a third world slum for $5 a month.”

His segment included comment from  Ed Gragert, the U.S. director of the Global Campaign for Education, who said, “If somebody suggested that kind of an educational model, in this country they would be laughed out of the educational community,” which advocates for increased access to education in the developing world. “That’s not how kids learn best,” he says. “Kids learn by interacting with each other. It seems like we are going back for the sake of somebody making a profit to where a robot could teach that class.”

Bridge International’s May Kimmelman disagreed saying the company had a different view of their teachers. She emphasized the company is working to “solve one of the biggest problems facing the poorest of the poor — the lack of access to decent education.”

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]

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