May 6th, 2018
Bridge International Academies were founded in 2007 by Shannon May and her husband Jay Kimmelman, along with their friend Phil Frei. From early on, the three aimed to provide high quality education to those that need it the most, all at a low cost. Bridge operates 405 schools in Kenya, educating children from preschool through eight grade. From early on, the founders’ plans for education were grand. Kimmelman described Bridge as, “an aggressive start-up company that could figure out how to profitably deliver education at a high quality for less than $5 a month and that could radically disrupt the status quo in education for these 700 million children and ultimately create what could be a billion-dollar new global education company” (qtd. in Tyre, 1). When the schools first started, Bridge founders promised to revolutionize primary-school education. The noble concept, providing low-cost private schools for the world’s poorest children, gained the attention of multiple investors, including Bill Gates, the World Bank, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Pearson Company. According to The Wall Street Journal, Bridge had “secured more than $100 million by 2015” (qtd. in Tyre, 1). With this money, Bridge was educating 100,000 students, and May, Kimmelman and Frei claimed they were providing a “world-class education at less than 30% of what the average developing country spends per child on primary education” (qtd. in Tyre, 1). The Bridge concept-low cost private schools for the world’s poorest children-focuses on the American ideal of social equality. The ideas that everyone is equal, everyone is worth something and everyone should have the right to pursue his/her own talents are at the core of what Bridge was built on.
May and Kimmelman decided to build their headquarters in Nairobi, and opened their first school there in 2009. At this point, Nairobi had begun to develop technologically, with farmers, merchants and low-wage workers each having access to the internet and cell phones. Advances such as mobile banking were quick to follow. Despite these improvements, the public-education system was still failing. Primary school in Kenya starts at age six, and runs for eight years. Wealthy Kenyans and foreigners send their children to private schools, which are mostly taught in English and have unlimited resources. Working parents, who are usually poor, send their students to parochial or local private schools, known as informal schools. These schools are not government funded, and charge fees that are slightly higher than the public schools’ fees. However, “sixteen percent of Kenya’s poor school-age children do not attend school because their parents can’t afford even the smallest school payments” (Tyre, 1). All Kenyan schools must teach the required national curriculum, which is taught in the national language of Kiswahili and English. Mastery of the curriculum is measured by an eight-grade test called the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE). Only those students who gain a high score on this exam can continue on to high school. In 2003, the Kenyan government officially removed fees for public school education, “but afterward found itself unable to construct enough schools for the poor children who tried to enroll” (Tyre, 1). The public schools, which receive government money to pay for teachers’ salaries, still charge parents small amounts to cover costs such as firewood and chalk. Kenyan parents “are often expected to pay bribes to keep their kids in free schools” (Beaubein, 1). Teacher absenteeism is also widespread. According to the World Bank, “30% of teachers fail to show up on any given school day” (Beaubein, 1). Even the Kenyan Ministry of Education recognizes the failure of the public school system, noting, “the status quo has failed…teachers don’t show up, even though they’re paid by the government. There are no books. Training is very weak. School infrastructure is not safe” (qtd. in Kristof, 1). Thus, change was clearly necessary in Kenya. It was then that Bridge founders saw an opening to make significant impact on the country and the many children who were not receiving proper education, or any education at all.
Thus, to the Kenyan Ministry of Education, Bridge schools seemed functional, practical and posed a solution to a widespread problem. The Ministry also bought into the American values that Bridge presented and wanted the chance for Kenya students to achieve success. In a country where many adults are illiterate, having teachers in classrooms who can read is an accomplishment itself. Kimmelman believes that Bridge is “providing parents with a real option” (qtd in Beaubein, 1). From the start, Bridge aimed to be large scale, and the founders had set extremely lofty goals for what Bridge International Academies could achieve. May and Kimmelman knew they wanted high-quality curriculum, textbooks, technology, toys, etc., but also wanted to keep fees low. In their publication, The Bridge Effect, Bridge International Academies explains their approach as “developed systems and processes integrated with innovation in technology so that every pupil receives a high quality education…a high quality education relies on dedicated teachers, engaging lessons, effective learning materials, a safe environment for learning, and ultimately, accountability to parents” (7). In order to do accomplish these large goals, Bridge founders ensured that classrooms have a large number of students, with 40-50 students being the ideal classroom size (with some classrooms having upward of 70 students).
From the outside, Bridge schools look like traditional Kenyan public schools, with no electricity, blackboards and wooden desks. Like most Kenyan children, Bridge students wear school uniforms. Where Bridge differs, however, is through the use of technology. In 2013, Bridge hired charter-school teachers in Massachusetts to write Bridge lessons that are uploaded onto e-readers that Bridge teachers use each day. This means that every teacher at every Bridge school should be teaching the same grade should be following the same script on any given day. Bridge described the lessons as engaging and works to align material with the Kenyan 8-4-4 national syllabus (Beaubein, 1). The standardized lesson plans allow Bridge leaders to cut costs when it comes to teachers. Bridge teachers are high school graduates from surrounding neighborhoods who receive five weeks of training on teaching and the e-readers. May says the traditional model where teachers are meant to be experts on everything doesn’t make sense, especially in a country where teachers have likely had limited education themselves. She notes, “what the child is able to learn is always limited by what the teacher knows…so you can never have the child leap-frog previous problems within that town, city, or country” (qtd. in Beaubein, 1). Moreover, the e-reader that teachers deliver lessons from serves multiple other purposes and also acts as “an electronic time sheet, grade book and supervisor. The tablet tracks what time the teacher arrives, what time she leaves and how long she spends on every lesson” (Beaubein, 1). Bridge founders argue that the extended school day (7:30 AM-5:30 PM) and extended school week (school on Saturday from 9 AM to 4 PM) as well as the real-time feedback entered daily by teachers into the e-reader are also factors that allow Bride students to succeed. By 2015, Bridge was educating 100,000 students and the founders believed they were providing a “world class education at less than 30 percent of what the average developing country spends per child on primary education” (Tyre, 1). If Bridge schools were truly doing what they were meant to, this itself would represent a remarkable achievement.
When looking at the Bridge model, many are reminded of American modernization theories. Syemour Martin Lipset, a modernization theorist, believed highly in democratic faith, or the idea that everyone was equal and a value to society. Lipset writes, “when I say that we Americans value equality, I mean that we believe all persons must be given respect simply because they are human beings; we believe that the differences between high and low status people reflect accidental, and perhaps temporary, variations in social relationships” (2). This idea fits in with Bridge’s idea that the poorest people are not poor by choice, and that every child deserves to be educated at a low cost. Bridge founders truly believed they could change the world. In fact, when first starting the schools, Kimmelman recalls that he remembers thinking “you can see the effect that education has on human potential in front of your eyes (qtd. in Tyre, 1). By 2016, Bridge had hundreds of school open in Kenya as well as 63 schools running in Uganda and 23 in Nigeria (Tyre, 1). Lipset argues that “the emphasis on equality was reflected in the introduction of universal suffrage in America long before it came in other nations; in the fair consistent and extensive support for a public school system so that all might have a common educational background” (2). It seems then that Bridge is trying to provide the fair, consistent and extensive education that Lipset speaks about. Moreover, Lipset writes “for people to be equal, they need a chance to become equal. Success, therefore should be attainable by all, no matter what accidents of birth, class or race” (2). Parents of Bridge students believe that their children can and will become equal by attending these schools, and most have high extremely high expectations for their children. One parent, Livingston Kagasi, who is a day laborer, noted that the local public school was not an option for his son Rivival because it would not allow Rivial to reach his full potential and achieve success (Tyre, 1). Another parent, Elizabeth Mumo, sends her sons Joshua and Samuel to Bridge schools because she believes her sons deserve a chance to be equal to other students around the world. She explains that even though money is tight, she wants her children to go to Bridge. She points out “that a handful of Bridge students have gone to private schools in the United States…and imagines her oldest son going to a university” (Tyre, 1). When listening to these parents and their testimonies, they resemble much of Lipset’s arguments, which seem to be at the core of Bridge’s mission and ideals as the schools aim to successfully education children in the developing world. When the notion of democratic faith was first introduced, many took the idea to other countries in the hopes of making developing countries more like America. This seems to be exactly what Bridge has done with its schools in Kenya.
Bridge International Academies also strongly believes that by providing children in Kenya with quality education, they will then develop individuals who will eventually break the cycle of poverty in their families and contribute to the overall economy of their home country. This idea resembles that of Alex Inkeles, who speaks of convergence and divergence in education. Inkeles notes Americans have always had a particular interest in education in order to promote stable, democratic governments. There is a strong desire to “Americanize” people, and Inkeles notes “convergence in education is, in fact, a response to pressures from other elements of the social system…the operation of such forces undoubtedly accounts for the fact that we so often observe a strong correlation between the adoption of new educational forms and practices on the one hand and national levels of economic development on the other” (328). Bridge International Academies seems to fall into this theory of American modernization, as the founders believe that America is clearly a more advanced society, and Kenyans would be eager to want to adapt to the America way. Marie Leznicki, Bridge’s vice present of brand strategy, notes “When the first academies opened, our mentality was a bit like ‘If we build it, they will come'” (qtd. in Tyre, 1). Bridge founders had a very optimistic view of the world and Kenya in particular, and believed that Kenyan parents would view the American schools as a solution to their multitude of problems. Once again, Bridge founders hoped that the schools would eventually help children end the cycle of poverty for their families, and set lofty goals for students to achieve.
Of course the question remains, do Bridge students outperform their peers at neighborhood public schools? Does Bridge really work? Bridge arranged for its students to be tested alongside students at government schools and other low-cost private schools, and issued a working paper afterwards called “The Bridge Effect,” which was published in 2015. The study tracked 2,737 kindergarten, first and second grade students for the 2013-2014 school year, with 42 Bridge International Academies and 42 public schools in the sample size. The students were assessed at the beginning and end of the school year. According to The Bridge Effect, there was a 43% increase in the number of Bridge kindergarten students who reached the “emergent” benchmark in English and a 40% increase in learning subtraction in math, compared with 22% and 15% increases for their public school peers (52-65). The percentage increase of Bridge students who reached the “fluent” benchmark in English was high (among Bridge first graders it was 40%), compared with 17% of increase among first graders in public schools (52-65). However, the percentage increase of second graders who scored “fluent” in math skills was actually the same or higher in public schools than at Bridge Academies (52-65). Another area of achievement that Bridge believes it is most successful in is the eight-grade KCPE test. Students must obtain a high score on this exam in order to move on to high school. In 2015, according to Bridge, “63% of Bridge students who had been at Bridge International Academies for at least two years passed, compared with 49% of Kenyan students nationwide” (Tyre, 1). These numbers, however, seem imprecise and unclear, with former employees of Bridge noting that students who had been tested as on track to get a low score were asked to repeat a year. Other students were also taken to “cram schools” and prepped for the test by teachers who were flown in from the United States. Thus, the impact of the Bridge curriculum on learning remains blurred and distorted.
Despite its initial success, Bridge International Academies has run into multiple issues while opening their many schools. At the start, Kenyan parents were hesitant to send their children to Bridge, and did not necessarily see Bridge schools are a better alternative than the government run public schools. Since most of the parents were illiterate themselves, they did not understand the difference between Bridge schools and the government run schools their children were currently attending. Bridge schools also seem to have selection criteria that disadvantage various categories of students from attending. The schools are primarily located in the central region (most specifically in the east, south and mid-south) of the country. These areas are actually more economically developed and have greater jobs opportunities than the poor areas in the north, which begs the question of if Bridge is truly reaching the poorest students as it claims to (Bridge Vs. Reality, 53). For those parents who live in the central region, sending a child to a Bride school is in fact more expensive that the public school. No matter how cost conscious Bridge thought it was, the poorest of parents were still unable to afford the tuition and additional payments that Bridge schools require. Parents “have to pay enrollment fees, they have to pay for uniforms, they have to pay for lunch…for us, a matter of few dollars is nothing, but for these poor families, it can be a monumental obstacle” (Tyre, 1). It seems as though Bridge did not follow the advice of theorist Edward W. Said. Although Said spoke mainly about the East, many of his ideas can be applied here. Said noted how we think about other can lead to many negative consequences, but it seems as though Bridge was unable to take this into account when setting up its schools. Some parents did, however, manage to enroll their children in the new Bridge schools. While optimistic about the schools at first, parents quickly realized that payment would become an enormous problem. Village workers in Kenya often do not have job security, and most parents have unpredictable income. For Bridge, “business in Kenya depends on most parents making routine electronic payments by mobile phone. But slum-dwelling parents in Kenya are mostly occasional workers who rarely have a predictable income” (Tyre, 1). Parents in Kenya explain that any emergency or unplanned occasions, such as illness or loss of job, that pops up can ultimately cost them a month’s worth of tuition. Even simple things, such as the price of groceries, fluctuate daily, and this can cause parents to be unable to pay for their children to attend school.
Many parents complain that Bridge International Academies are extremely inflexible with payment, unlike the public schools, which may help parents out with a payment plan. They noted if the electronic payment is not paid on time every month, children are sent home from school. One parent complained, “they tell you ‘sit home with your child until you get the money'” while another noted “at times I’ve gone without eating so I can pay school fees” (qtd. in Tyre, 1). When asked in they have ever missed school due to fees, 58 percent of children stated that they sometimes have to miss school on average three times per term due to non-payment (Bridge Vs. Reality, 44). This model of payment has received extremely harsh criticism, especially for schools that claim to want to education children at the lowest cost to families. Michael Conway, Bridge’s East Africa director of operations, says “Bridge schools…depend on paying customers…we know families make choices about who gets paid first. We don’t want to be the last vendor paid. If we become that, then our financial model would be difficult to sustain” (qtd. in Tyre, 1). Conway also notes that Bridge currently has 80,000 students enrolled, and these high numbers make sustaining the Bridge model complicated. He states that children are allowed to be in school even if their parents haven’t paid, but as mentioned, parents have noted that this is not the case. Conway says “it is difficult to keep up enrollment and make the schools break even” (qtd. in Tyre, 1). Because Bridge is running a for-profit model they rely on parents payments, but at what cost to the families?
Many have argued that the Bridge model is unrealistic, and expecting parents to pay on time each month, no matter how low the cost, is simply ridiculous. Families who enroll their children at Bridge schools are some of the poorest and most impoverished in the entire world. Theorist Michel Foucault notes that many people may have a distorted view of what happens in another country, but one must be aware of this distorted view. Bridge leaders, however, seemed to ignore their particular perspectives when setting up the schools. While the schools work for the very few families who have stable incomes, they do not work for the majority. Keith Lewin, a professor at the University of Sussex, is highly opposed to the Bridge model and notes that “people who engage in a discourse around making a vast number of the poorest people in Africa pay $6 every month for school tuition are people who have no idea what the lives of people living at or below the poverty line are actually like” (qtd. in Tyre, 1). While $6 a month may seem like nothing to send a child to school for those who live in America, the burden of paying these fee is enormous for Kenyan families. One study shows that the fees slightly differ from one Bridge schools to another, or according to grade level of the student. When taking an average of these variables, “it was estimated that a figure three times higher than Bridge claims is a more realistic picture of the cost of attending Bridge” (Bridge Vs. Reality, 40). Clifford Geertz explains that societies are not simply going to become like America overnight, and emphasizes that the history of the region and the culture of the region must be taken into account before applying a template onto the society. Unfortunately, it seems as though Bridge leaders looked past the true living conditions of the Kenyan people. Many hidden costs remain at Bridge schools, including uniforms and lunch, which only makes payment increase. Even Kimmelman recognizes that Bridge is not able to reach 100 percent of Kenya’s poorest children, saying “in our communities, 85 percent of the families in the poorest communities can afford to send all their boys and all of their girls of the proper age to our school” (qtd. in Rosenberg, 1). The other 15 percent of children live in such extreme poverty that making through each day and merely surviving can be a struggle itself. For these families, 70 to 80 percent of income is spent on food solely to survive. Many children attend the public schools and then work at various jobs in the afternoons to help with finances. Bridge has been harshly criticized for exacerbating poverty, with parents having to borrow money from friends or take out loans if they cannot pay for school fees. This only pushes families more into debt, all while endangering their financial stability (Bridge Vs. Reality, 50). Moreover, with high school fees parents are noted to have difficulties paying rent or accessing healthcare. One mother stated, “When my child was admitted in the hospital, it was very hard for me to pay the hospital bills and at the same time meet school fee expenses. I also found it to be very difficult to pay the enrollment fee…which, again, in public school is free of charge” (qtd. in Bridge Vs. Reality, 50). So, are Bridge Academies truly reaching and helping the poorest of the poor children? After digging deeper into this issue, the answer seems to be no.
Bridge International Academies has also received much scrutiny regarding the quality of education it claims to provide to students. As mentioned, Bridge performed a comparative study called The Bridge Effect in order to prove that Bridge students were outperforming their public school peers. The results “show that Bridge pupils gain an additional .34 standard deviation on core reading skills and an additional .51 standard deviation on math compared to their peers in neighboring schools, based on USAID-designed exams administered by an independent monitoring and evaluation company-this translated into over 250 additional days of learning” (Bridge Vs. Reality, 20). However, this study seems unreliable due to the fact that a third-party organization, Decision Management Consultants, who was hired by Bridge, was in charge of the evaluation. Moreover, “Bridge International Academies chose the sample and the study was not peer reviewed” (Bridge Vs. Reality, 20). Additionally, many have noted that test scores do not always tell the whole story of success, and other outputs of quality education should be considered. For organizations such as UNESCO quality education includes students building values, developing skills to help them in the real world and build attitudes that enable them to lead healthy and fulfilled lives (Bridge Vs. Reality, 20). No measures have been taking on how Bridge is working towards helping students become well-rounded citizens who understand their important role in society.
It is also clear that the quality of education children receive at Bridge schools relies on the quality of its teachers. Teacher lack of qualifications has become problematic for many who analyze Bridge Schools. Once again, the only requirement to be hired at Bridge is to be a high school graduate with a minimum of a grade C. In its advertisements, Bridge notes “remember, no previous teaching experience is required for our teachers-we will train you free of cost” (Bridge Vs. Reality, 22). The majority of Bridge teachers are not professionally trained, with only 28.6 percent having ever been trained in teacher education. Bridge also provides a serious lack of training to teachers, with new hires undertaking a five-week training course depending on the teacher’s qualification at the time. This is a stark difference compared to the two-year training required to become a qualified teacher in Kenya. Bridge teachers also noted that most of the training provided “does not relate to content being taught…but rather to…issues such as how to use a tablet. A large part of the training is focused on understanding and promoting the Bridge model” (Bridge Vs. Reality, 24). Teachers are also trained on how to market the school while out in their communities. Teachers are expected to check in with families when they have not made payments, but note that these conversations can be extremely difficult and uncomfortable at times. Bridge’s teacher training is minimal to say the least, and is a stark contrast from the requirements of Kenya’s teacher training program, where teachers learn subject area content, methodology of teaching and professional preparation. When asked about the training, very few teachers felt they were equipped with skills to be successful in the classroom, with one teacher noting “training is sub-standard. One month is not enough” (Bridge Vs. Reality, 25). This, combined with the lack of professional development and feedback throughout the school year, poor working conditions, low salaries and unknown job security makes Bridge teachers highly unmotivated in the classroom, meaning students are likely not receiving the high quality education they deserve.
Bridge also believes that high quality education can be given through scripted content, much of which is not approved by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development. All Bridge lessons are developed in America, and then loaded on to Nook e-books daily or weekly. The thought is to ensure that curriculum is uniform for all Bridge schools. However, this allows for very little differentiation in the classroom and leaves teachers unable to plan in a way that best supports the needs of the children. One teacher noted, “We do not plan any lesson. We follow the tablets to the letter. We are robots being directed by tablets” (qtd. in Bridge Vs. Reality, 35). Teachers are encouraged to rely on the Nook as their only teaching tool, and no other materials are allowed in the classroom. In fact, teachers noted they would be punished if they brought other Kenyan textbooks into the classroom, with their salary being deducted for the day if they did so. The fact that Kenyan textbooks are not allowed in the classroom seems ridiculous, and once again promotes Lipset’s ideas that Americans don’t have an ideology, they are an ideology. The Nook lessons seem to only promote American ideals and do not take into account the culture of Kenya nor the educational standards put in place by the Kenyan Institute of Curriculum Development. There is the sense that American ideas and curriculum will overall benefit Kenyan school children, and Bridge believes that Kenyan children should and can become just like school children in America. When asked about the lessons provided for them, at least 46.7 percent of teachers argued that following the scripted curriculum did not always work. They noted that Bridge “emphasizes learning fast and that the Nook does not allow teachers the flexibility to adequately support learners who need extra support” (Bridge Vs. Reality, 26). Teachers also stated that students do not like the Nook curriculum and are often bored in the classroom. With all this taken into consideration, it seems then that quality education is not a high priority for Bridge leaders.
Unfortunately, the claims made by Bridge International Academies do not always seem to match the reality. It seems as though the claims are simply a market strategy to “woo over governments, development partners and international institutions to support their business” (Bridge Vs. Reality 53). In summary, Bridge seems to offer poor quality education. This low quality education is marketed to be cheap, but in reality is unaffordable and unethical. Moreover, Bridge International Academies is not accessible to all school-age children in Kenya, which overall contributes to educational segregation. The actual cost at a Bridge International School is $20-$25, which is much higher than the advertised $6. This is clearly not affordable, and “most families in the communities where Bridge operates cannot afford to send just two children to the school without spending at least 20 percent of their already low income in school fees. Thus, Bridge fees are not affordable even for the communities where Bridge is located” (Bridge Vs. Reality, 54).
Thus, it seems as though Bridge should take a step back and realize that education cannot and should not be a for-profit model. Rather than continuing to expand and build more schools, Bridge must focus on the schools it has already opened. The proponents of low-cost for-profit schools allow Bridge to make exaggerated claims on their effectiveness and their ability to reach the poor, and this must be changed. The Kenyan government itself has promised to commit to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all…the government must ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes” (Bridge Vs. Reality, 55). Thus, the Kenyan government must work with Bridge to ensure that Bridge schools are adequately providing low fee, quality education for all children regardless of their background. Moreover, Bridge must take the Kenyan national standards into account when hiring and training teachers and creating curriculum. It is noted that “the national standards must mandate the employment of qualified teachers and the delivery of a curriculum in accordance with the national requirements in educational premises and facilities that satisfy national school infrastructure and safety standards” (Bridge Vs. Reality, 55). The children of Kenya deserve nothing less than the best for themselves and their futures.