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The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves Hardcover – April 16, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Tooley (Reclaiming Education) documents his surprising finding that private schools are providing quality education to millions of poor children in the developing world. Whereas development experts insist that the path out of poverty lies in investment in public schools, the author draws on his fieldwork in India, China and Africa to argue that small entrepreneurs are educating the poor. In one region of India, 80% of urban children and 30% of rural children attend private schools; in China's Gansu province 586 private schools are located in small villages, even though the state prides itself on its public system. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the modest fees of private schools are within reach of most, and parents find them superior to public schools that are often riddled with corruption and incompetence. Tooley argues that development funds be invested to support these institutions, through vouchers to parents and microfinance loans to the schools. The author's engaging style transforms what could have been a dry if startling research report into a moving account of how poor parents struggle against great odds to provide a rich educational experience to their children. (Apr.)
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From the Back Cover

"Tooley's specialty is ultra-low-cost private education in the world's poorest countries. Orthodox opinion on developing-country education for the poor holds that parents are too ignorant to know a good school when they see one, and that a decent education is impossible to provide on the minimal budgets available to private schools serving poor students. In country after country, Tooley found that both claims are false. The book is a memoir of his travels and researches, and a thorough examination of the issues. Everyone interested in development should read it."
--Clive Crook, The Atlantic

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 268 pages
  • Publisher: Cato Institute; 1 edition (April 16, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1933995920
  • ISBN-13: 978-1933995922
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #622,535 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

James Tooley is professor of education policy at Newcastle University, where he directs the E. G. West Centre. For his ground-breaking research on private education for the poor in India, China and Africa, Professor Tooley was awarded gold prize in the first International Finance Corporation/Financial Times Private Sector Development Competition in September 2006. For the past two years, he was President of The Education Fund, Orient Global, living in Hyderabad, India. He is currently chairman of education companies in Ghana and China and advisor to a company in India, all creating embryonic chains of low cost private schools.

Prior to joining Newcastle University, Professor Tooley previously taught and researched at the Universities of Oxford and Manchester, England; Simon Fraser University, Canada; and University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His PhD is from the Institute of Education, University of London. His first job was as a mathematics high school teacher in Zimbabwe, which he took up after graduating with a degree in mathematics and philosophy from Sussex University. His work has been featured in documentaries for the BBC and PBS: for the latter it was profiled alongside the work of Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus and Grameen Bank.

Customer Reviews

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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 1, 2009
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
James Tooley's "The Beautiful Tree" is a book concerned with questioning the widely held assumption that free public education is the only, or most efficient, way to educate the poor. The book is a first-person recount of four years spent examining poor areas of African countries like Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and India, and recording the surprising number, and diversity, of private schools that serve the poor. In many areas, Tooley found that, despite the opinion of the areas politicians, the large majority of students were educated privately, even with the availability of "free" public education.

Tooley not only explores that this phenomenon exists (and that it is not an anomaly, but a presence in every poor village he explored), but why it is happening. Tooley talked to school "proprietors," parents who elect to send their children to private schools, and children who have attended both public and private schools. Tooley found that low quality of public education was the largest reason for parents sending children to private schools. Much like the United States, Tooley explains that corruption and bureaucratic jockeying is plaguing the public school infrastructure in Africa (from regulators taking bribes to teachers' unions shielding teachers from accountability). Towards the end of the book, Tooley unveils the results of his 150 school (and several thousand student) study whereby he gave students in public and private school tests and compared their results. Even those who can already guess the results will be surprised!

One of the most infuriating parts of The Beautiful Tree is the attitude and resistance Tooley found in the politicians and academics he encountered along the way.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I liked the book for what I learned or confirmed about the Non-Governmental do-gooders out there. The books explains the up-hill battle against pre-determined conceptions among them and their agendas. I have some first hand knowledge of this during two deployments to Iraq. They have the money and their minds are made up. No facts, research or personal, up-close, in the trenches experience is going to deviate these people from their mission to save the world or parents from themselves. I particularly enjoyed the chapters toward the end where Dr. Tooley explains the history of private education, the use of peers to educate and how much the West owes the East in spreading education world-wide. This is a great read. There has to be a better way than look to government, NGOs and rock stars to solve all our porblems. Sadly we have to go to the slums of India to learn this.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By D. W. MacKenzie on April 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The standard story behind public education is simple. In theory, education is a public good that generates `positive externalities'. In theory, education must be compulsory and taxpayer funded, because people will not pay for the `social benefits' of education, and may not even understand the importance of education. In theory, only the state can guarantee the education of the masses.

The Beautiful Tree puts the theory of education as a public good to a serious test. In reality private schools are flourishing in countries like India and China, and in the African continent. The theory of education as a public good never was sound. It is obvious that most of the benefits of education are internal (i.e. education increases lifetime income) and the external benefits are arguably infra-marginal (i.e. externalities of education exist but do not hinder the supply of education).

This book also sets the affordability issue to rest. Poor people can afford good education because education is not inherently expensive. While it is true that the per student cost of American education is high, this is due to institutional conditions driven by lobbying and politics (i.e. by the AFT) which have artificially inflated our costs. However, the costs of education are not inherently or inescapably high. There is no need to fund education through redistribution.

The one nit I have to pick with the Cato crowd is on vouchers. Entitlements to education, like vouchers, can produce the same results that the author of this book decries- corruption and waste. But this disagreement does not detract from the general value of this book. Read it and learn more about learning.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By S. Moestl on February 25, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I'd like to see as many people reading this book as have read the very popular book Three Cups of Tea. Both of these books are about education in poor countries, but this book is well researched, detailed, and has some fascinating insights. It's also a great read. While Three Cups of Tea appears to advocate that the poor can only be helped by charitable outsiders or government, The Beautiful Tree gives us details of how the poor are educating their children now, despite abysmal public schools.

I look forward to hearing more from James Tooley.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Steven Crane on October 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
"... it's a peculiarly modern and unhelpful mistake to conflate education with schooling," James Tooley observes in The Beautiful Tree. Schooling is about where one goes, while education is about what one actually learns. This book will give you an education.

To begin near the end of the book, Tooley's historical research indicates the state-run education system in Britain started with for-profit and philanthropic schools that were gradually taken over by the government (I suspect the same process occurred in America). However, in exporting education to the developing world, both during the colonial era and the modern age of foreign aid, we've gotten it exactly backwards, sponsoring massive state-run projects with all the bloat, corruption and lack of accountability one would expect. There's a lot of schooling going on, but very little education. The development and aid experts all recommend time, patience, and of course, more funding.

The surprising good news Tooley chronicles is that even the poorest and most isolated communities in the developing world are doing for themselves instead of waiting for others to do for them. He finds small private schools in slums, fishing villages and remote mountain towns, and provides objective evidence that these private schools are succeeding on a pittance where well-funded public schools are little more than day-care centers, or are too remote for rural children to get to.

This is all wonderful, and left me wondering, "What can we in the developed world do to help?" Tooley recommends more capitalism: carefully targeted vouchers for the poorest of the poor, microfinance loans to help private schools improve their facilities, and eventually turning the best of the private schools into franchises or chains.
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