School in a Box with Scripted Lessons Could rapidly improve education in the developing world

212 Bridge Academies have opened in Kenya during the past four years. Bridge’s “schools in a box” spring up seemingly overnight: In January of 2013, the company launched 51 schools at once, while in September it opened another 78. Bridge now educates roughly 50,000 students in Kenya every day, and its global aspirations may transform the entire project of education for poor youth around the world.

Bridge’s CEO, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Jay Kimmelman, compares his company to Starbucks and McDonald’s — organizations that offer a consistent experience no matter where in the world you encounter them. Beyond its 212 branded academies in Kenya, Bridge has set its sights on Nigeria, Uganda, and India. The founders intend to be serving half a million children in 30 countries by 2015, and 10 million by 2025. “We’ve systematized every aspect of how you run a school,” Kimmelman says. “How you manage it. How you interact with parents. How you teach. How you check on school managers, and how you support them.” And this operational approach gets results. Bridge tests kids six times a year, and a third party performs Early Grade Reading and Math Assessments annually. According to those evaluations, Bridge students are beating out their peers at government and other private schools. In reading fluency, the gap is as high as 205 percent.

The most notable aspect of the Machakos school is that students pay to attend. Since the United Nations made universal enrollment one of its Millennium Development Goals in 2000, governments in Kenya and in much of Africa have eliminated school fees. But outcomes in Africa’s public schools remain deeply disappointing. Dated curricula focus on impractical memorization, and the public school teachers are underpaid and undertrained — spending more energy on managing packed classrooms than on instruction.

Bridge aims to narrow this divide with a radically new take on private school. Tuition is just $5 per pupil per month. There are no student iPads, no science labs. Preschoolers work with clay or blocks; older children learn math with bottle caps and recycled egg crates. Often students write on Dickensian slate boards instead of paper. One of the teachers I met, “Ms. Elizabeth,” completed only high school, and the greatest technological firepower at her disposal was a decidedly analog yardstick.

Bridge invested $15 million in systems development, teacher training, and in-class materials, and built an operations template for every school. (Bill Gates is an investor in the company, as are Khosla Ventures and some other traditional venture capital firms.) All student testing and teacher evaluations would filter through Android-based software monitored by engineers and assessors at Bridge headquarters. Since I met Ms. Elizabeth in 2011, Bridge has equipped teachers and school managers with tablets to manage lessons and track performance. Students take analog tests and teachers upload assessments to a central database. “Accountability is the key,” says Kimmelman. “It’s really weird, and really amazing, and it works.”

For parents hovering around $2 in income per day, a potentially transformative education for their kids was just one of many things they couldn’t afford. The demand, however, remains enormous — the global market for low-cost private education is $51 billion annually. To meet the demand, May says, “we drive the price point low enough so parents can become consumers.”

Bridge’s corporate system allows them to nearly eliminate overhead. The work typically done by secretaries, bursars, principals, and other administrators can be handled remotely, leaving only three nonteaching staff at each school. Parents can transfer fees directly from their mobile phones, an innovation that builds on Kenya’s particularly robust mobile money platforms. (Bridge parents on average make $1.23 per day, but 94 percent of them own mobile phones.) If a teacher fails to open or sync a digital lesson within 15 minutes of its scheduled start, someone from headquarters will take note and call the school to see what’s up. If a teacher is absent, Bridge keeps a paid pool of substitutes standing by. “Our commitment to our parents is that their children will be taught,” May says. “So we invest in, essentially, lots of plan Bs.”

The heart of her pitch is simple: Bridge schools teach kids. Whereas the average government primary school has a 47-to-one student-teacher ratio, Bridge’s is 30-to-one — and it teaches students for two additional hours each day.

The Bridge obsession with consistency and performance produces its most alien attribute: scripted lessons. Because effective lesson plans are a notoriously difficult aspect of teaching, Bridge eliminates any guesswork — dictating classroom instruction down to the noun and to the minute. In Ms. Elizabeth’s subtraction class, she consults the Bridge manual as kids chant and repeat her phrasing with Pavlovian discipline. Her classroom protocol has been written in advance by Bridge’s dedicated curriculum team. This may sound overly doctrinaire, but there are distinct advantages. For teachers, “the examples don’t come off the top of their head, or when they woke up at five in the morning to try and prepare their class,” May says. The scripted approach also allows for incredibly efficient teacher training: Bridge’s seven-week course is lightning-fast compared with traditional accreditation programs.

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