To improve education systems around the world Bridge International Academies (BIA) offers cheap schooling for the world’s poor. BIA offers teaching at a low cost with standardized pedagogy. Teachers use Nook tablets that detail each lesson and track teacher behavior. Bridge International reports high success numbers and is supported by big name donors such as The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation despite the fact that Bridge International’s success is hotly disputed.
While Bridge operates across the globe, their work in Africa draws the most attention. Recently BIA has been in the news because Kenya, and then Uganda, announced that they were closing all BIA schools due to poor success rates and misleading costs. Kenya and Uganda’s action is a response to Bridge International’s business model–a business model that takes advantage of the poor it seeks to help. Setting aside the question of whether BIA delivers on its promises, the presence of BIA schools hinders countries’ efforts to establish schooling systems of their own, thereby developing the knowledge economy needed to be a part of the globalized world.
The Schooling Environment in Impoverished BIA Countries
Schooling systems throughout the world are hindered by infrastructural, political, and economic hardships. Most of the countries in Africa where Bridge International works, such as Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya, lack proper infrastructure outside of major cities, including poor roads to schools, little to no pluming, and unreliable electricity. Such hindrances not only impede students’ access to schools but teachers’ abilities to get to and from classes. For instance, it is not uncommon for a teacher to return to their village for a family event and not be able to return to school due to bad roads for months on end. Other times, due to corrupt local politics, teachers will receive pay for not attending classes. This corruption reveals itself in unexpected ways, for instance, it is not unheard of for there to be technology fees at a school that has never had electricity. Certainly, considering the state of education, there is a need for school improvement.
What Is Bridge International?
Bridge International claims to tackle education’s problems in the poorest countries with a capitalist ideology. Each Bridge International school is constructed out of affordable local materials with one teacher administrating lessons per classroom. Bridge International teachers across the world teach exactly the same lessons provided to each teacher through a refurbished Nook tablet. Bridge International tracks how long each teacher stays on each page and lesson and tracks progress by teacher swipes. This uniformity seeks to establish professionalism and universal levels of education in areas lacking strong schooling institutions.
Bridge International reports high success rates. Bridge International in Kenya reports 74% of their students passing national exams compared to the national average of just about 50%. Bridge International is not the only one reporting high achieving results. For instance, The Atlantic claims that Bridge International students scoring 35% higher on reading and 29% higher on math. Many believe that one reasons for the success rates is that Bridge International students have the equivalent of 64 more days of schooling because of their 7:30am-5pm school days. These longer school days are considered to be effective because, according to BIA, teacher attendance at Bridge International Academies are far higher than national averages. For instance, in Kenya they are close to 100% rather than the normal 47% .
While Bridge International claims impressive results, it has been the focus of numerous critiques. The most overarching critique of Bridge International schools concentrates on its capitalist model. In short, Bridge is targeting the poor. Bridge’s high efficiency techniques based on models and technology has been labeled the “Uber of education”. The same efficiencies that Bridge International totes, such as that each teacher in every school follows the same lesson plans from Nook tablets, is criticized for stifling teacher quality, individuality, and spontaneity.
Further, the efficient lesson plans BIA teachers follow are not context specific, but developed by educators thousands of miles away in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A special report on Bridge’s exit from Kenya notes that Bridge instructors were highly underqualified, some only having been trained for two weeks and holding only a high school education. The report found that 85% of the teachers were not actually satisfied employees and found their working conditions–including having no breaks and lower wages than normal teachers–to be highly unfair. While BIA prides itself on being an affordable private school for the poor at $5 a month the majority of BIA families report difficulty in paying BIA fees that on average end up being three times more than stated because of uniforms and school materials.
Efficiency v. Professionalism: Whose Education?
The controversy surrounding BIA highlights the recent global trend of the business-ification of education. Susan Lasky and Maria Flores, among others, have been studying and writing about countries, mainly within Africa, being pushed towards business heavy education models by non-state actors and entrepreneurs. The push by these companies and non-state actors heavily draws on marketing language from the tech industry. It emphasizes “efficiency” and “data” and paints teachers as “doers” rather than professionals in a crucial field. In response to the World Bank’s $10 million investment in BIA, Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, summed up the issue well saying, “Aid is being used as a tool to convince, cajole and compel the majority of the world to undertake policies which help big business, but which undermine public services from emerging or thriving.”
Pressure to view teachers as doers and not professionals delegitimizes and dehumanizes them by attributing their success to the efficiency of technology–a technology not developed by the locals for which it serves. While in the short term models based on cheap technology that emphasize uniformity might have strong results, they cannot be sustained if the school environment and learning environment of children are not also addressed. From my own teaching experience in Sub-Saharan Africa what became clear to me is that major problems in education were not teacher uniformity and pedagogy so much as the hindering effects poverty has on one’s ability to access education, professionalize, and study.
In sum, by selling itself to the poor and dissociating itself from local socio-cultural surroundings BIA is interrupting a deeply important social process. This social process is the negotiation between citizens and governments about what education can and should be. Interrupting a nation’s ability to provide and establish secure educational practices limits impoverished nation’s ability to have a say in their own development, holding them back from developing their own knowledge economy and interacting in the globalized world.
 This is something I observed while working in Cameroon.
 Bridge International Academies
 Britton, 2016.
 The Economist (2017).
 Ross, T. F. (2014).
 The Economist (2017)
 International, E., & Teachers, K. N. U. o. (2016). Bridge Vs. Reality: A study of Bridge International Academies’ for-profit schooling in Kenya.
 Flores, M. A. (2012). Teacher’s work and lives: a European perspective. In C. Day (Ed.), Routledge International Handbook of Teacher and School Development. New York: Routledge and Lasky, S. G. (2012). Warehousing the schoolhouse: impact on teacher’s work and lives. In C. Day (Ed.), Routledge International Handbook of Teacher and School Development. New York: Routledge.