Sunday, May 8, 2011

School's Out

Greg Mortensen of Three Cups of Tea fame bilked millions of dollars out of people who thought they were paying to build schools in Afghanistan. Much of the money ended up lining Mortenson's pockets. Annie Lowrey believes there's a lesson to be learned here--and it may not be the one you'd expect:
But the most important lesson of the scandal, and one that hasn't gotten any attention, is something entirely different. It is a lesson that applies not just to Mortenson's organization but also to charities that are much-better run: Stop building schools. Or rather, it is a mistake to devote much money or attention to constructing physical school buildings. Throwing up structures is simple. Educating children is a much more complex, expensive, and necessary goal. 
"Schools are really easy," says Saundra Schimmelpfennig, whose organization, Good Intents, seeks to educate donors about nonprofits. "Any kind of a building is really easy to raise funding for, because it is something donors can wrap their minds around. They can see it. They can touch it. It is a one-time expense, not an ongoing or operational cost, which is harder to raise money for. But it is perhaps the least important part of education and the most inflexible as well. Spending all that money building schools is actually pretty questionable." 
Fifty years of research supports this conclusion. Economists and aid experts are continually looking for the best ways to improve educational outcomes for the poor, with an eye to improving health, income, and mobility, too. In the just-released More Than Good Intentions, Jacob Appel and Dean Karlan run through a bevy of the most successful efforts. They include: paying bonuses to teachers with good attendance records, separating kids into classes based on their knowledge and skills, providing tutoring in small groups, and offering deworming pills to students.  
"Nice school buildings" appears nowhere in their book. That is because where classes take place—whether in a snazzy school, a private home, a yurt, or a house of worship—generally has little bearing on educational outcomes. It's the consistency of attendance, health of the student, quality of the teacher, and availability of a good curriculum that really matters. A school isn't the same thing as an education...
Agreed. However, I think the real lesson of the Tea scandal is: don't give your money to a slick dude with a smooth line (even if it makes you feel really good to do so) before checking out whether or not he's legit.

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