Thursday, July 6, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – Part III: burying the lede

[This buzzword-filled and often somewhat patronizing (particularly at the beginning) New York Times Magazine account of entrepreneurs and Ivy League grads from the USA rescuing the poor children of Africa from poverty and ignorance is so filled with disturbing details, portents of disaster, and indications of general bullshit that we will need to take more than one pass at this. You can find part one here and part two here.]

NYT Magazine pieces tend to be heavily formulaic. The second act often introduces the complications and reveals the flaws. It's the journalism school equivalent of something from the Save the Cat beat sheet. It makes a certain amount of sense in terms of story structure, but it means that really, really important stuff (like the hero's a fraud and the miracle cure will actually kill you) doesn't show up until the middle of a very long piece.

In this case, author Peg Tyre waits till about a third of the way through before making her way to the feet of clay.

At the start, the Bridge founders quickly learned that Kenyan parents did not necessarily see Bridge schools as a better option. ‘‘When the first academies opened, our mentality was a bit like, ‘If we build it, they will come,’ ’’ said Marie Leznicki, then Bridge’s vice president of brand strategy, in the Stanford case study. The case study authors explain that one challenge for the company was that parents were largely illiterate and therefore saw little difference among schools. But some academics who have studied the for-profit, low-fee chain say that some poor Kenyan parents were wary of the model. Sending a child to Bridge was more expensive than the village public school, though less expensive than some informal schools. The poorest families simply couldn’t afford the tuition and additional payments that Bridge required. ‘‘They have to pay enrollment fees, they have to pay for uniforms, they have to pay for lunch,’’ says Christopher Kirchgasler, a former charter-school teacher in the United States who spent 10 months studying Bridge schools in Nairobi and Nyeri County, north of Nairobi, for his doctoral dissertation. ‘‘For us, a matter of a few dollars is nothing, but for these very poor families, it can be a monumental obstacle.’’

For many who did enroll, Bridge’s strict payment system quickly became onerous. Bridge’s 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. In informal settlements around Nairobi, I visited 10 or so parents in their homes who explained the fragile finances of their lives. A sick child, an uptick in the price of corn meal or even a prolonged rainstorm can throw a family on the margins into an economic crisis. In most informal and public schools, payment terms are flexible, and the subject of protracted negotiation. Bridge says that it works with families to meet their needs. But many people told me that the school sends children home if fees are not paid.

‘‘They tell you, ‘Sit at home with your child until you get the money,’ ’’ says one parent, a vegetable seller married to an unemployed welder who has two children enrolled at a Bridge school in Nairobi’s Mathare slum. Another mother with a 9-year-old child says she found it difficult to make Bridge payments: ‘‘At times I’ve gone without eating so I can pay school fees.’’

Bridge executives say their schools depend on paying customers. ‘‘We get criticized for being bloodless capitalists,’’ Michael Conway, Bridge’s East Africa director of operations, told me when I met him in Nairobi last September, ‘‘but 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.’’

 At the risk of spelling out what can probably stand on its own, the whole  raison d'être of this company was supposed to be doing well by doing good. If you can't sustain your model without putting the screws to the very people you're supposed to be helping...

Bridge does not comment on the details of its financial performance, so neither May nor Kimmelman would say how many of Bridge’s Kenyan schools maintain enough enrollment to sustain their model. May says that Bridge currently has 80,000 students enrolled, down 10,000 from last year. ‘‘Before the campaign to attack Bridge began, the academies across Kenya were financially sustainable,’’ she says. Conway acknowledged that the situation on the ground made things complicated. ‘‘It is difficult to keep up enrollment and make the schools break even,’’ Conway said, ‘‘because the churn is so high.’’ He explained that in 2017, thousands of enrolled children were not paid up.
We need to stop and mention that the notably bloodless term "churn," which us corporate types generally use to discuss credit cards and gym memberships, in this case refers to major, possibly traumatic disruptions in children's schooling.

Some education experts say that Bridge’s plans for an international chain of low-fee, for-profit private schools rests on a flawed assumption. While such schools can work well for the relatively small number of families in poor communities who have salaries, says Keith Lewin, a professor emeritus of development and international education at the University of Sussex in Britain who has opposed the model, it is unrealistic to expect the most impoverished families to be able to pay. ‘‘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.’’

Keep in mind this article started with the familiar disruption narrative: tech entrepreneurs jump into a field with no real background or experience, shake things up with their fresh ideas and radical approaches and blow through problems that had left the established "experts"" befuddled for decades. If it turns out that the disruptors didn't know what they were talking about, their solutions didn't work, and the "experts" were pretty damned expert all along, that probably should have made it into the first few paragraphs.

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