Brookings, seriously?

Quality. Independence. Impact. Compromised.

Postscript: shortly after this story was published the Ugandan government closed down all 60 Bridge International Academies schools. See end of article.

The Brookings Institution, a US “think tank”, recently published a report entitled “Bridge International Academies — Delivering Quality Education at Low Cost in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda”. The report is highly misleading and reads like an advertorial. Within 24 hours, after complaints, the report appeared to have been withdrawn. What happened?

Like many think tanks Brookings isn’t entirely transparent about its donorship and other financial arrangements. It describes itself as a non-profit public policy organisation that is independent and non-partisan. It discloses its donor and sponsors, some of whom are anonymous, in their annual report. According to the Washington Post in 2014:

“In the past decade, the Brookings Institution adopted a strategy of rapid growth and aggressive fundraising. The organization was responding to challenges facing many academic institutions, as foundations began to place more restrictions on their grants and Brookings’s endowment income was not keeping up with spending needs.”

It could be this “aggressive fundraising” that encouraged a respected think tank, that has been in existence for more than 100 years, to publish what appears to be paid editorial.

I was particularly surprised that Brookings published the report since I had been in contact with the senior team there and the authors of the Millions Learning report when I shared my research on BIA that called into question their data.

I have a collection of correspondence as well as a recording of a telephone conference with the authors where it was clear that no meaningful research had taken place. Indeed I invited one of the authors, Jenny Perlman Robinson, to provide me written confirmation that she’d even visited BIA in Kenya. I’m still waiting although it appears from the report that 2 of BIA’s 400+ schools in Kenya were visited.

The opening credits page for the report is revealing. First it appears that much of the work in production of the report was prepared by Priyanka Varma who up until 2015 was a learning metrics intern at Brookings progressing to research assistant in July of that year.

The “wide range of colleagues who generously shared their knowledge and feedback on the Bridge International Academies case study”, include Geordie Brackin, Lucy Bradlow, Andrew Carruthers, Gibson Gisore, Jay Kimmelman, Marie Leznicki, Shannon May, Sujatha Muthayya, Sylvia Njoroge, Lillian Wamuyu, Andrew White. All of whom are BIA employees.

  • Brackin is BIA’s Head of Innovation
  • Bradlow is BIA’s Director of Public Relations
  • Carruthers is the Managing Partner of Novastar Ventures, an investor in BIA
  • Gisore is an academy manager at BIA
  • Kimmelman is co-founder of BIA and husband of Shannon May
  • Leznicki is the Chief Experience Officer of BIA
  • May is co-founder of BIA along with husband Jay Kimmelman
  • Muthayya is BIA’s Expansion Director for India (Andhra Pradesh).
  • Njoroge is BIA’s Administration Manager
  • Wamuyu is a Manager at BIA
  • White is BIA’s Expansion Director for Uganda

So hardly an unbiased “wide-range of colleagues” then.

The report suggests that it was funded by the MacArthur Foundation and MasterCard Foundation. Both organisations have made direct investments in BIA programmes. Furthermore, according to Brookings 2015 Annual Report, one of their most generous donors is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as part of Brookings Africa Growth Initiative. Gates is also a major donor to BIA as is Omidyar Network who are also a major donor of Brookings.

This convergence of interest could simply be that all parties are interested in the well-being of the African continent as an act of selfless humanitarianism. Alternatively it could be that they have an interest in the free-market reform of education on the continent that disadvantages domestic providers and the building of local capacity. On reading the report one has to wonder whether it was simply paid for by BIA and I invite Brookings to make a statement on this.

Last week the UK’s International Development Committee, the House of Commons watchdog for DFID, criticised BIA suggesting that their claim of providing access to education for USD $6 a month was false despite being stated by BIA in written evidence. Dr Joanna Härmä, Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for International Education, University of Sussex, reported to the committee that,

“they claim that they educate children for about $6 a month. I presume they mean only their fee, because research has found that they charge around $15 a month in reality.”

Simultaneously the Ugandan Government decided to close BIA schools in Uganda citing that the schools failed to comply with “minimum requirements prescribed by the Ministry of Education and Sports.” It went on to say that they had failed to recruit qualified teachers, secure licences and did not have appropriate infrastructure, such as proper toilets, classrooms and teachers’ staff rooms.

This certainly calls into question Brookings claim that BIA was delivering “quality education at low cost”.

None of this would have been news to Brookings given that these concerns were shared with them more than a month before publication. Brookings, like Stanford and Harvard before them, merely parroted the data that BIA themselves had commissioned and published in white papers as evidence of efficacy but, in reality, nothing more than marketing hyperbole.

This data was debunked by renowned statistician Prof Harvey Goldstein who described it as having “such considerable weaknesses that its claims need to be treated with scepticism”. Yet Brookings went with it anyway. Essentially Brookings has produced yet another marketing document for BIA without any real research and loaned them their brand and reputation. No wonder BIA’s PR department went into overdrive when the report was released.

What’s perhaps worse was that Brookings were aware that it was BIA’s plan to subsidise their low-fee education by monetising student data for commercial marketing and surveillance purposes, yet this doesn’t appear anywhere in their glowing report.

Brookings did the right thing by withdrawing the report (or have they?) and hopefully consigning it to the trash can but what continues to baffle me is why they would jeopardise their reputation by putting it out in the first place.

Yellow card.

Postscript



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An entertaining & thought provoking slayer of sacred cows, Graham Brown-Martin works globally with senior leadership teams to help organisations adapt in the face of rapid change & innovation. By challenging entrenched thinking he liberates teams to think in new ways to solve complex challenges. His book Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury and he is represented for speaking engagements via Wendy Morris at the London Speakers Bureau.