Review: The Beautiful Tree, by James Tooley


The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, by James Tooley. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2009. 268 pp. $19.95 (hardcover).

beautiful-treeThe Beautiful Tree is the inspiring story of James Tooley’s quest to discover “how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves.” Tooley begins his book by describing his serendipitous discovery of low-cost private schools for the poor in Hyderabad, India. While on an assignment for the World Bank to research the contribution of high-end private schools to the education of middle- and upper-income Indians, Tooley discovered that dozens of low-cost, for-profit private schools serve the poor in the slums of Hyderabad, and that parents choose to send their children to these private schools despite the fact that government schools are available for “free.”

When Tooley returned to the World Bank and told his colleagues of his amazing find, their responses were typical of those he would receive during the rest of his investigation. Many refused to believe that low-budget private schools existed. The few who acknowledged their existence attempted to dissuade Tooley from giving them much attention, because, in their view, these schools were “ripping off the poor” and were “run by unscrupulous business people who didn’t care a fig for anything other than profits” (p. 21). Tooley responded to such skepticism and cynicism by redoubling his efforts to learn about such schools. Inspired by what he found in Hyderabad, Tooley searched for similar schools in the slums of Nigeria, Ghana, and China.

Tooley writes that many education officials he encountered were completely unaware of the low-cost private schools in their nations, and others went to great lengths to deny their existence. For example, in Nigeria, Tooley met Dennis Okoro, recently retired chief inspector of schools for the Nigerian federal government. Initially, Okoro professed ignorance that low-cost private schools existed; then he denied the possibility of their existence. When Tooley took Okoro into the slums of Makoko and showed him several schools, Okoro concluded that what he saw could not be private schools serving the poor, because “[t]he poor by definition cannot afford to pay fees for private schools. So if this was a fee-charging private school, it couldn’t be for the poor” (p. 50).

Similarly, Tooley describes officials at a regional education bureau in China who “argued” that, because the Chinese government’s official position is that government provides basic education to all children, rich and poor, “what you propose to research does not only not exist, it is also a logical impossibility” (p. 97). This exchange came only moments after Tooley explained that he had already personally visited five such schools.

The Beautiful Tree documents how Tooley ignored the advice of “development experts” (such as those at the World Bank) and pushed past the resistance and ignorance of education officials to build a team to help him investigate the phenomenon of low-cost private schools serving the poor. He recounts interviews with poor parents in which they discussed (among other things) why they chose to pay for private schools. He highlights the challenges that the schools’ owners face, which include convincing banks to lend them money and bribing corrupt government officials in order to remain in existence.

Tooley’s research provides concrete evidence that topples many long-standing myths about education and poverty. The primary myth Tooley topples is the idea that the poor are like helpless children waiting to be saved by the rich. His research, which compares the academic outcomes of students from low-cost private schools and free government schools, demonstrates that the world’s poorest people not only have the economic means to improve the lives of their children, but also are “keen education consumers” (p. 174)—more than capable of determining how to use their limited resources to achieve the best outcomes for their children.

Tooley’s extensive research also undermines the notion that only government agencies and wealthy nonprofits can provide basic education. Tooley’s survey of modern schools shows that in some less-developed nations, “more than 80 percent of urban and more than 30 percent” of elementary school students are in private schools (p. 24). Further, his historical research found that primary education in England expanded at a greater rate before the state became involved than after; he quotes James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill), who in 1813 noted “the rapid progress which the love of education is making among the [poor] in England” (p. 237).

Another prominent myth Tooely’s research helps to dispel is that spending more money on education ensures higher-quality education. Contrary to claims of “development experts,” Tooley shows that students of teachers with less formal training and lower salaries often are more successful. In chapter 9, Tooley describes the exams that he and his team administered to twenty-four thousand children in four countries. Children in low-cost private schools in India, Nigeria, and Ghana outperformed students in government schools by double-digit margins in almost every subject. Those in low-cost private schools in China also outperformed students in government schools, although by a lesser margin.

One flaw in The Beautiful Tree is that Tooley does not do much to address the erroneous moral premises that have led to such heavy government involvement in education. Instead of rejecting the notion that “education ‘is a fundamental human right,’” something that “[e]very government has the responsibility to provide [for] free,” Tooley spends several paragraphs attempting to interpret such claims in a way that makes room for private, for-profit education (pp. 205, 206). Tooley also makes the unfounded claim that whether government should run education depends on the culture in question:

Perhaps the vital lesson of history is that a centralized public education system is not the culturally appropriate model for peoples in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa today. In championing private education for the poor, we may well be championing a return to the cultural roots of the people. (p. 243)

Despite its few flaws, The Beautiful Tree is powerful and inspiring. The facts Tooley presents show that the poorest of people can achieve a quality education for their children without government involvement and without the aid and condescension of “development experts.” Moreover, The Beautiful Tree provides a glimpse of the advances possible in a free market in education.

In short, The Beautiful Tree is a beautiful book that anyone interested in education cannot afford to miss.

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