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Are Low-Cost Private Schools Worth the Investment?: Evidence on Literacy and Mathematics Gains in Nairobi Primary Schools

by Stephanie Simmons Zuilkowski, Benjamin Piper & Salome Ong’ele - 2020

Background/Context: Low-cost private schools (LCPSs) represent a large and growing share of schools in many low- and middle-income countries, including Kenya. In some Nairobi neighborhoods, more than half of children attend LCPSs, despite policies providing free access to public education. Parents generally choose LCPSs because they believe they are higher quality, although there is little conclusive evidence supporting this belief.

Objective: In this study, we aim to add to the evidence available on the comparison between LCPSs and public schools by using student gains over time as our outcome, thus controlling for the initial level of achievement and instead examining improvement.

Participants: The randomly selected longitudinal sample was composed of 326 children attending 47 LCPSs and government schools in several of Nairobi’s geographic zones. These children’s literacy and numeracy outcomes were tracked over two academic years to determine their learning gains over time.

Research Design: We used residual gain scores—as opposed to cross-sectional measures—in English and Kiswahili literacy and mathematics, to compare the outcomes of students attending LCPSs and public primary schools across the first and second grades. We discuss how these schools impacted achievement over time.

Findings/Results: We found that these LCPSs did not produce significantly higher student growth than public schools under the status quo condition. However, among schools participating in an instructional improvement intervention supported by the United States Agency for International Development, LCPSs increased performance more than public schools in English, Kiswahili, and mathematics, with the largest differences in English.

Conclusions/Recommendations: These findings offer a cautionary note to the rapid expansion of LCPSs in low-resource settings. The fees paid to LCPSs by low-income households are often burdensome for families and, in some contexts, may not be worth the trade-offs that families make to afford them. On the other hand, the findings also suggest that low-cost private school teachers may respond more effectively than public school teachers to project-based support.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 1, 2020, p. 1-30
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22953, Date Accessed: 9/18/2021 10:46:33 AM

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About the Author
  • Stephanie Zuilkowski
    Learning Systems Institute
    E-mail Author
    STEPHANIE SIMMONS ZUILKOWSKI is an associate professor at Florida State University, with a joint appointment in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and the Learning Systems Institute. Her research focuses on school quality and reading outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya, Zambia, and Ethiopia.
  • Benjamin Piper
    RTI International
    E-mail Author
    BENJAMIN PIPER is the senior director for Africa education for RTI International, based in Nairobi. He provides technical support for education projects across sub-Saharan Africa and supervises Tusome, the Kenyan national literacy program, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID); and Tayari, a large-scale early childhood program and randomized controlled trial. He led the Primary Math and Reading (PRIMR) Initiative in Kenya from 2011 to 2015. Additionally, he has worked with the World Bank, UNICEF, and Save the Children.
  • Salome Ong’ele
    RTI International
    E-mail Author
    SALOME ONG’ELE is the Chief of Party for the Tusome Early Grade Reading Activity in Kenya, a five-year reading program funded by USAID. Ms. Ong’ele’s international education experience also encompasses work for RTI International on the PRIMR Initiative, for the government of Kenya, and for several large international nongovernmental organizations. She served as the National Education Advisor for World Vision Kenya, for which she led integrated education sector programming. Earlier in her career, she taught humanities in Kenyan schools and worked as a Senior Quality Assurance and Standards Officer.
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