The Madrasa Myth

Knowledge is power: The reality of Pakistan's private schools is far from the hysterical image of madrasas. And how private schooling can save Pakistan's next generation.

On May 3, the New York Times published a lengthy description of Pakistan's education system. The article, like so many before it, rehearsed a well-known narrative in which government schools are failing while madrasas are multiplying, providing a modicum of education for Pakistan's poorest children.

The concentration of madrasas here in southern Punjab has become an urgent concern in the face of Pakistan's expanding insurgency, veteran Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise wrote. The schools offer almost no instruction beyond the memorizing of the Koran, creating a widening pool of young minds that are sympathetic to militancy.

The story coincided with a debate in the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee over a new aid package for Pakistan. The proposed legislation, among other initiatives, focuses upon eliminating madrasas with ties to terrorism and reforming the public school system, riven with teacher absenteeism and out-of-date pedagogy. Numerous charitable organizations and NGOs have also embraced this dual focus.

Unfortunately, this well-intentioned approach risks failure. First, contrary to the public hysteria about madrasas serving as weapons of mass instruction, in 2005, just 1.3 percent of children in Pakistan's four main provinces attended madrasas. Most students attend public schools (nearly 65 percent), and the remainder attend nonreligious private schools (34 percent). Nor are madrasas the last resort of the poor. In fact, the socioeconomic profiles of madrasa and public school students are quite similar -- except that madrasas have more rich students than public schools. Of the extremely small number of households enrolling at least one child full time in a madrasa, 75 percent use other types of schools to educate their other children.

Despite the tremendous importance of improving Pakistan's public schools and madrasas, moreover, attempts to influence their structure and output have been largely ineffective. Pakistan itself is struggling to reform its public education system, debating the federal-local divide, voucher schemes, and merit pay.

Rather than focusing on madrasas and public schools, the donor community should take note of a striking change in the Pakistani educational landscape: the emergence of mainstream and affordable private schools.

Indeed, nonreligious private schools now enroll one third of Pakistani students, according to the 2005 education census. This sector is dramatically expanding. In 1983, there were roughly the same number of madrasas and private schools in the country -- 2,563 madrasas and 2,770 private schools. By 2005, there were five times as many private schools. Moreover, the growth in private schools has increased since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while madrasa growth has stayed relatively flat.

Data collected by the authors as a part of the largest-ever longitudinal study of education in Pakistan find that private schools are cost-effective and affordable. They keep costs low because they are mom and pop-managed, for-profit, independent schools, unsubsidized by the government and responsive to local demands for education.

Although education standards all over Pakistan are poor, private schools outperform government schools at all income levels. In three districts of rural Punjab where the project team tested more than 25,000 primary-grade students, private school children outperformed those attending government schools by a large margin. Moreover, data show that the same students learn more when they switch from public to private schools and learn less when they leave private schools for public schools.

Incredibly, this higher quality comes at a lower cost. Most private schools in Pakistan charge a monthly fee of less than a single day's wage for an unskilled worker. And it costs less than half as much to educate a child in a private school as it does in a public school. For these reasons, private schools are expanding from urban and suburban areas into Pakistan's countryside.
Why are these schools able to deliver affordable value? Private schools take advantage of an important untapped supply of labor by relying upon moderately educated young women from local neighborhoods who are willing to work for low pay. In fact, private schools are one of the largest sources of regular, salaried employment for Pakistan's women. Private schools also boast lower teacher absenteeism than public schools, which minimizes wastage and increases time spent learning. They also use their compensation structures effectively to reward better teachers and punish those who don't perform well.

Moreover, these private schools tend not to be affiliated with religious groups or movements. Private schools generally use a curriculum that is similar to that of government schools, but with a greater emphasis on teaching English. The vast majority of these private schools are coeducational at the primary level, compared with government schools, which are mainly single-sex.

Where the donor community can do most good is in developing and expanding Pakistan's most dynamic education sector. Small-scale studies are already showing that innovative programs, aided by NGOs and the private sector, can make dramatic gains. A study we conducted showed that disseminating better information about school performance led to dramatic improvements in both public and private schools. With more transparency and information available, private school fees dropped, test scores at private and public schools climbed, and public school enrollment increased.

Pakistani parents, like parents everywhere, are pragmatic about education. Although aid donors may want to help reform Pakistan's religious and public schools, genuine reform will emerge from local debates and initiatives, some of which are already underway. The risk is that future monies allocated to such purposes could be wasted or, at best, spent inefficiently. An aid program based on bold, persistent experimentation will help foster a true public-private partnership model that takes advantage of this low-cost private sector and improves the public sector in turn.

Unfortunately, the importance of the dynamic private education sector is overshadowed by unsupported claims about madrasas and their role in terrorism. Given that Pakistan's population is ever more dominated by youths and given the urgent need to produce a skilled labor force to drive Pakistan's future, the stakes for education reform could not be higher.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images


The Line of Fire

How Venezuela came to claim the region's highest murder rate.

THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty ImagesFacing their crimes: Poor policing, a troubled justice system, and impudent politics have helped Venezuela claim the title, murder capital of the Americas.
Mention violence in Latin America today and most people think of Mexico. But if you want to talk about murder, the region's hot spot is somewhere else entirely: Venezuela. After a decade under President Hugo Chvez, Venezuela's homicide rate has increased by about 140 percent, making Venezuela one of the most violent countries in the world. Even in the context of Latin America, where homicide rates hover at three times the global average, Venezuela now holds top rank -- by far the highest in South America, with a violent death rate of 48 per 100,000 -- more than twice that of Mexico. These murders occur mostly at night and spike every two weeks around payday. Young people are increasingly the victims, three times more likely to be killed today than 10 years ago.

Not surprisingly, Venezuelans see crime and public safety as the No. 1 challenge for their country. According to Latinobarometer, a well-regarded regional polling agency, Venezuela is the only Latin American country where crime is cited as both the most important national and personal issue. The violence was a major issue in last November's regional elections, with both Chavistas and opposition leaders blaming their opponents for the scourge. Perhaps unsure who was culpable, voters split their allegiance and the vote was a draw.

It's no surprise that no one has been able to peg blame on any one factor, since Venezuela's violence problem derives from a number of sources -- from an ill-equipped police department to a dysfunctional justice system. And as the Chvez administration has pushed the legal limits of democracy, undermining institutions along the way, cascading impunity has spread through the system. Rule through ill example has helped push what was always a high murder rate through the roof.

Part of the problem reflects the regional context as Venezuela, like many of its neighbors, has been host to the growing cocaine trade. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (which Chávez kicked out of Venezuela in 2005) claims drug shipments passing through the country have increased 10-fold during Chvez's tenure. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime has also tracked Venezuela's growing role in the drug trade, and believes it is now the major transit country for shipments to Europe. This surely accounts for some of the rise in violence -- but not all.

Other problems are very much internal. Starting with the basics, the Venezuelan police have neither the ability, nor skills, nor an interest in properly investigating crimes. In promotions, loyalty is often prized over capacity. Some also suggest the government has encouraged the selective enforcement of its laws -- for instance, ignoring tire-burning and petty crime in working-class neighborhoods in order to avoid conflict with Chvez's support base, the country's poor. It's a slippery slope; allowing these petty infractions contributes to a climate of lawlessness, opening the door to more-serious and violent crimes, murder among them. And mistrust of the police might actually be enabling more crime: National polls show that the vast majority of citizens believe the police are involved in many of the crimes committed; a full one fourth of respondents claim the police are behind nearly all crimes. As a result, most crimes are not even reported.

The justice system is equally troubled. Only three of every 100 murderers are actually sentenced. Courts are underfunded and politicized, as they often serve the interest of the government over justice. Some experts in fact link a rise in police brutality to a lack of confidence in the judiciary: Police officers are more inclined to take justice into their own hands, knowing the courts will be unable or unwilling to intercede.

But Chvez's particular way of governing also contributes to making Venezuela an increasingly lawless place. During his weekly address, Alo Presidente, and other speeches, Chvez frequently incites violence against anti government protesters; justifies law-breaking that advances the socialist revolution; accuses political figures, the media, and others of crimes; and calls on the citizenry to take law enforcement into its own hands. After a decade of Chvez's rule, respect for the rule of law has dwindled. Those who support the president feel they can act with impunity, while those who oppose him often fear even expressing themselves.

Until recently, Venezuela could have done something about all this. It certainly had the fiscal wherewithal to revamp the system. Several years of high oil prices allowed Chvez's government to quadruple spending from $17 billion in 2003 to more than $70 billion for 2009. Billions of these dollars went to the Misiones Bolivarianas, Chvez's centerpiece redistribution programs to bring healthcare, literacy programs, housing, and subsidized food to Venezuela's citizens.

But, unexpectedly, even as poverty in Venezuela decreased, crime rates skyrocketed. Very little from the oil bonanza trickled down to a basic security system desperately in need of an overhaul, even as Chvez purchased enough submarines, aircrafts, helicopters, and arms -- including more than 100,000 AK-47-type rifles -- from Russia and China to double the defense budget. The president responded to the concern over crime by creating a centralized National Police Force to eventually replace Venezuela's numerous local forces. This solution does nothing to address Venezuela's fundamental problem or strengthen Venezuela's institutions, instead just layering on a new force that lacks skills and is prone to politicization.

And the news gets even more grim. Venezuela's economy is declining in tandem with falling oil prices, so crimes of need are likely to increase. Meanwhile, Chvez has upped his attacks against the opposition: stripping the new opposition mayor of Caracas of much of his authority, accusing the TV station Globovision of media terrorism and threatening to close it down, and bringing what may yet prove to be unfounded corruption charges against prominent opposition leaders.

The result of this is to create a feedback loop that exacerbates crime; impunity at the top reverberates through society. As the independence of the electoral commission, the judiciary, the military, and the media is compromised, the legitimacy of other state institutions follows. As attacks on the opposition grow bolder, so too does related violence. As the Venezuelan government moves farther down the path to authoritarian rule, law enforcement institutions are following, bending and breaking the rules as necessary.

Venezuela's institutions are threatened not just by drug traffickers, organized crime, or guerrillas, but also by the decisions of elected officials. It is this challenge the Venezuelans now face, holding in the balance their safety, their prosperity, and increasingly, their very lives.