The world was shocked by a report on CBS's 60 Minutes this week that accused bestselling author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson of being a fraud. Not only were some of the stories from his book fabricated, 60 Minutes alleges, but the charity that Mortenson created to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan never built many of the facilities it has taken credit for. Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea didn't, as it claimed, bring education to rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Its finances are a mess, and the charity does not even seem to have kept track of how many schools it built or how many students attended them.
While much of the uproar has been over the lies Mortenson peddled, I can't help wondering: Why, exactly, did we ever think that Mortenson's model for education, exemplified in his Central Asia Institute (CAI), was going to work? Its focus was on building schools -- and that's it. Not a thought was spared for education quality, access, or sustainability. But building schools has never been the answer to improving education. If it were, then the millions of dollars poured into international education over the last half-century would have already solved Afghanistan's -- and the rest of the world's -- education deficit by now.
Over the last 50 years of studying international development, scholars have built a large body of research and theory on how to improve education in the developing world. None of it has recommended providing more school buildings, because according to decades of research, buildings aren't what matter. Teachers matter. Curriculum matters. Funding for education matters. Where classes actually take place? Not really.
The whole CAI model was wrong. But here's the truly awful thing: Looking back, it's clear that everyone knew that that CAI's approach didn't work. It was just that no one wanted to talk about it.
None of the big names in international education, like Creative Associates International or the American Institutes for Research, ever worked with CAI, which wouldn't have met those organizations' tough standards for financial accountability or technical skills. It's also no coincidence that CAI was never a big recipient of funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Experts on education and international development think a lot bigger than school buildings.