Scaling Quality Education for the World’s Poorest Children

Higher Education March 01, 2016

This article is part of a special interview series featuring global innovators in education (part 2 of 5). Visit WISE regularly to read the upcoming articles.

One of the most gratifying elements of the organisation is that we have almost 6,000 staff members who are working together to provide children with the quality of education that they would otherwise be unable to access,” explained Jay Kimmelman, Co-Founder and CEO of Bridge International Academies, the largest chain of private schools in Africa. In an interview, Kimmelman discussed the origins of the organization, their Learning Lab model and how they harness data and technology, barriers to progress and scale, their ultimate ambition of reaching 10 million students in over a dozen countries by 2025, and much more.

Tell me a little bit about the founding of Bridge International Academies. What was the moment of inspiration or experience that sparked the endeavour?

Today, globally, there are 800 million children whose families live on less than $2 per day per person. By and large, those children are unable to access a quality education. The world’s poorest children are four times more likely not to go to school than the world’s richest children, and five times more likely not to complete primary school. 

In 2007, my partner Shannon May and I were living in rural China where Shannon was teaching at a local primary school as a part of her PhD programme. What we began to realize was that it wasn’t only the lack of access that was preventing poorer children attending school, but the lack of quality. These families were looking at their situation and making an economic assessment. They were sending their child to school at the opportunity cost of the child working in the fields. Meanwhile the child was not learning anything, drastically reducing their ability to raise their income or improve their circumstances in the future. Economically, it made more sense for the child to drop out of school and work in the fields.

If you look at the statistics, the United Nations estimates that approximately 250 million children are unable to read or write after four years of schooling. In Kenya, only three out of ten third graders can do grade two work. 

Shannon and I wanted to find a way to make investing in education worth it for parents. We created Bridge to ensure that every child, everywhere, could be in school and learning, regardless of their family’s income. 

What is the Learning Lab model and how does it work in practice?

The key to Bridge International Academies’ success lies in our Learning Lab model. Leveraging data, technology and scale, we customize education to adapt to individual learner needs and individual teacher professional needs, while being affordable on limited budgets.

No small-scale, stand-alone operator can singlehandedly make the massive investments required to deliver quality education at a price point accessible to families living on $2 a day per person or less. The amount of money required to develop world class learning materials and teachers’ guides, rigorous training systems, technology to improve and automate core functions, and assessments and research to complete the feedback loop is profound. Such investments need to be amortized over a sufficiently large number of pupils and would come with astoundingly high risks.

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Bridge was set up to answer the question – how can we create a high-quality education at a low cost? From the beginning, we invested large sums of capital in research, development, technology, and pedagogy. The continuous feedback loop of our Learning Lab model maintains this rigorous development process until the highest levels of academic performance and operational effectiveness are achieved so that the 1st, 100th and 1000th pupils receive the same level of education as the 100,000th and the 1,000,000th.

Using technology and data, Bridge drives enormous efficiencies both in terms of the overhead costs required to run an academy and in terms of increasing the quality of the output. For example, at the academy level, a Bridge academy has only one employee involved in management – the Academy Manager. The vast majority of non-instructional activities that an Academy Manager would normally have to deal with (billing, payments, expense management, payroll processing, prospective admissions, and more) are all automated and centralized through a combination of our Academy Manager’s smartphone application and our teachers’ tablet, all interconnected to a custom backend ERP. This systemisation frees our Academy Manager to focus on the critical work that must be executed locally – overseeing classroom instruction and building and managing relationships with parents and the local community.

On the instructional side, Bridge employs an academic team made up of world leading educationalists to develop academic materials, lesson plans and training programs based on the national curriculum of the country we are operating in. Again, because of our highly efficient delivery mechanism (marrying talented individuals from each community with technology, scripted instruction, rigorous training, and data-driven oversight), Bridge is able to bring some of the world’s greatest instruction and pedagogical thinking into every classroom, in every village and slum in the world.

What kind of impact are you having on the ground, and how are you going about measuring and evaluating this model?

Everything we do at Bridge is based on research and data. To track our academic impact we undertake an independently administered study which follows the learning outcomes of 10,000 pupils across Bridge, neighbouring government schools and other low-cost private schools. The study uses USAID designed Early Grade Reading Assessments (EGRA) and Early Grade Math Assessments (EGMA) to evaluate pupils’ performance. These exams test reading and math comprehension on both a concrete and conceptual level. 

Eight years in and we are seeing significant learning gains for our pupils. Compared to their peers attending public schools, Bridge pupils on average gained an additional .32 standard deviations on reading fluency and comprehension, and .51 standard deviations in maths. These results mean that Bridge pupils are learning in a year what their peers are learning in two.

We also just had our first cohort of students sit for the national primary school exit exam in Kenya – the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) – and the results were fantastic. We had four pupils score in the top 1% of Kenya, and a quarter of our candidates scored in the top 20% of the country. In total, Bridge pupils had a 40% higher chance of passing the exam than their peers in neighbouring schools. The results showed that the longer a pupil attended Bridge, the more likely his or her score would be significantly higher than the national average. 

In terms of challenges to success, what were some of the bottlenecks in the way of progress, and how did you overcome them?

By constantly monitoring our operations we have become good at quickly identifying issues and finding ways to overcome them. For example, last year we began to notice that a number of the teacher tablets were breaking because the teachers were writing on the blackboard with chalk and then using the touch screen on the tablets. So we came up with the solution of providing each of our teachers with a hankie to wipe their screens after use, which cut down breakage. 

Our biggest challenge so far has been our rate of growth, particularly recruiting and retaining talented and dedicated staff. We have put in place numerous systems and processes to overcome this, but the crucial factor is that our staff are as committed to our mission as we are. One of the most gratifying elements of the organisation is that we have almost 6,000 staff members who are working together to provide children with the quality of education that they would otherwise be unable to access. 

What are some of the future ambitions of Bridge International Academies 3, 5 or 10 years from now?

Our plans are quite simple really – we want to provide as many children as possible with access to a high-quality education as soon as possible! We have a goal of reaching 10,000,000 pupils in over a dozen countries by 2025, both through attending our academies and working with partners to use our model beyond our academies. 

In 2015 we expanded to Uganda and Nigeria, with unprecedented rates of enrolment. Given the demand, we are accelerating our timeline to meet the urgent need and have begun plans to open more academies in both countries in early 2016.

In 2016, Bridge will begin operating in India, working with the government of Andhra Pradesh to ensure that standards of learning can be raised for all children, whether they are in public schools or private schools. 

We are looking forward to using our expertise in curriculum design, teacher training and support, and software development to partner with governments and NGOs to strengthen education systems across the world.

We believe that as long as there are children in need of a quality education we will work to deliver it. Whether this be through our academies, or partnerships with governments and non-profits, is not important. What is important is that every child, across the world, has access to a high-quality education, regardless of their family’s income. 

About the Innovator

Jay Kimmelman, Co-Founder and CEO of Bridge International Academies

How to harness data and technology to bring high-quality education into every village in the world? An interview with Jay Kimmelman.Jay Kimmelman is a Co-Founder of Bridge International Academies, the largest chain of private schools in Africa. Bridge disrupts the education status quo by ensuring that every child, regardless of parental income, has access to the education he or she deserves. The first Bridge International Academy opened in 2009; four years later Bridge teachers 100,000 pupils everyday at one of 350 pre-school and primary schools across Kenya. For $4.50-$7.00 per month, children receive more than 40 teaching contact hours a week, with all lessons written by experts and delivered by a local teacher using ICT. 

As the CEO of Bridge, over the past 5 years of the company’s growth, Kimmelman has raised three rounds of equity financing, including one of the largest VC deals in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2012. Prior to founding Bridge International Academies, Jay was founder and CEO of Edusoft, the leading educational software company providing assessment platforms to US public school districts. Jay sold the 150-person, $20M revenue company to Houghton Mifflin in 2004. At that time, Edusoft was serving more than 3 Million students in 400 school districts across the nation, including the second largest in the country. Jay received his B.A. in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Harvard University.