Four decades of involvement in education — as a volunteer, writer, and sometime teacher — have blessed me with riches that cannot be measured in normal ways.
I have read stories to children at east Oklahoma City schools, then walked to lunch with a dozen giggling children clinging to hands, fingers, and suspenders. I taught elementary, middle, and secondary students at an alternative school for troubled and "at-risk" youth. I substituted at public, charter, and private schools, meeting dreams and despair, trial and triumph.
I’ve lectured to sometimes idealistic and hopeful, sometimes skeptical and bored, college students about history or drama, about writing or romance, or about a call of the heart found in that tender tug from the squeeze of a child’s hand to "read just one more."
Frustrated with bureaucratic lethargy and angry with those who have surrendered to the despair of inner-city poverty and family collapse, I’ve found and then reported, sometimes in the most unexpected circumstances, examples of heroic service to children who lack stable living environments.
In the Deborah Brown Community School in Tulsa and at public and private schools in Oklahoma City, I have witnessed the miracle of learning in defiance of life’s greatest obstacles. I have seen the future, or part of it, at St. John Christian Heritage Academy, then dreamed of justice for hopeful and productive people.
But for all our problems, nothing I have encountered in American ghetto schools or in the lives of our nation’s urban poor can compare with the squalor found in descriptions given by James Tooley in his new book “The Beautiful Tree,” excerpted in the August issue of Perspective, published by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (ocpathink.org).
Tooley describes a remarkable odyssey uncovering productive but unregistered private schools all over the world, places where the children of desperately poor parents make lives better through mathematics and composition, English and French, science and hope, while preparing for success in work and life.
Tooley crossed stinking ditches, passed open sewers, encountered reeking slaughterhouses, and circled putrid fish boats all over the world, only to find enclaves of excellence guided by great minds the equal of Marva Collins of Chicago and Tracy McDaniel of Oklahoma City. The schools Tooley visited were islands of calm in the midst of turmoil, "areas that lacked decent sanitation and clean water supply, adequate roads, electricity."
Some he met were Muslim, some secular, some Christian or Christian-influenced, some libertarians longing for freedom from government dictates and irrational cultural norms.
All seemed to share the perspective of one headmaster, a man named Wajid at "Peace High School" in India, who told Tooley he became a private school educator because, well, "Sometimes, government is the obstacle to the people." Tooley took the name for his book from a figure of speech Mahatma Gandhi used in 1931 to describe ancient Indian traditions of learning and erudition.
This year, members of the British Conservative Party, transformed in their worldview by Tooley’s book and related studies, wrote with wonder in a recent manifesto: "In the poor urban and semi-urban areas of Lagos State, Nigeria, 75 percent of school children attend budget private schools. In the slums of Hyderabad, India, 65 percent of schoolchildren are in private unaided schools. These schools charge very low fees, affordable to parents on low wages. … These schools are run for poor people, by poor people."
And what are the results coming from these schools serving the poorest of the poor?
Analysis of testing of 24,000 children in five countries found that even after adjusting for background, "results achieved in private schools were significantly higher, in every country studied and on every measure used, than in public schools." Problems in their peer public schools were low motivation, lack of accountability, and high rates of teacher absenteeism. Competition among the "budget private schools" provided "an incentive to keep standards high, in order to retain their pupils."
It should surprise no one that, as Tooley’s book jacket reports: "Both the entrepreneurial spirit and the love of parents for their children can be found in every corner of the globe."
Tooley found that spirit and love in Hyderabad, in Lagos, in Ghana, and in China. I found that spirit and love in north Tulsa and in east Oklahoma City.
Let’s unleash that spirit and that love. Now. It’s a small world, after all.
Patrick B. McGuigan is the author of two books and the editor of seven. A state-certified teacher, for two years he taught middle-school and high-school students at a public charter alternative