In 1985, BRAC opened 22 one-room primary schools, admitting children who dropped out of primary school or had reached the starting age limit of 8. BRAC actually spends $20 per student per year. School buildings are rudimentary, with bamboo walls and corrugated tin roofs. All BRAC’s programs rely on workers hired locally at very low salaries, and so this became the way to find teachers as well. BRAC hires a woman from each village to teach, pays her a stipend and gives her two weeks of training before she starts, and ongoing training every month — 140 days in total over 4 years. A supervisor will stop in once or twice a week to watch a lesson and talk to parents in the village, asking if they have any complaints or comments.
Early on, said May, parents had to pay a small amount to send their child to a BRAC school. “At that point, this was a way to have local accountability for the teacher — parents would be very angry if she didn’t show up. But it didn’t work very well. There were very poor families.” Now BRAC schools are free, with textbooks, storybooks, slates, notebooks and educational materials such as math toys all included. (Public schools, by contrast, while supposedly free, charge parents numerous fees.)
BRAC designed its school system to address all the reasons children didn’t attend schools. Teachers are female. The schools aggressively recruit girls, who make up two-thirds of the student body. Ethnic minorities study in their own language for the first few years; disabled children receive free surgery and medical devices. Each village has a school; “the school goes to the children; the children don’t come to the school,” said Safiqul Islam, BRAC’s director of education. The teacher starts first grade with a group of 30 or so children of different ages and stays with the group all the way through primary school, covering the 5-year curriculum in 4 years. The children then go into government secondary schools, and the teacher starts over with a new group.
To allow children to do chores, the school day is short — three to four hours each day. But there are few days off, so children actually spend more time in class than in public schools. The village sets the schedule, so that children are home for harvesting.
Teaching in BRAC schools is very different from the rote memorization that characterizes the public schools in Bangladesh (and most poor countries). BRAC schools use some rote learning, but also lots of singing, dancing, drawing, games, individual attention, group study and Montessori-style work with educational toys.
In the first three years in a BRAC school, moreover, children spend a lot of time not on core subjects, but things BRAC deems important: confidence building, working with others, gender rights, nutrition, hygiene. In core subjects, children take monthly tests, but they are usually not told of the results — they are informal tests designed to help the teacher understand the students’ skills and weaknesses. And the national exams? “We do not bother with them,” said Islam. In the students’ final year they focus for three months on Bangladesh’s national exams. “We try to tell the student, ‘you know enough — just answer the questions,’” he said.
To outsiders, this model seems unlikely to succeed: surely disadvantaged children need more qualified teachers, not village women who might or might not have finished high school. But BRAC is good at getting high-quality work from local people who lack formal qualifications, and Islam said that it was no different with teachers. “There are a lot of educated women in the villages who do not have employment,” he said. “When they get it, it is seriously empowering.” One objective measure is that BRAC teachers show up for class — their absentee rate is less than 5 percent.
An evaluation (pdf) of BRAC students’ scores on government tests found that teachers’ levels of education did not affect their students’ performance — but experience did; the longer the teacher has been teaching, the higher the students’ test scores.
BRAC students, in fact, do better than their public-school counterparts.