A Subscript in Global Education

by: Nnadozie Onyekuru

Innovating in Africa is hard, but even harder is realizing the full potential of African innovations. This appears to be the case with Tuteria, a Nigerian innovation that connects parents to home tutors for their children. The innovation has received accolades from the Royal Academy of Engineering and the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge, but these validations are only a fraction of its promise. With support from individual and corporate philanthropies, Tuteria can be a powerful force for improving academic outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa through reducing the inequity in supplementary education there.

Such philanthropies can donate funds to Tuteria, which will be calibrated in coupons for low-income families to access after-school home tutors for their children. The case for this model of intervention is simply the case for development aid in supplementary education. As Mark Bray points out in his 2017 presidential address to the Comparative and International Education Society, supplementary education is now a significant frontier for educational inequity. In the address titled “Schooling and Its Supplements: Changing Global Patterns and Implications for Comparative Education,” Bray also highlights the mixed results from efforts to reduce this inequity through programs like the Tutorial Initiative in Australia and the Supplemental Education Series clause in the United States’ No Child Left Behind Act.

The precariousness of these results, however, does not invalidate the theory behind providing coupons for extra lessons to struggling students. Struggling students need more help to succeed–help that will require more resources especially in places where poverty is rife like my home country, Nigeria. My compatriots were reminded of this not long ago when a video of a pupil named Success went viral. Success’ parents owed her school an examination levy but no amount of the school shaming her over this could break the young girl’s determination to keep going to school. There are many students like Success in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa whose parents cannot afford school fees and examination levies, let alone extra lessons.

Tuteria’s modest success inspires confidence about the prospects of extending its reach to such students through funded coupons. The lessons brokered through Tuteria have improved learning outcomes for participating students and earned the trust of over 2,000 parents, according to the innovation’s website. Importantly, the innovation provides opportunities for teachers and parents to mutually evaluate their experiences. With its fusion of novel technology and old-fashioned home lessons, Tuteria can be to Nigeria what Pratham is to India and Khan Academy is to the United States. The real question, then, is not whether innovations like Tuteria should be supported, but who should support them and how.

Individual and corporate philanthropies are best suited to take on this role since they have more liberty to take risks and experiment for the common good than public sector-oriented institutions, as even Melinda Gates acknowledged in a recent TIME interview. Such philanthropies can fund the coupons for a pilot group of students, which would then provide results for a cost benefit analysis. Furthermore, since specificity is a virtue in grant-making, the philanthropies should restrict the use of the pilot coupons to lessons in Math and Reading. Improving the learning outcomes of students in these two areas is urgent as it is foundational to their educational endeavors and a corollary to progress in other human development indicators like financial inclusion and civic participation.

After getting the right formula from the pilot group, the philanthropies can extend the experiment to other subjects. Corporations, for instance, can choose which subjects to extend more support to, which is in line with their social responsibility objectives. It’s what they do for reality TV shows in the name of nurturing young talents; they can nurture young academic talents, too.

The multiplier effect of coupons for home lessons, if properly provided, will enrich development practice in at least three ways: First, it will promote local agency given its inclusion of parents in the entire experience. Second, the tutor pool will inadvertently have a gender quota given that male tutors might not be welcome in some wary homes. Third, it will demonstrate the merits of a division of labor in development aid given its potential complementarity with public investments in school systems.

There are those who will dismiss the merits of funding coupons for home lessons simply because it mirrors the template of school vouchers–popular among conservatives in American society. In responding to a similar disposition while advocating for the DC Opportunity Scholarship program, the late Father Hesburgh once resisted the public temptation to think in political fissures when evaluating such ideas. This is even more pertinent in sub-Saharan Africa where progressive philanthropists have defied such fissures by controversially supporting charter school initiatives. Bold ideas flourish in times of crisis and funding coupons for the supplementary education of students from low-income backgrounds will be a bold move in a region whose learning outcomes are close to the ground. The coupons, moreover, will be supplements–not replacements. They will be part of smart aid for the most vulnerable and a fitting subscript in global education.

Nnadozie Onyekuru is a graduate of the Master of Global Affairs program at the University of Notre Dame. He earned a BA in liberal arts after studying in interdisciplinary seminars at Thomas Aquinas College. He also has studied engineering at the University of Maiduguri, worked for a consultant to the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, and served as a volunteer writer and assistant editor for Your Commonwealth, a youth development program. Onyekuru has research interests in international education and scholarship. He is not affiliated to Tuteria.