The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves


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About the Book

WINNER OF THE 2010 SIR ANTONY FISHER INTERNATIONAL MEMORIAL AWARD, which recognizes outstanding publications from think tanks that enhance the public understanding of a free society.

Everyone from Bono to UNESCO is looking for a silver bullet to bring schooling within reach of the poorest children on Earth. James Tooley may have found one.

While researching private schools in India for the World Bank, and worrying that he was doing little to help the poor, Professor Tooley wandered into the slums of Hyderabad’s Old City. Shocked to find it overflowing with small, parent-funded schools, he set out to discover if they could help achieve universal education. So began the adventure lyrically told in The Beautiful Tree—the story of Tooley’s travels from the largest shanty town in Africa to the mountains of Gansu, China, and of the children, parents, teachers and entrepreneurs who taught him that the poor are not waiting for educational handouts. They are building their own schools and learning to save themselves.

Named after Mahatma Gandhi’s phrase for the schools of pre-colonial India, The Beautiful Tree is not another book lamenting what has gone wrong in the Third World. It is a book about what is going right, and it offers a simple lesson: both the entrepreneurial spirit and the love of parents for their children can be found in every corner of the globe.

Watch part of a documentary on the author’s work.

Production of The Beautiful Tree was made possible with the generous assistance of Steve G. Stevanovich.

About the Author

Fresh out of college in the early 1980s, JAMES TOOLEY went to Zimbabwe to become a public school teacher. Now an award-winning scholar featured in PBS and BBC documentaries, he has written several books, and his work has been covered in Newsweek, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. For many years a professor in leading universities in England, Canada, and South Africa, James Tooley currently lives in Hyderabad, India, where he works with the entrepreneurs and teachers who inspired this book.

What Others Have Said

“Surprising…engaging…a moving account of how poor parents struggle against great odds to provide a rich educational experience to their children.”
Publishers Weekly

“Schools for the poor are the obsession of James Tooley, an education specialist with a severe case of wanderlust. He came across an unexpected phenomenon: an unending line of small, no-frills private schools catering to poor kids. He found that, on average, they had smaller class sizes, higher test scores and more motivated teachers, all while spending less than public schools. With the zeal of a convert, Tooley invokes the market’s ‘invisible hand’ to explain why private schools perform better: When parents pay the fees that keep a school afloat, he reasons, the school becomes more accountable to them. Tooley drowns readers in local color, detailing every ‘bright-eyed’ school child and every ‘thin drifting smog’ above a shantytown. Tooley’s passion comes off as genuine.”
—Carlos Lozada, Washington Post

“Tooley’s specialty as both scholar and practitioner is ultra-low-cost private education in the world’s poorest countries. Orthodox opinion on developing-country education for the poor holds that parents are too ignorant to know a good school when they see one, and that a decent education is impossible to provide on the minimal budgets available to private schools serving poor students. In country after country, Tooley found that both claims are false. The book is a memoir of his travels and researches, and a thorough examination of the issues. Everyone interested in development should read it.”
—Clive Crook, The Atlantic

The Beautiful Tree is a refreshing aberration in the stolid ranks of development literature. Tooley writes engagingly and obviously finds the story he tells exciting. His enthusiasm is contagious. One cannot help but think that Tooley has provided the rudimentary outline of how education can be brought to many more millions of the world’s poorest.”
—Liam Julian, City Journal

“This is a great book—iconoclastic, refreshing, well-written, and careful. Tooley’s detective work reveals a major undiscovered planet: private schools for the poor.”
—William Easterly
New York University; Author, White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good

“This is an insightful, empathetic testament to the motivation and ability of the most underprivileged people on Earth to lift each other—and a condemning chronicle of the wrong-headed, wasteful ways that many governments and aid agencies have used to ‘help’ them.”
—Clayton Christensen
Harvard Business School; Author, The Innovator’s Dilemma

“With this important and passionately written book, James Tooley has joined the late Milton Friedman as a name to be reckoned with in support of ‘market solutions’ for providing quality education to poor children.”
—Hernado De Soto
Recipient of the 2004 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty; Author, The Other Path


Number of Pages: 
Publication Date: 
January 1, 2009