LIBERIA • Imagine an elementary school where students show up, but teachers don't. Where 100 students squeeze into a classroom but don't get any books. Where teachers are sometimes illiterate and periodically abuse students. Where families pay under the table to get a "free" education, yet students don't learn to read.
That's public education in many poor countries.
And it's why the hostility of American teachers unions and some of their progressive supporters to trials of private management of public schools abroad is so misconceived. This country, Liberia, is leading an important experiment in helping children learn in poor countries - and it's undermined by misguided Americans, including some of my fellow liberals.
"The status quo has failed," Mr George Werner, Liberia's Education Minister, told me. "Teachers don't show up, even though they're paid by the government. There are no books. Training is very weak. School infrastructure is not safe.
"We have to do something radical," he added.
So Liberia is handing over some public schools to Bridge International Academies, a private company backed by Mr Bill Gates and Mr Mark Zuckerberg, to see if it can do better.
So far, it seems it can - much better. An interim study just completed shows Bridge schools easily outperforming government-run schools in Liberia, and a randomised trial is expected to confirm that finding. It would be odd if schools with teachers and books didn't outperform schools without them.
If the experiment continues to succeed, Liberia's Education Minister would like to hand over "as many schools as possible" to private providers. Countries in Asia and others in Africa are also interested in adopting this model.
The idea of turning over public schools to a for-profit company sparks outrage in some quarters. There's particular hostility to Bridge, because it runs hundreds of schools, both public and private, in poor countries (its private schools in other countries charge families about $7 a month).
"Bridge's for-profit educational model is robbing students of a good education," Ms Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest US teachers union, declared last autumn. Education International, which represents the NEA and other teachers unions around the world, similarly excoriates Bridge and the Liberian government.
I understand critics' fears (and share some about for-profit schools in the US). They see handing schools over to Bridge as dismantling the public education system - one of the best ideas in human history - for private profit.
But I've followed Bridge for years, my wife and I wrote about it in our last book, and the concerns are misplaced. Bridge has always lost money, so no one is monetising children. In fact, it's a start-up that tackles a social problem in ways similar to a non-profit, but with for-profit status that makes it more sustainable and scalable.
More broadly, the world has failed children in poor countries. There have been global campaigns to get more children in school, but that isn't enough. The crucial metric isn't children attending school, but children learning in school.
Here in Liberia in the village of Boegeezay in Rivercess County, I dropped in on a regular public school that officially had 16 teachers assigned to it. Initially, I saw four; a couple more trickled in hours later.
I asked one girl in the school's third grade if she could read the word "hands" (which was on her T-shirt); she couldn't. I asked her what eight plus five equals. After a while, she guessed 12. Finally, I asked her to write the letter "E" in my notebook. She couldn't.
Americans wonder why 60 million elementary school-age children worldwide don't go to school. It's no wonder if you have to pay under-the-table school fees and know that years of "education" will get your children nothing.
In contrast, the Bridge schools I visited were functional. The teachers can themselves read. School begins on time, at 7.30am, and continues until 3.30pm instead of letting out around noon, as at many government-run schools. And students have books.
"Since Bridge arrived here, the difference is so great," explained Prince Yien, the PTA chairman in one school I visited. Ruth Yarkpawolo, nine, a third-grader, told me that the biggest difference since Bridge took over is that the teacher is present. Ruth is the first girl in her family to attend school, she loves science class, and she has ambitions that an education could facilitate. "I want to be a nurse," she said.
We can all agree that the best option would be for governments to offer better schools, with books and teachers in the room. Indeed, Liberia is trying to improve all schools, and it is winnowing out payments to "ghost teachers", who don't exist except on paper.
But my travels have left me deeply sceptical that government schools in many countries can be easily cured of corruption, patronage and wretched governance - and, in the meantime, we fail a generation of children.
In the United States, criticisms of for-profit schools are well grounded, for successive studies have found that vouchers for US for-profit schools hurt children at least initially (although the evidence also shows that in the US, well-run charters can help pupils).
The situation in countries like Liberia is different, and when poor countries recognise that their education systems are broken and try to do the right thing for children, it doesn't help to export the United States' toxic education wars.
So, a plea to my fellow progressives: Let's worry less about ideology and more about how to help children learn.