What is the relationship between politics, education reforms, and learning? Evidence from a World Bank Background Paper to the World Development Report 2018

It has been a while since I’ve posted a new update on the website. But don’t worry; I haven’t been sitting on my hands. Some things take a long time to write. This new paper is one such example. This was originally prepared as a background paper for the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018 which focused on education quality. The paper has gone through multiple drafts and iterations since we first finished it last year. But I’m happy that it is now publicly accessible on the World Bank’s website. Below is a summary of the paper.

Improving learning outcomes at scale is not just a matter of “scaling up.” It also entails attending to the technical and political complexities that shape education reforms. In this study, we draw on country-level quantitative and qualitative data to study the systemic factors that contribute to improved learning or cause declines.

We approached this study through three activities. First, we established a database of education reforms and learning trends for 76 countries, enabling us to then examine the relationship between reform type and trends in learning outcomes. Second, using this database, we examined the relationship between education system characteristics, political and economic factors, and episodes of sustained improvements or regressions in learning. Third, we prepared case studies for nine countries from the database that helped show different themes concerning the politics of education quality reforms. We then synthesized our findings to identify trends in strategies for deploying information, working with coalitions, and creating opportunities for strategic change.

Findings from the database did not establish strong correlations with indicators of the economic and political conditions generally believed to have an effect on learning. Across most countries, the type of reforms introduced during periods of sustained learning improvements versus periods of decline did not differ systematically. Expansion in primary or secondary education access was not consistently correlated with trends in learning; however, lagged improvements in pre-primary enrollment was correlated with a greater probability of sustained learning improvements.

The findings also showed that changes in government spending on education was not strongly correlated with long-term learning trends. Moreover, neither economic growth during the episode nor lagged growth was correlated with learning trends. However, there was some suggestive relationship between accelerated growth and learning. In the case of political conditions, level of democracy failed to predict whether learning improved or declined. Episodes with the biggest improvements were more likely to begin in nondemocratic countries. However, there was some relationship between increased democratization (transition to a more democratic political regime) within countries and learning improvement.

Case study findings illustrated the complexities that shaped the ability of governments to deliver education reforms to improve quality. Cases of successful reforms and improved learning were characterized by governments whose decision-making and messaging were driven by information and learning metrics. These metrics used information to make the case for necessary reforms, provided incentives to improve local school systems and teacher quality, and established public accountability through a more informed citizenry. Accountability measures included international assessments, examinations, literacy rates, or school rankings. Coalitions and political incentives took different forms.

The case study findings also showed that the countries most effective in introducing and sustaining reforms considered the needs of various stakeholders at different levels of government and civil society. Those that failed to get the buy-in of a key group at the outset, e.g., teachers’ unions, faced difficulties in implementing reforms, even if leaders were able to push through a policy reform. Effective communication strategy was also essential. The state needed to take control of the policy reform’s core message to prevent misinformation by competing interest groups. Effective reforms were focused and flexible. Policies were effective if they had a clear direction and could also be changed and even re-envisioned over time. Successful reforms were not necessarily contingent on charismatic leadership (though this could help). Sequencing popular reforms with those less likely to be supported helped to increase acceptance of less popular reforms. Reforms built on one another over a longer period of time, gradually adding greater levels of sophistication and nuance into the system in a way that slowly improved learning outcomes.

In conclusion, our study findings suggest that it is not any one component in education, economic system, or form of governance that is likely to improve learning. Rather, regardless of form, all technical inputs and political considerations must be coherent and aligned toward improved learning. Study findings and their implications must be read as exploratory. However, by offering some simple associations and hypothesizing the relationships of variables, the study offers a helpful perspective that can complement other recent efforts to understand the relationship between politics and quality reforms.

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