Article on Rwanda’s language policy in the Washington Post

In January, the Washington Post published my article about Rwanda’s recent language change. The recent change offered an opportunity to make a timely contribution to ongoing policy debates. I have spent the last 10 years focusing on education policy in Rwanda, though this particular article mostly draws on existing sources of data and literature. Thank you to everyone that has read, shared, and/or responded to the piece.

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.

Guest blog for RISE

This week I had a blog post published for RISE (Research on Improving Systems for Education), looking at the relationship between politics and education quality in Rwanda. Here is a link to the full post. Check it out!



Over the last two decades, the Rwandan government has received global recognition for its impressive efforts to improve children’s education through expanded access, a decentralised system, and performance-based accountability. Despite these efforts, evidence suggests that education quality remains extremely low. A recent study found that after Primary 1, 66 percent cannot read any word of the local language, Kinyarwanda; 64 percent of students who are promoted to Primary 2 still score zero percent on a literacy assessment; and for those who reach Primary 6, 85 percent have repeated at least one grade.

How might the educational successes of the sector be reconciled with the poor quality outcomes observed?

Most studies of education quality tend to focus on the technical aspects of policy implementation. At the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre at The University of Manchester, we take a different approach. We study issues like education quality through the lens of politics, adopting a research concept called “political settlements.” This strand of investigation focuses on elite commitment to inclusive development. Studying the incentives, institutions, and individuals that comprise a political settlement provides insight into how meaningful and equitable change for the poor can be brought about and sustained.

Perhaps no country better illustrates a “dominant developmental” political settlement than Rwanda. This type of political settlement implies a strong commitment to delivering development to its citizens as one of the keys to its own survival. Political power is aligned with the country’s ruling party, which governs through a high degree of top-down control. The relative stability of a dominant developmental political settlement can allow the state to engage in longer-term planning. It can also mean favouring rapid transformation over more incremental approaches to policy development.

Our study of education quality in Rwanda through this vantage point revealed some important insights.  Drawing on policy analysis and interviews, findings suggested that the continuity of power did not transfer over to a consistent or coherent agenda when it came to education quality reform in Rwanda.

Perhaps the clearest example of the relationship between the political settlement, policy incoherence, and quality is Rwanda’s language policy. Until 2008, the language of instruction was French, owing to the country’s Franco-Belgian colonial roots. However, in 2009, the language was abruptly changed to English.

There are several well-documented political and economic explanations for why the change was made. But when it comes to its effects on quality, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the language change presented a shock to the system. The policy compelled teachers to instruct their students in a language they themselves were still learning. Students needed to learn and take exams in a language that many didn’t understand. This is particularly the case in rural areas, where, about a decade later after the language change was announced, just 27 percent of Primary 6 students are functionally literate in English.

Compounding the technical challenges of implementation was the way in which the language change was introduced. The decision was explained by many we interviewed as to have emanated from the Office of the President and outside of the strategic planning architecture that usually informs the education sector’s priorities. Planning documents from around the time that the language change was announced offer no indication of the upcoming change. This was of consequence, because it limited the ability of education officials and its partners to respond with training, textbooks, and so on. “It was a matter of choice,” a senior education official in Rwanda’s education ministry said in an interview. “You go for access and you will compromise quality. When you then add English as a challenge, the problem of quality became a lot worse.”

To be sure, many education reforms have been positive, particularly around access. New classrooms and schools represent some of the most visible and popular commitments of the ruling party’s promise to deliver development for all.

But if Rwanda’s political settlement defines its successes in the education sector, it also helps in explaining some of its challenges, particularly when it comes to advancing a sustained approach to improve quality.


Tim Williams is an honorary research fellow at Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre. His paper on education policy in Rwanda was the recipient of the 2018 Joyce Cain Award from the Comparative and International Education Society of North America.

This blog draws from key findings from a chapter in the open-access volume, The Politics of Education in Developing Countries: From Schooling to Learning (2019, Oxford University Press), edited by Sam Hickey and Naomi Hossain.

Chapter in open-access book from Oxford University Press


Excited to share this open-access book on the politics of education quality, published by Oxford University Press. My chapter examines education quality and policymaking in Rwanda, focusing on the relationship between teacher training and the English language policy. It is a really great book that makes an important contribution to understanding the relationship between politics and education quality reform. The book is edited by Manchester’s Sam Hickey and Naomi Hossain, both of whom have really helped my thinking progress on how to approach the study of policy and policymaking. The volume features many scholars from the Global South as well as contributions from pioneers in the study of politics and education, including Harvard’s Lant Pritchett and Merilee Grindle.

Systemic change in early grade literacy: lessons from Save the Children

One area of interest for me over the last several years has been thinking about some of the broader factors that shape children’s experiences — for example, how education policy informs learning in classrooms. I’ve written about this issue in Rwanda for academic audiences. Recently, I was able to apply this perspective to some work with Save the Children in Rwanda by drafting a learning paper to reflect on their efforts to bring about systemic change in early childhood literacy through their program called Advancing the Right to Read (ARR).

ARR was a program of complementary interventions that had the overarching goal of promoting and sustaining literacy development for children ages 0 to 9 in Rwanda. Each intervention focused on a different aspect of early childhood literacy. The programs targeted different age groups, generating evidence around best practice for children thorough evaluations of those projects and using findings to advocate for change. Through this work, SC sought to build awareness and understanding, strengthen capacity, and advocate for policy consensus among government and civil society, embedding the ideas of ARR into national systems for sustainable change. The final report from this effort is located here.

Presenting research in the UK

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Today I am in Reading, England. This morning I had the opportunity to share some of my PhD findings with a group called Education Development Trust. EDT is a large research and policy focused organization focused on education and development. They supported some of my PhD fieldwork through a fieldwork grant called the Tim Morris Award, named after one of their colleagues whose life was tragically cut short. It was a neat opportunity to speak to a group with such expertise in education research and policy. From the picture it is not even clear that I am suffering from food poisoning!





A book review on education in Rwanda

I had the pleasure of writing up a short review about a new book on education in Rwanda. The review was recently published by the journal Compare.

A snippet from the review:

Primary School Leadership in Post-Conflict Rwanda: A Narrative Arc (Palgrave MacMillan 2018) adds to a burgeoning literature that has examined different aspects of basic education in Rwanda. The distinguishing feature of this book is its focus on school-level leadership. The book describes the current context facing education practitioners, offers an account of the historical context in which these policies emerged, and draws on qualitative interviews in rural and urban settings to examine the constraints facing school-level education leaders.

The book’s 242 pages are divided into seven chapters. The first three chapters offer an introduction to the book, an overview of Rwanda’s history of conflict, a synopsis of education leadership in other conflict-affected countries, and a detailed review of the literature on educational leadership. Chapter 4 describes the history of education policy in Rwanda from the colonial area up to the 1994 genocide. Chapter 5 describes the current policy context as the country emerged from conflict. Chapter 6 draws from 23 interviews with education leaders, mostly at the school level, to examine what the challenges faced and how they responded. Chapter 7 ties the book together, revisiting key themes and charting directions for further research.