Lessons of successes and failures in the politics of education reform – Fellows’ seminar by Ben Ross Schneider

6 May 2019

“High-quality education as essential for sustained and equitable development. It’s the most sustainable way to address inequality – the silver bullet – so why isn’t it implemented successfully in so many middle-income countries?”

“Why do quality reforms succeed in some countries and not in others, and what are the lessons that can be learnt?”

These are some the questions addressed by STIAS fellow Ben Ross Schneider of the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Schneider - 1
STIAS fellow Ben Ross Schneider during his seminar presentation on 17 April 2019

“We know much more about what kinds of reform improve quality than about the politics through which they are achieved, largely due to the lack of research on education politics,” he continued. “My contribution to filling this gap draws on theories that stress the power of social classes, business preferences, policy networks, civil society, and the institutional veto points in the political systems where these groups contend.” Schneider’s research has looked at assessing these theories in comparative cases of reform successes and failures, focusing on Chile, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, South Africa, and other middle-income countries. His stay at STIAS will allow him to consolidate this work into a comparative, theoretical book on education politics in developing countries.

“Many middle-income countries don’t seem able to make the leap to high income – they remain in a middle-income trap and exhibit the highest levels of low productivity and income inequality,” he said.

“Education is the best investment you can make,” he added. “Every year of added education results in an estimated 10% more income. This could even be higher in Africa.”

He pointed out that PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test measures (which he acknowledged are not ideal because they don’t take into account other issues like race, class and gender but “are the best we have currently”) show that many middle-income countries are, on average, about 90 points below high-income countries. “Each 40 points is about equivalent to a year’s instruction,” he said. “So by age 15, these students are two years behind students in rich countries.”

“So children are in school, but not learning. Many don’t even have the basics to move on to further training and education and therefore skilled employment.”

“Improving education quality is not rocket science – it needs better trained teachers, more infrastructure and more time.”

“It’s also not exclusively about resources,” he added. “Even at lower GDP you can have good education as has been seen in countries like Vietnam. Within countries sometimes poorer schools produce the best results.”

Education, along with health, generally accounts for the highest government spend. So why are these governments doing so little to improve the quality of education?

“The problem often seems to be weak support and strong opposition,” said Schneider. “In normal political times supporters of reform are few and weak, and opponents are well organised and intensely interested in blocking reform. Pro-reform coalitions are weak and decisions are often left to the next election.”

He pointed out that some of the groups that should support reform including the business sector are absent, and parents are uninformed and dispersed.

“Parents, the most obvious group to demonstrate for better education for their children, are not unified. Many may not be well educated themselves and therefore not sure of the kind of education their children should be getting. Quality is also very hard to judge. The middle classes have also left the public education system in many Latin American countries and are not interested in paying for education reforms to assist poor children.”

“Parents may often indicate satisfaction with their local school but not with the national education system. This may indicate a degree of complacency, even wishful thinking.”

“The business sector, on the other hand, recognises that they need skilled human capital but would often rather train themselves than rely on the education sector.”

Strong, effective opposition

“Those who oppose reform – including clientelist politicians and teacher unions – are patient and effective opponents. So, many governments don’t even attempt reform, and those that do are often blocked, as in Mexico and some states in Brazil.” Schneider pointed to huge reforms made in Brazil under Secretary for Education Wilson Risolia which were subsequently largely overturned by his successor.

“Lasting reforms to improve education quality in developing countries are rare because political opposition and government turnover regularly stalls, dilutes, or subsequently undoes reforms,” he said.

He used Ecuador and Chile as detailed case studies of successful reforms which were based on shock events resulting in electoral mobilisation.

“In countries that suffer major shocks – as in the virtual collapse of education in Ecuador and massive student protests in Chile – politicians can then harness electoral support for education reform and cultivate civil society allies to enact reform. However, consolidation requires long terms in government.”

“In Chile there were student demonstrations from 2011 onwards. President Bachelet (the first female president) came to power on the promise of education reform, with a strong electoral mandate and political networks. Plan Maestro was developed over four months in 2014.”

“In Ecuador there was a near collapse of the education system in 2000. Education was receiving less than 1% of GDP and underpaid teachers were only showing up about 60% of the time. This led to a referendum which led to changes to teacher career examinations and evaluations, increased salaries and the appointment of 25% more teachers in a four-year period.”

But it wasn’t a smooth road in either country with ongoing strikes a major feature. The different time horizons faced by political versus union leaders is an ongoing challenge.

“A Minister of Education may only have a two-year tenure while union leaders can have up to seven years,” said Schneider. “Unions accumulate power over time, have vested interests and huge bargaining power because they can literally promise votes. Politicians are therefore willing to trade long-term benefits to the unions in exchange for short-term support.”

“Strong unions can be very disruptive. Many oppose evaluation, retraining and career-development initiatives because these threaten the source of union leader power. Many unions also claim to be anti neo-liberalism and that evaluation is neo-liberalism.

“There are obviously substantial differences between professional unions and politically embedded unions. Reforms are easier when unions are not politically embedded,” he added.

Substandard teacher training is also a major problem.

“Teacher training is often very theoretical and not class based. Teachers are therefore rightfully concerned about reforms – it’s not their fault that the training was bad in the first place. It’s also hard to get older teachers to retrain or retire.”

“Teachers don’t go into education for the money – they are motivated by other factors. But it’s increasingly becoming an ‘un-liked’ profession, ranked second rate. It’s important to make the career more attractive to young people.”

“There is a need for formative not punitive evaluation, and greater support including peer mentoring,” he added.

Turning to some of his initial thoughts on South Africa, Schneider highlighted the government continuity which is an important strength but also the potential role of strong teacher unions like the South African Democratic Teachers Union. In discussion, the role of school committees, a feature in many towns especially in rural areas, was also raised.

“The rapid rise of the middle class in South Africa and the impact of this on the public education system must also be understood,” he said.

“There is definitely still room for theorising in this area,” he added.

“Some of the initial lessons we can distil from the Latin American countries are that shocks in the system lead to most reforms; champions cannot succeed alone; a top-down approach may be the only route to overcome opposition where unions are strong; and, bottom-up approaches are only feasible with substantial electoral mobilisation.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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