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The Rebirth of Education” by Lant Pritchett is a must read for anyone who is thinking about social services of any kind. The book specifically addresses education, but the core argument is to think beyond improving education (or social services) to ask what kind of system will improve education (or social services). This may sound like a trivial distinction but it makes all the difference to cutting through the false debates, partial evidence, and ideological positions that are getting in the way of achieving the educational (and social service) performances that we (say that we) want.

In researching “Making Social Services Work” for the IDB in 1996, I was struck by one huge difference between health and education sectors in Latin America and the Caribbean. We had enormous difficulty coming up with appropriate categories for health systems, eventually settling on four categories for 26 countries. But when we looked at education, we barely had two categories – Chile and everyone else. The predominant education systems around the region were almost identical in terms of ownership (public), staffing (civil service), administration (centralized or subnational authorities), and financing (centralized). I found it frustrating to work on education over the next few years because it was so difficult to find people who were open to ideas about systemic change. Instead I chose to concentrate my efforts on health – where people seemed more open to substantive innovations. Pritchett’s book finally provides me with a way to understand not only why the two sectors diverge in structure, but also why the education sector is so resistant to fundamental change.

Looking at the education sector, Pritchett pulls together the evidence of how little children are learning in schools around the world. Some of the more remarkable pieces:

  • Despite massive increases in years of schooling in recent decades, a majority of 15 year-olds in low- and middle-income countries have only learned enough to reach the bottom 5 percent of their peers in high-income countries.
  • The top public and private schools often score similarly in terms of student performance but the worst public schools are much worse than the worst private schools, e.g., public systems are not necessarily more equitable.
  • Most gains in learning among high-income countries occurred before the 1970s and have leveled off since then.
  • Historically, education systems did not become centralized and hierarchical in order to teach skills but as part of socialization and state-building.

This last point is important to understanding why most developing countries today have the political will to enroll students in centralized hierarchical schooling systems even when they fail to effectively provide learning environments in those schools.

So what’s the way forward? This is where the system approach comes to the fore. Pritchett shows that most of policy reforms promoted over the last few decades only reinforce centralized hierarchical systems that insulate schools and educators and officials from changes that would actually recognize, adapt, and adopt innovations favorable to learning. The six features of such a functional system are:

  • open to entry and exit
  • locally operated
  • performance pressured
  • professionally networked
  • technically supported, and
  • flexibly financed

Pritchett explains each of these in turn. Importantly, these features are not aligned with typical debates over public versus private, centralized versus decentralized, or others. For example, Chile’s voucher system with participation of private schools has been as insulated from performance pressures as any public system. Centralized systems can be as poor at professional networking as decentralized ones.

The same principles can be applied to analyzing other social services like health, water, job training, or safety nets. The variety of institutional arrangements for providing healthcare services across rich countries with universal health coverage is due, in part, to the multiple social, economic, and political pressures that have frustrated efforts to impose a one-size-fits-all approach to the sector. Britain’s celebrated National Health Service has private general practitioners. Singapore’s privately-funded Medical Savings Accounts are embedded in a financing system that provides an elaborate public financial safety net. This merely illustrates a way forward for the education sector which has been, until now, almost unimaginable. The organizations that evolve under functional systems will differ across countries and even within countries, but that’s the point. Human institutions are not designed, they evolve. And until we recognize that, the debates over The Right Way to reform education will never bear fruit.