What Makes a Politician Tackle Education?

Josef Ritzen, the Netherlands’ education minister for eight years before he joined the World Bank, once told me: “The view of a prime minister is that an education minister only brings problems. There’s nothing he or she can do to improve quality that has a political upside. So, most ministers try to do nothing.” Ritzen’s recent successors have learned this lesson the hard way with public outcry over heightened math admission requirements for teacher training colleges that have led to a teacher shortage and larger classes. So far, the government has stood firm, convinced that students cannot truly master math without excellent teaching. But the education reform shoe is pinching.

Politics make quality reforms hard

Alarm about the global learning crisis has put quality at the core of the education agenda in developing countries. Higher academic standards for new teachers, more effective training, and performance incentives are elements of high-performing education systems, but all are lacking in most developing countries.  The political dilemma is “Ritzen’s rule”: no reform to raise standards or accountability has a political upside for the government in power. Reforms to raise teacher quality impose immediate costs on teachers, who are usually represented by politically powerful unions. The benefits for students, their parents, and the economy may be large, but they accrue years later—well beyond the tenure of the politicians in power (see Bruns, Macdonald and Schneider in World Development). 

So it is important to understand how, why, and where reforms actually can happen. An excellent new book by Sam Hickey and Naomi Hossain—The Politics of Education in Developing Countries: From Schooling to Learning—explores exactly this. Last month, I had the pleasure of joining DfID’s Rachel Glennerster as a speaker at the launch of Hickey and Hossain’s book at CGD’s London office.

Applying a political science lens, Hickey and Hossain do a great service to the education community with their review of the existing research on education politics. They then set out a promising framework for explaining education politics, test their hypotheses with richly researched case studies of six developing countries (Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Uganda), and invite two key figures in the field—Lant Pritchett and Merilee Grindle—to contribute chapters critiquing their framework. If all books were this comprehensive, systematic, and intellectually honest, our knowledge base would be much stronger.

Hickey and Hossain observe that any reform process must start with one basic question: What makes an elite group in power seek to change the status quo—in this case, improve education?  

They answer this question by observing that elites retain power when a “political settlement” creates stability among competing groups. The form of these settlements differs across countries, along a continuum. At one extreme are democratic/competitive systems in which power shifts across competing groups at regular intervals through elections. At the other extreme are autocratic systems where a dominant leader may consolidate power for longer periods without challenge.  

Drawing on earlier work by Brian Levy and Michael Walton, Hickey and Hossain also note that another continuum describes how governments function: whether there is an “impersonal” or “personal” bureaucracy. In impersonal bureaucracies or “high-functioning public sector systems,” transactions are governed by the rule of law and transparency. In “personalized” bureaucracies (sometimes called spoils-driven systems) government resources are used to further politicians’ individual power, and transactions are opaque and clientelistic.

Hickey and Hossain observe that these phenomena play out at multiple levels of government, and the case studies provide fascinating details on how power relationships at the provincial and community levels also shape government policies, particularly efforts to decentralize education. Almost all the countries studied have adopted school management committees designed to strengthen schools’ accountability to their local communities; Lant Pritchett calls this “isomorphic mimicry”: where governments adopt structures or policies copied from elsewhere that have no local roots. Hickey and Hossain’s vignette of Rwandan parents sitting silently through school council meetings afraid to utter a word is a vivid illustration. 

Hickey and Hossain theorize that settings of high elite cohesion, where power is strongly consolidated, can be good for education reform because leaders have the political space to focus on longer-term development outcomes. Rwanda and Cambodia are examples of this, although Hickey and Hossain  note that Rwanda’s progress in education is less impressive than in other sectors, such as health. In contrast, they note that competitive democracies are highly vulnerable to the rents and patronage politics that education offers. Even in democracies where bureaucracies are relatively rule-based, symbiotic relationships between teachers’ unions and political parties are widespread; as Ben Ross Schneider has pointed out, hiring untrained teachers is less likely to produce political fallout than untrained doctors or bridge builders.

The book’s case studies are fascinating for the array of dysfunctions and localized politics they describe in vivid detail: the paired cases in each country of rich and poor districts and high and low performing schools within each district take us inside education systems at all levels and are must reading for anyone working on education. But they also, as Grindle and Pritchett point out, produce a number of examples where the two-dimensional analysis of the overall political settlement and the quality of governance/bureaucracy does not fully explain implementation and results on the ground. The authors themselves note that “higher levels of (school) performance at the frontline seemed to emerge as localized solutions…often against the grain of dysfunctional sector arrangements and the national political settlement.” In Uganda, for example, operating in the same political settlement and bureaucratic rules of the game, one head teacher uses political influence with the local district office to secure good teachers for her school, while another uses her district contacts to cover her absenteeism.  

Reform requires champions of change

These findings lead the reader to reflect on other theories of why and how reforms happen. Merilee Grindle’s research emphasizes the role of individual reformist leaders who are driven by conviction and have the political skill to create “room for maneuver” in implementing reforms that challenge the status quo. My own research on two Andean countries (Peru and Ecuador) that have seen big improvements in learning similarly finds change was led by politicians who effectively used political capital and communications strategies to win public support for major reforms of teacher standards and incentives over union opposition. (Schneider, Cevallos and Bruns 2019; Bruns and Luque, 2015).

Other research documents the role of policy networks in generating ideas and evidence that can stimulate and support charismatic political leaders. Mizala and Schneider (2019) show that the local academic/NGO community played a crucial role in the design of Chile’s sweeping 2016 reform of the teacher career path. A study of the 50 US states (Finger 2017) similarly found the adoption of teacher evaluation systems that include student test scores was significantly predicted by the presence of a national nonprofit providing research, expertise, and funding in the state.

Perhaps a synthesis of these streams of work creates a more complete picture of how and why education reforms happen. Hickey and Hossain’s framework is almost a skeleton, identifying underlying conditions that facilitate or constrain elites’ likelihood to consider reforms and the capacity of a bureaucracy to implement them effectively. Grindle’s “reform-mongers” are like muscle—they explain how the skeleton starts moving. And the ideas and global evidence from policy networks that inspire and orient reform design are analogous to the brain that guides it all.

Even by 2030, most children in the developing world will not attain basic literacy and numeracy skills by the end of primary school. Climbing out of the global learning crisis requires serious actions in these countries to raise the quality of teaching—a challenge that is essentially political. As Pritchett observes, by focusing attention on this fact, Hickey and Hossain’s book starts paving the road ahead.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Photo by Brad Perkins, via Wikimedia