The Limitations of Education Reform


POTOMAC, Maryland — The progress of education reform initiatives revolves around certain indicators: primary school enrollment rate, teacher absentee rate and completion rate, to name a few. NGOs and governments tackle these numbers often with the assumption that public servants and their accountability or training are to blame. Usually, this is true. Reformers often fail to look past these indicators; however, it is culture — not numbers — that can explain a student’s indifference or a teacher’s inability to connect with a classroom.

The Case of Uttar Pradesh

Being a teacher in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) is a dream. One enjoys good pay, great benefits and unassailable job security.

The last fifteen years, however, have produced many papers describing UP’s growing problem of teacher absenteeism. Teachers do not care, they say. They are unaccountable and cannot be compelled to deliver results.

These studies repeat the problem of “accountability” over and over again, but they cannot explain it fully. If normal reform practices are implemented, salary incentives are introduced to increase worker effectivity. In the case of UP, unions are simply too powerful, and teachers cannot be terminated after entering the system.

UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) looked into the issue and discovered the underlying problem: UP teachers have become politicized.

The Indian Constitution guarantees public school teachers representation in the upper houses of parliament. Also, certain private school teachers are able to contest elections for lower houses. Consequently, teachers or former teachers garner considerable representation. In UP, for instance, teachers make up about 20 percent of the state legislature, while ex-teachers make up another 20 percent.

Reformers can try incentivizing teacher accountability to deliver results, and it might work — for a short time at least. But in the long run, the problem is political and the reality is ineluctable. As long as teachers are working in politics and shirking their local duties, education in UP cannot improve as readily as it ought to.


Indicators serve to give development practitioners a measure of education quality, but such a measure is inaccessible to the actual clients of the education system: citizens.

In the early 2000s, Peru’s Ministry of Education aimed to fix this. They saw a problem of imperfect information, in which parents were unaware of the education their child was receiving.

So the ministry teamed up with the prime minister of the World Bank to develop RECURSO (the Spanish acronym for Accountability for Social Reform), a set of programs that hopes to increase parent involvement in education.

When the program first began, parents received thick packets full of facts and figures, detailing results of their children’s schools. A second grader’s mother, for example, would receive second grade test scores for math and reading comprehension from her child’s school. These tests are benchmarked against standards set by the Peruvian Ministry of Education, allowing the mother to monitor both her child’s progress and the school’s.

Unfortunately, when tests revealed that second graders were underperforming, only a few parents protested. The parents simply didn’t know what the tests and reports meant.

To fix this, the World Bank produced a video explaining what the test scores indicate and why it is imperative for children to meet benchmarks. In doing so, RECURSO builds expectations for parents, which pushes them to act and encourage their child’s progress. “Doing well” transforms itself from a cold number to a skill that parents see children should possess.

One school showed huge gains after implementing the new video tutorial for parents. In 2007, not one child achieved the desired benchmark agreed upon for second graders. One year later, 57 percent met the standard.

Technocratic methods — that rely on quantitative data — can certainly help identify problems, as numbers and statistics are useful in revealing which areas require attention. But technocratic solutions often gloss over underlying problems that reside outside the domain of education. In the case of UP, political reform could enable further education reform, and for Peru, parent involvement allowed numbers to start improving.

– The Borgen Project

Sources: DFID, World Bank 1, World Bank 2
Photo: TranslationGuy


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