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Regulated School Autonomy: The Overlooked Condition to Improve Student Learning in Latin America

Thu, March 9, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Sheraton Atlanta, 1, Atlanta 5 (North Tower)


Since at least 2000, many Latin American countries have made great efforts, and invested a lot of money, with the manifest goal of improving the quality of their school systems. Yet, a decade and a half later, results are generally disappointing. Most Latin American education reforms in the last 15 years have stressed key aspects of school reform that are popular among decision-makers in the United States and Western Europe, such as attracting the “best candidates” to the teaching profession, improving the way they are educated, raising their salaries, using standards and standardized tests as a means to encourage performance and accountability, amending school curricula, reinforcing educational leadership, or decentralizing school systems. However, in general have failed to consider, let alone emphasize, the way these elements (should) amalgamate in the territory, that is to say, their “institutional architecture.” This paper tries to argue that this omission might be one important reason why the increase in educational investment has not yielded analogous increases in students’ learning.

In this paper I introduce and explain the concept of institutional architecture, which has emerged recently within specialized literature (Araujo, Cruz-Aguayo, Jaimovich & Kagan, 2015; Jaimovich, 2014), and operationalize it as the manner school systems are designed regarding explicit and implicit norms in the interactions between schools and the administrative units that rule them (in Latin America, the ministries of education), in terms of technical support, control, and assessment. This concept is very central to educational quality, as it has the ability of allowing, encouraging or impeding the good functioning of schools.

The paper is divided in three parts. In the first one, I argue that the best way to secure students’ learning is to promote the professional autonomy of schools, because it is at the school level where the best educational decisions can be taken, as numerous research studies confirm (e.g., Bolívar, 2002, 2013; Branch, Hanushek & Rivkin, 2013; Casassus, 2003; Gros, Fernández-Salinero, Martínez, & Roca, 2013; Gvirtz, Zacarias & Abregú, 2011; Hanushek, 2011; Leithwood, Harris & Hopkins, 2008; Monteiro, 2015; Mourshed, Chijioke & Barber, 2010; Muñoz-Repiso & Murillo, 2010; Murillo, 2007). Nonetheless, I also contend that many Latin American schools (especially those that serve the underprivileged) are not capable of becoming responsibly autonomous, as they often lack human and financial resources, without which professional autonomy remains chimeric. That is why most Latin American school systems require a mix of educational support and control that guides schools in gaining the capacities necessary for developing professional autonomy.

In the second part, I distinguish three models of institutional architecture, according to the level of involvement by the state in the management of such systems: (I) a centralized-regulated model, which is the traditional one in the region, prescribes a rigid intervention of the state in the school system; (II) an autonomous-deregulated model, which was seen as an alternative in many Latin American countries during the neoliberal wave of school decentralization that began in the 1980’s, prescribes a minimum intervention of the State in the schools, and a more or less radical deregulation of the educational system, and (III) a post-neoliberal model that will be offered as an alternative to both model I and model II, which will be referred to as autonomous-regulated, and which proposes a flexible intervention by the state in the school system, realizing that schools are ultimately the only institutions capable of improving students’ learning, but often times need external support to continue to improve, once they have reached the limit of their capabilities (Jaimovich, 2014, p. 5).

Finally, in the third part, I take the noteworthy case of Ecuador’s latest school reform (2007-2016) as an example of a failed attempt to effect sustainable change to its institutional architecture. Between 2006 and 2012, Ecuador moved abruptly from having a nearly abandoned school system to a situation in which education became a central concern of its public policy, which manifested itself in the tripling of K-12 public education annual budget, the overhaul of the educational legal framework, and the design and implementation of a comprehensive educational reform that included policies aimed at restoring the national state jurisdiction over the education system, universalizing school enrollment, and improving the quality of educational services (Cevallos Estarellas & Bramwell, 2014). During the same timeframe, it went from a deregulated school system to a hyper-regulated one, despite the fact that it attempted a type of educational support and control that guides schools in gaining the capacities necessary for developing professional autonomy (Cevallos Estarellas, 2016).


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