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Political economy research to improve systems of education: perspectives from the RISE program

Thu, April 18, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Atrium (Level 2), Boardroom C

Group Submission Type: Formal Panel Session


In recent decades, many developing countries have greatly improved access to education including for the poor. But few have made significant gains in learning as illustrated, for instance, by international standardized assessments of student achievement such as PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS. Without meaningful and in many cases dramatic improvement in learning, and in the rate of improved learning, “sustainability” is an empty catchphrase. Most analyses have attributed poor learning outcomes in developing countries to their proximate causes: inadequate funding, human resource deficits, poor curricular development, perverse incentive structures, poor management and the like (Rosser 2018). Along these lines, the RISE Programme is a $50+ Million research effort that seeks to understand what features make education systems coherent and effective in their context, and how the complex dynamics within a system allow policies to be successful. RISE has Country Research Teams in seven countries: Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, India and Pakistan.

Recently, however, some scholars have suggested that the determinants of learning lie more in the realm of politics and, in particular, the interests of state elites. True sustainability in educational improvement will hinge greatly on understanding the political economy of education reform –e.g., how context influences and constrains outcomes -- and in aligning reform design and strategies with what is known about political settlements, the governance and politics of education, the actors and domains of contestation in an education system, and the structural and institutional drivers of reform.

Pritchett (2018), for instance, has hypothesized that state elites in developing countries have been more interested in using education systems to promote nation-building objectives such as use of a national language and commitment to a prescribed national identity than economic or social objectives. Similarly, Paglayan (2018) has argued that state elites in Western Europe and Latin America established or expanded national education systems primarily in order to enhance their political control over populations, noting that educational expansion typically occurred in the wake of periods of widespread violence. In both cases, these scholars have suggested that improved enrolment rates have served elite agendas better than improved learning outcomes; the latter have, at best, been irrelevant and, at worse, antithetical to these interests.

As part of this larger effort RISE has constituted a Political Economy Team (PET) with a program of research to test these ideas, refine them, and generate new ideas about the link between politics and learning outcomes in developing countries by analyzing a set of country cases. All seven RISE countries will be cases, as well as some non-RISE countries, in particular from Latin America, Eastern Europe and perhaps the Middle East and North Africa. The program involves three main components: i) the formulation of an analytical framework for understanding the political economy of education system development in developing countries and, in particular, enrolment and learning outcomes; ii) the application of this framework to a set of country cases to elucidate the political obstacles to improved learning outcomes in these countries and the conditions under which they have been overcome; and iii) an assessment of the implications of the analysis for donor and government efforts to enhance learning in developing countries. This panel presents the analytical framework and applications in three countries: Vietnam, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. Insights will be drawn from on-going research efforts in the other RISE countries: Tanzania, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan.

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