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Politics is not the Obstacle: Insights on the Politics of Learning from the RISE Programme (Panel 1)

Tue, February 21, 4:45 to 6:15pm EST (4:45 to 6:15pm EST), Grand Hyatt Washington, Floor: Independence Level (3B), Cherry Blossom Boardroom

Group Submission Type: Formal Panel Session


In recent decades, many low and middle-income countries have drastically expanded access to schooling. However, evidence from various learning assessments - such as the PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS and others - reveals that most countries lag behind when it comes to learning. More recent reports indicate that ‘learning losses’ due to COVID-induced ‘shocks’ (i.e. school closures, drop-outs, fiscal responsibilities, etc.) have not only paused progress, but can accumulate over time and alter children’s long term learning trajectories quite significantly (RISE, 2022).

Traditionally, most analyses have attributed poor learning outcomes to proximate determinants: inadequate funding, human resource deficits, poor curricular development, perverse incentive structures, poor management and the like (Rosser, 2018). More recently, however, scholars have explored the determinants of learning in the realm of politics and, in particular, the interests of state elites. Such explorations have paved the way for efforts like RISE (Research on Improving Systems of Education) that take a systems approach to diagnose ‘wicked problems’ and inform policies that can improve education outcomes. The RISE Programme is a $50+ Million research endeavor that seeks to understand what makes education systems coherent and effective for learning, and how the complex dynamics within a system allow certain policies to be successful, and also cause certain to fail. RISE has Country Research Teams in seven countries: Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, India and Pakistan.

Within this larger RISE effort, the Political Economy team looks at the link between learning outcomes and politics. At the heart of this project lies the argument that sustainable educational change hinges on understanding the motivations and behaviors of actors and the contestation of competing political and social conditions that have been (or could be) fostered to make learning a priority for education systems. In this regard, the PET-A effort marks a shift from dominant approaches in political economy analysis as it seeks to tell us why countries adopt learning-oriented policies and why they are able to successfully implement them. This stream of work draws on research insights from 12 RISE countries, and an additional 5 Non-RISE countries, to expound on the RISE 5x4 accountability matrix and offer nuanced analyses of what may work in making systems coherent for learning. To this end, the research programme has three major components:

i) the formulation of a set of guiding principles for understanding the political economy of education system development in developing countries and, in particular, enrolment and learning outcomes;
ii) the application of these principles to research on 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;
iii) an assessment of the implications of the analysis for donor and government efforts to enhance learning in developing countries.

The first RISE Political Economy panel will present findings from four county case studies: India, Nigeria, Peru, and Chile. These papers will present applications of the RISE analytical framework in their particular contexts, and explain how their specific systems cohere with learning-oriented objectives. A second panel will draw on the RISE political economy work more broadly (a total of 12 country case studies), and provide a comparative analysis of the kind of conditions and contextual particularities that make learning a priority. Taken together the papers will explore the applicability of the emerging RISE political economy work to other country experiences, and provide a way forward for policy-makers, educators, researchers to understand and better navigate the challenges of education reform. Overall, the orientation of the RISE political economy work has built on the ideas expressed by David Hudson of the Development Leadership Program: “Politics is not the obstacle; it is the way change happens.”

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