How context and reform align (or misalign): New evidence from the education sector

Recognition that ‘context matters’ for development policymaking and implementation has become commonplace, almost to the point of cliché – but going beyond the general nostrum to something practically useful continues to challenge.  This post draws on a set of ambitious new case studies of the politics of policymaking in education to illustrate  the practical potential of an approach that takes seriously the ways in which power and institutions shape context,  and thus  reform opportunities and constraints.  (A companion post lays out the approach’s theoretical underpinnings.)

On the surface, global gains in educating children have been remarkable. Access has expanded enormously. So, too, has education-sector-specific knowledge about how students learn and successful teachers teach.  Yet the combination of access and knowledge has  not translated into broad-based gains in learning outcomes. Why?

To better understand the reasons for this disconnect, and to help uncover new ways of improving learning outcomes, the ambitious, decade-long RISE program championed broad-ranging research on systems of education. As part of this effort, it  sponsored a set of country studies  of the politics of education policy adoption. In early 2022, I was  commissioned by RISE to write a synthesis (available here)  of the individual studies. The synthesis paper provided an opportunity to explore further some questions left over from an earlier round of research in the education sector.

Back in 2012, I launched an in-depth research project on the politics and governance of basic education, centered around case studies in two provinces of South Africa. The project built on  decades of work as a researcher-practitioner at the interface between governance and economic development across a wide range of sectors (though never before on education),     I came away from the research  enormously impressed by the rigor of specialized, education-sector scholarship  and, more broadly,  by the knowledge and commitment of many in the education-sector-focused policy and research community. But I was also  struck by how little progress has been made in linking  this knowledge to broader findings on interactions between governance, policymaking and implementation.

In seeking to account for this disconnect, a useful point of departure is the 2018 Learning World Development Report’s distinction between proximate and underlying causes of learning shortfalls. Proximate causes include the skills and motivations of teachers, the quality of school management, the available of other inputs used in schools, and the extent to which learners come to school prepared to learn. Underlying these are the governance arrangements through which these inputs are deployed. Specialist knowledge on the relation between the proximate causes and learning outcomes can straightforwardly be applied in countries where governance works well. However, as the RISE political economy case studies detail vividly, in countries where the broader governance context is less supportive, specialist sector-specific interventions to support learning are less likely to add value.

How to move forward in the latter contexts?  “Focus not only on sector-specific technical interventions, but also on improving governance”  is a seemingly obvious answer. That answer is not wholly wrong – but it can all-too-readily be interpreted in ways that  lead reformers down counterproductive dead-ends.  To see why, consider the definition of governance offered by an influential World Bank report:

 “Governance is the process through which state and nonstate actors interact to design and implement policies within a set of formal and informal rules [institutions] that shape and are shaped by power”.

As this definition signals, governance processes are embedded within broader contexts shaped by power and institutions. Further, as voluminous research has shown (see here, here, and here), over the medium-term (in most countries, most of the time)  these broader contexts change only on relatively small margins. Viewed from the perspective of sector-level decision-makers, the broader political context is exogenous. What can be done to improve outcomes in messy governance contexts?

One useful way to move forward  is to construct a typology, organized around  a small number of distinct contexts, each characterized by distinctive configurations of power and distinctive institutional forms – and thus distinctive patterns of incentive and constraint (and possibilities for improving development outcomes) within which sectoral governance plays out. With a set of distinct types in hand, a key next step is to find ‘good fit’ ways forward, by identifying a variety of potential entry points for improving outcomes, and clarifying how they align with the different  contexts.  

This piece and its companion are organized around three distinct (heuristic) political-institutional types, each resonant with a familiar ‘real-world’ pattern. The three are:

  • Context A (‘dominant’) –  in which power is highly concentrated, and exercised top-down.
  • Context B (‘personalized competitive’) – in which authority is fragmented, with multiple centers of power, limited capacity for co-operation, and limited compliance with formal rules.
  • Context C (‘impersonal competitive’),  characterized by strong formal ‘rules of the game’ that are intended to provide a platform for resolving conflict among stakeholders and their goals, and for implementation – but, insofar as political contestation remains unresolved, can result in a combination of exaggerated rule compliance and/or isomorphic mimicry.

The companion  blog lays out the theoretical rationale for focusing on these three heuristic political-institutional contexts. This piece (and the RISE synthesis paper) uses this three-fold typology to organize, and analyze comparatively,  the country cases studies on the politics of education policy.  As an initial step, the case study countries were grouped into the three types. This was done using three V-DEM governance indicators – the extent of electoral democracy, the quality of the rule of law, and the pervasiveness of clientelism. The resulting categorization is shown in Table 1 below. (See the synthesis paper for details).

The synthesis paper builds on the individual case studies to lay out some distinctive,  within-type patterns of education sector governance:

  • In dominant contexts, with power centered around a political leader and a hierarchical governance structure, the education sector’s goals are largely shaped by the leaders.  As the Vietnam case details, top-down leadership potentially can provide a robust platform for improving learning outcomes.  However, as the case studies of Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Tanzania illustrate, all-too-often dominant leaders’ goals  vis-à-vis the education sector can veer in other directions.
  • In impersonal competitive contexts,  a combination of strong formal institutions and effective processes of resolving disagreements can, on occasion, result in a shared commitment among powerful interests to improve learning outcomes – but in none of the case studies was this outcome evident.  Instead (as discussed further below), the case studies  a combination of unresolved political contestation over the education sector’s goals, exaggerated rule compliance and performative isomorphic mimicry.
  • Personalized competitive contexts such as Bangladesh, Ghana and Kenya lack the seeming strengths of either their dominant or their impersonal competitive counterparts;  there are multiple politically-influential groups and multiple,  competing goals –  but no credible framework of rules to bring coherence either to political competition or to the education bureaucracy.

As the case studies detail, these  political and institutional realities rendered ineffective many specialized sectoral interventions intended to improve learning outcomes.

What might be some context-aligned entry points for improving learning outcomes in the midst of this messiness?  Key is to open up  space in a way that enables sector professionals to bring their specialist knowledge to bear. The rows in Table 2 highlight four ‘soft governance’ entry points with space-expanding potential.  Each entry point is  (loosely) aligned with a distinct level  in a  chain of governance processes that link politicians, policymakers, public officials and citizens:

  • The leadership level – purpose: What are the goals of the education system? How to strengthen leaders’  orientation towards learning?
  • The bureaucracy level – mission: How to empower mission-oriented public officials within the education system?
  • The stakeholder level – alliances: Which influential stakeholders champion learning? How to foster co-operation among these stakeholders, thereby strengthening their collective influence?
  • The citizen-level – expectations: How do the expectations of parents, communities and citizens influence the extent to which the education sector is learning-oriented? How might learning-oriented influences be strengthened?

As the cells in Table 2 suggest, and the paragraphs below detail,  the potential for each of these ‘soft governance’ entry points to improve learning outcomes varies systematically across the three types. (The paragraphs that follow are a summary of a more comprehensive treatment in my February 2023 RISE insight note.)

For dominant contexts,  the top ‘soft governance’ priority is to engage with leaders as to the purpose of education. As noted earlier, Vietnam was alone among the case studies of dominant countries in consistently having improvements in learning outcomes as the sector’s principal goal. In Indonesia and Tanzania the principal goal was to aligning education with a distinctive set of ideas about the nation and its collective identity; in Ethiopia under the military Derg regime (and in Nigeria, too, at least for a time) it was to expand access to historically excluded groups, with little attention to quality. (How) can leaders be persuaded to prioritize learning, and to  take the steps needed to improve learning outcomes?  

For personalized competitive contexts, contestation among stakeholders invariably leads to policy incoherence,  bureaucratic fragmentation, and high risks of predation – and thus little  prospect that efforts to strengthen public systems can gain traction.    Yet as Table 2 suggests (and as analyses of Bangladesh and Ghana detail), fragmentation can have a silver lining – it can create space for alliances of developmental stakeholders to successfully push back against predatory pressures, and  eke out islands of effectiveness at local levels (sometimes even as localized as an individual school). More ambitiously, insofar as a societal expectation of “all for education” can take hold – that parents and communities, especially, have an active role to play in supporting a learning-oriented education system – then, even in personalized competitive contexts, far-reaching national gains in learning outcomes can be achieved.  As the synthesis paper details, Kenya offers an example of what is possible.

In impersonal competitive contexts, there is (as noted earlier) a clear normative vision of how a learning-oriented education system should function. In practice, however, things fall short of that vision in all four of the impersonal competitive case study countries:

  • In  Peru, there was ongoing  conflict over purpose between politicians on the one hand, and sectoral stakeholders and experts on the other.
  • In India, there was a large disconnect between (national) policymakers and  (state-level) implementers.
  • In Chile and South Africa, there was an ongoing pre-occupation with formal systems, with correspondingly less de facto attention on how to improve learning.

A comparison of the Chilean and Peruvian case studies offers some striking insights as to both the challenges confronting impersonal competitive contexts, and a promising way forward.  In Chile,  interactions among stakeholders largely were top-down and systematically managed.  Peru, by contrast,  was characterized by ongoing back-and-forth jockeying among stakeholders, messy compromises with the teachers union, and multiple policy reversals.  Insofar as better-aligned institutional arrangements and systematic, consistent policies are likely to be more effective than ‘messier’ ones,  learning outcomes would be expected to show more improvement over time in Chile than in Peru. Yet, as the synthesis study details,  between 2000 and 2018  Peru  achieved very large gains in learning outcomes, while the gains in Chile were modest. Why?

The Chilean approach to sector governance was, from a technocratic perspective of governance, “best practice”. Yet the (not yet published)  case study concludes that:

“Good intentions to improve educational quality, resources and carrots and sticks have not been enough to move the Chilean educational system in the direction that its political authorities wanted…. The top down character of Chilean educational policy making and the insufficient use of institutional voice mechanisms might backfire as the mounting social tensions and the 2019 social movement casts some doubts about its survival” (p.47)

By contrast,  Peru’s messier, less formalistic and more iterative process of policy formulation and adaptation helped build broad legitimacy among stakeholders –  importantly including strengthening trust in the technocrats and professionals responsible for its formulation – thereby enhancing their ability to push back  against idiosyncratic initiatives proposed by political appointees. As the Peru country case study put it:

“ Civil society organizations – NGOs, universities, think tanks and research centers – have also played a key role in defining policy agendas [and….]  in the development of education policies and reforms. Though not always able to contain either technocrats’ or other policy makers – agreements are often ignored by ministerial administrations and political parties –  they have certainly contributed to the continuity of agendas and to the advancement, through piecemeal, of reforms.”

The contrasting trajectories of Chile and Peru point to the importance, in impersonal competitive contexts, of not seeking to govern education solely within the strictures of an autonomous bureaucracy, but rather to open up space by embracing “social embeddedness”, working to build  developmental alliances with a sense of shared purpose. Indeed, the point applies broadly. Across the range of less-than-perfect governance contexts, rather than focus narrowly on technocratic (governance or sector-specialized) initiatives, foreground attention to the question of ‘commitment to learning’.  Especially in competitive contexts (both personalized and impersonal)  cultivate the idea that improving learning outcomes is everybody’s business,  and create opportunities for engagement –  invite citizens to become  active participants in a shared endeavor to equip coming generations with the capabilities they will need  be part of a vibrant, thriving society.

Characterizing context – how power and institutions interact

Ambiguity has its uses – but only up to a point. Its limitations  became evident in an early 2016 research retreat  to take stock of progress in research on ‘political settlements’.  The retreat (sponsored by the Effective States and Inclusive Development research programme)  revealed that, beneath a shared, enthusiastic embrace of the transformative potential of political settlements  analysis for development practice, were very disparate understandings of the term.  Some researchers explored political settlements through the lens of power; others through the lens of institutions;  others moved ambiguously between the two.  

Work over the subsequent six years has, in my view, decisively resolved the ambiguity.  Reflecting the intellectual evolution, this piece explores conceptually how power and institutions interact to shape a variety of distinctive contexts for  development policymaking and implementation.  A companion blog summarizes how the resulting typology was applied in a recent comparative evaluation  of the political economy of  education systems and their reform in a dozen countries, prepared for the RISE research programme.  

Typologies provide a useful way of drawing sharp distinctions among a small number of heuristic patterns that, considered together, delineate a variety of contexts along which many  real world polities might be aligned.  My 2014 book Working with the Grain  built a typology around cross-country variations in institutional characteristics.  The typology laid out in the 2022 book Political Settlements and Development: Theory, Evidence, Implications gives primacy to variations in the configuration of power.  (The book was a multi-author effort led by Tim Kelsall; I was one of the co-authors.)  This  piece integrates the two approaches,  using the four variables included in Figure 1.  

Kelsall et. al’s definition of a political settlement provides a  useful point of departure for clarifying the relationship between power and institutions. It defines a  settlement as:

“An ongoing agreement (or acquiescence) among a society’s most powerful groups over a set of political and economic institutions expected to generate for them a minimally acceptable level of benefits, which thereby ends or prevents generalized civil war and/or political and economic disorder”

While both power and institutions  feature in the above definition –  a settlement is reached when powerful groups agree on the  ‘rules of the game’ (i.e. the institutions)  that govern the settlement – the 2022 book focuses principally on the delineation of power, and its consequences. It carefully defines  two aspects of power:

  • The social foundation (SF) characterizes who is powerful –  the included socially salient groups (insiders, groups to which policy must somehow respond) as opposed to the excluded (outsiders)…along a spectrum that extends from broad (nearly all social salient groups belong) to narrow (most are excluded).
  • The concentration of power (PC)  characterizes the extent of power – the extent of coherence in the allocation of decision-making procedures and authority among insiders, ranging from concentrated (highly coherent) to dispersed (lacking in coherence).

The book reports measures of each of PC and SF over time in forty-two countries in the global South, and uses these measures to explore statistically the causal influence of each on development. Higher levels of PC turn out to be  associated with more rapid economic growth, and higher levels of SF with broad-based gains in social indicators.

Considering SF and PC from a more disaggregated perspective yields additional insights. The SF variable underscores the importance for  inclusive growth of empowering excluded actors– both at an aggregate level  and at more micro-levels by giving ‘voice’ to beneficiaries who are intended to benefit from social programs. The PC variable directs attention to the roles of three sets of drivers –  distributional, ideational and institutional – in shaping the balance between co-operation and conflict in a country’s polity:

  • Distributional drivers.   As per the definition of a political settlement, a necessary condition for a high PC (and thus rapid growth) is that the breadth of the SF and the distribution of economic benefits are aligned with  each other. (Note that both broad SF/inclusive growth and narrow SF/unequal growth are consistent with this condition, at least in the short-to-medium term.)  A loss of alignment between the distribution of power and of economic benefits is likely to result in a  decline in PC, with an associated slowdown in economic growth, and rise in political polarization. (See here and here.)
  • Ideational drivers. As the 2022 book details (building on Ferguson 2020) political settlements can usefully be understood through the lens of collective action. Shared ideas can provide a basis for achieving co-operative outcomes to mixed-motive bargaining challenges (and thus a high PC); ideational political entrepreneurs (populist or otherwise) can destabilize a previously stable settlement. (See here and here.)
  • Institutional drivers. As per the definition of a political settlement,  institutions (‘the rules of the game’)  provide the container for a political settlement. The institutional arrangements can take a variety of distinct forms,  each of which shapes interactions among stakeholders in a distinctive way. Attention to institutions is thus key to addressing a central question confronting practitioners:  Given the incentives and constraints prevailing in a specific context, what might be some tractable, context-aligned entry points for improving development outcomes?

This last question brings us to the two institutional variables identified in Figure 1.

Variable #3 in Figure 1 can usefully be interpreted as a continuum between wholly top-down (principal-agent)  governance and peer-to-peer governance among multiple principals. As its location at the power-institutions intersection in Figure 1 suggests, this continuum can be interpreted both from the perspective of institutions and of power:

  • As institutions, both principal-agent and multi-principal governance have been the focus of a voluminous literature (for example here, here, and here).
  • As power, each depicts a very different relationship among stakeholders – unequal power in the former, and interactions among relative equals in the latter. At all levels – from the micro (families; firms) to the meso (communities) to the national –  horizontal governance between peers plays out very differently than hierarchical governance arrangements that link those who are powerful with those who are not.

As variable #3 suggests, high PC can thus be achieved via two distinct institutional forms – top-down, hierarchical command-and-control,  or peer-to-peer resolution of horizontal challenges of collective action.

Variable #4 distinguishes among institutions according to  and whether the rules of the game take the form of personized deals or impersonal rules.  This distinction is given only limited attention in analyses of power (including the 2022 volume), but it is central to the contributions of Douglass North and colleagues (see here, here  and here), yet.  As North and colleagues argue persuasively, impersonal institutions cannot be created by fiat; they emerge as a facet of long-run processes of political, economic and social changes.

Considered together, variables #2, #3  and #4 provide the basis for a typology  that distinguishes among  a variety of political settlements, each with distinct institutional forms, and thus distinct, context-aligned entry points for improving development outcomes.  Logically, with three variables, each  aligned along a continuum, the number of possible types is large.  The goal, though  is not comprehensiveness, but to  focus  attention on a few core contexts – radically different from each other, each resonant with a familiar ‘real-world’ pattern, and each characterized by distinctive patterns of incentive and constraint, and thus distinctive entry points for improving outcomes.  Figure 2 below identifies three types that meet these criteria. (In applying this framework, I have found that many countries can be interpreted as hybrid combinations of the three – but I have not come upon a fourth type that  meets the tests of both real-world resonance and enough qualitative distinctiveness that it warrants inclusion as an additional category.) The paragraphs that follow elaborate on each of the  types, drawing on the companion blog on education systems to signal their practical relevance.

In context A (strong dominance), power is highly concentrated, and exercised top-down –  with all of the strengths of decisiveness, and the pathologies of hubris and demotivation of subordinates that can accompany this institutional mode of exercising power.  The political economy of education case studies for Indonesia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Vietnam illustrate some of the ways in which dominance plays out in practice.   As the education research details, key to achieving gains in these contexts is to engage top-level leadership around purposes.

Context B (personalized competition)  is characterized by fragmented authority: multiple centers of power, limited capacity for co-operation, and limited compliance with formal rules (including the rules necessary for the functioning of a formal bureaucracy). In this context, as education case studies for Bangladesh, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa’s Eastern Cape province illustrate – and as a broader literature has explored in depth (see here, here and here) – entry points for achieving gains come not from efforts at systems reform, but from more focused efforts to strengthen islands/pockets of effectiveness.

Context C (impersonal competition) is characterized by strong formal ‘rules of the game’ intended  to provide a platform both for resolving conflict among stakeholders and their goals,  and for implementation. In successful, mature democracies this platform can indeed result in a shared commitment among powerful interests to craft win-win resolutions of collective action problems, and in the effective operation of public bureaucracy. However, as the education case studies of Chile, Peru, India and South Africa illustrate,  the all-too-common  result is instead a combination of  unresolved political contestation over  goals (and thus, as per Figure 2, a ‘medium-level of PC),  exaggerated rule compliance and/or performative isomorphic mimicry.

More broadly, as many democracies (even seemingly mature ones)  are demonstrating, polarized discourse renders impersonal competitive contexts increasingly vulnerable to a cumulative delegitimization of the public domain, and a downward spiral of institutional decay. Reversing downward spirals is a central challenge of our time. At a micro/sectoral level, as I summarize in the companion blog,  the education studies offer some interesting insights as to how this might be achieved across the different contexts. At a broader level, I explored some possibilities in a comparative analysis of interactions between inequality and polarization in South Africa and the United States. Extending this analysis into a broader exploration of what it will take to turn from rage to renewal will be a central focus of my work going forward.