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System-wide education reform is hard – but it is possible

Tara Beteille's picture

The elusive quest to scale
Some 15 years ago, I was in a small town in Hoshangabad district (India) attending a workshop with government schoolteachers, where we were examining student test scores. Instructors from Eklavya, a non-profit supporting the government, were skillfully leading teachers through an intensely engaging session on why a child might have written a particular answer, what was right and what was wrong with the answer, how to grade it, and how a teacher could help the child improve. Everyone was sharing lessons and learning.

Eklavya’s Hoshangabad Science Teaching Program (HSTP) operated at scale in government schools under difficult circumstances. HSTP did all the tough stuff—curriculum design, teacher training and examinations—in every government middle school in Hoshangabad district for nearly 25 years. But when it tried to spread to other districts, the magic dissipated.  

The education sector is replete with innovation and successful pilots, but most get diluted or fall apart when scaled, that is, when implemented system-wide. Many cannot adapt to context. Given poor learning outcomes, it is frustrating when something that has proven successful in one context cannot extend to others.

Reform is ultimately personal
In the World Development Report 2018, we discuss the technical and political factors that undermine reforms (see here). Any new intervention challenges how practitioners behave and interact, be they teachers or frontline bureaucrats. For things to improve, not only must practitioners acquire new beliefs and habits, they must unlearn old ones. As an example, the everyday practices of front-line bureaucrats in Bihar, India changed when an important intervention was in pilot phase. But their fundamental way of thinking about themselves and their jobs did not change sufficiently to sustain system-wide implementation (see here).

Personal interests, behavior and relationships are at the core of reforms. If the interests of practitioners were served better earlier, what is the incentive to change? Practitioners must be persuaded to invest cognitively and emotionally in new values and beliefs (see here). This makes reforms ultimately personal versus merely mechanical.   
Improving education systems
Scaling a successful pilot can make things worse, as happened in Kenya when the contract teacher reforms were expanded (see here ). But countries do nevertheless make progress — so what can we learn?

  1. Think at scale from the start: Interventions that achieved system-wide impact were conceived with scale in mind. This involved recognition of trade-offs and strategies for building coalitions and addressing opposition. As we discuss in the World Development Report 2018, some started at scale, such as England’s reforms (see here). Others began small such as Chile (see here), often with voluntary aspects, then generated buy-in from vested groups and scaled. But they were all conceived with scale in mind.
  2. Identify the optimal scale: In J.B.S. Haldane’s essay on evolutionary biology, “On Being the Right Size”, he explains the importance of size and proportion in different species – and the implications of scaling, say height, on the ability of an organism to generate enough energy to function effectively. This is so obvious in the case of organisms that we rarely question it. But the analogy can be used for scaling innovation in education systems. We seldom ask: what is the optimal scale for a particular type of intervention? 
    Identifying the optimal scale involves examining when the different elements of an intervention will stop harmonizing and fall apart. HSTP’s success in Hoshangabad district owed much to Eklavya’s core staff, who were both technically skilled and adept at building coalitions with government teachers and the community. But these human resources got diluted as the program tried to spread beyond Hoshangabad, underscoring the limits of scaling.
  3. Have clear guiding principles: Not everything that worked in one context will work elsewhere, so it is important to have clear guiding principles. What does that mean? In Chile, it meant upholding the professional status of teachers. In the case of HSTP, it meant a candid exchange of ideas across the board and making students enjoy science learning. These were non-negotiable and widely known. 
  4. Information, agility and pacing: Opportunity may present itself, as happened in Peru when the 2012 PISA results were released. Then Education Minister for Peru, Jaime Saavedra says, “Peru was at the bottom of the charts for the 64 countries that were taking the test. For the local press, Peru was ‘ultimo’ in the entire world. This created the momentum for change.” Saavedra saw the opportunity and was agile in pursuing wide-ranging reforms to improve student learning. Governments might also decide that it makes more sense to roll out a reform gradually, as happened in Chile.  
  5. Keep learning: Throughout, we have to keep learning – which part of the process is working (or not), and what is happening to learning. This means a virtuous cycle of defining and diagnosing problems, designing options, implementing, evaluating and adapting (see here).

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