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Political Will and Stakeholder Engagement: What Do We Know About the Political Economy of Education Systems?

Harry A. Patrinos's picture

Our schools are central to the mission of building knowledge societies.  Yet, we don’t know enough about how teachers and schools are being influenced by the social forces around them.  Organizing schools, creating systems of accountability, and focusing on results that matter for parents involve actions outside the school system. 

Education reform is often thwarted by forces that affect policy design, finance and implementation.  These political economy issues are often acknowledged, but rarely systematically addressed in research or policy dialogue.

To try to make sense of what we know, the U.K. government recently conducted a review of essential research on education reform along five key themes:

Roles and responsibilities:  Who are the key stakeholders in the education sector?  What are the interests and incentives faced by different players?
Rent-seeking and patronage politics:  How significant is the extent of “rent-seeking” – when stakeholders lobby in order to gain political favor – and patronage politics in the education sector, and what is the impact on education reform and school outcomes?
Decision-making and the process of influence:  Who are the participants in the decision-making process?  What are the direct and indirect mechanisms available to different power groups to exercise their power?
Implementation issues:  To what extent are policy reforms implemented and what are the factors that facilitate and impede implementation?
Driving forces:  What political and economic conditions drive or inhibit education reform, both in its formulation and implementation?
The review’s findings included the following:

  • Among all stakeholder groups, teachers and their organizations have great political power because of their ability to influence electoral outcomes.  By advocating for higher salaries not tied to performance, lobbying against decentralized school management, and protecting inefficient and shirking teachers from dismissal, some teacher unions cause educational inefficiency, though others are milder and work constructively to improve the welfare of teachers.  By contrast, parents do not have a collective voice on educational matters, since they are not organized.  Government and international agencies are recognized as the other major stakeholders in the education sector.
  • Rent-seeking and patronage politics are rife in education systems in developing countries.  The politics of patronage suggest that it is more convenient to expand educational coverage by, say, building more schools or hiring more teachers, than to fix existing inefficiencies within the system.  Some literature suggests that union membership and political connections could be associated with reduced student achievement.
  • A variety of groups influence the educational decision-making process and educational change.  The literature concludes that the supposed benefits of decentralization are not equitably distributed; in poor rural areas, the local elite captures most of the space for participation in school affairs.  On a global scale, international donor agencies and education institutions are exerting more influence on education decision-making in many developing countries.
  •  Reform failures are often due to low capacity, poor administration, inadequate delivery, lack of information, and leakages of funds.  Political economy constraints, lack of political will and vested interests of politicians are contributing factors.  Evidence also suggests that participatory programs such as community-managed schools often fail,   in some cases due to unequal power relations between poor, rural community members and relatively well-paid teachers.
  • Political will is a key force in driving educational change.  Democracy is also consistently associated with a shift in spending from tertiary to primary education.  However, the effect of additional spending on educational outcomes is dependent on the type of democratic institutions, such as elected parliaments, in place.
  • There are positive cases of reform.  They mostly occur when the system is expanding and more jobs are being created.  The enrollment expansions of the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Latin America but also other developing regions, are good examples.  Focusing on institutional reforms to improve the quality of education is more difficult, and we know relatively less about this than other areas.  There are many stories about policy successes, but not a lot on failures.
To support the World Bank’s partners in effecting positive change, we need to better understand the countries we work in, including their history of reform, stakeholders, and local evidence.   
We need to know more about how institutions support and repress real reform.  We need to know more about how to empower parents and the poor to affect real educational change that will promote equitable access to quality education.  We need to know more about how to analyze education reform from a participatory, multidisciplinary, yet rigorous manner.
In short, we need a program of research on the political economy of education reform.
What else do we need to study, and how can we do it effectively? Let me know in the comments section below.

Follow the World Bank education team on Twitter: @WBG_Education
Follow Harry Patrinos at @hpatrinos


Submitted by Sigamoney on

A very interesting input on educational reform. Accountability, improving results and advancing the quality of the education system is critical for countries to succeed. You have pointed out the major obstacles to education reform. I am of the view that educational reform is compromised by a tendency to obtain "quick wins". Education stakeholders and political forces are often under immense pressure to produce results. Particularly in developing contexts there are no quick fix solutions to education. The basics must be entrenched in the system to ensure that there are sustained and long term gains. Good teacher education, excellent intergovernmental oo-operation, accountability mechanisms and sophisticated advocacy is required. What is often missing is the emphasis on the collective good. Many year ago we spoke about the collective good and sociologists of education did a remarkable job of pointing this out. Rampant individualism and vested interests instead of the collective good has resulted in a very superficial education environment. Until we develop a better grasp of the political economy of reform and understand its long term implications for a society, very little progress will be achieved. Thanks for initiating discussion on this important topic

Thank you for the comment Sigamoney.  I agree that we need a long term view of education if we are to make solid gains in improving outcomes for the majority of children.  Too often we neglect to consider the political economy aspects of education reform and offer only technocratic solutions.  We still have a long way to go to understanding the views of different stakeholders and how they affect educational change, let alone how to overcome differences, comes to a collective understanding, and move forward.  Hopefully, with more research, experience and experimentation we will get there.

Submitted by Gustavo Arcia on

This is a timely topic, as it addresses two key issues in education reform: accountability at the school level, and the political power of teacher's unions. Taking into account the political economy of reform can help us deal with these two issues and reduce the gap between between policy intent and policy implementation. Recent evidence from Kenya in the use of report cards designed in collaboration with parents, and the use of contract teachers, have helped improved student outcomes and reinforce accountability, reducing the gap between policy design and policy implementation at the school level. In both cases the role of parents was reinforced at the school level and their leverage increased. In the case of teacher's union it is clear that they can block education reform by using coalitions with politicians to seek benefits that eventually go against education quality. Recent evidence form Honduras show how the coalition between teacher unions and key legislators have blocked any attempts at reform. In contrast, the recent moves by the Mexican Government to reduce the power of unions in order to foster increased learning is a hopeful sign that the power of unions can be harnessed in the direction of policy implementation. Great post

Submitted by Harry Patrinos on

Thank you for your comment. I agree that information disclosure and parental participation create more transparency and balance the negotiations between key stakeholders. Going forward, we need to better document the experiences and to find ways of conducting more rigorous research on the political economy of education in order to inform the dialogue.

Thank you,


Submitted by Arjune on

Interesting article, great read. I agree, an examination of power dynamics and their impact on education is essential for long-term educational outcomes. As you highlighted material resource constraints are a drag on educational attainment, but as evidenced in the article we must also look at how political power can hinder, or benefit the education system.



Submitted by Harry Patrinos on

Thank you Arjune. I like the way you put it: power dynamics and political power. These are certainly issues that need to be considered when examining education reform. Too often they are not.

Submitted by bee on

Educational reforms can only be achieve when their is good governance, once this is achieved the reforms will definitely take place.

Submitted by Harry Patrinos on

Thank you Bee. Governance issues were once not spoken about in development circles. Times have changed. But it is not enough to talk about them, but to understand how they influence reforms and what we can do to change the situation. That is, how can research help inform how to get good reforms implemented.

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