Developing Country Education Systems That Learn

Lant Pritchett

Change is hard. It is hard for individuals. It is extra hard for organizations. Change is especially hard for organizations when they have been successful. Organizations often develop strategies, norms, and practices that are tailored to produce success in a particular activity or context. When those strategies are successful, organizations have an especially difficult time to create and manage change that is not simply “more of the same, better.”

This is true even of large, successful, well-managed private sector organizations facing (organizational) life or death consequences.

The Big Store recounts how Sears, a veritable American retailing behemoth—accounting in the early 1970s for one percent of all US GDP—fell into a crisis and how incredibly hard it was to turn the organization around. Even when people could see the organizational crisis it was often the people who were the very best at doing what made the organization a success in the past who were in top management positions—and hence those least likely to be able to recognize the need for, plan out, and lead change.

The legendary 1982 management book In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman identified high performing firms and then distilled eight keys to the success of these firms, with a focus on their “internal culture.” However, a disturbing number of these “excellent firms” later folded: readers today probably don’t even recognize Wang Labs, Data General or DEC. Clay Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma argues that it wasn’t that these firms suddenly changed and their managers got stupid or that their “internal culture” deteriorated—it is that the context changed. The nature of what these firms had to accomplish and a set of practices that were well adapted to one context were both dysfunctional in the new context and impossible to change.

Education systems around the developing world are facing exactly this enormous task of following up massive success with massive change. For decades the pressing challenge for education in the developing world was to expand school enrollment. Success in this vital quest to make sure every child had a chance to enroll in and complete primary school is one of humanity’s great achievements, ever.  Whereas 60 years ago only a privileged few in the developing world attended school now only about 3 percent of all children never attend any school.

Now, however, for many countries, the prospects of improving on cohort learning goals—that every child emerges from their schooling prepared for their adult life—by simple “more of the same” or “business as usual” are dim. In many countries what is learned per year of schooling is just too little to add up to an adequate education, even after completing basic, or even 12 years of schooling.

ASER’s Beyond Basics report in India showed that, for instance, of youth 14 to 18 who had completed 8 years of schooling, less than half could answer simple questions about calculating the price of a shirt sold at a discount or even telling time.

In Indonesia from 2000 to 2014 the number of children completing Grade 12 (or higher) increased by 20 percentage points—1 in 5 more children reached complete senior secondary.  Yet the fraction of the cohort of youth 18 to 24 who could answer simple arithmetic questions, part of the primary school curriculum, did not improve at all—stuck at a low level of about a third of questions answered correctly (adjusted for guessing). Why? Because the learning profile was shallow (little learned per year) in primary schooling and essentially flat after that.

The same organization and system strategies, norms, and practices that worked well to handle the logistics of the expansion of schooling: top-down plans to build more schools, train and hire more teachers, buy more inputs are not working to improve learning. Multiple sources of evidence from the World Bank, international assessments, and the DHS, show that the improvement in learning per year is, on average, improving very slowly (if at all) and in some places falling (there is evidence of this in India and Indonesia).

So education organizations—from schools to ministries—have to do something that is hard even for the most dynamic organizations under intense pressure from competition, and education systems have to encourage and allow that learning of what are entirely new approaches from the linear, logistical expansion mode that fits well with standard top-down bureaucracies.

Mark Moore’s recent RISE paper, now also out as a Center for International Development Working paper, is an insightful take on the question of how the public sector can create education systems capable of the innovation needed to meet the learning crisis, informed by decades of experience and research as a leading scholar of public governance. He points out that many mental models of who generates innovations, how those innovations are evaluated and adjudicated as successful, and how those innovations are to be scaled are chimeras—attractive in parts but the pieces don’t actually fit together.

This paper launches a new RISE collaboration with the Building State Capability program at Harvard’s Center for International Development.  This group (of which I have been, and am, an affiliate) has been working on the question of how to create higher levels of state capability and have developed practical approaches to help organizations get better at identifying and solving problems through PDIA (Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation). Working with Mark Moore and others, the BSC team will tackle the hard, but pressing, question of how to shift education systems and education organizations from logistical replication mode to systems and organizations that learn to promote the better and faster learning that children need to prepare for the complex and demanding future they will face.


This blog was originally posted on the Building State Capability website and has been cross-posted with permission.

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RISE blog posts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.