Learning About the Politics of Learning


Image of Lant Pritchett

Lant Pritchett

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

A new paper in World Development by RISE Intellectual Leadership Team member Barbara Bruns and her co-authors Isabel Harbaugh Macdonald and Ben Ross Schneider adds to the growing interest in the politics of learning.

Among the many interesting features of the paper, I would like to highlight three.

First, the authors have a nice way of organizing the key differences between the politics of schooling, which has mainly been about system expansion, and the politics of learning.  They point out that the politics of learning, and particularly the politics of teacher policy, are much harder than the politics of schooling as they are contentious at adoption, opaque in implementation, and produce long-term benefits.  As one can imagine, these in combination heighten the risks of education reform to a politician and provide gains seen beyond his or her political horizon.

Politics of Learning Politics of Schooling
Contentious in adoption: At least some existing and powerful interests are opposed to many proposed learning-oriented reforms Consensus in adoption: There are many beneficiaries of building and staffing more schools to expand access with the main limitation the fiscal cost
Opaque in implementation: Teacher policy is about improving classroom practices, which is difficult to observe and measure and hence requires teacher cooperation. Logistical in implementation: Implementation is about easily observable and monitorable indicators of success—schools built, teachers hired, children enrolled.
Long-term in showing benefits: The benefit of a child receiving effective instruction in reaching Grade 2 will emerge over a lifetime. Benefits are visible in the short run: The benefit to the contractor of building the school, to the teacher of having a job, and to the parent of having a child in school are visible immediately.

Second, they emphasize both that teachers' unions are in many countries a highly organized and politically powerful force and that, strikingly, in most countries neither parents nor private sector business are able to organize themselves to be a consistent and powerful actor in education reform.  

Third, their discussion of sequencing of reforms lays out the complicated trade-offs in the politics of “grandfathering” teacher policy.  On the one hand, it reduces opposition from current teachers; on the other hand, since teacher turnover is often very low (only about 5 percent of teachers are new in any given year), it delays the uptake of the reform—and creates the conditions for reversal. 

There is, of course, much more to the paper, but these three points struck me.

This work expands on an increasing body of recent work that is exploring the political possibilities of addressing the learning crisis.  This includes a recent RISE Working Paper by Barbara and Ben on the politics of education reforms in Ecuador, a recent book by Sam Hickey and Naomi Hossain (my RISE blog on their volume), a recent book by Brian Levy and others on the politics of learning in the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa, work by Agustina Paglayan, and my recent RISE Working Paper.  The RISE Programme also has a thematic team working on the politics of the adoption of learning-oriented reforms of education systems led by Alec Gershberg.

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