SUMMA Laboratorio de Investigación e Innovación en Educación para América Latina y el Caribe
A New Framework for a Better Understanding: The RISE Education Systems Diagnostic Approach Applied in Ecuador
The RISE Education Systems Diagnostic is a tool for identifying strategic priorities for education system reform. In the fifth blog in this series, we hear from SUMMA, an organisation that piloted the Diagnostic in 2022 in Latin America.
Why has the Ecuadorian education system been unable to improve learning outcomes as the constitution commands, families expect, and schools and teachers tirelessly work to achieve? After a significant improvement in learning outcomes between 2006 and 2013 (Schneider, et al., 2018), the results seem to have encountered a standstill in terms of learning attainment in the last few years (UNESCO, 2021).
This is not a reality that only Ecuador faces, it is a more general trend in Latin America, and it needs to be analysed and understood. A renewed way to do this is to use the RISE Conceptual Framework and its adapted methodological toolkit, which offers a fresh lens to study why education is not delivering learning (Silberstein & Spivack, 2022).
A new framework: the systems thinking approach
The fashion of repeatedly stating that students in Latin America are not learning is conceptually poor in both offering reasonable answers to understand why systems fail in producing learning and orienting policy and practice interventions. Theoretical lenses help us to identify the critical variables and relations that underlie the bewildering complexity of a phenomenon (Sabatier, 2010).
The RISE conceptual framework uses a systems thinking approach that seeks to identify the lack of alignment and incoherences in the relationships of the actors that make up the education system. It also illuminates how these relations of incentives and accountability are able to promote or hinder learning. Its critical variables are drawn from the principal-agent paradigm that assesses the relationship between the "principal", who delegates a task with certain objectives, resources, and support to the "agent". In this delegation, the agent is accountable for the results obtained.
Fieldworking the approach in Ecuador
The diagnostic approach applied in Ecuador in 2022 attempted to identify the most relevant constraints for learning perceived by educational actors, located in three regions in the country, to select a group of priorities that can be subject of policy reforms.
The results of applying this diagnostic exercise are threefold:
- it helped to identify critical issues associated with misalignments that hinder learning improvement;
- it enabled us to recognise new areas and questions to systematically develop a research agenda in Ecuador, and
- it encouraged us to learn how to implement a promising framework to project new explanations for old and new educational challenges.
These three gains are expected to contribute not only to studying the Ecuadorian education system, but also to critically analysing the dominant actors and relationships that characterise the Latin American and Caribbean countries.
The exploratory study conducted by SUMMA (2022) enabled us to identify a tendency to establish, in various areas and relationships, a logic of compliance with bureaucratic and administrative imperatives in Ecuador. Despite compliance being the dominant alignment, tendencies towards clientelism or selectivity (where efforts are put, for example, in ranking schools according to academic results on standardised national exams, or providing better education opportunities for students with good academic results), seem to play also an important role in the type of incoherences that characterise the education system. The risk is evident; actors are unintentionally motivated to lose sight of the substantive objectives to align themselves to promote learning for all.
Under this diagnostic, priority areas emerge for policy reform. It should be urgent that the education system
- materialises the promise of financing the system to provide adequate resources for the tasks and responsibilities delegated to the ministry of education by the high-level authorities;
- aligns central and local management structures towards pedagogical improvement of schools and classrooms instead of its current administrative focus;
- fosters a supportive relationship between the ministry of education, its decentralised structure, and the work of principals and teachers; and
- balances, in a virtuous way, the national expectations of learning contained in the curriculum with the demand for greater contextualisation of the teaching and learning process at the local level.
A better understanding of the challenges
It is expected that this exploratory exercise can serve as a starting point for new educational debates and controversies. Furthermore, this diagnostic study allows us to visualise a rich research agenda focused on the relationships of the actors in the Ecuadorian system; how these relationships are structured, stabilised, or open to innovations; how they have evolved historically; or what effect these relationships and alignments have on the results and performance of the educational system. The role of universities and other knowledge actors in providing evidence for informing policy and practice is crucial in the years to come.
However, the causes and explanations of the stagnation of learning improvement in Ecuador and elsewhere cannot be sought exclusively in education and the relationships its actors establish.
Neither should the purposes of schooling be reduced solely to improving learning understood as the cognitive capacity to perform adequately in maths or literacy tests. In that sense, this is only one aspect of the functions that education plays in the contemporary world. The instrumental role of transmitting knowledge and training skills among students should be balanced with the normative role of socialisation, developing values and norms to act ethically and emphatically in society: in short, how systems and schools can provide an education for student flourishing (Duraiappah, et. al., 2022). This last dimension has been erroneously downplayed in national and international agendas of policy reform in favour of a more narrow understanding that privileges cognitive outcomes as the main ends that schools and teachers have to pursue in the current educational landscape.
The challenges outlined above seem to require a more holistic and intersectoral approach that accounts for other social, economic, and political factors that condition what education systems and schools can achieve. This endeavour is pending and requires renewed approaches and theories to frame new policies and practical solutions to address the challenges that education is already facing.
A systems-thinking diagnostic approach, as already developed by RISE, is one that can productively contribute to this endeavour insofar as it enables us to unpack the way in which relations of accountability and alignments for learning are structured and institutionalised in concrete educational systems. This can be a promising research agenda for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Duraiappah, A.K., Atteveldt, N.M., Buil, J.M., Singh, K. and Wu, R. (2022) Summary for Decision Makers, Reimagining Education: The International Science and Evidence based Education Assessment. New Delhi: UNESCO MGIEP. https://mgiep.unesco.org/iseeareport
Sabatier, P. A. (2007). The need for better theories. In Theories of the policy process (pp. 3-17). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780367274689
Schneider, B.R., Cevallos, P., and Bruns, B. (2018). The Politics of Transforming Education in Ecuador: Confrontation and Continuity, 2006-17. RISE Working Paper Series. 18/021. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-WP_2018/021
Silberstein, J. and Spivack, M. (2022). Applying Systems Thinking to Education: Using the RISE Systems Framework to Diagnose Education Systems. RISE Insight note. RISE programme, University of Oxford.
SUMMA (2022). Misalignments in the Ecuadorian education system: How do the system align its actors and public efforts towards learning improvement? Research for Improving Education Systems (RISE).
UNESCO (2021). Los aprendizajes fundamentales en América Latina y el Caribe. Evaluación de logros de los estudiantes. Estudio Regional Comparativo y Explicativo (ERCE 2019) Resumen Ejecutivo. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000380257.locale=en
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