What Have We Learned About the Politics of Learning in 2019?


Image of Carmen Belafi

Carmen Belafi

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

If you are a careful, or even selective, reader of RISE outputs, you will have noticed that over the past two years, the Politics of Learning emerged as a new theme, and in 2019, RISE had more to say on it than ever before.

Why the Politics of Learning?

Education is facing a puzzling dual reality: on the one hand, there has been a massive expansion of schooling in the developing world, and this is a surprisingly uniform trend across different types of government. For instance, schooling expanded in democracies just as much as in authoritarian countries. On the other hand, many of the same governments committed to massive expansion of schooling were not equally committed to improving learning, and the differences in learning outcomes between countries are vast. Why would countries expand schooling but not learning? The Politics of Learning focus aims to provide an answer by putting political conditions at the centre of its research to understand how they influence education systems to produce—or not to produce—learning.

Two recent publications have made important contributions to this theme: The Politics and Governance of Basic Education (PDF download) by Brian Levy and others (2018) explores how socio-economic, political and institutional context matters for the feasibility of education reform in two South African provinces, using a typology of political settlements, governance arrangements and a multilevel framework. Sam Hickey and Naomi Hossain’s 2019 volume The Politics of Education in Developing Countries also uses a political settlements approach to test its explanatory power for reform adoption and implementation in different country contexts. A range of new findings emerged from—or in response to—these publications, and some were particularly prominent:

1. The Politics of Schooling and the Politics of Learning are fundamentally different

While this finding is not new, more conceptual work has been done to contribute to a deeper understanding of the different logics. Based on a paper by Barbara Bruns and others, Lant Pritchett outlines three key differences between the politics of schooling and learning, and illustrates how committing to learning provides fewer incentives for politicians. As one example, the time horizon necessary for reforms to show positive results in society is much longer for learning than schooling—because you can build a school in a year or less, but it takes many years to educate a child.

Politics of Schooling

Politics of Learning

Consensus in adoption: There are many beneficiaries of building and staffing more schools.

Contentious in adoption: At least some powerful interests are opposed to many proposed learning-oriented reforms.

Logistical in implementation: Implementation is about easily observable and monitorable indicators—schools built, teachers hired, children enrolled.

Opaque in implementation: Teacher policy is about improving classroom practices, which is difficult to observe and measure and hence requires teacher cooperation.

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.

Long-term in showing benefits: The benefit of a child receiving effective instruction in reaching Grade 2 will emerge over a lifetime.

Source: Adapted from Lant Pritchett (2019): Learning About the Politics of Learning.

2. We knew that context matters, but learned more about how it matters

The specification of how—and which, and why—context matters for education systems to produce learning was advanced on two fronts:

First (and this really is the first necessary step), we have made strides in moving away from a narrow focus on the proximate determinants of learning outcomes. Proximate determinants often are input measurements like infrastructure or pupil-teacher ratios, but also other indicators like teacher absenteeism that are more easily observable than “context.” But they are often uncorrelated with differences in student learning or may themselves be the result of other context factors such as the political environment and power structures or the institutional and governance architecture. Marla Spivack explains that the effects of proximate determinants will vary across contexts, and that this variation is not random. RISE seeks to understand the mediating function of the system on learning outcomes and proximate determinants of learning. As Jonathan London concludes in his political analysis of Vietnam’s education system:

“[W]e stand to benefit from a still more encompassing analysis of how education systems and learning (or not learning) are embedded within specific social and institutional contexts.

Second, the political settlements approach explicitly allows for distinct pathways for different types of countries to improve learning. This is in contrast to older differentiations in development like the ones between democracies and autocracies or between countries with good and bad governance, implying for instance that only democracies with strong rule of law and a Weberian bureaucracy would be able to provide satisfactory services to their citizens. The typologies of political settlements open up the possibility for different types of politics to create different logics through which learning could be improved. This is all the more important given that the last “wave of democratization” in the 1990s mostly has not led to consolidated democratic regimes but rather a bigger grey zone of “competitive authoritarian” regimes or “democracies with adjectives.”

 3. In governance, “sometimes it’s better to be messier”1

When it comes to governance, top-down hierarchical implementation is not always better for learning. Tim Williams illustrates this for Rwanda (in a blog and a chapter in Hickey/Hossain 2019) and its language policy of 2009 demanding the switch from French to English as the language of instruction in primary school. President Kagame’s consistent and dominant role in Rwandan politics allowed him to implement this policy top-down, without consultation of key stakeholders and outside of the regular strategic planning process, causing a “language shock” to the system. For instance, most teachers had to start teaching in a language they had not yet mastered themselves.

In his presentation at the RISE Annual Conference 2019, Brian Levy also reiterated a crucial finding from his book on the role that horizontal governance can and should play, as a complement or a substitute of hierarchical governance. He concludes that strong bureaucracies in systems not aligned for learning may cause a hindrance to making it coherent for learning, as seen in the Western Cape:

“Top-down command-and-control cannot unlock a low-level, process compliance equilibrium.”

Onwards to 2020

Research on the Politics of Learning is still in its early stages. For 2020, there is no shortage of questions, ranging from conceptual ones (To what extent can political settlements explain the differences in the politics of schooling and politics of learning? What is the role of human agency in structural and systems approaches?) to zooming in on specific stakeholders (for instance, the role of teacher unions that have emerged as powerful, political actors in some contexts such as Ecuador, Bangladesh or South Africa).

As 2019 draws to a close, we are grateful for all the important contributions on these topics from RISE teams and other members of our community this year. This work has expanded our understanding of the Politics of Learning further and ensured that we can continue making strides to understand the impact of politics on learning in 2020. After all, if politics really is the art of the possible, it is a good place to start looking for answers to the learning crisis.


1 quote by Brian Levy during his presentation at the RISE Annual Conference 2019.

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