Tackling the Politics of Learning: The PET-A Research Agenda

Why do some countries adopt and successfully implement policies that improve learning, while most do not?


Image of Shazmeneh Durrani

Shazmeneh Durrani

Political Economy Team

University of Pennsylvania

What is the PET-A?

As part of the larger RISE endeavour, the Political Economy Team – Adoption (PET-A) aims to tackle ‘wicked problems’ in improving learning across countries. With a particular focus on the politics of learning, the project aims to undertake comparative analytical work to develop a political economy model that accounts for the complexity of systems and the challenges of adopting learning-oriented reforms.

At the heart of this project lies the argument that sustainable educational change hinges on understanding the political economy of education reform, i.e. the motivations and behaviours of actors and the contestation of competing political and social conditions that have been (or could be) fostered to make learning a priority for education systems. In this regard, the PET-A effort marks a shift from dominant approaches in political economy analysis as it seeks to tell us why countries adopt learning-oriented policies and why they are able to successfully implement them.

Through detailed comparative analytical work based on findings from seven RISE countries (Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, and Vietnam), and five non-RISE countries (Peru, Chile, Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa), we hope that that the PET-A framework will discover insights regarding the politics of learning-oriented reforms. Specifically, our findings will speak to the following key questions:

  1.  Why did enrolments and attainment expand so much and so uniformly across so many countries?
  2. Why do nearly all governments provide most education directly through building their own schools and employing their own teachers, and why do they do so through the modality of large bureaucracies (Weberian or otherwise)?
  3. Why was there a politics of near-uniform schooling expansion but, concomitantly, a politics accepting very poor learning outcomes in so many countries, and what is different about the exceptions where the politics supported much improved learning?

Conceptual Guideposts

To ensure comparability across the distinct and complex educational landscapes, PET-A proposes a broad set of ‘guiding principles’ that provide considerable intellectual leeway to teams while binding their inquiries to the core of this project. These principles and parameters are informed by leading political economy work, much of which is central to the larger RISE endeavour:

1. Political Settlements 

The concept of political settlements can be broadly defined as the “balance of power or distribution of power between contending social groups and social classes, on which any state is based” (di John and Putzel, 2009). As a baseline, each of the deep dives will examine the political settlements within their country contexts by:

  • Interrogating the power structures of key elites and painting a range of possibilities for changes
  • Framing an approach for situating changes historically back to the time periods where certain policies were successfully adopted (or not)
  • Providing a potentially good starting point for a study, or set of studies, of the politics of education reform in a given set of country contexts.

 In particular, we turn to the work of Brian Levy (2018), who argues that a great deal of insight on political settlements can be gained from delving into three key variables: the extent of inclusion/exclusion of dominant elites (the nature of the political settlement), the configuration of power (institutions and politics), and institutions (the norms and dynamics by which they are governed).

2. Domains of contestation

The ‘domains of contestation’ work, as outlined in Schiefelbein and McGinn (2017), places the political settlement inquiry within key areas for potential contestation to understand what induces a government to take learning seriously. It further offers potential to understand how differences in the domains of contestations may inform the adoption of quality-enhancing reforms in some countries and not others. We propose to use this framework to tighten the political settlements and transition to conceptualizing stakeholders in terms of their roles and relationships in the education system.

3. Origin of intent

How might we determine if a government was actually trying to improve learning? What criteria would tell us that country A really tried to improve quality (and succeeded or failed), while country B either did not try or tried but was unsuccessful? Far too often, political economy analysis focuses on the overall policy goals after they have been set. The RISE research first attempts to understand the ‘origin of intent’, which is impacted by many forces and experiences, including the past and present political contestations. While the team leads will make this determination, we provide some conceptual guidance through the principles and parameters detailed later.

4. The RISE accountability triangle

At the core of the PET-A’s conceptual foundations is the RISE accountability framework. Each deep dive is encouraged to consider the 5x4 matrix and assess the role of politics across each of the relationships. The PET-A also seeks to build on the matrix by incorporating issues of power arrangements, for example with teachers unions, lobbies, and the like. It further aims to determine how the elements of accountability may differ by type of political settlement, and how political settlement analyses conducted by each research team may provide unique insights into the ways in which accountability functions or does not function. 

PET-A principles and parameters

Drawing on elements from the above conceptual guideposts, the PET-A guides teams to contribute towards a conceptual framework that comprises the following guiding elements:

  1. The nature of the political settlement within the country’s political economy and its education system
  2. The domains of education policy-making as  those labelled “political”, “civic”, “bureaucratic”, and “legal” by Schiefelbein and McGinn (2017)
  3. The competing political and social coalitions in terms of their interests, agendas with regards to education policy, and forms of power over the policy-making process
  4. The complexity of learning as taking a variety of forms depending on aims of the education system
  5.  Learning outcomes as measured by international standardized tests such as PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS as the product of the changing political settlement and what this implies for the forms of learning pursued through the education system
  6. Targeted attention to two key policy areas to drive part of the work:
    1. The development (or lack thereof) of national exams or outcome measures of learning
    2. Teacher career paths

These concentrations do not impede efforts in other policy areas in greater detail; rather, it is a commitment to explore these two policy areas in enough detail to allow some comparison across cases. This comparative work will form the basis of the PET-A synthesis papers which will bring together findings from different countries to contribute to a political economy framework that accounts for the complexity of learning-oriented reforms.


While the PET-A research teams are expected to work within a set of broad Guiding Principles, they have considerable latitude over their research design, methods, and plans. The diversity of methodological approaches - ranging from quantitative to archival and ethnographic studies – and the distinct research backgrounds of our teams enrich the potential of this study to enhance policy deliberations and strategies to improve learning.

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