Indonesia Offers a Laboratory for Studying Efforts to Improve Students' Learning in a Decentralised Political System

RISE in Indonesia
© Novita Maizir/SMERU

Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) - an initiative aimed at conducting high-quality research to build evidence to enhance children’s learning levels throughout the world - announced today that it will expand by undertaking analysis in Indonesia.

The £3.9 million, five-year research project will examine how national and district governments support and learn from each other in the implementation of policy towards teachers and national exams in order to improve students’ education levels. Indonesia offers an ideal laboratory to explore these issues because local districts have significant autonomy in terms of teacher management, distribution, and training. The research project will also analyse nationwide reforms that aim to raise teacher quality in hopes of enhancing students’ learning.

In-depth, multi-year projects by RISE in a diverse group of countries – Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Tanzania, Vietnam, and, now, Indonesia - aim to shed light on ways to address a global learning crisis. Nations around the world have been remarkably successful in making progress toward universal primary schooling, but in many places, learning levels are poor, or have declined. As a result, even when children finish many years of schooling, they still lack essential skills. The RISE agenda emphasises the need to make changes that can provide children with the education they require to be successful adults in their local, national, and global communities.

“The fact that nearly every child is in school represents an enormous victory for humankind,” said Lant Pritchett, RISE Research Director, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, and a professor of the practice of international development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Now that they are there, let’s continue that momentum to make sure that every child in school is learning.”

Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest nation, provides an opportunity for researchers to explore how an aspirational, middle-income country can find and wield policy levers that can help students to acquire needed, higher-level skills.

“It is not that kids in Indonesia can’t read, but it is the case that kids can’t think as well as they could. Every kid acquires some modicum of simple decoding skills, but they lack all the sophisticated skills – the higher-level, critical-thinking skills that they will need as Indonesia aspires to improve productivity and overall economic and social development,” Pritchett said.

The Indonesian Country Research Team is a multidisciplinary group of 13 academic researchers with expertise in economics, education, political science and programme evaluation. The project is led by the SMERU Research Institute,* an Indonesian, independent institution that conducts research and public policy studies on socioeconomic and poverty-specific issues. International partner institutions include the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development, a multidisciplinary research institute that analyses the causes and consequences of health and education outcomes in developing countries; and Mathematica Policy Research, a U.S. research organisation that has conducted assessments of the effectiveness of policies and programmes in the public and private sectors for nearly 50 years.

The RISE project will examine teacher reform issues at district and national levels:

  • At the district level - What educational reforms do innovative districts create? Do these innovations enhance student learning? If so, how? If not, what are the key barriers? Do innovations spread across districts and to national policy? What facilitates – or impedes – the diffusion of innovation?
  • At the national level - Do national policies offering teachers improved salaries, training and incentives enhance student learning? Do reforms bring more teachers to areas where they have been lacking? Do changes in the format and content of national exams reduce cheating, and lead to higher levels of student learning?

"Indonesia has increased spending on education, and there is a meaningful drive for more results in education. I hope that this research will help in ensuring that this additional spending will translate into improvements in learning outcomes," said Menno Pradhan, the RISE country team's lead researcher. He is a professor in project and programme evaluation for international development at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the University of Amsterdam.

"The setting in Indonesia is particularly important because the central government does not have the power to direct education," he said. "In Indonesia, many, many small districts have their own political systems and agendas. It will be fascinating, and important, to see how this plays out in terms of affecting innovation and change."

Indonesia has achieved a gender-balanced, near-universal enrolment at the primary-school level, and an estimated 80 percent of its students enrol in secondary school. Yet its education system faces a learning crisis deemed a ‘state of emergency’ by the former Minister of Education and Culture, and newly elected governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan. Despite the country’s significant investments in education, students’ scores on international, standardised assessments are low, according to rankings on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial, international survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that tests skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in reading, maths, and science. More than 75 percent of Indonesian students failed to achieve even basic proficiency in maths.

Teacher quality is a major concern; most of the nation’s 3 million teachers did not pass a recent test in basic subjects. Thus, a major issue to be addressed involves finding ways to effectively use resources in order to improve teaching quality and, in turn, student learning in both urban and rural settings.

“RISE will generate knowledge to help Indonesia’s quest to transition its education focus from access to learning,” said Sudarno Sumarto, the Team Leader of Indonesia’s Country Research Team.

The research agenda will closely examine five innovative districts that implement to understand the dynamics of change, and how and whether change spreads elsewhere. The research will also analyse the policies in place in the 20 best- and 20 worst-performing districts in order to understand what policies work - or fail - to improve learning levels.

The research agenda will undertake work across representative areas of the country, including urban and rural settings. Key issues and components for analysis at the national level include:

  • Teacher recruitment - Research will examine the effects of laws that doubled certified teachers’ base pay; established new standards for teachers’ skills and knowledge; and created a one-year, post-graduate teacher-training programme.
  • Teacher professional development - Research will examine the effects of a new, nationwide remedial programme created to train the many teachers who did not pass a basic skills test.
  • The need to attract teachers to remote areas - Research will examine whether new incentives and rewards lead more teachers to work in remote areas that have experienced teacher shortages, and will study whether efforts to encourage community participation in monitoring teacher performance lead to better-quality teaching.
  • High-stakes, national exams - Research will analyse whether changes in the tests’ format, from paper exams to computer-based formats, reduce widespread cheating on high-stakes national exams students take for graduation, and whether this in turn will lead to a greater effort on learning to prepare for the test.

“As an Indonesian, I would like to see this research project contribute to the improvement of the Indonesian school system so that children will really learn,” said Heni Kurniasih, a political scientist working on the project, and a senior researcher at SMERU. “I think there is a lot of potential for cross learning. I hope that an understanding of what elements in the system actually contribute to better learning can also lead other countries to improve.”

Launched in 2015, RISE is supported by £27.6 million in funding from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), which has dedicated £21 million to high-quality research in up to five countries, and £6.6 million to support expert advice and management; and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), whose commitment of A$9.85 million has allowed RISE to incorporate a sixth country.

“A quality education is transformational. Knowing what works is essential to drive effective system reform—and this is at the core of the RISE programme. Australia is proud to support RISE, and the addition of the Indonesia Country Research Team will allow key lessons from our region to be better understood and shared across the globe,” said Alison Chartres, Assistant Secretary, Development Policy and Education Branch, Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

RISE is managed and implemented through a partnership based in Oxford, UK, between leading international development consultancy Oxford Policy Management, and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Research is led by Professor Pritchett and a team at the Center for Global Development, a non-profit think tank based in Washington, DC.


* SMERU is an acronym taken from the Social Monitoring and Early Response Unit project, which ran from 1998 to 2000, and was established by a group of international aid agencies in response to the Asian financial crisis and political turmoil in Indonesia.