RISE Working Paper 18/020 - The Politics of Learning: Directions for Future Research

A theory of change to guide a practical and pragmatic approach to the acceleration in the pace of learning in basic education in the developing world, such as that envisioned in the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) research project and other global initiatives, must be based on a comprehensive and empirically adequate positive model of the politics of learning, that is a model that actually describes the motivations and behavior of actual governments and policy makers. This paper lays out three facts about basic education in developing countries that a minimally acceptable positive political economy model of education should be capable of addressing. First, why did schooling expand so much and so uniformly across countries when it did? Second, why does governmental support for education generally (if not universally) take the form (direction production) and modality (large Weberian bureaucracies) that it does, rather than other forms and modes; alternatives that seem equally or more effective? Third, how did cross-nationally uniform political support for the expansion of schooling coexist in many countries with a politics that allowed very low learning to both arise and persist in some countries, but not others? While it is premature to posit complete answers to these questions, there are three points to be made about at least the outlines and shape of a positive model. One, neither the economist’s naïve “normative as positive” (that governments did things because it was the normatively optimal action, in the sense of maximizing some measure of human well-being), nor “response to political pressure” (that governments did things because democratic pressures demanded it) hold any promise as general models. Two, Meyer’s “global isomorphism” remains a strong conjecture as a causal force in both expansion and modality (e.g., Meyer, 1977; Boli, Ramirez et al., 1985; Meyer, Ramirez et al., 1992; Meyer, 1997) and, perversely perhaps, isomorphism facilitates the persistence of low learning quality (Pritchett, 2014). Three, the details of observability and contractibility in principal-agent relationships—in particular that “socialization is not third party contractible” (explained below) is an important element for understanding the joint facts of (1) large and uniform expansion, (2) direct production via Weberian bureaucracies as the dominant modality, and hence (3) the possibility of both high and low quality of learning as persistent phenomena in different countries.