How do we move from getting kids into school to actually educating them? Provocative new book by Lant Pritchett

January 21, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

I approached Lant Pritchett’s new book ‘The Rebirth of Education’ with glee and trepidation. Glee because Lant is one of the smartest, lant pritchettwittiest and best writers and thinkers on development. Trepidation because this issue is an intellectual minefield of Somme-like proportions (remember the epic Kevin Watkins v Justin Sandefur battle?). And sure enough, Lant took me into all kinds of uncomfortable places. Allow me to share my confusion.

First the book. Based on a data-tastic summary of a lot of research and case studies, Lant argues, in the words of the book’s subtitle, that ‘Schooling Ain’t Learning’:

  • In India less than half of children surveyed in grade 5 could read a story for second graders (and over 1 in 4 could not read a simple sentence), and only slightly more than half could do subtraction. Results over several years were getting worse, not better. See graphic for more examples.
  • In Tanzania over 65 percent of students who sat the 2012 examination for secondary school (Form IV) completers failed, with the worst possible results.
  • A majority of 15 year-olds in low- and middle-income countries have only learned enough to reach the bottom 5 percent of their peers in high-income countries.

UP 5th gradersThe evidence is piled high that there is a crisis in education – kids are now in school, thanks to a huge effort by governments, publics and aid donors – but they aren’t learning anywhere near enough. In most countries, kids dropping out through boredom and futility far exceed the lack of enrolment as a cause for under-achievement. What a horrendous waste.

How did it get like this and what could turn it around? The big proposition here is that the system required to deliver mass enrolment is fundamentally different from that needed to deliver genuine education. Lant is adamant that ‘more of the same’ – more schools, more teachers, more books, more teacher training – cannot deliver if it takes place within the current system, and cites a lot of cases where such increases in inputs have not delivered. He calculates that even if Mexico increased spending on its current education system fivefold, it would still lag way behind the OECD average.

Instead, he argues that this is a system problem. (His writing on systems is superb – more on that tomorrow). He draws a distinction between ‘spider’ and ‘starfish’ systems:

‘A spider uses its web to expand its reach, but all information created by the vibrations of the web must be processed, decisions made, and actions taken by one spider brain at the center of the web. The starfish, in contrast, is a very different kind of organism. Many species of starfish actually have no brain. The starfish is a radically decentralized organism with only a loosely connected nervous system. The starfish moves not because the brain processes information and decides to move but because the local actions of its loosely connected parts add up to movement.’

i.e. education systems have to move from a state-led command and control model to a looser network that encourages evolution and emergent change. He likens spider systems to an eggshell that has allowed embryonic education systems to reach full enrolment, but must now break to allow the move from enrolment to actual education.

He argues that the switch from spider to starfish ‘is not the usual battleground of ‘markets’ v ‘governments’’, but one of accountability, rebirth-education-lant-pritchettwhere state-run systems in Germany, France and the Netherlands have produced effective starfish systems. I’m not entirely convinced by that. Although he does have examples of starfish states, he then doesn’t explore them, or draw any lessons for today’s education reformers. This seems an extraordinary omission.

Instead the tone of the book is overwhelmingly hostile to state education and evil bureaucrats and teachers’ unions seeking only to defend their ‘vested interests’ and snuff out innovation. And the positive examples he cites are community-controlled schools, private providers, decentralized ‘small government’ and charter schools – hardly a statist shopping list.

Where he gets really interesting (and where I particularly need a steer from readers who know more about educational history than me) is on the political economy of education. He argues that the dominant driver in the introduction of mass public education has never been a desire to educate, but ‘everywhere and always a contest for the control of socialization’, a process which the state refuses to outsource. He cites a wonderfully frank 19th Century Japanese education minister: ‘In administration of all schools, it must be kept in mind, what is to be done is not for the sake of the pupils, but for the sake of the country.’

He sees two other drivers of mass education:

  • The need to prepare workers for a modernizing economy, but that doesn’t explain why both slow and fast-growing economies have moved so fast to introduce mass public systems
  • A desire to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ by e.g. meeting the MDGs, which leads to a  focus on enrolment, rather than education

His conclusion?

‘The spider systems we have today were designed in the nineteenth century and adapted and adopted in the twentieth century to meet a certain set of demands: to prepare workers for a transition out of agriculture, to build nations to support states, and to legitimate the regimes that controlled those states. It would be extraordinary indeed if those spiders just so happened to be systems designed for the learning and educational challenges the youth of the twenty-first century will face.’

True to his understanding of emergent change in complex systems, he then refuses to provide a complete blueprint for an alternative, and instead suggests six characteristics of effective starfish systems:

Open: How is the entry and exit of providers of schooling structured?

Locally operated: Do those who manage schools and teach in schools (and the local coalitions of parents and citizens they are accountable to) have autonomy over how their school is operated?

Performance pressured: Are there clear, measured, achievable outcome metrics against which the performance of schools can be assessed?

Professionally networked: Do teachers feel a common professional ethos and linkages among themselves as professional educators?

Technically supported: Are the schools, principals, and teachers given access to the technical support they need to expand their own capacities?

Flexibly financed: Can resources flow naturally (without topdown decisionmaking) into those schools and activities within schools that have proved to be effective?

As examples he cites the US/UK university system, the International Baccalaureate and Brazil’s recent education reforms.

Fascinating, but I have some concerns:

  • What are the trade-offs in moving from spider to starfish? What will be the impact on equity of decentralizing control or finance, let alone of a much greater role for private providers?
  • And can we really assume that non-state providers will be any freer of suspect motives than governments? Religious schools?
  • Can a real education reform process really be this jaundiced about the motivation of teachers and their organizations? Surely they have to be far more central?
  • 100% enrolment is most definitely not a done deal, especially for the most marginalized. Watch out for next week’s Global Monitoring Report on that.
  • Lant’s claim that ‘more’ (teachers, textbooks, classrooms) doesn’t help is, to put it mildly, contested

Which (even though I, like everyone else, am convinced of the crisis in education) all leaves me floundering between two apparently contradictory intellectual poles. I am convinced (as is Oxfam) that state provision (not just funding) has historically played a fundamental role in producing equitable and effective essential services. I am also convinced that systems thinking, applying the ideas of emergent change and evolution etc, can provide rich ideas on how change happens. To what extent are the two compatible/in conflict? Off to my padded cell to agonize……..

January 21, 2014
Duncan Green