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For decades, education reform around the world has been dominated by the rhetoric that we should use experimental research to figure out “what works.”

If we can just find the most effective solutions using science, the thinking goes, then the best policies can and should be widely used.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse looks for solutions in education through systematic reviews of research and evidence. The World Bank identifies the gaps between practice and policy, aiming to help countries set efficient goals and priorities in education.

Science-backed evidence is indeed one core pillar of improving education, but persistent and growing educational failures in the U.S. and globally tell us it is not enough.

What makes an education system “good” is as much a moral and cultural question as a technical one. And we need more attention to the political and social influences that shape reform. Policies are largely made and enforced through forces that are separate from their technical merits.

Without understanding the values and the political and social influences that underpin reform, our efforts will continue to fall short.

One key step in transforming education systems is understanding why policies are adopted. Our research, using the World Education Reform Database that we created — the most comprehensive international database of education reforms currently available — examined more than 10,000 reforms from 183 countries.  

We found that countries undertake reforms for the following reasons:

  • To gain political power. Political parties and interest groups use education reform as a tool to gain power; countries with greater political competition are more likely to undertake education reform.
  • Because they have the resources to do so. Countries with higher levels of GDP per capita are more likely to pursue reform.
  • Due to bureaucratic rituals. Countries are more likely to undertake new education reforms if they previously engaged in reform. In part, this reflects bureaucratic self-perpetuation, and it may also reflect a cyclical or faddish process yielding waves of reform.
  • In response to global norms. Reforms in education spread because of peer influence and the globalization of cultural beliefs asserting that education is a right and that sustainable development emerges from schooling. To meet the ambitious vision of providing equitable access to education for all, governments mimic each other and follow recommendations set out at the international level (by, for example, the World Conference for Education for All and the UN Transforming Education Summit).

If reformers fail to consider these realities, even the most effective, scientific interventions will fail.

We must also examine the assumptions that underpin reforms. 

Often what are assumed to be “best practices” are exported without a thorough assessment of context. For example, a flood of tech-based interventions such as One Laptop Per Child arrived in developing countries in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet without regular electricity, teachers with basic computer skills or repair and maintenance services, such programs failed to live up to their lofty goals.

Rigorous experimental and quasi-experimental research designs cannot tell us if a successful intervention will work the same way in a new setting, or about the underlying values it prioritizes (e.g., representing a particular social group or focusing on a narrow educational purpose).

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We must remember that all reforms are value-laden: Historically, when we lionize a standardized set of measures and outcomes as representing educational quality, many perspectives are excluded; the voices of marginalized groups are especially silenced, creating further alienation and inequality. For example, the critics of standardized testing argue that it reproduces bias and racial inequality.

Specifically, given the importance of context and values in schooling, we should be skeptical of the celebration of “scaling up” as the holy grail of education reform — especially when it is extended globally.

Here is what we think strengthening education systems requires:

  • Explicit and transparent discussion of the assumptions and goals underlying reforms. All education reforms should start out start by stating their view about what schooling should achieve and how this vision should be attained. The policymaking process should be clear about these assumptions and the values they prioritize, and seek compromises across diverse perspectives.
  • Treating scale as a questionable good, not an automatic goal. Science can reveal policies that work, but there is no silver bullet or single answer — what works in one time and place and for one community may not be right for another. Ask what may be lost by aggressive scaling and seek to mitigate exclusion.

Research using state-of-the art, scientific methods that captures cause-and-effect relationships plays an important role in identifying solutions. But our reforms will fail if we assume that science will find answers that can translate into scalable solutions that will work for everyone. The pursuit of one “best” policy too often contributes to marginalization and deepening inequality.

We need equal attention to why education policies spread, and to the values underpinning the goals we set and how we aim to achieve them.

Patricia Bromley is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Doerr School of Sustainability, Stanford University. Minju Choi is a doctoral student in international and comparative education at Stanford University.

This story about education reform was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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  1. This is an excellent write-up, and the situation is worse here in Africa, where politicians play God regarding education.

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