Effective Education Systems Require Clear Delegation of Learning
A recent RISE Insight discusses the implications of Indonesia’s focus on “character education”—the current motto of the Indonesian Ministry of Education is “smart and with character.” The authors found that various education stakeholders, including government officials, teachers, principals, and parents, tended to reduce the broad definition of “character” to “morality, religiosity, and nationalism,” and believed that it should be a priority for schools to address those three issues.
Another fact about Indonesia is that it ranks among the lowest performing countries on PISA. A forthcoming RISE paper shows that learning profiles in Indonesia are flat—students acquire few curricular academic skills (like numeracy) per year—and even falling (Beatty et al., 2018). Yet low and stagnant progress in academic learning does not seem to be a burning issue for many education stakeholders.
Is Learning a High Priority for Stakeholders?
These results from Indonesia aren’t so surprising, but they are important. While there is an emerging global agenda to focus on the “learning crisis” in developing country schools (e.g., inclusion of learning into the World Bank’s Human Capital Index), it cannot be assumed that the typical measures of academic learning or progress on the academic curriculum are high on the agenda of parents or other powerful social actors—not even when there is obvious evidence that learning is low and falling, as in Indonesia.
One common suggestion to improve learning is to get reliable, regular, and relevant information about learning outcomes into the hands of parents (and other actors) as a means of creating performance pressure on schooling systems. But learning outcomes are only one of many aspects of schooling that parents care about—and they may be far from the most important or salient. For example, Jishnu Das from the RISE Pakistan team with his co-authors Pedro Carneiro and Hugo Reis estimated parental willingness to pay higher prices for different school attributes in Pakistan. For girls, distance was very important—parents would pay a substantially higher price for a closer school. But the willingness to pay higher prices for schools where the test scores of other students was high was actually quite weak.
Clear, Motivating, and Measurable Learning Goals Are Crucial
In a paper that suggests a conceptual framework for understanding education systems, Lant Pritchett describes how well-functioning education systems need clear and coherent “delegation”: the goals of the state (politicians and policy makers who control policy and budgets and set priorities for government) have to be in alignment with the goals of organizations (ministries, schools), frontline providers (teachers, principals, headmasters), and citizens, parents, and students. For high learning achievement these goals have to be aligned with learning.
To be an effective system, what each agent is asked to do has to be in sync with financing, support, information, and motivation: paying for, encouraging, measuring, and motivating actors in the system to do one thing and expecting another doesn’t work. For example, the Indonesian Ministry cannot expect students to master learning in math and language skills if schools do not include learning in those domains as part of the key goals of the system. Similarly, if character education focusing on “morality, religiosity, and nationalism” is absorbing the main focus of education systems there may be a large risk that this may come at the expense of other priority learning objectives.
The Struggle for Salience Between the Multiple Goals of Schooling
This is not to say that learning is the only goal of schooling—all societies throughout history have had many objectives for their schools. The preparation of the youth of today to be the adults of tomorrow is the foundation of schooling and that covers many aspects of education, including ideologically neutral skills such as reading and arithmetic but also socialization into systems of beliefs and values. Character education in schools can also teach important life skills such as a discipline, honesty, responsibility, etc.
The focus on character education isn’t a uniquely Indonesian phenomenon. Research by Pritchett and Variengo (2013) and Paglayan (2018) shows that the struggle for the control of socialization is an important determinant of the structures and spread of schooling. Similarly, Moore (2015) describes how society as a whole (acting through the government) plays a direct role as an “arbiter of value” in adjudicating the performance of education systems, including the beliefs and attitudes that are transmitted through the schooling process.
Since schools are such an important part of the socialization of youth, controversies and tensions in society also manifest themselves in struggles over what should be prioritized in schools—and even what teachings are disallowed. In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a case (Peltier v Charter Day School) to challenge a public charter school in North Carolina that mandated that girls wear skirts to school and prohibited them from wearing pants or shorts (unlike male students). The founder of the school defended the decision as important for creating “a school environment that embodied traditional values.” A private school in Punjab, Pakistan held a school assembly where children chanted in favor of the death penalty for religious blasphemy. A government school in Delhi, India taught girls in Grade 11 to learn how to write matrimonial ads, presumably as an exercise to inculcate the "right" social values.
The point isn’t to ignore character education in schools. The point is that in order to make progress on learning, learning has to be delegated as a top priority at all levels of the system. Countries like Vietnam have done just that. "Good performance" got on and stayed on the delegation agenda so that the country is able to provide both "mass access" and "mass learning". In other systems, ironically, attempts to promote learning through narrow measures of rote learning not only failed to promote learning, but also lead to cheating on examinations, hence harming character education. Bad learning goals that are high stakes for students (and that many systems use) can be lose-lose as parents (and other social actors) may not see them as really creating learning—and they are right.