A Conference Year in Review: A Personal Highlight Reel on Education Systems Research

RISE Annual Conference 2017

This year I attended three conferences/workshops that had at least one session on education and education systems. As the year draws to a close, I spent some time reflecting on the common themes and the road ahead, and in particular how it fits with my research. In this blog, I will briefly describe the (personal) highlights from each event: a workshop by The Centre for Teaching and Research in Economics’ (CIDE), the RISE Annual Conference at the Centre for Global Development (CGD), and the Empirical Management Conference at the World Bank.

The first workshop was in Mexico City, hosted by CIDE´s unit on Education and Educational Policy and called “The Political Economy of Quality Oriented Educational Reforms in Comparative Perspective”. Blanca Heredia (Georgetown, CIDE, ITAM) kicked off the workshop with a discussion of a framework to help us think about education reform focusing on motivations, stakeholders, and coalitions. There were a number of interesting papers throughout, but as I study organizational practices, including people practices in schools, the discussions I was most drawn to referred to the careers of teachers in Peru, Chile, and Mexico. The key take-away from the two days was that change is hard to effect, and for it to happen there needs to be a coordinated effort from the system.

In particular, Barbara Bruns (CGD) and Ben Schneider (MIT) presented a paper where they discuss the topic of managing the politics of quality reforms in education. They point out that school quality reforms are inherently conflictual, as the costs are concentrated on teachers and teacher unions, who are often powerful voting blocks and potential disrupters. This is exacerbated by the inherent challenges in measuring and monitoring performance in the classroom. They note that for reforms to work there needs to be adequate political capital on the part of political leaders (and cite some examples where this has been the case in Latin America), as well as effective communication campaigns. They also note that one of the “unexpected” group of potential supporters of such reforms could be school principals.

These points all resonated strongly with me. In my own research, my co-authors and I find that school management (with principals as the managers) has a strong correlation with teacher value added and good teacher practices. Improving the quality of monitoring of classroom activities and general school functioning could also help reduce the opacity of these classroom activities and give policy-makers and change agents much-needed data to work with.

The keynote lunch address was from Jaime Saavedra, the former Peruvian education minister and currently the Senior Director of Education at the World Bank. I have seen Mr. Saavedra speak several times, and every time I take something new from his insights. In this instance, three points struck me the most. First, he pointed to what kick-started the opportunity for reform in Peru: the release of PISA scores showing Peru sitting at the bottom of the ranking. The stark result created a sense of urgency that helped the government push their proposed changes through. Second, he pointed to the importance of systemic change that is integral: he used the analogy of a car needing four wheels moving at the same time, and the wheels are: teachers, pedagogy, management, and infrastructure. Third, he noted that there are three critical requirements needed for a reform to work: good technical design, implementation capacity, and political alignment.

Again, this strongly resonated with me. On the first point, it reminds me of the adage “what gets measured gets done”. Although rankings often mask important distributional aspects of different measures, they are easily understood and thus more likely to be picked up by popular media outlets. So, one point that we can always improve on is simple and clear measurement (needless to say, I love hearing this!). On the second and third points, I agree wholeheartedly and was particularly happy that he described “management” as the managerial structures that we now know can be measured and ranked (here). The concept of management can take a number of forms, and it makes up a crucial part of the education system and how we think about reforming it. But this is the subject of another post.

In June, RISE held its Annual Conference in DC at the Centre for Global Development. The whole conference was devoted to thinking about education systems, of course. Again, some of the topics that jumped out at me related to measurement, teachers, and management. Jaime Saavedra spoke in the keynote panel and reiterated many of the same points I mentioned above, but also had Claudia Costin (Center for Excellence and Innovation of Education Policies), Alec Gershberg (University of Pennsylvania), and Liesbet Steer (Education Commission) weighing in the discussion of how to diagnose system incoherence. As an excellent summary of the conference can be found here, in the RISE Conference Report, I will refrain from describing the discussion and limit myself to noting that I was personally encouraged and inspired to renew efforts in measuring what we want to get done, and pushing to increase the number of countries of which we map the landscape in our data collection projects.

Finally, just last week I participated in the Empirical Management Conference at the World Bank. The focus of this conference, different from the other two, was on measuring the quality of management practices in establishments and showcasing research on how these measures are related to productivity across various industries. The second day of the conference was mostly focused on education and had a number of papers focusing on school and teacher quality (the program and conference videos can be found here). We saw evidence that simple interventions, where low-performing teachers are paired with high-performing colleagues, yielded significant improvements in teacher performance and student test scores (here). We also saw evidence that management is correlated with better student and teacher performance in India, and that about half of the student achievement gains in an RCT setting in Liberia could be attributed to better management practices (here).

I study organizations and how managers make decisions about the organizational practices that they adopt in their establishments. Naturally, I do not need convincing that management is an important “wheel” in the car that drives effective reforms. What will be crucial to understand as we move forward in this research agenda, is how different management practices interact with the other “wheels” (for example, teachers and infrastructure), and how institutional constraints fit into the calculus. For example, we know that private schools tend to adopt good management practices more than public schools, but it is not clear why that is or what type of policy will improve service delivery in this context. This is certainly one set of important and exciting questions to tackle next in education system research.