Dire Straits-Education Reforms: Ideology, Vested Interests and Evidence

our authors Feb 14, 2023

Montserrat Gomendio and José Ignacio Wert

The aim of this book is to address the following question: why are education reforms so difficult to implement and so easy to reverse? We have had the privilege of looking at this fundamental problem from different perspectives: as academics, policy makers and advisors to governments all over the world, a vantage point which allows us to offer new insights.

We share the conviction that education has the power to transform lives, economies and societies. We also share the view that education policies should be based on robust evidence and, for this reason, we are concerned about how little impact international surveys have had so far on improving education systems worldwide.

We both joined the Spanish Government at the peak of the financial crisis (as Secretary of State and Minister), when levels of unemployment were dramatically high and the economy seemed about to collapse. We discovered that the evidence, which was so precious to us, was either misinterpreted or just ignored if it was not well aligned with the interests of multiple stakeholders or with the ideological stances of different political parties. We also became aware that some of the conclusions and policy recommendations commonly drawn from international surveys, did not apply to the Spanish context. This made the public debate around evidence-based policies confusing and easy to manipulate. Our education reform was approved in a context of intense political tensions and was the subject of a very polarized debate. As so often happens, when a different government came to power a new reform was approved which represented a complete reversal and which ignored the evidence about which policies had a positive impact.

After this experience as policymakers, we both joined the OECD with different roles, where we learned how the surveys on levels of student performance, adult skills and teachers’ practices are designed, the strengths and weaknesses of the data generated and the limitations of the conclusions and policy recommendations which have been so influential in the global debate on education policies. The experience of providing advice to many governments all over the world made us aware of the extent to which both policy recommendations and the political costs of education policies are context-dependent. It also gave us a clear understanding of the geography of educational success: which countries and regions are top or low performers and the reasons that explain such divergent outcomes.

This rather unique combination of professional experiences has provided us with a broad understanding of the dynamics of education reforms, as well as with a wealth of information on the nature of the political battles, the impact of governance arrangements, the conflicts of interest which tend to remain hidden in the public debate, the disparate contexts faced by governments in different countries and the obstacles that derail most education reforms.

First, we develop a comparative perspective on the politics of education which covers those factors which play a relevant role in facilitating or hindering reforms: ideology and governance. We explain which are the ideological issues that are prominent for political parties on the right and left, the extent to which they are divisive and contribute to the polarisation of the political debate. When these ideological battles play a relevant role during elections, it becomes difficult for political parties to reach consensus on issues which have generated deep cracks between voters.

Second, we analyse the impact of different governance arrangements on the nature of the obstacles that education reforms face. The recent trend to decentralise education systems has led to a division of responsibilities between central government and regions, which has increased the complexity of decision-making processes and created a disconnect between levels of government who make decisions and those who implement them. When such responsibilities are not clearly defined, endless conflicts of interest are unavoidable.

We also analyse the role of different stakeholders and their bargaining power. Education systems serve students (and their families) but parents are rarely organised in an effective way, so they have little power. Employers also benefit from a good-quality education system, but their role is normally limited to providing on-the-job training for VET students and apprentices. Since education systems invest huge amounts of funding, there are many stakeholders who obtain direct benefits from the education system and whose support or rejection of reforms will depend to a large extent on the impact they have on the level of resources that they receive. Among education systems, most of the funding is allocated to paying teacher salaries; as a consequence, teachers have become organised as unions to defend their working conditions. Most unions defend job safety and similar salaries (unrelated to performance) for their members. In countries where unions are politically influential and have veto powers, they often block reforms which aim to introduce more demanding criteria to enter the profession, performance-related pay or the dismissal of underperforming teachers. In such cases, the interests of unions and those of students clearly clash.

Third, we analyse in detail the evidence provided by international large-scale assessments (ILSAs) to examine to what extent there is robust evidence to support policy recommendations. We find that the strongest evidence there is about what does not work in education concerns investment. Contrary to the widespread assumption that levels of investment are directly related to levels of student performance, all analyses conclude that this is not the case when levels of investment are above a certain threshold. Since investment is the product of class size (which determines the number of teachers) and teacher salaries, none of these two variables has an impact on student outcomes.

The analyses show that there is another set of variables which is strongly context-dependent, making it difficult for policymakers to understand what applies to their specific context. The most influential is school autonomy, a policy recommendation which has been followed by many governments. However, for school autonomy to have a positive impact on student outcomes two conditions need to be met: it only works among education systems which have already achieved high levels of quality and it has to go hand in hand with accountability mechanisms.

The last group of variables represent different ways to measure a multifaceted dimension of the education system: equity. Unfortunately, our analyses concludes that no single variable can be used to measure levels of equity or progress over time. Furthermore, the seemingly arbitrary use of one or a few of these variables frequently leads to the wrong conclusions, a problem which is exacerbated by the fact that some of the most important aspects of equity are measured by variables which the international surveys neither assess nor take into account.

Finally, we examine the interplay between the evidence generated by international surveys, and the policy recommendations based on them, with ideology and governance. We conclude that the most robust evidence, i.e. lack of impact of greater levels of investment, decreases in class size and increases in teacher salaries, has had no influence whatsoever because it generates a head-on conflict with the vested interests of unions and most stakeholders which strongly oppose policies which lead to a decrease in the levels of resources that they receive. The evidence on variables which are strongly context-dependent (such as school autonomy) may be difficult for policymakers to interpret, since it requires a precise diagnosis of the state of maturity of the education system which is often lacking. Furthermore, policy recommendations often ignore this fact and advice such policies universally with dire consequences. Finally, the evidence concerning variables that attempt to measure equity is partial and non-conclusive so the policy recommendations have been heavily influenced by ideology. This has led to a universal recommendation to apply comprehensive policies and avoid those that are regarded as “discriminatory” (such as ability grouping and early tracking). But the evidence shows that radical comprehensive policies lead to the worst outcomes in terms of equity among non-egalitarian societies. We argue that “policy borrowing” from egalitarian countries is based on the wrong assumption that inclusive education policies have led to high levels of equity. The alternative explanation is that among societies that are already equitable, the education system does not need to compensate for major inequalities and, therefore, inclusive policies work. The fact that such inclusive policies, when implemented in non-egalitarian countries, lead to bad outcomes suggests that other mechanisms are required to deal with the large degree of student heterogeneity present in societies with high levels of inequality.

Fourth, we look at the policies implemented by top- and low-performing systems and we examine which regions have succeeded in improving over time and which have failed. Countries in East Asia have transformed their education systems very fast over the last decades, allowing mostly illiterate societies to become the most successful systems in the world. The key to their success seems to be a trade-off between class size and teacher quality which has delivered excellent results. Substantial investment goes into selecting the best candidates, offering training of high standards, implementing demanding procedures to enter the profession and designing clear career pathways with high-quality professional development. In exchange, they have very large class sizes. Such countries do not have powerful unions which can veto this kind of reforms and they all enjoy consistency over long periods of time because their political systems are semi-democracies, authoritarian, or full democracies which have adopted a very pragmatic non-ideological approach to education. Latin America represents the opposite extreme since these countries have made huge efforts in terms of expanding access to higher levels of educational attainment (including University), but the returns are very poor because student performance remains very low compared to East Asia, but also to OECD countries. In this region the power of unions is unparalleled and they have played a major role by putting pressure on governments to decrease class size over time and by rejecting attempts to improve teacher quality and evaluate teachers or students. Thus, the trade-off has been exactly the opposite.

When we analyse the trends of countries positioned somewhere between these opposite poles (Europe, United Kingdom, North America, Australia and New Zealand) we find that most of them have not managed to improve their education systems during the last decades, despite major increases in levels of investment and many reforms. This clearly shows that the evidence provided by international surveys has not had the expected impact on the performance of education systems. We argue that this is partly because some policy recommendations are misleading, partly because in certain political contexts solid evidence is not enough to overcome huge political costs, which tend to be the result of strong underlying conflicts of interest and/or ideological battles.

Despite this pessimistic conclusion, we remain convinced that the only way forward is to obtain more robust evidence and to improve the policy recommendations so that they adapt more readily to the specific context experienced by each country. Among countries where the magnitude of the political costs and underlying conflicts of interest are too great, the only way forward may be to start pilot projects rather than implement changes at the systemic level. If successful such pilots may expand, but such small steps will require time and students may not have much time to spare since they need to face an uncertain, challenging and rapidly changing world.

Montserrat Gomendio and José Ignacio Wert are the authors of Dire Straits-Education Reforms: Ideology, Vested Interests and Evidence. This is an Open Access title available to read and download for free or to purchase in all available print and ebook formats here.

Dire Straits-Education Reforms: Ideology, Vested Interests and Evidence
Responding to an ‘educational emergency’ generated largely by the difficulties of implementing education reforms, this book compares education policies around the world in order to understand what works where. To address the key question of why education reforms are so difficult, the authors take…

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