Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2017. This post was originally posted on February 27, 2017.
“It makes me a little crazy when you keep saying systems.” – Jowhor Ile, in And After Many Days
At home, we have a porchlight at the entrance to our house. If I flip the switch for that light, there is about a 50-50 chance it will turn on. The reason? There is another switch in the basement that controls the electricity flow to the porch, and the porchlight will only come on if both switches are on.
This – slightly adapted – analogy came from Justin Sandefur at the Center for Global Development, in an effort to explain what a systems approach is and how it can improve development programming.
If you’re like us, there is so much talk about systems that it can be easy to get lost. At a recent event, we asked a mixed group of operational teams and researchers, “How confident are you that you know what a systems approach is?” Nearly 40 percent had little to no idea.
How confident are you that you know what a systems approach is?
To take education as an example, a systems approach to education recognizes the following:
1. An education system is made up of different actors (students, teachers, administrators, political leaders), accountability relationships (management, politics), and design elements (financing, information) (see Pritchett or Scur).
2. Changes to one part of the system are moderated by other parts of the system. For example, the effectiveness of investments to get children to school will be limited (or enhanced) by the quality of the schooling.
3. A change to one part of the system leads to changes in other parts of the system: increased public provision of school supplies won’t increase learning if parents subsequently reduce their pre-existing investments in school supplies, as indicated by what happened in India and Zambia (Das et al.).
A systems approach seeks to explicitly take these separate components and their interlinking movements into account.
Three models demonstrate how a systems approach can apply at each point in the reform process: One identifies the current performance of each element of the system, one answers questions of what happens as elements of that system change, and one seeks to leverage this information to improve reforms.
“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” Lord Kelvin
Despite the recent proliferation of standardized testing in education, there is still a significant number of countries that oppose it. I’ve heard many arguments against standardized testing from policy makers, teachers and school directors, but two of them seem persuasive at first glance. The first one is that the test’s main purpose is to hold teachers and school directors accountable, that is, to reward and punish them based on students’ performance and—per tests’ opponents—this is unfair. The second is that since standardized testing assesses few subject areas, it redistributes attention and resources to these subjects in detriment of other equally important areas of the curriculum. These are valid points, but, as I argue below, they do not justify incurring the very high cost of not testing.
A growing number of students in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in private primary or secondary schools. The World Development Report 2018 (on which I was a co-author) highlighted an array of potential benefits and risks associated with broad provision of basic education by the private sector. “The key challenge for policy makers is to develop a policy and regulatory framework that ensures access for all children, protects families from exploitation, and establishes an environment that encourages education innovation. Managing a regulatory framework to achieve this is difficult: the same technical and political barriers that education systems face more generally come into play.”
“Test and punish”?
There’s a debate raging in American schools today: how (and how much) should children be tested?
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act created a system where all children in all schools from grades 3 to 8 must be tested each year. Critics refer to this accountability architecture as “test and punish,” with stakes such as school funding (or closings!), bonuses for teachers, or grade promotion for students all riding on performance. There is evidence that NCLB improved learning outcomes, but improvements came at a high cost: In addition to teaching to the test, this approach can lead to a number of perverse incentives, like keeping weaker students at home on test day, narrowing the curriculum, or downright cheating. Worse, some have said they can serve to mask and contribute to the structural race and class inequalities in the United States.
The elusive quest to scale
Some 15 years ago, I was in a small town in Hoshangabad district (India) attending a workshop with government schoolteachers, where we were examining student test scores. Instructors from Eklavya, a non-profit supporting the government, were skillfully leading teachers through an intensely engaging session on why a child might have written a particular answer, what was right and what was wrong with the answer, how to grade it, and how a teacher could help the child improve. Everyone was sharing lessons and learning.
I Will Always Write Back is the true story of Martin Ganda and Caitlin Alifirenka, who became pen pals -- between Zimbabwe and the USA -- in middle (or lower secondary) school. Over time, they learn from each other, and ultimately Caitlin's family realizes the depth of need of Martin and his family -- living in a slum on the outskirts of the city Matate -- and provides support beyond the letters, all to an inspiring end (which I won't spoil).
This book is on many middle school reading lists, with good reason. My thirteen-year-old son just read and enjoyed it. It provides an introduction to life in Zimbabwe and a range of challenges that might never occur to a child (or adult, for that matter) in a high-income country. I've never worked in Zimbabwe, but I have studied education in many countries, including several countries around Sub-Saharan Africa, and the characterizations of life broadly rang true.
Last Wednesday, the World Development Report 2018, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise (WDR) was released. It argues that there is a learning crisis: in many developing countries, children learn very little, educational opportunities are unequal, and educational progress is still very slow. What do we need to change this? We need prepared learners, who receive adequate nutrition and stimulation in their early years. We need well managed schools that create an environment conducive to learning. We need adequate inputs so that schools can operate effectively. But above all, we need motivated and well-prepared teachers. In classrooms around the world, white boards and screens have replaced black boards and notebooks are increasingly commonplace. But in this 21st century, with increased use of technology, there is one constant that determines, more than anything else, whether children learn at school: teachers. Indeed, teachers remain central to the classroom experience. And yet in many countries, the teaching profession needs attention and reform.
In a recent exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, “Dinosaurs Among Us,” paleontologists use prehistoric fossil records of bones, feathers, and nests to show that some dinosaurs did not go extinct but, rather, evolved into the creatures we see today. The links they trace show how avian dinosaurs (ones that fly) evolved into modern-day birds. Paleontologists argue that avian-dinosaurs’ swift aerial mobility played a key role in determining their survival while their land-based relatives failed to thrive. Flight enabled them to relocate and adapt to drastically changing environments—a skill that their land-based relatives lacked.
Figure 1. Paleontologists argue that avian-dinosaurs (left) adapted to the changing environment quickly and evolved into birds (right).
The 2018 World Development Report (WDR), Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, launched this week. While it draws on research and collective experience—both from within and outside the World Bank—it also draws on the personal experience of the team members, including the two of us. What inspires the focus on learning for all is that we both have seen the possibilities of widely shared learning, but we’ve also seen what happens when those possibilities aren’t fulfilled.