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Luis Crouch on purpose and complexity in education systems change
Episode 1020th January 2022 • The RISE Podcast • Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE)
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This episode of the RISE Podcast features Luis Crouch, a member of RISE Research Directorate, and the Senior Economist at RTI’s International Development Group. In conversation with RISE Research Fellow Yue-Yi Hwa, he shares perspectives from his 30-year-career across development and education. They discuss the relationship between education and national development goals; socioeconomic development; the importance of purpose in education systems change; the interplay between national priorities and international agenda-setting in education; and the challenges of coordination and unintended consequences, including the effects that these can have in complex education systems.

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Guest biography:

Luis Crouch is a member of RISE’s Research Directorate and Intellectual Leadership Team, and the senior economist at RTI’s International Development Group. He specialises in education policy, decentralised finance (e.g., funding formulas), political economy of reform, education statistics, planning, and projections. He has experience in all key areas of education data analysis, from the generation of primary data via surveys and citizen input, to statistical and econometric analysis, to evidence-based, Cabinet-level policy dialogue. He has previously worked at the World Bank and at the Global Partnership for Education. He has worked closely on South Africa’s education sector funding reforms, Egypt’s decentralisation experiments, and decentralisation and other policy reforms in Peru and Indonesia. His more recent work is in early grade reading and Early Childhood Development, as key entry-points to improving quality. He has worked in more than 25 countries in a 30-year career in development, and is the author of reports, technical papers, and books.

Attribution:

RISE is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Programme is implemented through a partnership between Oxford Policy Management and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. The Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford supports the production of the RISE Podcast.

Producers: Joseph Bullough and Katie Cooper

Audio Engineer: James Morris

Transcripts

RISE Programme:

Hello and welcome to the RISE podcast series, where we aim to explore the stories behind education, research and practice as part of the multicountry Research on Improving Systems of Education endeavour, funded by UK Aid, Australian Aid, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

Hello, and welcome to the RISE podcast. My name is Yue-Yi Hwa, and I'm a research fellow at the RISE Directorate. And today I'm speaking with Luis Crouch, who is a senior economist at RTI International Development Group. And he's also a member of the RISE research directorate and intellectual leadership team. And Luis brings to this conversation today, decades of experience in development and education, with work in dozens of countries, including South Africa, Egypt, Peru, and Indonesia. So today, we have a wide ranging conversation, looking at big picture questions like the relationship between educational development and broader national and socio economic development. The importance of purpose in education systems change, the question of agency and who should set agendas in education systems, as well as the challenges of coordination, unintended consequences, and emergent rules of the game in complex education systems. Welcome to the RISE podcast. Luis, it's great to have you.

Luis Crouch, Guest:

Sure. Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

Well, I'm excited about this conversation. And I wanted to start by taking advantage of your really vast experience in education and development. And to start with a really big picture question. So how should we think about the relationship between socioeconomic development and the development of the education system? And I mean, these are obviously interlinked, I think beliefs about how they're related can influence how we think about what is possible and what should be aspired to in education in developing countries. And on one hand, you have people say, like Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, arguing in "The Knowledge Capital of Nations" that knowledge or cognitive skills, or student learning are key to a country's development. But on the other hand, you have any number of scatter plots, where you have country's GDP per capita on the x axis and PISA scores on the y axis, which could be interpreted as implying that education and learning are sort of just a natural byproduct of economic growth? So what's your take?

Luis Crouch, Guest:

Well, my take is that it's both things. It's mutual causation. Now, for kind of maybe obvious reasons, as educators, we like to emphasise the causality that runs from education to development. And, I must say, there's a lot of good evidence for that starting with, you know, historical, big picture historical evidence. We know, for instance, that a country such as Japan has extremely high income per capita, you know, developed bullet trains, are really good at electronics. I mean, it's a highly, highly developed nation. And yet, it has no real physical resources. I mean, it has no iron, it has no coal. It doesn't have huge, vast amounts of agricultural land. What it has is brains, educated brains. And, historically, we also refer to cases such as the recovery of Germany after the Second World War, when Germany's economy was completely destroyed. And yet within, I don't know, maybe 10 or 15 years, they were pretty much back to where they were, or maybe even better, because the human capital that was in the brains of people was not destroyed, in fact, it cannot be destroyed. So education is not only causally related to development, but it's also kind of hard to destroy. So it's a very resilient resource to have in a society or an economy and there's lots of other evidence there's ready to return studies from from household surveys show educated people make more money. There's the, as you said, the stuff by Hanushek and Woessmann. And also under Schleicher from PISA have shown correlations, where you typically have education on the horizontal axis and some measure GDP on the vertical axis, but so that's what we tend to emphasise and there's also I mean sociological impact on broader issues of development such as maternal mortality. We know that when women have their births attended by professionals, or educated people, there's a smaller amount of maternal mortality and child mortality. And typically, you know, trained midwives and nurses have to have at least a secondary school education. So there's, it's it's common sense and there's empirical evidence. That said, and of course, we as educators like to emphasise all that because that kind of justifies investment in education, and not just not only justifies investment, but it justifies intellectual attention, such as that devoted to education by the RISE project, it justifies a lot of intellectual doing, a lot of intellection, if education is causally important to development, but all that said, I think we have to be really realistic. If you try to use education to really push on economic and social development, you're going to run into constraints, because for instance, you have this situation of where, if a society is very under educated, very under literate, let's say, it's just going to be hard to find teachers. And because teachers, educated people will be scarce, they'll be needed in many sectors of the economy, they'll command a wage premium. And so it's gonna be hard to find teachers. And you'll have to pay them a lot. And that's a clear constraint. We know from studies by development agencies that in the starting stages of big pushes, like the push for education for all or the Fast Track Initiative, or now GPE. You know, there are countries where teachers cost 10 times GDP per capita, or five times when the recommended amount is around three times and in wealthy countries, it's around one or two times.

Luis Crouch, Guest:

So it just, it's expensive to afford education. So so, you know, that argues for a measured approach where you, yes, you you use education to push for a development push. But you also have to realise that there are constraints. Now, I think, part of the answer to all this is that because there are these constraints, and yet it is so important. It highlights the points that I think we'll discuss in a while around purpose, you have to have a firm sense of purpose, so that you have the drive to overcome the constraints. If you have to pay your teachers more, well, you pay them more, and you make the sacrifices needed to do that. So I think this duality of education being both cause and effect of development: a) it's true that there is that mutual causality, but to the degree that you can kind of break that a little bit. It's through a kind of a sense of national purpose, a sense of real drive. And you you saw that in Japan. You see it in China today, you'll see it in many countries that have succeeded. So I think I think that's, yeah, I think that's part of it.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

Lots to dig into there. And let's dig into that a bit, specifically on the purpose points. So I think I fully agree with you that education is both a cause and effect of sort of broader development trends and societies and that it's a dual relationship, but I think you're also very right, too. I think one implication of what you're seeing is that there's a role here for agency and leadership, and decision making, and purpose. And these are actually often things that, as our colleagues and maybe more critical strands of education, research and sociology remind us, that really matter even if we're looking at big picture, national things. So to what degree is this broader role for education in national development?

Luis Crouch, Guest:

Yeah, I think it's big. And I think or let me say it can be big. But in order to realise that to make it real, you have to, it goes through that issue or causal factor if you will have a purpose. And it so happens, I'm actually doing a historical study right now of Korea and Japan. And not only the role that education played in their national development, because that's that's actually pretty well known. But what was done in terms of purpose and how the political leaders of Japan and Korea during their periods of rapid educational development, how did they position education? How did they view education? And the periods in question are maybe Japan roughly 1860s, through maybe 1920, or 30, or there abouts, and Korea, maybe 1960 through maybe 1995, or something. So these are kind of 30-40 year periods in which these nations made a huge push for education and the purpose factor? How political leaders saw a purpose to education. It was very much, by the way, and this is different from how it's sort of done today. And that's one of the reasons I wanted to write this paper. Is it the purpose issue in Japan and Korea, and then later on and, or more or less, at the same time I guess, in the case of Korean and Singapore, it's national greatness. It's building the nation to be a strong, capable, powerful nation. And, yes, that, you know, one could say, it's, it's, you know, is a double edged sword, I mean, you know, and one could argue that, in some respects, that kind of led to the Second World War, but, but it also builds nations and in the nations that have made a really strong commitment to national development, development of, of their national economy, it education was seen as playing a huge role in that. And, you know, that's kind of been lost today, in the sense that the purpose of education is seen to be kind of narrowly economic, or narrowly even social in the sense of lowering mortality rates. So when you see all the arguments for education, coming out of the global elites, it's around growing the economy, it's around all the good impacts that education has on child mortality, and maternal mortality, and these kinds of things, and, and this commitment that you saw in places like Japan, and Korea, and then, you know, later on Singapore and China. And, you know, maybe I'm citing places only in Asia, but in Latin America, you can see it in Chile for instance, it it's kind of watered down these days. These days, it's more of a commitment, kind of narrowly, to things like GDP per capita, which in some sense, is an abstraction, maternal mortality, you know, education gets pushed or touted for its role in these kinds of indicators.

Luis Crouch, Guest:

Or there's a kind of commitment to International goals, such as the SDGs. And that's seen, to some degree by the global institutions as sufficient as that commitment should be the driving commitment. And yet, we know from historical experience of these other countries is that there was a really solid commitment on the part of the elites to building the nation and to making the nation strong and honestly, to avoid international humiliation. You know, the opening up of Japan was humiliating to Japan. The kind of shock of encountering military modernity for Korea, was highly motivating. And in Korea, the struggle to become a better nation, if you will, than North Korea played a huge role. And incidentally, you see this to some degree also in the role that education was given by the early leaders of Africa's independence, Nkrumah in Ghana, Kenyatta in Kenya, they all assign this kind of primal role to education. And I would argue that that's been substantially lost. And and it's, it's, it's hard to know how to get it back. I think one thought is that if you want to reclaim you know, you can you can hold on to the role of education and helping economic growth by getting economic elites in the countries to understand this and to push for education. But it's kind of hard to do sometimes. And it works in a country that is clearly articulating a need to compete with with other nations, economically, and not just a vague commitment to GDP growth, but an actual and real commitment for export drives, such as in Chiles, let's say fisheries pushes, and their wine industry pushes that, it made it very clear that you needed to have a highly highly trained labour force. So it's not an abstract thing like GDP is, let's export better and more fish, let's export better and more wine, that kind of highly concrete push. So but other countries are not necessarily trying to compete economically, or, or you know, are kind of insular and not, you know, they don't have very open economies. And so, it's hard to make those kinds of arguments there. But yeah, I think it'd be good to sort of go back to history and learn from countries that really gave education a crucial role in building the nation and creating a proud and nation, if not necessarily a great nation, at least one that that can hold its head up and be proud.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

One reflection on what you're saying, Luis, is that I think these debates and tensions about whether education at the national and societal level should be for economic reasons, utilitarian reasons, versus for a nation building for national empowerment actually, mirrored really, by tensions and debates about on the level of the individual child, like should be educated individual children to improve their career prospects, so they get certified and can get into university, or is the core purpose of education more for empowering the child, for giving them dignity, for giving them agency over their own futures?

Luis Crouch, Guest:

Yeah, I think it's a very good parallel to the macro picture. And I think if you if you ask parents, rather than sort of making decisions for them, but actually ask them what they want, they typically want both now, it will vary by the level of income. So I think in poor countries, and may want to emphasise, and do probably emphasise, the economic value of education. I mean, a big motivator in Africa, for example, is well known to be that, particularly early on, in order to get a civil service job you need an education. And so that was a big motivator, is get getting a job in the formal sector, if possible, or even in the bureaucracy, if possible. Because that was a way out of poverty. Now, you know, as people, as countries develop a bit more, and also, in general, parents definitely want something beyond getting a job, but you can see it, for example, in some societies, in the role that sports play in school. I mean, in the US, the sports programme of the school is a huge attractor, to parents, and then they devote a lot of effort to it. I've worked in other countries that are kind of sports crazy, like South Africa, and it's a big deal, whether the, whether the school has a good team, and that's because parents into it, there are broader skills, of teamwork, of collaboration of, of not giving up of grit, that are learned by playing in a sports team or by being in the school's orchestra or whatever. And yeah, I think that's parents want that. Now, you know, a question becomes then whether it's an obligation for the public purse for the FISC you know, for the government to fund those kinds of things. And you know, there one could have a bit more of a debate. And one could say, well, if parents want that, that badly, maybe they should, you know, contribute a bit more. And it shouldn't be the government that funds the entire sports teams and musical bands and so on and so forth. You know that could be debated. But that parents want it in general, I think it's pretty clear, especially as as, as they begin to deal with issues of dire poverty and begin to move up the income stream until you get sort of middle income countries and higher income countries. Definitely.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

I think we'll come back to that a bit later on. But since we're talking about sort of different levels in which education systems manifest and circling back to the question of purpose, I was wondering if you could just give a couple of concrete examples of what it looks like when the top decision makers in a country are truly committed to cultivating student learning? And also, if you have any examples at the school or classroom level, because my understanding is that you did experience this yourself when you're growing up in the Dominican Republic?

Luis Crouch, Guest:

Sure. Well, I mean, I think you begin to see learning, the centrality of learning in many, many ways. For example, when when I was a child, in the Dominican Republic, in the 1950s, when I learned to read, it was unbelievably celebrated. So, you know, at the end of grade one, and in the school I went to, and I think, really, in most of the Dominican Republic, in those days, pretty much if you did grade one, you learned how to read that's been lost in Latin America. You have a lot of kids going through grade one and cannot read at the end. But in those days, maybe because education was relatively a bit of an elite thing, kids who went to school did learn to read by the end of grade one. Now, Spanish is easy to learn to read. So but anyway, it was huge. There, you know, I got a certificate that was probably half a metre by half a metre, with all kinds of... it was kind of humorous, I still have it, you know, very formal looking and signed in person with ink by five officials. Wow, big deal. And, and, you know, that's just that's the kind of, you know, that kind of valuing of education is, is pervasive in systems that truly value it, you'll, you'll go to the ministry, and you find out who are the most talented people. They're the ones in charge of the curriculum and the teacher training, and so on. If that's the case, that's a good sign, is the top talent in the ministry? Has the top talent been given a mandate from the minister, to really attend to education? Another telltale sign is whether the minister or some fairly high level, is holding accountable the people that most directly affect learning, let's say the people in charge of lesson planning the people in charge of textbook design, forcing them and I use the word advisedly, forced forcing them to work as a team, to work together. And yet you go to many ministries and the people in charge of exams, the people in charge of testing and assessment, the people in charge of textbooks, the people in charge of curriculum, the people in charge of teacher support, are all working on their own. Each with their own programme, the programmes are not coordinated, you have stuff in the lesson plans that doesn't match what's in the textbooks. It's pretty bad. But you can be sure that when you went to Korea in the 1960s, or 70s, this stuff was very tightly managed. And things were really coordinated with each other. In fact, we can talk about it maybe a little bit later. But one of the characteristics of the purpose driven nature of reform in Korea and Japan is how they how they used foreign aid, foreign assistance, or in the case of Japan, it wasn't even foreign aid, but Japan made a very conscious effort of sending emissaries to all over the world, to get the best out of every education system that they could study, and then integrate those. Make those endogenous them to Japan and the Japanese culture and way of being in a very integrated way. And Korea, for example, made extremely adroit use of assistance from a place called The Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University with money from USAID, but very much the Koreans in charge, the Koreans were in charge. And they took a very systematic and systemic approach to, to their education reform where all the inputs into the education process of the child were tightly integrated and coordinated curriculum, assessment, teacher training, everything tightly integrated, and highly functional. And you don't see that in a lot of ministries. So that would be one telltale sign of a system that is either working on on quality or or not. And I think there may be a RISE paper that has actually a kind of little checklist of telltale signs of when a system is actually truly devoted to quality and learning. I don't know if that paper has come out or not, but it's something to perhaps flag.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

Okay. Yeah, we'll put it in the show notes of it's out by the time this runs out. Yeah. And I think actually, speaking of RISE, things are first RISE podcasts with Dzingai Mutumbuka, who was the first Education Minister of Zimbabwe. He talks, it's fascinating, he talks about how when they really needed secondary teachers really quickly, they got some from Australia, some from the UK, some from Canada. And then he also got people from Cuba to go to Zimbabwe and train prospective teachers how to understand Spanish, so they could then go to Cuba and study teaching there. Yeah. And also, he was very much in the driving seat and setting the agenda for what on what sort of terms he accepted, what sort of aid for education.

Luis Crouch, Guest:

Absolutely, I I happen to know Dzingai reasonably well, we collaborated a lot in designing some of the reforms for South Africa at the end of apartheid. And, you know, he's a real character, and he very clear about how you do things and how you get going. And that would be I mean, that would be another example. I said, the role of education in early independence. Well, I think he was the First Minister of Education right after independence, or maybe one of the first and clearly there was a vision there. There was agency there was, you know, sort of not, you know, not believing everything the World Bank says or, or the development agency side, but by figuring it out on by your own and, and being super proactive. Getting out, like you said, getting some some exemplar teaching. I mean, Colombia, you know, a country that did things fairly carefully. At the end of the 19th century, maybe they didn't keep it up, but, you know, before foreign aid assistance existed they wanted to develop their teacher training college system. They went out and hired six Prussians from Prussia, because Prussia at the time had a reputation as intentionally developing a high quality education system. Gave them six year contracts, hired nine of them, or maybe it would they hire six and give them nine year contracts, I don't know. But this kind of thing is unheard of these days, that a country would purposefully go out, especially with donor funding and hire six people and embed them in their ministry to develop a system. It seldom happens. Certainly not with the intentionality that Colombia did it in the end of the 19th century, or, or that, indeed, Dzingai Mutumbuka did it in Zimbabwe in, you know, right after in, soon after independence. So it happens a little bit, but with that kind of intentionality, and drive, not much.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

So I think all of this raises a slightly sticky question for those of us who care a lot about education, but are working in international development, or are based in the Global North, in that if purpose and commitment are so central, and given that purpose in any kind of meaningful sense, is the prerogative of the nation and should be articulated by the nation, what can we say legitimately about national education systems? And what should be prioritised? Whether in terms of ethical legitimacy or legitimacy of cross context learning? And I think interestingly, this also sort of a global analogue of what you were saying about parents and priorities and funding extracurriculars at the school level within country, but yeah, you're on that.

Luis Crouch, Guest:

Yeah. Um, I mean, I think you see some recognition of the importance of national priorities and national sovereignty, if you will, in a lot of the more recent trends in things like the Paris Accord and putting countries in the driver's seat when it comes to designing or CO designing foreign aid programmes and such. But I think a lot of it is honestly lip service. I'm not sure how real it always is. But partly, I would say it's the countries themselves that sort of got into this situation. I remember visiting with the Minister of Education in a certain country, and talking to them, to him, and saying, you know, on the Paris Accord and you know, the way various organisations work, they want you to be in the driver's seat and they think you should have, there should be a local education group of club of donors, plus the government officials that work together so that we can understand your priorities better, and so on. And he said, "No, I know my own priorities. I don't want the donors collaborating with each other and ganging up on me, I have a very clear set of priorities. And I want to be able to tell each donor what to do, not have them, you know, in endless meetings, discussing things." So I think one of the things here is that the countries themselves just have to take that kind of leadership, and in a very real way, in a very strong way, not just sort of make a bureaucratic game out of so called countries being in the in the driver's seat. So if countries themselves don't do that, it's, the international community will sort of continue to just pay lip service to the notion of the country's being truly in the driver's seat. But one way for the international community to respond is to work more and work better and give more attention to the countries that truly are acting as if they care about education. And, as if, and if the leadership is truly in the driver's seat. And just kind of prioritise those countries for programming.

Luis Crouch, Guest:

That's one thing. The other, though, is that some of this influence gets diffused over the years and, and gets taken up voluntarily. I mean, John Maynard Keynes, I forgot the exact quote. But he said something like, "Men in power who think that all the ideas that they have are their own, are actually influenced by the scribblings of some defunct economist from, you know, 20 years ago." So, you know, ideas have a way of spreading and get taken up by the countries, sooner or later. And they diffuse, and they eventually come to be owned by the countries. Let's take the example of the whole emphasis on girls education. I mean, this is not something that rose out of 100,000 villages in the developing world, that sort of all spontaneously woke up and said, girls education is important. No, it was more something that came up through a kind of dialogue between national progressive elite, if you will, and the global elite, and you've had, you know, people like, I don't know if it was in the 80s, or early 90s, or whatever, but people like Larry Summers at the World Bank, declaring how important girls education is, and then the backup of research from people like Beth King, and many others in the late 80s, early 90s, and so on, and that started producing a lot of evidence and that slowly gets into the consciousness of countries. And, slowly begins to be accepted and owned and pushed for by, by the countries themselves. And I think another angle on this issue of national sovereignty and putting countries in the driver's seat and so on, is that countries are not monoliths, you know, countries are, in some sense, an aggregation or an abstraction or something like that, that what you have in countries is really different interest groups and different points of view and different groups. So in the case of girls education, it got taken up by certain elements within the thought leaders of those countries who came to see these things, either right away or gradually and began to own them and began to advocate and then NGOs did it and local think tanks did it and, and grassroots people eventually started doing it. So these things can can take some time to build up and so on. And so, you know, the thought that these things are imposed is not quite right. But the thought that it spontaneously arises from the very grassroots is also typically not right. It's more of this kind of interaction between people who perceive there to be a need for these things, kind of in amongst the the policymakers and policy elites of the countries, grassroots oriented NGOs, but maybe not the grassroots tehmselves and the international elite.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

So to follow up on what we were seeing about countries in the driving seat who sets the agenda, I would be curious to hear your reflections a bit about the international community and foundational literacy and numeracy goals. And this is something that I have been personally thinking about and reflecting on given that when I was teaching in Malaysia, I had 16 year olds who are basically illiterate, despite having spent 10 or 11 years in school. But where I've landed, is that I actually feel pretty comfortable saying that every education system should teach every child foundational literacy and numeracy anything above that, the country should decide what goes in the curriculum, that's their prerogative. But I think I'm personally willing to draw a line in the sand and say, "This is the baseline that everyone should provide." But then that also gets tricky, because you have all sorts of when a measure becomes a target sorts of problems, and sometimes it feels, understandably, I think, to some people that rather than it being described as a baseline, it's described as the ultimate aspiration that less developed countries should aspire to. So any thoughts on any of these thorny issues?

Luis Crouch, Guest:

Yeah, I mean, I think the international community, and in some cases, well, maybe the countries themselves, but certainly the international community, I think they make way too much out of this. It gets, there's this injection of kind of, ah this needs to be debated, but a), it's already in the country's curriculums. I mean, if you look at the curriculum of any country, that's the expectation is that kids will be able to read and it's clear in the curriculum, that that is the foundation. And that in the first year or two, you're learning to read, and then later on, you read to learn. This is not this is not rocket, this is not like some new, dangerous idea coming from somewhere, it's in every single curriculum in the world, pretty much. Now, maybe how you learn to read, there could be some somewhat ideological debates around that, but that it should be a priority, it's there already. And I think, what the international community can do, and to some degree, the countries themselves have to take responsibility is making sure that it is happening, that it is happening. In fact, as well as it as the as the curricular expectations of every single country, state. Now, it's true that in some countries, the curricular expectations are kind of qualitative and verbal and discursive, and maybe they don't have kind of numerical targets. And I think that's fine. I think a country can can can have numerical targets or benchmarks or whatever you want to call them, kind of more operational, and they don't need to be given the weight, the intellectual weight of that the curriculum itself has, you know, they can they can, they can adopt benchmarks temporarily as just operational guidelines in how you actually implement the curriculum. But moreover, countries have already signed up to the SDGs. And the SDGs, are clear that kids should be able to learn to read and do basic math by the end of grades two or three. But the SDGs themselves, which the countries also signed on to, are clear that there are other goals toward the end of primary or lower secondary, adult literacy, digital literacy, all these kinds of things. Now, one could argue as to, you know, the priority given to those and so on, but countries have already signed on to our broad agenda. Countries curricula already say that reading and numeracy are foundational, and and that you learn to read in the first grad or to they're just not doing a good job at it. In fact, I'd say they're doing a shamefully bad job at it. And that's pretty clear to anyone that has gone around schools in the developing world and tried to get kids to read to them. And, you know, if you go to the poorer regions of, of almost all countries, and if you go to almost anywhere and some of the poor countries, half the kids at the end of grade one or two, can't even read the most common words in their language. And that's, I think that's morally reprehensible and shameful. Not to put too fine a point on it in case people are wondering about how I think about it. And what makes it more shameful is that it's already a goal in the curriculum. It's already a goal that they signed up to when they when they agreed to the SDGs. So, you know, let's get moving. Yeah, I can state this very quickly, because I feel so strongly about it. And I think it's so evident and so obvious that anything other than getting moving on it is a moral failing.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

Well, on that bracing, note, and call to action, the final question that we asked to any guests on the RISE podcast is, what is one thing you wish other people knew about education systems?

Luis Crouch, Guest:

Okay. It's probably more directed to analysts, more than sort of the broad public, researchers, analysts, officials. Two things about how systems are viewed or attempted to be understood, often by officials or NGOs, or think tanks. One is around the systems themselves. And analysing systems and the other one is trying to understand the characteristics that derive from systems. So one is on systems themselves. Typically, the way I see education systems being analysed is that the officials or sometimes in collaboration with foreign assistance, will take each bit of the system, namely, let's say the curricular stuff, or the assessment or relations with the parents and the norms for school governance, and the teacher training system and all that and they they rate or rank, or whatever the quality with which each of those things is being done. And that's, that's pretty good. That's a start. But what makes education systems work well, or not work? Well. And I already alluded to this earlier on in the podcast, is how well each of those systems work with each other is in terms of a flowchart your your classical systems analysis flowchart, it's not the health of each box in the flowchart or each square in the flowchart. It's the health of the arrows that link the flowcharts. And that's almost never studied. It's almost never studied, whether the curriculum people, the assessment people, that teacher training, people have regular meetings every month, check on each other, hold each other accountable. That's an important factor hold each other accountable for delivering on what they said they would do. And whether that's all working together, and there's not only links between them, but feedback links, so that the assessment people can hold the textbook people accountable and saying, you know, "we had agreed that this would be in the assessment, why is it not in the textbook?" Or vice versa, that the textbook people can say, well, "we agreed to put this in the textbook if it would be in the assessment? Well, we don't see it in the assessment. Where is it?" That kind of accountability internal to the ministry fails in a lot of cases. I've seen countries where there's a question in the grade 6 or 7 science test that requires you to use algebra, and yet algebra is not taught in that country until grade 8. That's a thing that's a crass failure and coordination. And that happens all the time. So I think that's one systems' thing that I would wish people knew more and understood the importance of more. And actually, you know, that officials hold each other accountable, but hold their system accountable for not holding them accountable if you're, well that, that there are these coordination mechanisms and that there are they're there, but they're kind of lip service and not very strong. The second point is that systems have results that are often not intended by anyone. And in fact, those are the most important results in some cases were so you know, there's one of my favourite examples of systems is when wolves were reintroduced into the Yellowstone National Park in the US that controlled the population of mammals, such as deer or elk, or whatever those mammals are called, I can't remember and, and that allowed those mammals those larger mammals like deer were no longer eating the little trees. And because the little trees survived, that stabilised the riverbanks. And the riverbanks became more stable. And those trees also allowed the ecosystem for the beaver, those little mammals that build dams and rivers. And so the whole ecosystem started recovering because of the introduction of wolves. Or at least it's hypothesised. I'm not sure the proof is perfect that that this actually happened. Although it is, it did happen that the population of deer got controlled. So, the wolves didn't intend to stabilise the river system. That was not an intention of the wolves. And in fact, it wasn't even an intention of the ecologist who introduced it, they just wanted to control the deer population.

Luis Crouch, Guest:

And so, sometimes these very powerful effects within systems are due to the rules of the game, and not to a state in intentionality of the system. And those rules of the game are very powerful. And unfortunately, in many countries, the rules of the game, implicit or explicit rules of the game, actually conspire against the stated aim of the system, the stated aim of the system might be to produce learning, but the way the system actually works is that the ministry is an employment agency or is a way of rewarding political allegiances or propping up the the party in power through clientelism and so on. And, and those rules implicit, even even though they may be are extremely powerful, and actually work against the stated purpose of the system. So systems have what are called emergent properties. And in the example I gave of the ecosystem, an emergent property was maybe the stabilisation of the river system and the control of erosion. In the case of education, the stated aim might be that kids should learn. But the implicit rules of the game are about rewarding political allegiances. And you know that those may or may not be compatible. Yeah. So, I think that's studying the emergent properties of systems and how the rules of the game drive either either drive the good stated aims or drive unstated aims that are not so good. I think that needs to be looked at more, more often.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

Yeah. Thank you for that. I feel like every time I hear you speak, I come away with many new insights and several new research questions.

Luis Crouch, Guest:

That's good, I guess. It could be frustrating, too.

Yue-Yi Hwa, Host:

Well, potentially frustrating, but also much more exciting. So thank you so much for this conversation.

Luis Crouch, Guest:

Thanks a lot, it was a pleasure.

RISE Programme:

Thank you for listening to our podcast today. And if you liked it, be sure to check out our research at RISEprogramme.org or follow us on social media at RISE Programme. You can find links to the research mentioned and other work shared under the description for this podcast episode. The RISE podcast is brought to by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE Programme) through support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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