Editor's note: Heeje Yoo did the vast majority of the work on this piece.
On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that created a vision of peace and prosperity for the world. As part of that vision, the Universal Declaration sought to achieve elementary education everywhere.
Though first set forth more than 65 years ago, after multiple reassessments and delays, today the world is on track to achieve the goal of universal primary school completion by 2015. It is on the eve of this significant accomplishment that MIT-educated economist and Harvard professor Lant Pritchett reveals a startling reassessment of the progress that has been made, or rather, the lack thereof, and he suggests that the world take a different route to accomplish the goal of universal education.
In his new book, "The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning," Pritchett draws on previous research to present the idea of two kinds of school systems: centralized “spider” organizations that act as top-down systems of schooling, as opposed to decentralized “starfish” organizations that operate on an innovative, grass-roots style of learning. Pritchett shows how most of the world’s school systems are government-owned spider organizations that developed as a result of the rise of the nation-state. Such government-controlled spider systems of education were never designed to maximize learning; rather, they were meant to be instruments of socialization, or vehicles for the teaching and instilling of nationalist beliefs, ideas and values.
Consequently, most school systems around the world never attained significant levels of learning. Most were satisfied with simply increasing the number of “inputs” — more schoolhouses, more teachers, more supplies, etc. As a result, though the world is coming close to attaining the goal of universal primary schooling, the world is far from achieving the intention behind that goal — to increase learning to best prepare the planet’s youths to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
In India, 65 percent of children in grade two could not solve a grade one arithmetic problem of adding two single-digit numbers — that in and of itself is not the problem. The real problem, Pritchett argues, is that by the time these kids reach fifth grade, only 61 percent can solve such single-digit arithmetic problems. When it comes to three-digit addition, the learning curve is even flatter. After three years of schooling (from grade two to grade five) only one in five children learned to add three-digit numbers. Pritchett posits that such findings indicate more than a simple inability to solve arithmetic problems — they portend a deeper lack of conceptual learning.
Not being able to grasp the concept of space in a three-digit number can prevent children from going on to learn more advanced concepts, such as weight, definitions or fractions. These problems extend beyond the subject of math — similar findings exist in studies on language ability, for example being able to read a complex passage.
Correlated problems often exist with practical skills — telling time or handling money. The defining issue is not so much the inability of students to solve mathematical problems or to read passages at their grade level as it is the lack of progress throughout the children’s years in school. Pritchett’s views on the matter are direct: “The relationship between the number of years children attend school and what they actually learn, is too darn flat.” The reason many schools are able to get away with such dismal learning is a concept called isomorphic mimicry.
In evolution, the pressure to survive is so great that organisms mimic the survival characteristics of another organism without actually performing the survival function it pretends to have. One example of such isomorphic mimicry is the scarlet king snake. The scarlet king snake is relatively harmless; however, because of its bright red, black and yellow coloring, it manages to effectively look like the highly poisonous and dangerous eastern coral snake. In this manner, the scarlet king snake manages to survive by simply looking dangerous without actually being dangerous. Pritchett argues that this evolutionary effect has parallels in the world of education.
Through isomorphic mimicry, many ineffective school systems continue to receive funding and in effect “survive” in the ecological landscape of schooling. Parents continue to send their children to “buildings that look like schools but don’t produce learning depriving [children] of any real opportunity.”
Many of the reforms that schools pass act as “window dressing” — measures to increase perceived legitimacy without causing any real change aimed at improving learning. In his characteristic, straightforward style, Pritchett contends that, “The real purpose of reform efforts is to create certain appearances to legitimate failing and flailing systems, without making demands or threatening existing political interests.”
The main problem with such government-owned spider organizations is the way their bureaucratic and agenda-conforming structures stifle innovation. Such organizations create an environment that is skeptical of innovations that cost-effectively produce greater learning results but do not conform to existing agendas.
The implementation of such low-cost innovations as contract-teachers (as opposed to teachers with degrees and thus more “qualifications”) has been found to produce similar or higher learning than more qualified teachers in bureaucratic systems. Remedial tutoring or curricular reform to better teach to the needs of the children has been shown to dramatically increase learning. Instead of seeing the value of such innovations, spider organizations cast them aside because they do not conform to the agenda of political legitimacy.
In business, the process wherein large, successful organizations are overtaken by small, disruptive innovators because of their inability to anticipate how new technology could shift the existing paradigms of the industry is called disruptive innovation — brought to public attention and popularized by Clayton Christensen in 1997. Pritchett argues that in like manner, spider systems of education are overlooking important innovations that can drastically improve learning. “Simple goals with simple techniques cannot scale in closed, public support systems because such systems judge innovations only on whether they conform to a predetermined elite agenda.”
In other words, low-cost innovations with demonstrated efficacy are not being given the opportunity to grow because they do not play by existing rules.
In harmony with the starfish method of implementing ecosystem conditions for learning, Pritchett shies away from providing a perfect, one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, Pritchett prescribes six key characteristics that must exist in an educational ecosystem in order to boost learning curves. Starfish systems must be open, locally operated, performance pressured, professionally networked, technically supported and flexibly financed.
Such systems can take the form of community-controlled schools, private providers, schools controlled by small governmental jurisdictions and charter schools. To those who are interested in the details of each of these characteristics and specific examples of school systems that possess such qualities, Pritchett’s "The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning" is highly recommended.
Pritchett concludes his book by citing the great success that spider systems of schooling have had in logistically “getting the right pieces into the right places.” What the world now needs is for those spider organizations to break the chains that are holding back the changes that need to take place, and let parents, local communities and innovators create a system of education that best prepares their children for the 21st century. Only then will the world experience a “rebirth of education” and achieve the true United Nations goal of providing education and not just schooling.
John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford.