Blinkers of education research and advocacy ecosystem

The problem in education research and advocacy is that no one ever identifies the lack of comprehensive reform as the issue. Everyone is trying to push through what they think are “new ideas”. It leads to fragmented and unproductive reform.

An IE article argues for recruiting more female teachers in secondary schools. The argument is that female teachers can serve as aspirational role models, increasing enrolment and investment in girls’ education.
This is reasoned based on an evaluation that found that reserving seats for women in panchayats had an “aspiration effect” in those villages, where the perceptions of women changed, investment on education increased and so on.
All’s well and good but there’s one small problem.
The percentage of female teachers in secondary schools is already 42%.
Given that the percentage of female teachers is already high, one can’t imagine significant marginal utility of recruiting female teachers over and above this. In any case, even if the government were to reserve 50% (maximum that’s possible), it’s only 8% above the current value. It is unlikely to yield any significant effects.
The kind of analysis in the article is reminiscent of a larger problem in the public policy eco-system.
  1. RCTs are interpreted too narrowly, often without context. The article in discussion is a good example. A particular evaluation may show effect because it addresses a critical constraint. But before translating it to other context and advocating a solution, one should check if that constraint actually exists and if the proposed solution has already been tried. Often, it isn’t done. As in the case of the above article, increasing female teachers is advocated without even considering the current percentage of female teachers. Such blind transposition is evidence waving policy, not evidence based policy.
2. A single issue is taken and a narrow solution is proposed as an idea of reform.I argued in my book that this is in fact unproductive and hurtful in the long-term for several reasons.
I argue in my book that there’s something called “discourse bandwidth” in policy. At a given point of time, only a few policy ideas can occupy the prime discourse. The ideas at the top end of discourse bandwidth have higher likelihood of turning into policy.
We should hence be careful of the ideas that we advocate. Pushing through one idea displaces others. So, if a narrow solution to a narrow problem is proposed, it crowds out other important problems and other important solutions.
3. Education is not a wheel with spokes, where adding each spoke (policy reform) incrementally adds to its strength. It’s like a pipeline, where the water reaches the end point only if all the parts of the pipeline are working.
It means that addressing one issue (policy idea) isn’t going to result in outcomes unless it’s accompanied by many other complementary policies.
Part of the problem in education research and advocacy is that no one ever identifies the lack of comprehensive reform as the issue. Everyone is trying to push through what they think are “new ideas”.
Thisas discussed earlier, crowds out both policymakers’ attention and also space in discourse bandwidthThis leads to a fragmented, narrow reforms that end up being unproductive.
The blinkered approach to education reform and advocacy was there since long. It only got exacerbated with the advent of RCTs, one of the negative effects of RCTs!

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