Successful education reform requires a bottom-up approach

Covid-19 has accelerated the digitalisation of the global economy. According to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates, nearly one-third of all jobs globally are likely to be transformed by technology in the next decade. The World Economic Forum estimates that 133-million new jobs will be created in major markets by the end of next year to meet the demands of the fourth industrial revolution. These jobs will require workers to have knowledge and skills that educational systems are not yet providing. Preparing the workforce of the future will require a change in what students are being taught — and how.

Educational reform traditionally has been viewed as a top-down process that begins with national governments and is implemented with the goal of improving institutional results, as measured by student performance. 

This practice is well established. Recent examples from the European Commission include proposals to increase the teaching of digital skills in schools in Bulgaria, Portugal, and the Netherlands; recommendations to expand the role of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in school curriculums in Belgium and Spain; and plans to reduce social inequalities in accessing the education system in Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Romania.

More in-depth reviews of educational strategy, such as the OECD Education Policy Outlook, monitor the progress of proposed reforms and provide detailed guidance on specific aspects, including the quality of teaching and learning, professional development for teachers, pedagogical leadership, school curricula, vision, expectations and student assessment.

But, overall, these proposed reforms either have not materialised or have frequently been a source of disappointment. They have failed to spur systemic change and produce the desired improvements.

The metrics available for monitoring educational outcomes demonstrate this lack of progress. Results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which measures the performance of 15-year-olds around the world in science, maths and reading, show little change in educational attainment over the past decade. And efforts to modernise the curriculum by including digital topics also have come up short. 

For example, a Pisa report on digital literacy revealed that even though 88% of students in OECD countries have access to a computer connected to the internet and are active online, only slightly more than half reported studying how to spot disinformation.

This lack of progress demonstrates the problem of relying too heavily on government-administered education reform as the only avenue for improving human capital. For years, national governments in the region have talked about the need to build knowledge economies but have shown little progress in doing so. But grassroots initiatives run by companies or NGOs, for example, can offer alternative ways to increase educational achievement, thereby filling the gaps left by public policy. 

Novel approaches and pilot programmes developed by such organisations can be picked up and adapted by governments, improving formal education systems.

When we conducted a recent audit of such programmes in Central European countries, we were surprised by the number, quality, and impact of initiatives that were developed from the bottom up. Some programmes offer targeted support in specific areas where traditional educational systems are falling behind, such as languages, digital skills or critical thinking. Others provide full-fledged alternatives to the mainstream educational system. 

In Slovakia, for example, a billionaire real-estate developer founded a boarding school called Leaf Academy. Next door, in the Czech Republic, car manufacturer Ŝkoda established its own university. And grassroots initiatives such as the Invendor Innovation Academy are making an important impact in Hungary.

The significance of such bottom-up innovation in education is not limited to post-communist countries. Even Finland, which is usually considered a paragon of successful national education reform, relied on grassroots experimentation and pilot programmes for more than two decades before the most successful efforts were elevated to the level of official policy.

As with most government initiatives, top-down reforms in the education sector tend to be slow-moving and difficult to adapt, no matter how cleverly designed and workable they appear. Grassroots education and training programmes, by contrast, usually are more agile and better targeted, allowing them to produce faster results. To be sure, the best way to modernise a national education system is still via well-considered, top-down reform. But where a lack of political capital, commitment or competence is delaying progress, jump-starting change from the bottom can work wonders. — © Project Syndicate

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Miroslav Beblavý
Miroslav Beblavý, a visiting lecturer at Sciences Po, is a coordinator at the European Expert Network on Economics of Education.
Soňa Muzikárová
Soňa Muzikárová is a chief economist at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute

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