Lant Pritchett, Educational Innovation, Comments and Critique

Lant Pritchett in an interesting talk on the failures of the educational systems in both the developed and developing worlds. Ending his talk, Pritchett notes, "How to make a disfunctional system into a functional one is an enormous challenge," thus framing the central challenge of human development in the 21st century.

Pritchett frames his argument around an interesting analogy of "Starfish" and "Spiders," centralized and decentralized educational systems that have historically grown and been transplanted from the developed to the developing world. The big issue, according to Pritchett, is that "Spiders," which rely on strong state capacity, centralization, and strong social cohesion, have only been successful in developing nations with these elusive social and structural characteristics. For the majority of developing world states, the result of this transplantation has been "Dead Spiders," characterized by "...no thinking at the center." Thus, without centralized thinking, without the "Functional, driving force at the center driving towards legitimate goals for students' learning," and in lacking periphery capacities for development, the schooling systems of the developing world have been an unequivocal failure.

Pritchett notes quite saliently and accurately that the educational systems in many nations are driving themselves, instead, on "mimicry." They look like vibrant, living spiders, but, in fact, they are almost completely innocuous and often times functionally dead.

"No amount of "expansion" with these "dysfunctional spiders will lead children to be ready for the 21st century." 

Thus, I will add, the critical challenge is quality, not in the expansion of dysfunctional schooling systems. Pritchett notes that for all intents and purposes, all children are now in school, which I would strongly argue against as being accurate. There are nearly 100million children who are reported to not be in school at this time, mostly due to conflict and displacement. However, expanding schooling in the traditional sense to these additional children in areas of zero state capacity and instability, when schooling systems in stable and "economically viable" states is completely dysfunctional, is obviously not the answer.

I will also dispute the central thesis of Pritchett's work on educational systems, which pushes us to think that the best approach and answer to these issues is to, in fact, move away from the spider-mimicry and towards the decentralized starfish approach in the developing world. Decentralization, the commonly used term for what Pritchett terms "Starfish," has been shown to be effective in very specific environments, those environments where the centralized system was, in fact, effectual. Decentralizing a deficient centralized schooling system WILL NOT improve schooling outcomes. Weak, non-cohesive decentralized states are plagued by a lack of human capital, physical capital, and by the elite capture that is in fact much easier away from the centralized areas of power. Additionally, decentralization of actual schooling functions, vis a vis curriculum design and class instruction, has been shown to be extremely variable and more than often ineffectual in the absence of strong outside scaffolding forces, such as the international community and/or religious educational support. Local control demands strong local capacity. Privatization leaves behind the marginalized classes. Is this the goal of educational reform? Further societal stratification? Whether policy makers admit it or not, the vast majority of students receive a government education and will continue to receive, as the only possibility in their lives, a government education.
We have seen the results of educational decentralization in weak states in the 1980's and 90's and the ensuing disaster that structural adjustment of educational systems had for the poorest and most marginalized in these societies. Why do academics and policy makers, such as Pritchett, believe outcomes will change so drastically in a matter of a few decades? Can we not learn from our mistakes, or are our policy makers so bereft of truly innovative ideas that we are forced to fall back on the same old plans again and again?

What obviously must be focused on is the key inputs into the educational process, as well as strengthening the educational management and administrative process, a daunting, yet achievable goal for the developing world to progress into the 21st century.
An interesting set of analogies from Mr. Pritchett to contemplate in the drive to improve the quality of schooling outputs. 

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