Myths and legends of educational reform


By Dr Jorge Grünberg,  Rector of Universidad ORT Uruguay. 

The original article was published by El Pais in Spanish on 4 October 2020.  (El Pais account registration required).

There is a broad consensus that high quality, inclusive educational systems are essential for social and economic development. Sustainable, successful educational reforms are notoriously difficult to implement as observers across the world may attest.

In my opinion, the failure to improve educational systems is driven by several self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating myths and legends. One of them is the conviction (mistaken, as we shall see) that educational improvement requires decades and that we need to wait generations to achieve visible results. Consequently, political timing and circumstantial economic priorities postpone such reforms since they involve significant costs and risks, with benefits eventually accruing decades later.

Another cause is the belief (also mistaken) that educational experiences are essentially cultural constructs that are not transferrable from one country or region to another. The outcome of this view being that each country must design its own change strategies from scratch, which inevitably  hugely increases both the costs and the risks of failure.

Recent international research has shown that successful educational reforms are achievable in relatively short timeframes and that effective reforms share common attributes across very different countries and cultures.

Research conducted in dozens of countries has found that significant improvements can be achieved in relatively short time spans[1]. Countries and regions as diverse as Latvia, Minas Gerais in Brazil or Madhya Pradesh in India, for example, made improvements to their educational rankings in an average of four years, starting from very low levels. Educational reforms implemented in Vietnam and Poland have shown significant large scale improvements in less than a decade. The educational reforms in Finland, considered key to its current excellent educational performance, were launched in 1992. South Korea, a country with one of the world’s most highly educated populations, implemented its most recent secondary education reforms in 1995.

These investigations highlighted a series of common attributes shared by successful reforms in very different countries, regions and cultures[2] [3]. One of the key attributes of successful education systems is their diversity. Such systems acknowledge that not all students benefit from the same teaching methods or are motivated by the same subjects.

In successful educational systems, central authorities issue guidelines and goals, but each individual school or district, with its teaching and support teams, prepares its own lesson plans, adapting them to the characteristics of its students. These systems offer multiple alternative educational trajectories, flexible curricular contents, and teaching methods adapted to different students. Their goal is allow each student to find a personal, viable  path to complete educational cycles. It is interesting to note that some of the educationally strongest Asian countries such as Korea and Taiwan started to decentralize and flexibilize their school governance and  curriculum design in the 1990s to overcome what they perceived were obstacles to better learning[4].

Many Latin American educational systems, by contrast, assume that all students need to study the same subjects with the same type of teacher. They force schools to follow centralised study plans, with the same assessment systems and similar teaching methods. In many cases, not even private high schools can innovate since government regulations require most of their content to be uniform. IT-based adaptive platforms might provide opportunities for customised learning, but these must be organically integrated into the curriculum to help effect sustainable learning improvement, a goal that has proven elusive in most countries including those that have invested heavily in educational technology.

In rigid educational systems those students with particular skills or interests that cannot be nurtured, such as maths, music or literature, may become unmotivated and drop out. Students with greater learning difficulties do not receive the systematic institutional support they need to overcome these disadvantages. Successful education systems pursue both quality results and equitable access. Such systems do not sacrifice the quality of learning in the pursuit of equity, or vice versa. It does not aim to create islands of excellence in a sea of mediocre results, nor does it accept equitable but sub-par results for all.

As in other disciplines, educational research provides us with a scientific foundation for improving education. This knowledge has allowed some countries to provide unprecedented personal advancement opportunities to their citizens. As these investigations suggest, in many countries, drastic changes might be needed to traditional educational structures in order to improve education. Unless we believe on highly unlikely local exceptionalities impervious to international evidence we will need to muster the will and the capability to change some historic education structures as part of our challenge to prepare ourselves to compete in the 21st century.