An Overview of School Reform Efforts Worldwide
An Overview of School Reform Efforts Worldwide

A recent Council on Foreign Relations Report notes that decline in the U.S. education performance threatens national security and the ability of the Americans to compete in the global marketplace. Preparing students to compete in the global workforce is an emphasis of governments around the world.  An educated workforce helps increase a country’s competitiveness and makes it a more attractive location for foreign direct investment.

Countries around the world are engaged in school reform efforts. Some countries are just trying to get students into school. About 72 million school age children are still not in school; about half live in sub-Saharan Africa and about 25 percent in South and West Asia.  It will cost about $16 billion dollars a year to get those remaining students in school by 2015.1

Other countries are focused on decreasing achievement gaps, improving student tests courses, and better preparing future teachers. While there is no one-size-fits all solution to creating a stronger education system, counties around the world are looking for approaches that can improve teaching and learning.

Privatization, decentralization, and student equity are three areas of school reform that are receiving a lot of attention by governments worldwide.2

School Privatization and School Choice

Private providers are increasingly offering education services in India and in many Latin American countries. At the same time though, other countries, such as Britain are seeking to increase school choice, but are doing so without increasing the number of private schools.

Many parents choose private schools because public schools do not provide an adequate education. This is the case in India where 25-35 percent of students attend private schools, with even higher proportions in cities. For-profit private schools are actually illegal in India, thus all private schools are registered as charities. These charity schools are required to take 25 percent of their students from poor families. Unfortunately government subsidies for the poor students have not materialized, thus many do not provide subsidized education.3

In Latin America, there has been a gradual increase in private- sector participation in education. About 20 percent of preschool to secondary school students are now enrolled in private schools, while almost 50 percent of students are enrolled in private colleges and universities.4  Transnational providers of education services are increasingly operating in Latin America at the tertiary level. Some countries passed regulations to allow private providers, while others (Argentina and Bolivia) revised their constitutions to allow private providers. Together these results have led to increased heterogeneity at the tertiary level at the expense of average quality. Quality assurance is now a priority in the region.5

Many countries privatizing their educations system look to Sweden as their model. In 1992, Sweden introduced the voucher system whereby private schools received public funds for each student that they educated on the same terms as municipality schools. During the same period, Sweden also deregulated teacher’s pay, decentralized school financing, increased school discretion over curriculum and testing. Today, about 10 percent of lower secondary aged students attend privately run free schools whose attendance is determined on a first-come, first-served basis. Large numbers of free schools are found in affluent urban areas as well as in areas with second-generation immigrant communities.6

Evaluating Sweden’s reform has been challenging. Some schools show a moderately positive impact by the end of 9th grade, with the biggest impact on highly educated families and with the least impact on low-income families and immigrant families.  Some studies show achievement in languages and not in math and some the opposite.  So far analysts have concluded that the introduction of free schools has not harmed Sweden’s education system, but it has not transformed it either.7

Following Sweden’s lead, Tony Blair administration expanded the number of British independent academies, while Cameron administration has increased the number of free schools.8  Free schools are run by parents, charities and local groups and are in charge of their own budgets, teachers’ hours and pay. All of the British reforms hoped to bring new entrants into the system, which unfortunately has not yet happened. Many of the new schools have wealthy students, no new governance and most were not initially underperforming, and thus the reforms are strengthening existing schools, but not offering better choices for the underserved.9

The increase in free school schools is forcing some private British schools to re-consider their status as they are no longer competitive.  Similar to India, most British private schools are charities first. Soon these schools may be forced to offer places to needy students, a move that will likely lead to higher tuition for the rest of the student body. Private schools are also being hurt by new rules that allow Oxford and Cambridge to increase their tuition in return for accepting more students from public schools. So, private schools may be on the decline in Britain.10   It is hard to discern whether Britain’s experience translates to any international trends on privatization.

School Decentralization

While privatization has been a means to increasing school choice for many countries, others are focusing on improving existing schools through decentralization.

In 2003, Ontario embarked on “whole-system reform” for its school system.   Schools set their own targets and the government sent teams to help the schools achieve their goals. Schools with large number of immigrants were allowed to apply for special help, extend the school day or work longer with specific students. Full public support for the reform was garnered first. Costs have risen 30 percent since the reform was implemented in 2004 and the success has been debatable.11

In East Asia, decentralization has been the focus of school reforms. With the exception of China, most of the decentralization plans have been recent.  China began decentralized efforts in the 1970s, motivated by fiscal constraints on the central government. Fiscal and political concerns also drive current decentralization reforms. For example, Thailand decentralized along with a push for greater democracy and shared resources amongst the central and local governments.12

The extent of decentralization has varied across the region. The Philippines transferred the construction and maintenance of school buildings, but did not decentralize governance of elementary education. In general, central and intermediate (provincial, state, municipality, and district) levels of government continued to govern post-basic education, with lower levels of government and sometimes even schools governing basic education. For example, in Indonesia, primary education is now controlled by schools, junior secondary by districts, upper secondary by provinces, and tertiary by the central government.13

Across East Asia, community councils and school committees involving local officials, civic leaders, and parents often control governance and school management.  School councils are also used in other areas of the world, including Brazil, Nicaragua and El Salvador. The difference between Latin American councils and East Asian councils is that Latin American communities elect council members while East Asian communities do not. Elected councils tend to be more accountable to their communities.14

While governance and management have been decentralized in East Asia, central governments often retain control of pedagogical matters, personal management, financing and resource allocation.  Curriculum is viewed as a means to promote national identity, shared values and culture thus set by the central government in East Asia and in many countries around the world, including Australia, Britain, and Chile.15

Fiscal and resource allocation tends to be the most decentralized, as schools use local funds to address their needs when faced with decreased subsidies from central authorities.  Local governments though do not have the same ability as the central government to raise funds, particularly in poorer areas. Central governments need mechanisms to equalize education resources across municipalities and cities.16

Latin America faces similar decentralization challenges.  Some countries, such as Colombia and Mexico, allocate teaching positions by special commissions, resulting in an inadequate distribution of resources. Many feel that schools should be directly involved teacher management.  The average age of Latin American teachers are increasing. Youth are pursuing other careers, leading to a lack of teachers. In Latin America, teaching reforms have focused on selection, initial training, support, and incentives.17

There is little research yet on the impact of decentralization of learning outcomes in East Asia countries. It is hard to measure the impact of decentralization without isolating other factors, such as economic conditions. Studies from the U.S. and Chile’s decentralization reforms show improvements in reading and math scores at the primary grades, though causality is hard to determine. Decentralization reforms have seems to led to improved student performance in Nicaragua and Brazil and decreased teacher and student absenteeism in El Salvador. On the other hand, the student impact of long-running reforms efforts in Chile is inconclusive.18  Similar to privatization reforms, the impact of decentralization reforms are hard to quantify.

Equity and Underachieving Pupils

Balancing access and equality is another key challenge for school systems around the world. While East Asia overall has made progress in basic education enrollment rates, there are large variations within individual countries. Many of the decentralization reforms exacerbate these inequalities through unequal distribution of resources. There is a 20 percent differential for literacy rates in China amongst the high performing and low performing provinces. Furthermore, enrollment rates for Chinese minorities is 10 -15 percent lower compared to their Han counterparts. Literacy and enrollment rates also vary widely in the Philippines and Indonesia.19

Ecuador recently launched a reform movement to improve access to their university system. A new aptitude test to determine university admission is now being implemented. This test will measure basic learning skills, instead of knowledge. Many hope this this improve access by poor students, including indigenous groups. A new 2008 constitution recently eliminated tuition at public universities as well, another effort to make education even more accessible to poor students.20

Other Latin American countries are also focused on developing a more egalitarian education system. Brazil, Chile and Mexico have implemented their own national evaluation systems, monitoring student achievement and performance. The use of evaluation systems has been correlated to decreased impact of socio-economic backgrounds on student performance in schools.21


Test such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), are a tool used by the OECD countries to evaluate student scholastic performance. While not perfect, this tool allows countries to compare and contrast results with other countries and to measure their own success over a period of time.  Of course, the challenge is in the interpretation of the score.  Does an improved score mean that certain school reforms are successful? No. Unfortunately, the Pisa and any other standardized test will never answer the “why” question.

One lesson that can be drawn from all reform efforts is that reform is never a straight line. What works in one country does not always work in another. Though there is much to learn from successful reforms, countries should be cautious when adopting reform measures carried out by other countries.  While decentralization can be a powerful tool, if not done properly it can increase inequalities.  Privatization can certainly help in countries where the public schools are woefully inadequate, but again it can increase inequalities. When looking to reform education systems, policymakers need to keep the end goal in mind, creating a better world for the next generation, which is predicated on access to a strong and equitable education system.

1  ”Bad state education means more fee-paying schools in poor countries.” The Economist. March 17, 2012.
2  “Reforming Education.” The Economist. September 17, 2011.
3  “Bad state education means more fee-paying schools in poor countries.” The Economist. March 17, 2012.
4  “Education Reforms in Latin America.” Latin American Economic Outlook 2012.
5  ” Tertiary Education.” Latin American Economic Outlook 2012.
6  Allen, Rebecca. “Replicating Swedish ‘free school’ reforms in England.”
7  Ibid.
8  “Reforming Education.” The Economist. September 17, 2011.
9  Cook, Chris. “Education: Lesson in progress.” Financial Times. September 1, 2011.
10  “Class Struggle.” The Economist. September 24, 2011.
11  “Reforming Education.” The Economist. September 17, 2011.
12  King, Elizabeth M.  and Guerra, Susana Cordeiro. “Education Reforms in East Asia: Policy, Process, and Impact.”  East Asia Decentralizes.
13  Ibid.
14  Ibid.
15  Ibid.
16  Ibid.
17  “Teachers: Selection, Career, Assessment & Incentives.” Latin American Economic Outlook 2012.
18  King, Elizabeth M. and Guerra, Susana Cordeiro. “Education Reforms in East Asia: Policy, Process, and Impact.” East Asia Decentralizes.
19  Ibid.
20  Neuman, William. “‘Garage Universities’ Are Bracing for School Reform.” The New York Times. March 18, 2012.
21  “Creating & Strengthening Evaluation Systems.” Latin American Economic Outlook 2012.

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