The risks to education systems from design mismatch and global isomorphism

CID Working Paper No. 277

Lant Pritchett
February 2014


The incredibly low levels of learning and the generally dysfunctional public sector schooling systems in many (though not all) developing countries are the result of a capability trap (Pritchett et al. 2010). Two phenomena reinforce persistent failure of schooling systems to produce adequate learning outcomes. One is the mismatch between system design—the allocation of activities across organizations and mechanisms of accountability—and the insights of the 'new institutional economics' from principal agent models and contract theory. In particular, many education systems attempt to manage teaching and learning as a 'thin' or 'logistical' activity that can be managed with top-down control and an emphasis on compliance. The reality is that teaching is a 'thick' or 'implementation intensive' activity that performs better when teachers and operators of schools are given performance standards, have multiple in-depth accountability channels, and are given greater autonomy. The second phenomena that facilitates persistent failure is global isomorphism on enrollment and inputs (Meyer et al. 1977; Boli et al. 1985; Meyer et al. 1997). That is, the field (in the sense of Bourdieu 1993) of global education has produced a near exclusive emphasis on enrollments and duration in school, adequacy of physical inputs, and formal qualifications that allowed, perhaps encouraged, national systems to ignore completely performance on child-learning (of any type, measured in any way). I conclude with a comparison in India of the national governments recent efforts in basic education which have been almost exclusively isomorphic.

Keywords: education, institutions, systems

JEL classification: I20, I25, L14, L32

Affiliated Research Program: Building State Capability