Lant Pritchett Photo

Lant Pritchett

Professor of the Practice of International Development
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79 John F. Kennedy St. Littauer Bldg 315
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Pritchett, Lant, and Martina Viarengo. "The Illusion of Equality: The Educational Consequences of Blinding Weak States, For Example." Center for Global Development Working Paper 178 and Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) Working Paper 09-03, June 2009.


Does the government control of school systems facilitate equality in school quality? There is a trade-off. On the one hand, government direct control of schools, typically through a large scale hierarchical organization, could produce equalization across schools by providing uniformity in inputs, standards, and teacher qualifications that localized individually managed schools could not achieve. But there is a tendency for large scale formal bureaucracies to “see” less and less of localized reality and hence to manage on the basis of a few simple, objective, and easily administratively verified characteristics (e.g. resources per student, formal teacher qualifications). Whether centralized or localized control produces more equality depends therefore not only on what “could” happen in principle but what does happen in practice. When government implementation capacity is weak, centralized control could lead to only the illusion of equality: in which central control of education with weak internal or external accountability actually allows for much greater inequalities across schools than entirely “uncontrolled” local schools. Data from Pakistan, using results from the LEAPS study, and from two states of India show much larger variance in school quality (adjusted for student characteristics) among the government schools—because of very poor public schools which continue in operation. We use the PISA data to estimate school specific learning achievement (in mathematics, science, and reading) net of individual student and school average background characteristics and compare public and private schools for 34 countries. For these countries there is, on average, exactly the same inequality in adjusted learning achievement across the private schools as across the public schools. But while inequality is the same on average, in some countries, such as Denmark, there was much more equality within the public sector while in others, such as Mexico, there was much more inequality among the public schools. Among the 18 non-OECD participating PISA countries the standard deviation across schools in adjusted quality was, on average, 36 percent higher in government than in private schools. In cases with weak states the proximate cause of high inequality again was that the public sector distribution of performance had a long left tail—schools with extremely poor performance. Relying on blinded weak states for top-down control of educational systems can be lose-lose relative to localized systems relying on bottom-up control—producing worse average performance and higher inequality.