Despite attempts to address the global learning crisis, the widespread illiteracy and innumeracy persistent in developing nations worldwide, education systems in many low- and middle-income countries continue to be plagued by service delivery failures and programs that fail to produce effective learning in schools (UNESCO, 2013, p. 2; Bruns et al., 2011, p. 1). A number of factors contribute to these service delivery failures. Inequitable spending is often skewed to favor wealthy regions and individuals (Bruns et al., 2011, p. 7). Funding leaks see money diverted before it reaches schools, such as in the case of Uganda’s capitation grants, of which initially only 20% of intended funds made it to their intended recipients (Bruns et al., 2011, p. 7; UWAZI, 2010, p. 8). High teacher absence rates, low quality teaching, and lack of class time spent on instruction results in poor learning outcomes (Bruns et al., 2011, pp. 7-9; Watkins, 2012a).There is a need for increased accountability to address these and other issues in education service provision in developing nations (Bruns et al., 2011, p. 2).
Bruns et al. (2011) offer three promising routes towards more education accountability in developing nations: information for accountability, school-based management, and teacher accountability measures like contract tenure reforms and pay for performance.
Information for Accountability
Countries around the world, including developing nations, are increasingly carrying out national and international standardized learning assessments and leveraging their use in policy-making and reform and as indicators for monitoring and evaluating progress and learning achievement regionally and cross-nationally (Bruns et al., 2011, p. 29; NORRAG, 2016, pg. 4; Lockheed, 2016, pg. 8). Unfortunately, actual reforms and policies are often only weakly influenced by these assessments and data is frequently misused (Lockheed, 2016, p. 30; NORRAG, 2016, p. 4). Also, some mid- and low-income nations refrain from sharing results or participating due to feelings of shame or concerns about negative public confidence and pressure to turn towards private sector solutions over low scores (Lockheed, 2016, p. 27; NORRAG, 2016, pg. 7).
Information sharing at the community level seems fraught with fewer negatives. Citizen report cards and parent-teacher associations have been used to increase social accountability and parent involvement in a number of developing nations (Bruns et al., 2011, pp. 13–14; Watkins, 2012b), supporting parents and students in choosing schools and making parents aware of issues to empower them to lobby for reform (Bruns et al., 2011, pp. 14, 34). Key success factors when using information for accountability are ensuring widespread availability, ease of understanding, addressing the local context, and including paths for stakeholders to offer input (Bruns et al., 2011, pg. 72).
The decentralization of school-level decision-making is being implemented by increasing numbers of developing nations to improve efficiency and learning outcomes and overcome financial constraints (Bruns et. al, 2011, pg. 88; Arunatilake & Jayawardena, 2010, pg. 44). Parent involvement is often sought out, usually through creating school committees to monitor outcomes and processes and take part in planning and budgeting (Bruns et al., 2011, pp. 15–16). Attempts to decentralize effectively can be hindered by low-capacity local administrators and lack of ability of the community to voice their concerns (Arunatilake & Jayawardena, 2010, p. 46). Norms and values about education specific to local context may also reduce parent voice and participation (Phlong, 2018). Decentralization reforms are supported by accounting for such capacity issues, establishing short- and long-term process and outcome goals and indicators, and basing interventions on evidence (Bruns et al., 2011, pp. 129-130; Barrera-Osorio et al., 2009, pg. 101).
Teachers represent the most important input in the educational process, with great variations in student achievement and growth based on student experiences with individual teachers, but fixed salary schedules, lifetime tenures, and advancement based on inputs rather than performance provide little incentive for extra effort and innovation (Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 14; Bruns et al., pp. 18-19, 142). Teacher incentives such as contract tenure and merit-based pay bonuses offer the possibility of addressing such concerns without the need for broad, system-wide reform (Bruns et al., 2016, pg.19).Contract tenure leads to greater accountability, and localized hiring promotes closer monitoring of teacher performance (Bruns et al., 2016, pg. 19). The short-term impact of such reforms is good if power to sign and renew contracts is decentralized, but weak oversight, de facto guaranteed contract renewal, and ability to transfer off contract and into the civil service decrease its power (Bruns et al., 2011, pg. 156-157). Providing teachers with merit-based bonus pay based on inputs or outcomes is one of the strongest levers for influencing their performance and, when bonuses are based on student achievement, are an example of results-based financing that focuses on the learner rather than just schooling (Bruns et al., 2011, p. 2; Holland & Lee, 2017, p. 5). Key factors in the success of such reforms are the predictability of the incentive, which should be attainable but not unchallenging and the size of the bonus provided (Bruns et al., 2011, pg. 189). Care should be taken to ensure that the measured outcomes can be affected by the teacher’s work, as poor assessment outcomes may often result due to outside influences like widespread malnutrition (Bruns et al., 2011, p. 18; Holland & Lee, 2017, p. 12; Watkins, 2012b).
In this ‘era of accountability’, demands on education systems for transparency in demonstrating the efficient and effective use of public resources are common worldwide, and the importance of school effectiveness to the field of development means that developing nations are no exception (Shaked & Scheckter, 2013, p. 773; Bruns, Filmer, & Patrinos, 2011, p. ix). The challenges facing low- and middle-income countries in implementing accountability reforms, such as lack of local capacity, funding, cultural barriers to community engagement, and lack of political will need to be borne in mind, especially when tying the implementation of such policies to results-based funding disbursements (Lockheed, 2016, p. 26; Bates, 2013, p. 39; Phlong, 2018; Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 3; Holland & Lee, 2017, p. 14). Addressing the global learning crisis will require that students have access to quality resources, learning environments, and teachers, and ensuring accountability from school to ministry levels can help to make this happen. (UNESCO, 2013; Bruns et al., 2011, p. 2).
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Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 15 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.