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Educational policy in the pocket of the Ministry

Shaping policy based on consensus is a very new skill but Latvia has no choice except to learn this skill. If you want a socially consolidated nation with an effective economy, then you will have to implement significant reforms to your educational system.

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Rita Kasa from Radio Free Europe spoke to Professor Stephen Heyneman from Vanderbilt University (USA)

You have spent many years working at the World Bank and dealing with educational issues. What do you mean by the term “educational policy”?

I have worked at the World Bank for 21 years, performing three different functions. First of all, I engaged in policy research, mostly focusing on the internal effectiveness and quality of education. My second duty was to educate education ministers on issues of policy reform. My third job, which has kept me busy for the last six years, has been to manage educational operations in Europe and Central Asia - a region which covers Latvia and 26 other countries.

Educational policy represents the implementation of a set of ideas in order to improve a situation. It is a political process, not a science, it is not chemistry or physics. You cannot engage in policy or scientific analysis and come up with an answer as to the decisions that should be taken. There is a balance of competing forces. If you are to reach the right decision in agriculture, health care or fiscal policy, you often have to find a balance among various views and interests.

One of the greatest dilemmas in the field of education has been how best to help educational researchers to see the difference between scientific research on the one hand and analysis of educational policy issues on the other. Scientists, for example, write up research reports, engage in analysis, sign the documents and then, thanks to their work and personal views, become well known. Policy documents and policy analyses, by contrast, have no author. Here we are dealing with the views of an institution, be it the Education Ministry, a foundation, UNESCO or the World Bank.

What is more important in shaping good policies - research or policy analysis?

The success of a policy document can be judged on the basis of how people react to it. That is not the same, by the way, as determining whether the document is right or wrong. In many instances you may have scientific results that are very correct, but they do not produce an effect that makes people act and react. The main sign of good policies and good policy analysis is that they make people see problems and motivate them to try to solve the problems.

Still, do we need educational research in order to engage in policy analysis?

Some educational issues yield to strict scientific principles - teaching and learning, the economics of education, educational financing, specific educational management principles, the costs and benefits of educational innovations, etc. These can be very scientific things. The issue is how these things are added up and how you take decisions on what must be done next and how it must be done. You have to balance one priority with another. I don’t think that you can engage in good policy analysis without good scientific research, but scientific research alone is not enough when it comes to education.

What else is needed?

Experience and an understanding of participation, an ability to engage a wide range of individuals in discussions, the desire and motivation of people in the educational sector to implement good policies. Education is a public good. Every resident of Latvia, for example, participates in education. You cannot transform education and make it more effective unless you learn about the views of various interested parties - public groups, private organizations, teachers unions, ministries, governments and, in many instances, churches. All of these entities must take part in the debate. There are some issues on which views will always differ, but in many instances one can achieve a surprising level of unanimity.

Are all of the participants of equal importance, or does someone have the major role to play in shaping policy?

During the Soviet era, the state maintained a monopoly on the taking of decisions in the area of education, just as it did in all other sectors of life. Today there are open discussions about the institutions that would be the most appropriate in taking specific decisions. There are no countries in the world in which the government does not play a key role in this process. Every country tries to strike a balance between policy decisions which are taken at the central level and those which should instead be taken at the level of regions, schools or classrooms. There are different opinions about this issue, but most modern school systems tend to take centralized decisions on things such as national standards, teacher attestation, certification of educational institutions and teacher pensions.

If we return to the issue of policy analysis and its implementation, there are some people who think that government officials often do not use policy analysis when they shape policies. What would you say about this situation?

Different cultures have different styles. They say that scientific analysis in education is an Anglo Saxon tradition, but that is no longer really true. All of the countries that I know - France, Japan, Norway and your country among them - need to use statistical and empirical information to an ever greater extent in order to understand better how the country’s schools work. Each country needs information about successes that have been achieved, each country needs more information about the cost of educating one person, data about the number of students who have been admitted to schools or have dropped out.

If you are suggesting that there are people who shape policy but do not use these data skillfully, do not know about or understand the data, then I think that this is true, and then we have to look at their own level of education. If politicians and administrators have access to better analysis, there are better debates about educational issues. I believe that you will find in Latvia that the more policy analysis there is, the more developed and specific will be the discussions among those who shape policy.

But if government officials do not understand why policy analysis should be used in the shaping of policy, how can we make them understand it?

I have no recipe to offer. Here in Latvia you are facing very serious dilemmas, truly serious problems over which you are constantly fighting and debating. Some of these are universal problems which are typical of many countries, while others are specific to Latvia. You’re constantly debating about decentralization, about the language of instruction in schools, about who should supervise universities and about tuition fees in higher education. These are very important issues, and you cannot take good policy decisions in this area if you do not understand broader experience. I think that there is an increasing need for policy analysis in Latvia, and in the future such analysis will be used more skillfully. That will happen because people will really want answers to their difficult questions. They need better information about how others have dealt with similar problems.

What do you think about the level of policy analysis in Latvia as compared to other post-Socialist countries. How well is it developed?

Let me remind you that I became responsible for this region at the World Bank at a time when the Western world knew very little about the region. I have been involved from the very beginning in discussions about educational policy reforms. There are no countries in this region which have not made serious adjustments to the way in which policy decisions are taken in the area of education. Actually, that is true in almost all sectors.

Policy analysis in an authoritarian regime is concentrated to the point where the very top level of administration is the place where decisions are taken. The establishment of democracy, by contrast, means that everyone - each voter, each homemaker, each store owner, everyone - has the right to express his or her views and make representatives at the Education Ministry and at the parliament hear those views. Parliament is involved, churches are involved, city councils and teachers unions are all involved in shaping active social and educational policies. The number of participants has expanded. Most education ministries of which I am aware have had a very hard time in adapting to the new situation. They used to keep everything close to the vest, decisions were taken in an almost private way. The ability to shape policy on the basis of unanimity is a very new skill. One of the problems that I have seen from Tajikistan to Hungary is that education ministries are having problems in adjusting their work.

Where is Latvia on the spectrum? I have worked in 10 or 12 countries, and in some respects Latvia has been quite successful. You can see the influence of democracy, and I think that it is considerable. In some other countries such as Hungary and perhaps the Czech Republic, however, educational reforms have proceeded more quickly than in Latvia. I would say that Latvia has made very good progress, but there is still work to be done.

Should Latvia be implementing more significant reforms?

You have no choice in the matter. If you want a country with an effective economy, a nation which enjoys social cohesion - and I know that you do want such a country - then there will be a need for significant reforms to the educational system.

How should we understand the concept of “social cohesion”?

All nations, including mine and at the present time especially, have to struggle with balancing out the public and personal obligations and responsibilities of various linguistic, ethnic, racial and religious groups. All nations which want to be stable and enjoy economic development must be made up of citizens who understand the nation to which they belong, and this understanding must be present in various groups. There are two goals in educating society. One is an economic goal, and that can be reached by developing skills and attitudes. The second goal is social cohesion, which can be achieved by providing young people with common experiences that cut across various social groups, by giving them a sense of belonging and a sense of common responsibility. That is one of the goals of education. Some school systems deal with this issue very well, some do not.

How would you evaluate Latvia’s level of success?

I don’t know, but I can tell you about places where school systems have not been successful in this regard. Bosnia is an example. Curricula and textbooks basically fired up one ethnic group against another. Another obvious example is northern Ireland, where there are two different educational systems - one state-run and the other Roman Catholic. Each system has a very different interpretation about events in history. Sri Lanka is a third example. They have textbooks which emphasize the role of one ethnic group. These are three examples of school systems which do not create a foundation for social consolidation. Rather, they have created a foundation for social conflict, and, in at least two cases, the result has been civil war.

Finally, the Soros Foundation published a report on education in Latvia in 2000 which was called “Passport to Social Cohesion and Economic Prosperity”. Do you think that this report contained useful suggestions for resolving problems in the education system?

I think that to a certain extent this is a unique report. It’s the first one from the Soros Foundation, for one thing. It’s a document from an organization, a true policy document. It has no connection to the government, it was written on the basis of extensive consultations and discussions. I think that I can go so far as to say that some of the recommendations in that report are revolutionary.

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