Educational Reform: Issues and Trends

International Labour Review, January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Educational Reform: Issues and Trends


Educational reform: Issues and trends

In a recent report on environmentally sustainable development, the World Bank stresses the central role of human resources. It estimates that produced assets account for 16 per cent of global wealth, natural resources for about 20 per cent, and human resources for the largest share.(1) The Bank argues that investment in human resources can be the best means of achieving overall sustainability. While warning against oversimplifying the equation between the development of human capital and educational attainment, its findings imply that a country's future prosperity depends substantially on the quality of education its children receive.

Educational systems around the world are engaged in a process of adjustment. The article by Martin Carnoy in this issue addresses its driving force--structural adjustment. This "Perspective" overviews its more particular manifestations--including changes in educational quality, teachers' remuneration, and the extent of decentralization. Much of the material presented below is drawn from the preparatory reports for the ILO's April 1996 Joint Meeting on the Impact of Structural Adjustment on Educational Personnel, namely Recent developments in the education sector (hereinafter, Report I) and Impact of structural adjustment policies on employment and training of teachers (hereinafter, Report II). Where other sources have been used, these are given in footnotes.

The global pattern of reform suggests that decentralization is widely seen as a key to a better education because it brings decision-making closer to communities and schools. This is having a profound impact on many crucial issues, down to the level of curricula and teachers' salaries. However, there are significant differences between high- and low-income countries. In the most developed countries decentralization is beginning to realize its potential for enhancing the position of teachers as educational decisionmakers, thus sharpening the focus on the quality of teaching (see box). But in lower-income countries decentralization is often linked to reducing the public resources devoted to schooling and does little to strengthen the role of teachers. Indeed, for many developing countries still battling to improve educational access the primary question is one of resource constraints that still preclude the best, quality-enhancing options.

The following pages attempt to show how different countries have been coping with some of the dilemmas involved in educational reform, mainly at the primary and secondary levels. The issues addressed include educational quality, funding, teachers' remuneration and class size. The trend towards the decentralization of educational systems is then illustrated by a brief overview of reforms in Latin America, Africa and selected OECD countries since the 1980s. A final section is devoted to Japan and the Asian NICs which, while still regarded as models of highly successful educational planning, are also beginning to face the need for adjustment.

Educational quality: Relevance first?

The quality of education is an elusive concept, difficult to measure by any common standard. Indicators such as repetition and drop-out rates can give some idea of an educational system's success or failure, but their reliability is impaired by financial and administrative factors unrelated to academic achievement. Besides, even though all countries share a common interest in ensuring the academic and social development of their children, their priorities may differ. The more industrialized countries can concentrate on adapting education in order to enhance their competitiveness by helping workforce adjustment to rapid technological development, the information economy, new employment patterns and workplace processes.(2) While the enhancement of competitiveness is an educational goal shared by developing countries as well, the poorest continue to struggle with such basic priorities as literacy and educational access as means of improving public awareness of environmental and health issues, and reducing family size. …

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