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Is decentralization a solution to better learning outcomes?

Over the past decade the World Bank has allocated almost $85 billion to local participatory development and the major modalities for fostering local participation, according to this institution, are community development and decentralization of resources and authority to local governments[1].

     Decentralization has to do with efforts to strengthen village and municipal governments on both demand – by amplifying citizens’ participation in local government – and supply sides – by enhancing the ability of local governments to provide services. In line with it, Community Based Development (CBD) – and more particularly Community Driven Development (CDD) – is considered to be among the fastest growing mechanisms for channeling development assistance. CBD refers to projects which actively include beneficiaries in their design and management and CDD – the most recent variant of it – refers to projects in which communities have direct control over key project decisions and management of investment funds.

     Back in January, I read a paper[2] by Elizabeth M. King and Berk Özler about Nicaragua’s Education Reform, in which the authors presented administrative decentralization in the education system to produce better learning outcomes for students, by changing school management. Their main argument was based on the idea that “actors who are closer to the classroom – school principals, teachers, parents and students – have better information than the officials of the central government or even sub-national governments, and thus are better able to make the best decisions for improving school operations and consequently, learning.”, and we can observe that shift of responsibility and power to the communities in some countries.

     Although several levels of decentralization exist, the one that proved to be more effective in improving classroom instruction and student performance is school-based management reform. To achieve these two goals the reform has to affect the quality and/or the quantity of educational inputs as well as the efficiency with which these inputs are used. This production function is underlined by the hypothesis that more school and family inputs – experienced teachers, smaller classes, more books, better facilities, more educated parents – into the education process produce more learning – higher students achievement. The value surrounding many of these inputs is not consensual, but labour input from teachers is always relevant to some extent and conceptually it depends on the quality of the teacher, the number of hours worked by him and the level of effort during those hours worked. The latter depends on the salary received, work environment, teachers’ altruism and monitoring by school management. Therefore, we can think of it as a principal-agent problem, in which the right incentives must be given in order to make the agent exert the optimal level of effort.

     Decentralization has achieved good results by getting parents more involved and, consequently, monitoring teachers’ productivity closer (and reducing costs). The information gathered is valuable since it allow the school to adopt a contingent renewal of teachers’ contracts, extracting more labour input from teachers if the monitoring system is credible.

     However, the question remains in what concerns CBD projects in education. Nowadays, there is information available about CBD’s impact in some fields, being the heath system one of those that achieved the most significant results. As an illustration, one can point out Martina Bjorkman and Jakob Svensson’s Power to the people: evidence from a randomized field experiment on community-based monitoring in Uganda, which implemented a CBD project that potentiated monitoring by the community of local health facilities. One year after the beginning of the intervention, a reduction of 33% in under-5 mortality in comparison with the control group was achieved, among other significant accomplishments. Thus, besides a decrease in absenteeism by the health staff, quality of services really improved in this context. If it is not possible to reform the education system in some countries in order to leave to the school the management responsibilities, a solution to improve school performance is for sure CBD, and I believe it would pass through a raise of parents’ awareness about the benefits of attending school, making them more participative in the process, as there is evidence that a closer parent-school partnerships can improve school and home environments with respect to learning, eliciting commitment and greater school actors’ accountability.

     Until a randomized field experiment is put in place, the empirical evidence of the impact of such projects in education continues missing, and they may constitute a smoother solution to school performance – namely in developing countries.  

Mariana (64)


[1] Localizing Development: Does Participation Work?, World Bank Policy Research Report;

[2] What’s Decentralization Got To Do With Learning? Endogenous School Quality and Student Performance in Nicaragua, Elizabeth M. King and Berk Özler, The World Bank, Revised November 9, 2000.

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Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

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