How did School Based Management become an approach to educational governance found across the world? Where did it come from and what institutions advanced the idea globally?
Today I speak with Brent Edwards, an Associate Professor of Theory and Methodology in the Study of Education at the University of Hawaii. He has spent over a decade researching the phenomenon of School Based Management. In his search for democratic alternatives to dominant education models, he has shown in various publications how market fundamentalism is embedded inside the very idea of School Based Management.
Citation: Edwards, Brent, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 165, podcast audio, July 29, 2019. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/dbrentedwardsjr/
Transcript, Translation, and Resources:
Will Brehm 1:08
Brent Edwards, welcome to FreshEd.
Brent Edwards 1:10
Thank you, Will. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Will Brehm 1:11
So, what is community based management when it comes to schooling?
Brent Edwards 1:17
Well, there’s a couple of things that need to be said. The first is that community based management is closely related to another term, which is school based management. So first, let me define the former. Community based management was a popular term that arose in the 1990’s and continued to be popular into the early 2000’s and what it referred to was a parent council at the school or community level that had control over school governance. Now, school based management has a longer history than community based management. And since the 2000’s has become a more common term as community based management has fallen by the wayside -at least in the field of global education policy. Now to define more specifically, the difference between community based management and school based management, in the first of these is only parents who are on the councils and they have responsibility for things like spending the school budget, hiring and firing teachers, monitoring teachers, things of that nature. Whereas in school based management, you have parents on the council, but they’re working together with principals, teachers, and student representatives. And in the school based management councils, these councils are charged with a range of things and it’s important to note that what school based management looks like varies across contexts. But typically, under school based management, councils have responsibility for things like elaborating school improvement plans, monitoring teachers and teacher attendance, fundraising for the school, suggesting local curriculum content, deciding on priorities for spending the school budget, making school meals, identifying students to receive scholarships, and the list could go on but those are some examples.
Will Brehm 3:19
But they don’t do hiring and firing teachers like the community based management did?
Brent Edwards 3:25
Correct. community based management, as I think we will discuss further later, became popular in the 90s, because a handful of countries in Central America implemented a community based management. And in those countries, what stood out was the fact that parents did have the legal authority for hiring and firing teachers.
Will Brehm 3:45
So why such reforms, like community based management, or even school based management, really because they’re not that much different -they’re similar, but it’s the hiring and firing that seems to be the big difference- why is it even seen as sort of a positive school reform or a positive educational reform that’s worthwhile to take on?
Brent Edwards 4:07
Well, there are many reasons and the positive aspects of them that are highlighted depends on who’s doing the speaking and which organization or which policymaker is promoting the reform. I should also note that I would say that there are some official and unofficial reasons for supporting school based management or community based management. The official reasons can include things like that these approaches to school governance can contribute to democratic citizenship, that they can contribute to school cohesion or community cohesion, that they can enable the school to be more responsive to local contexts. I think those things are frequently mentioned or have been frequently mentioned but I think that the rationales that are typically given or the rationales for which they seem to be of interest in the field of global education policy is because they can, in theory, contribute to budgetary efficiency, right? Where if the council at the school level is making decisions about how to spend the school budget, then in theory, the money will be spent on only those things that the school needs, as opposed to a centralized bureaucrat making decisions for all schools. The other two reasons for which these approaches tend to be popular is because it is thought that they can contribute to accountability, where that means monitoring teachers, and because they can contribute to school effectiveness, specifically to things like student dropout, higher teacher attendance, and higher test scores. And the main logic here that underlies these increases and outcomes is that if parents and others at the community level are given responsibility for monitoring teachers -kind of incentivizing teachers to show up more to be absent less- that those teachers will try harder because they know that they’re being watched and that through that mechanism, you have higher student achievement.
Will Brehm 6:18
So, would you say that these reforms that sort of began being implemented in the 1990s, called school based management, community based management, would that fall under the logic of “new public management”, which also similarly came out in the 1990s?
Brent Edwards 6:35
Yes, I think that the same kinds of principles that are guiding school and community based management, I think that we can see those principles as one manifestation of the principles that have been driving new public management. But I think to put new public management into perspective, that fundamentally was a response to what was seen as a failure of the state, right, or the failure of the government to provide services and that what we needed to do was to incorporate market based principles into the governance of public services. And I think this leads to another important point, which is that unofficially, I think that many organizations and many governments see community and school based management as a positive reform because it can reduce state responsibilities that I think that it can, that the state, or the government can shift some of the financial and governance responsibilities to communities, even if they would publicly deny this. I think that the fact that school committees often raise funds and look for contributions from the communities, I think that you can see how school and community based management can be seen as one way of reducing the burden of public services on central governments. And so even though these reforms can give the appearance of doing something, I think that what they’re really doing or where they can be doing is kind of allowing the state to shirk its responsibilities and to shift the responsibility to communities that are often among the most marginalized.
Will Brehm 8:12
It’s interesting, it reminds me of that whole “starve the beast” idea from the Reagan years. But I wonder, then, you know, have these reforms actually been successful? And when I think about that, it now makes me think you have to look at success from both the quote unquote, official reasons for community based management -the democracy, the citizenship community building- and then also this unofficial side of, you know, effectiveness and accountability and budgetary efficiency and reducing the role perhaps, of the state itself in public education. So how would you talk about -has this reform that has been going on for over 30 years and so many different contexts around the world? You know, has it been successful? Has it achieved what it intended to achieve?
Brent Edwards 9:07
Well, this is a difficult question to answer in the aggregate. And I’m glad that you highlighted the fact that we should assess these reforms, both in terms of their official and unofficial outcomes. But first, I’ll just say, a comment on what the literature shows, right. So, in general, across studies, it seems there is a positive relationship between school based management and things like student dropout and grade repetition. The literature also shows that there does tend to be a positive relationship between these kinds of reforms and test scores. But -and this is the critical point- these studies tend to come from middle-income and high-income countries, not from the most marginalized contexts, where in the field of global education policy, these kinds of reforms tend to be targeted. So, what stands out for me is that systematic reviews of the literature do not find positive outcomes of school based management in poor communities, which is significant because it is precisely those contexts where school based management is often suggested as a desirable reform, because I would argue it is seen as a cheap way to improve educational governance and outcomes, at least in theory.
Will Brehm 10:25
Hmm, that’s interesting. So, can you tell me a bit more about, specifically where we see -maybe in marginalized communities- where do we see this reform being implemented? And, what are some of these -are there negative consequences to it?
Brent Edwards 10:44
Yeah, I mean, I think that, in general, parental involvement and community participation are seen as desirable things regardless of context. However, I think what’s important to note is that when it comes to policy reform discussions, these kinds of approaches are only suggested as reforms in middle and low income countries or in marginalized contexts. Nobody goes to a high income community, where outcomes are just fine, and suggests to parents that they need to be more involved in their children’s education. Instead, this is kind of analogy to telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, right? It’s like you’re basically telling people who already do not have sufficient resources, and do not have the support that they need from the government to ensure a quality education for their children, and then you’re basically telling them that they should also take on the responsibility of school management and that they should figure things out for themselves.
Will Brehm 11:56
Right. So, the conversation isn’t necessarily about how do we create a tax system and tax base that redistribute money to schools that need it? Rather, it’s a form of school-based management committee and start doing fundraising.
Brent Edwards 12:09
Exactly. And you asked the question about the negative outcomes, right. Or are there negative implications of this? And I think that that is an important aspect to address. And I think, in responding to that question, I would also highlight what my own research and the literature has shown when it comes to the process of implementing school based management, right. So, I think that we need to move beyond a simple discussion of outcomes right, did test scores go up or down, are teachers attending more or less? And I think we need to look at how are these reforms implemented? And what are some of the shortcomings and pitfalls that we see? Because what you’re talking about is actually a quite, if it’s realized, in practice, as it’s envisioned, in theory, it’s actually a quite complex set of arrangements that require the participation and the contribution of actors from across multiple levels, right? What we see is that, in practice, school based management committees often meet infrequently, only a few times a year. And when they do meet, it’s not clear that the participation is meaningful, or that the parents are actually contributing to making important decisions. Oftentimes, particularly in school based management as opposed to community based management, the power resides in the principal. And although you have these school councils that exist, they’re kind of ornamental in nature, or they can be because the parents and the teachers and the students are there to provide input, and they should ideally contribute to decision making. But at the end of the day, it’s the principal who has the legal authority and responsibility for managing school affairs. Along with these issues, you can mention the fact that these reforms are often implemented along with a lack of training, a lack of oversight or support from the government, that you can have misspending by school committees, because there’s a lack of oversight, that you can have duplication of tasks across levels, where the things that the schools are supposed to decide on are also things that higher levels of government are supposed to decide on, you can have situations where governments implement this reform but then don’t actually relinquish the control, right that it exists on paper but schools either officially or unofficially don’t have the authority to make the decisions with which they’ve been charged. In many cases with which I’m familiar, there’s a lack of clarity about the nature and details of school based management. Around who’s supposed to be on the committee, how is the committee supposed to do its work, there can even be lack of knowledge of the program’s existence, I’m familiar with specific cases where parents weren’t really even sure what the program was, or if it still existed and how they were supposed to be involved. And when they were, it’s not always certain that parents have the interest or the ability to participate as envisioned because it’s assumed that parents are able to participate in certain ways for which they might not have the literacy, the social capital, the skills, the information. And so, if you just implement these kinds of reforms that assume a lot of responsibility on the part of parents, and teachers, and students, and principals, if you assume the ability to comply with the vision without providing the necessary support or inputs, of course, it’s not going to look in practice like you think it will.
Will Brehm 15:30
So, I mean, given a lot of these, in a sense, negative consequences, or at least unintended consequences from the official discourse here, who is actually promoting this style of reform? I mean, since you’re saying that it’s been found in so many different contexts, who’s promoting it?
Brent Edwards 15:51
Well, to answer this question, I think we have to think about: Who are the key actors in the field of global education policy? Right, and whose job is it to sell reforms, right? And so, I think you have to look at NGOs and certain international organizations like the World Bank, other multilateral and regional development banks, but also multilateral organizations like UNESCO and UNICEF. I think for me, the key point here is that, one, there is an incredible range of actors who are promoting community participation, school based management as a solution to educational quality. But two, I think, an interesting and important point is the fact that different organizations highlight these kinds of reforms for entirely different reasons. Right. So, you have some organizations that are focused more on the prospect of encouraging democratic participation, so that that would be kind of the rhetoric that USAID has tended to use since the 80s and 90s. You have JICA, which is the Japan International Cooperation Association. They’re more interested in social harmony, and how can community participation and school governance enhance school and community cohesion, you have UNICEF that’s more interested in how can these kinds of approaches be used to respond to conflict affected contexts. And then the big one, perhaps the organization that’s most well-known for promoting school and community based management is the World Bank. So, I think the World Bank is really the one that has done a lot to popularize the idea of these reforms since the 90s by drawing on the kind of rhetoric that is typically associated with the World Bank, namely, rhetoric around efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability.
Will Brehm 17:51
It’s really quite interesting to see community based management, school based management as this sort of malleable idea that can go to different contexts and sort of be taken by different actors and utilized for different reasons, and all sort of still be called the same thing, even though, you know, it might actually be quite different in these different logics of the different organizations. So, it makes me wonder, where did this idea even originate from? Like, what was the inception of community based management? Like, where did it even start?
Brent Edwards 18:29
Well, I don’t think there’s one answer to that question because I think it depends on what kind of participation are you talking about? I think since at least the 1960s, the idea of participation has been very popular in international development when it comes to addressing inequality, the idea of drawing on communities and helping to develop communities to address their own problems has been popular since at least the 1960s and 70s. However, I think we see a shift in the late 80s and early 90s. I think it’s important to remember that the World Conference on Education for All explicitly called on the idea of partnerships, that this idea that governments, schools, communities, and private actors should all work together to provide education for all children, right. And so, I think it’s around that time, when you see these extreme examples of decentralization, these extreme examples of community participation start to emerge. And the one that I have spent a good deal of time researching in the last 10 years or so is really the reform that helped to put this idea on the map. And it was known as Education with Community Participation, or EDUCO, for short and it emerged from El Salvador beginning in the early 1990s. It was started as a pilot project in 1990 and then there’s a whole story behind how that reform went from being a pilot project in 1990 to being “the” exemplar that was highlighted in 2004, in the World Bank’s flagship publication, the World Development Report, where they promoted their triangle of accountability. And they have what they call the long route and the short route to accountability, where the long route is how you hold the government accountable through elected officials. And the short route is how you hold public services accountable by introducing market mechanisms and relations of accountability at the community level. And so EDUCO was featured in that report as the exemplar for the education sector. And one of the questions that I’ve been pursuing the last 10 years or so was, how did that happen? And I think what’s really important to note here is that in the late 1980s -I mean the World Bank was even talking about decentralization and participation since the 80s. But as of 1989, there was a publication by Donald Winkler and as of that year, they were still only thinking about decentralization as being possible at the level of municipalities, right. So, you have a state level and municipal level decentralization of the governance. And so, this idea that has been reflected in community based and school based management, it’s a much more extreme form that only came about in the early 1990s.
Will Brehm 21:33
Wow. And so, basically, the meaning of EDUCO, sort of gets taken up by the World Bank and used to push its own agenda. Now, did that triangle of accountability -this shortcut to accountability, so to speak- is that what EDUCO was all about when it started?
Brent Edwards 21:56
Yeah, there’s so many different ways to talk about the experience of EDUCO. But I think there’s a couple of key things that we need to mention when we talk about its origins and its trajectory. The first is that, one, it emerged in El Salvador and in 1990 El Salvador was still in the middle of its Civil War, which didn’t end until January of 1992. So, this reform, which was funded through a loan from the World Bank, was negotiated in a way that was not public, and was not even in a post conflict context yet. By the time that the peace negotiations came around, and the official process of education policymaking came around in the post conflict context, EDUCO was already deeply ingrained in the El Salvadoran education context. And it wasn’t a question of whether or not that example would continue to be pursued. The negotiations around education reform and that post conflict context focused on other things like teacher training and curriculum. But I think what’s really interesting when it comes to the trajectory of EDUCO is that not only that it started as a pilot program in six communities in early 1990. But that it was received massive infusions of financial and technical support from the World Bank. And this was allowed to happen. This is key because the Salvadoran government has some agency here. I’m not telling a story where the World Bank imposed kind of unilaterally, but the fact that the Salvadoran government saw this as a reform that met their own needs when it came to extending access to education. And when it came to trying to undermine the teachers’ unions because the teachers were key allies of the rebels in the Civil War context. And so, one feature of EDUCO that allowed the government to kind of attack or chip away at the authority of the unions was the fact that teachers who worked in schools that were in the EDUCO program, were only hired on one year contracts that were renewable at the discretion of the parent council at the community level, and those teachers could not belong to teachers’ unions if they worked in EDUCO schools. You might think why would teachers be willing to work in these situations, and the reason is because after a decade of war, there was an oversupply of students who had been credentialed or who had received teacher training, but there were insufficient schools where they could work. So, you had teachers who were willing to work in these conditions. Not only did they lack job stability, but the EDUCO program started and largely operated in rural areas, which were very inconvenient and hard to get to. But despite these conditions, you had teachers who were willing to work in these situations.
Will Brehm 24:49
So, in that sense, then looking back at EDUCO, was it successful? It sounds like the government wasn’t able to reduce union membership. And at the same time, was the World Bank successful in promoting EDUCO in creating market-based reforms of accountability?
Brent Edwards 25:08
Although I don’t have the exact percentage, the number of teachers who worked in the EDUCO schools was always a small percentage of the overall body of teachers in El Salvador, I think more than anything, it was symbolic and when it comes to -what was the second half the question?
Will Brehm 25:29
About the World Bank being successful in its market based reforms of accountability.
Brent Edwards 25:36
I mean, from the neoliberal perspective on community based management, I think the advocates would say that EDUCO was successful because it was part of a strategy that expanded access to education rapidly. And because it introduced relations of accountability at the community level. I think if you actually look at the qualitative studies on EDUCO, as opposed to the quantitative studies, you actually see that those relations of accountability, although they’ve been assumed and promoted in theory, they didn’t actually materialize in practice. You had a whole series of issues, like those that I mentioned earlier, that affected the relationships between parents and teachers, whereby parents didn’t feel comfortable attempting to hold teachers accountable because of this cultural power differential where you have kind of rural and low educated parents, not feeling comfortable kind of telling teachers what to do. You also had parents who weren’t sure of how to process all the paperwork that they’re supposed to handle related to hiring, but also related to payments and taking out the appropriate taxes for Social Security, there are many detailed and complicated aspects of these reforms that we tend not to talk about because the discussion stays at a very kind of abstract level of assuming efficiency and accountability. However, if I could follow up these comments and get back to your question of whether or not the World Bank was successful in creating a school based management model that was rooted in market principles? They would say yes, because they have produced six impact evaluations, that kind of point to increased student outcomes. However, we can have a whole separate conversation around kind of the critical analysis that I have done of those studies, where I would tell you that I think that if you look closely at the data and the methods, I don’t think that we have any reason to believe that EDUCO contributed to higher student achievement.
Will Brehm 27:41
Has there been legacies of EDUCO even into the present?
Brent Edwards 27:45
Yeah, I mean, I think what’s fascinating is that EDUCO continues to live on. I mean, for the first time in the post war context in 2009, I believe it was Mauricio Funes was elected in El Salvador and he came from the left-wing party. So, part of his campaign promise was that he was going to undo EDUCO, right. That was kind of his promise to the teachers’ unions to get their support. And so, I think what’s fascinating here that even though EDUCO no longer lives on in El Salvador, after a 20 year run, EDUCO continues to live on in the literature. Because if you do a literature review of community based management, for sure, you’re going to find the relatively highly cited studies that have been produced by the World Bank that suggest that it’s a good idea. The other way that it lives on is in the thinking in the global education policy field, right. So, if you talk to people, and this is something that I’ve done, and have documented through a few different publications. But there’s this idea that these kinds of relations of accountability have become accepted, normalized, that if you look at loan documents and reform strategies across the world, particularly in low income countries, nobody thinks twice if you suggest that school based management, or community based management is a good idea. And so, we’re past the point now, where if you’re a reform entrepreneur, that you can suggest these kinds of reforms as desirable approaches, and nobody’s going to ask you, where’s your evidence? Or how do you know that? Because I think that over the course of 15 or 20 years, organizations like the World Bank, have promoted the idea sufficiently and have produced a questionable body of evidence that suggests that it works. But it’s out there and it has become widely accepted. So, for me, that’s kind of the legacy of EDUCO, is how we think about the role of communities, which in my mind is very narrow.
Will Brehm 29:42
Well, Brent Edwards, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It’s such a fascinating topic and I do think school based management is sort of going to be this zombie idea that lives on into the future.
Brent Edwards 29:54
Thank you, Will, for having me.