Reform Society First?

Professor James Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University and formerly a professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison’s graduate school of education, has recently written a thought-provoking article in Huffington Post.  He has titled it School Reform is a Dead End, Unless…

Says James:

A discussion about “society reform” needs to predate a discussion of school reform. And yet we hear so much less about the reform of society — especially outside markets as they currently exist–than we do about school reform. Could it be that all our talk about school reform helps us to ignore the real issues, issues too divisive and too threatening to our own slim hold on ever decreasing middle-class privilege to really and truly engage with? …Let’s not (just) reform STEM. Let’s reform society.

Hmm!! Reform society first, eh? Said in the American context, but valid generally perhaps.  Take a look at Pakistan.  The statement, “School Reform is a Dead End, Unless…” will be just as inviting as it is in the US.  Wouldn’t it be?  Those who have been engaged in school reform for the last two decades will, I am certain, loudly say, “YES!”  In a previous post, I had thought the place to start school reform may be colleges.  But I also seem to agree with James Gee.

Look, if you consider the education systems across the world, they emerge within particular scenes whose parameters are set by the societies within which they exist.  The Indian school cannot be like Pakistani school, except the trivial fact that both have classrooms, teachers, and children.  The values of the society find their way into the very architecture of schooling.  In an email response to my previous post Diane Ravitch, very elegantly put forth the conditions for education reform.  She said that ‘there must be a revolution in valuing education. Parents must want it for their children and send them to school. The government must support a school system that pays teachers adequately so that it is possible to attract good people into teaching.”  But the parent’s desire is produced within a society that values education.  Thus James Gee is also right.  The question for reformers might be this: how can we turn desire for good education’ into a site for intervention?  What sort of interventions could stimulate desire for learning, which could ultimate culminate into what the economists prefer to call ‘demand’ for education.  Until supply is matched by a demand, the efforts at education reform will be meaningless.

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

11 Responses to “Reform Society First?”

  1. Why do you think there is no demand for education, or effective demand for education. I think the fact that 35% or a little more of enrolled children in PAkistan go to private schools, and data shows even of households from fairly low income groups shows tremendous and effective demand for education. Further, 65 % odd of children go to public schools…schools that, in general and in perception terms, deliver very poor quality….parents still send their children to school in the hope that they will learn at least something even from these poor schools. Is that testament enough for effective demand. I feel quite strongly about this issue…where are parents failing? They are sending kids to the best option available.

    Where there is failure is that the political system is not aggregating demands well, is not responding to the needs of the parents and so on….I am not too sure of how to put this….but it seems that if policies followed by governments are supposed to be somehow reflections of the public demands that have been aggregated, that process is not working very well in Pakistan. And so to that extent the issue is not demand by getting the aggregation process right and that will, in turn, I think and hope, get the reforms process right to an extent too. So, it might be ‘society’ reform, but then in a special sense, or to me it seems, it is political reform more than society reform that we need in Pakistan.

  2. Thanks for the comment Faisal. As usual, you made me think….which is the whole point of having this blog. SO thanks a ton!!

    You mean to say that there is a great deal of demand for quality education in Pakistan. That may be true. The problem, then, could be with its articulation. You mention demand aggregation, which I understand to be the same as its expression./articulation. What do you think are the mechanics of such aggregation? How will aggregation be put right? Who will do it, if not local politicians? Like it happened, elsewhere in the world….

    I think we are perhaps saying the same thing then. If the demand is expressed and matched by supply, we will perhaps see the reform fireworks we wish to see. Else, it will remain the familiar story of the missing half. There is also another aspect to this post, which becomes apparent in response to your comment. There are many instances of [supply driven] reforms which involved developing schools, providing missing facilities, and so on. But soon as these project and supply driven reforms are over, the facilities return to their ‘missing’ status. It may be seen as a problem of management. But, there may be a demand and desire aspect to this as well. If we wanted our schools to look good, then after they were made to look somewhat better, we would have done something to keep them in that condition.

    Also, what kind of education do parents desire? I do not know. The little anecdotal evidence that I have may support the sort of position that the chair of an 19th century parliamentary committee in England took in response to the arguments about choice. I have mentioned this in the nickel and dime piece, but will repeat the quote here for the other readers:
    “Chairman: Should you have any apprehension that the parents, if left the sole or principal judges of the course of study to be pursued might, from inadequate knowledge on those subjects, make a mistake; that they would prefer superficial accomplishments to a solid and well-grounded course of education?”

    Of course, many would not agree to this comment. The list of those many will certainly include Milton F, Hayek, E.G. West, and Tooley.

    So when I suggested the ‘desire for quality education’ to be a site of intervention for the sake of a conversation about education reforms, I was like, oh well, some desires are not as desirable from a societal perspective. Quality education can mean so many different things depending on where you are coming from. Just thinking loud! Thanks once again for the comment.

  3. Lets look at the exAmple of China. A lot of changes were pushed down peoples’ throats – and it is paying them today. If the majority and science and experience. Have shown that polio drops are important for kids and not taking them has an externality on the society then everyone will have to be given the drops willy nilly. That said, I do see your point of developing demand for quality education in the society and we should work for it – but we cannot afford to wait for the demand to develop before bringing in the reforms.

    • Thanks for visiting and leaving the comment. I think the example of China is an important one. However, it is also the fact that Chinese is an authoritarian system. The trouble, that history of education reforms suggests, is that–unless, you decide to go authoritarian–the [supply of] reforms will fail if they are not responsive to desires or demand of the society. That said, though, I think the aggregation of interest, as Faisal also points out, is important. Education must become utterly political and must come at the forefront of the political discourse before the reforms can be turned into a viable policy program. Consider the fate of successive education policies, and also notice the ways in which politics interfered with some of the errors of omission in the most recent education policy. Thanks a million again for pushing this discussion forward.

  4. I don’t think that I agree that there is no demand for education in Pakistan. People from low income groups are sending their kids to public schools as well as private schools; even when the opportunity cost of doing so is significant. From a purely economic perspective, a lot of people who are sending their children to public schools are forgoing extra incomes that these children can bring home by working menial jobs. I cant speak with absolute authority because I don’t have any stats on this, but I know people who are spending a significant portion of their income on substandard “private English Medium” schools because they think that this is a worthy investment. The problem of low enrolment, high dropout rates etc can be mitigated significantly if parents know that keeping their child in school for longer will result in significant returns later down the line. It is more the failure of the system to provide incentives for children to stay in school and address genuine concerns of parents that is to blame for the current state of affairs.

    • Rabia, thanks for your comment. True. I have attempted to clarify the issue further in the post on ‘aggregate demand’ and ‘interest aggregation.’ Much more discussion needed, of course.

  5. Interesting writing Irfan. In my opinion, having worked in development both on social and economic side, I would say that the demand is there not only for education but also for other social services (i.e. health and so on.). Our political and bureaucratic structure is such that the supply is created and then pushed down the throat., the supply most of the time do not take into consideration demand or is misaligned in terms of geographic area or the need. A classic point and case is vocational education in Pakistan. The demand was there for vocational education. Vocational training institutes were established but all in urban areas, the need was in rural areas. As a result, the rural population remained untrained and jobless

    In normal political structures, when the demand appears, the supply is created and a vacuum affect is created by various public education mediums such as advocacy, media campaigns, etc. that links the supply to demand.

    Pakistan is facing a rather difficult situation, the demand is there, advocacy is there but supply is missing altogether. There are other factors that need to be taken into consideration before we can meet the demand-supply gap in education sector.

    Pakistan in terms of economy is facing critical circular debt. Pakistan Rupee’s 40% devaluation in last 2 years have made matters worse. Virtually all the revenues are being diverted to take care of that situation. When the economic indicators are on critical low, it is virtually impossible to reform society. Society is too tied up making it’s ends meet. For a normal person feeding the family is a priority now. In such situation, a drastic change needs to happen. The change has to come from within. I have been closely following economic indicators in Pakistan and the decline is very rapid. With your strong grasp on education systems, how would you consider bridging the demand-supply gap, with out reforming this society. The public has already demanded and the vacuum affect has been created. Any thoughts…..

  6. I will start another post on clearing up some of the conceptual fog as an economist over the weekend.

  7. Muhammad Sajjad Reply 07/07/2011 at 5:33 am

    As for as the above topic is concerned, well no doubt education [not literacy] has taken off the currently developed countries. Quality education for our country is important, but who will plan and organise the delivery of such a gigantic task for all Pakistanis. Reason it is not working is that there are different educational standards for different classes of people. Secondly more important is the people who are responsible for imparting education–their own standards, caliber, character, etc etc. So much needs to be done…


  1. ‘Aggregate demand’ and ‘interest aggregation’ | Just questions! - 15/06/2011

    […] a fascinating comment by Faisal on my last post and my response to it, I thought another post was warranted to attempt to clear some conceptual fog […]

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