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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

International Opinion

School Reform Is Tough All Over, Not Just in the U.S.

Spain’s former education chief describes the obstacles her administration faced
By Rick Hess — June 23, 2023 6 min read
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Spain’s former Secretary of State for Education Montse Gomendio is out with a book drawing on her experience, titled Dire Straits-Education Reforms: Ideology, Vested Interests and Evidence. Montse, the former head of the OECD’s Centre for Skills and director of Spain’s Natural History Museum and currently a visiting professor at University College London, offers sharp-elbowed takes on school reform in Spain and around the globe. For those who worry that school improvement in the U.S. is too political, it may be reassuring to see that this is hardly exceptional. She discusses the challenges of education politics, the naiveté of international reformers, and hard lessons learned. Given the timeliness of the subject, it seemed well worth a conversation. Here’s what Montse had to say.


Rick: First off, can you share something of your background?

Montse: In 2012, I became Secretary of State for Education in the Spanish government after a career in academia. Afterward, I joined the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, first as deputy director of education and then as head of the Skills Centre. It was a fascinating experience because as a policymaker, I was regarded as the “adversary,” while as an OECD representative, I was regarded as an honest broker—which gave me the chance to have many open and frank conversations with ministers and stakeholders. On the whole, I spent almost 10 years observing the huge differences between countries both in the quality of their education systems and in the nature and magnitude of the barriers that education reforms face.

Rick: Earlier this year, you came out with your book Dire Straits–Education Reforms. Could you say a bit about what motivated you to write it?

Montse: When I became secretary of education in Spain, politics was not an environment I was familiar with, so it was a steep learning curve for me to apply my knowledge of analyzing and interpreting data to designing evidence-based policies with real-world implications. After having many meetings with different stakeholders, I realized that my “evidence-based approach” was not popular with other actors. My experience in education leadership opened my eyes to the ways in which we use or discard data when making policy. I felt it necessary to reflect on my experience both working in government and advising other governments. This new e-book is the result of that reflection.

Rick: There’s a lot of talk about the impact of political polarization and how it’s made educational leadership more challenging in the U.S. How much appetite for consensus did you find in Spain?

Montse: In my experience, there was no room for consensus or even negotiations about the most basic aspects of education policy reform. During my first meeting with the representative of the main opposition party, he told me that his party would not accept any changes to the existing education law. I asked how he could know, since I myself did not know at the time what changes we would propose and since it was just a few days after I started. His reply was that the existing law had been approved by a government from his political party, so they would defend the status quo no matter what. As I met with other stakeholders, I gradually began to understand the true nature and magnitude of the political conflicts. My conversations with most stakeholders—even in parliament—were not about what leads to improvements in student outcomes. This issue was rarely discussed. Instead, decisions about reforms depended largely on whether different stakeholders felt threatened. I may be naïve, but I was surprised by the huge disconnect between the demands that most stakeholders made in exchange for support and the narrative that they expressed in public.

Rick: In an Education Next essay earlier this year, you argued, “After almost two decades of PISA testing, student outcomes have not improved overall in OECD nations or most other participating countries.” How does this provocative argument relate to what you say in the book?

Montse: The book covers a much broader range of factors which have a big influence on education reforms, such as ideology and governance arrangements, and also looks at the evidence in much more detail. In the piece, I decided to focus on the role of the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, and address the question of why the generation of tons of comparative evidence has not led to improvements in most education systems. To understand this conundrum, I had to question some policy recommendations as well as challenge the idea that evidence is in itself powerful enough to overcome political obstacles. I find this an incredibly naïve perspective.

Rick: In your EdNext essay, you also suggested that PISA “seems to misunderstand the nature of the political costs that reformers face.” Can you say a bit more about PISA and the problems you see with its efforts?

Montse: PISA is an international survey developed by the OECD—an organization that provides advice to governments based on the available evidence. Thus, OECD representatives have direct communication channels with governments. This makes PISA recommendations very influential among policymakers. As a consequence, any misleading recommendations made by PISA often translate into poor decisions by policymakers, who must then take full responsibility for the disappointing outcomes that follow. The alternative is also difficult for policymakers: If they do not follow PISA’s recommendations because they are looking at their specific context and draw a different conclusion, they are vulnerable to criticism for not following the OECD advice and they are assumed to have a hidden ideological agenda. Thus, a mistake by PISA has profound consequences, but it is not held accountable for them.

Rick: In the U.S., there’s been a lot of debate about whether school choice blurs the boundaries of public education. From your perspective, what do you make of this debate?

Montse: As societies become more diverse, a public system which funds both privately and publicly managed schools offers great advantages, since it gives parents the possibility of exerting their right to choose. Also, privately run schools tend to use public resources more efficiently as long as they are held accountable for their results.

Rick: In your experience, what are the strategies that make for successful education reform?

Montse: I wish I had a simple formula, but I’m afraid there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all prescription. I think it is very important to take into account that education systems evolve through different stages as they mature and that policy recommendations need to be very sensitive to these changes. For the sake of brevity, I will try to simplify an incredibly complex matter: In countries where the population as a whole has low levels of education and skills, it is crucial to have high-quality curricula adapted to the levels of student performance, as well as evaluations to clearly define the goals at the end of educational stages. At this early stage, students tend to have very heterogeneous levels of performance, so different tracks should be available to avoid high rates of early school leaving. Along this journey, the focus should be on improving teacher quality. Once teachers and principals are prepared, granting them more autonomy will improve student outcomes. As education systems approach excellence, they can afford to delay tracking since students will have higher levels of skills and will constitute a more homogeneous population, while curricula, evaluations, and teacher-training and -selection processes should become more demanding to ensure that improvements in quality continue.

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