The System Transformation Turn in International Cooperation
In this blog post, Gita Steiner-Khamsi reflects on systems thinking in education, highlighting three debates that are currently taking place among scholars and practitioners. She finds that knowledge equity between the global and national levels is indispensable to ensure that globally-funded reforms are sustained over time at the national level. This blog was initially prepared for UNESCO’s Futures of Education Ideas Lab.
These days, there is much talk about the need for systems thinking, about scaling innovations, and about the transformative approach in education. The last global gathering in New York was called the Transforming Education Summit; the 2025 Strategic Plan of the Global Partnership for Education has subscribed to “transformational change” and instated several grant mechanisms to ensure “system-wide impact”; both Results for Development and Brookings advance scaling innovations; and finally, one-third of the chapters of UNESCO’s flagship Futures of Education report use the term “transformation,” or variants thereof, in their titles (UNESCO, 2021). These terms are currently used in an inflationary manner. By default, buzzwords eventually become fuzzwords used by many and, therefore, malleable in their meaning. Such buzz or fuzz words lend themselves ideally to be tailored in ways that fit the organization’s own mission.
At closer examination, however, the term “system” is frequently used interchangeably with “national education system” (Steiner-Khamsi, 2023). Furthermore, in practice, scaling innovations implies scaling up the externally funded pilot projects nationwide with funding from the national budget. Finally “transformative” evokes associations with effective and sustainable reform. What are we to make of this ongoing shape-shifting that accompanies the new terms?
Apparently, the terms strike a chord with a great number of experts that use the new vocabulary to distance themselves from past structures, beliefs, and practices in international cooperation. To see it positively, the new terms may be seen as a constructive way to reflect on the shortcomings of the past. Therefore, the question becomes: what do these new terms or concepts attempt to remedy, and what alternatives do they project onto the future?
I would like to highlight three current debates that have placed these new concepts at centre stage: (i) the new emphasis on the use rather than the production of research evidence for policy and planning, (ii) the awareness that the feedback loop between the global and national level is broken and needs to be fixed, and (iii) the priority attributed to local solutions over universal best practices which had been uncritically promoted, funded and disseminated to every corner of the world.
“Scholars of global governance moved from pointing out the unequal access to information to theorizing the impact of the surplus of information on national policy and planning.”
First, within one generation alone, scholars of global governance moved from pointing out the unequal access to information to theorizing the impact of the surplus of information on national policy and planning (Elfert and Ydesen, 2023; Seitzer, Baek and Steiner-Khamsi, forthcoming). Starting with the first movers, UNESCO, OECD, and the World Bank, each and every other international organization has eventually metamorphosed into a knowledge warehouse with case studies, best case scenarios, evidence-based key takeaways, videos showcasing their best practices, and with their own sets of indicators that measure and document their success. Transformative change has often been seen as something that is measurable in terms of baseline data and targets. Many digital warehouses or knowledge platforms were made freely accessible, and they grew exponentially over time. In comparison, what is scarce are the users that would buy or access the knowledge products for their own work. A recent UNESCO study on Improving the Use of Evidence for Education Policy, Planning and Implementation found a very limited and narrow use of knowledge platforms (Steiner-Khamsi, Faul, Baek, Numa Hopkins and Iwabuchi, forthcoming). Unsurprisingly, international organizations have moved from merely producing an exponentially growing number of studies to brokering their own knowledge products more effectively. They do so by engaging the users more actively, translating their findings into concrete examples taken from various country contexts, better visualizing their data, communicating their studies not only in script but rather by means of multiple channels of communication, and perhaps most importantly: involving end users as experts already at the stage of knowledge production.
“The unholy division of labour in international cooperation—brain work in the Global North and hand work in the Global South—is not only flawed on moral grounds but has also had disastrous repercussions.”
Second, the knowledge inequity or, more concretely, the unholy division of labour in international cooperation—brain work in the Global North and hand work in the Global South—is not only flawed on moral grounds but has also had disastrous repercussions. It is common that international organizations first test an innovation or a pilot project in one country, then have its impact evaluated, and—upon positive results in one country—disseminate it to other countries of the Global South. Typically, reforms consist of a bundle of policy instruments and components. Once the bundle of instruments, tied into a coherent reform mechanism, such as “school autonomy with accountability” (labelled as SAWA by Antoni Verger; see Grek and Verger, 2021), obtained its scientific stamp of approval—in some organizations by means of expensive and decontextualized randomized controlled trials—the global dissemination of that bundle of innovations is unstoppable and takes its own course. Arguably, there is little room for receiving feedback from national experts because the reform is typically designed at the global level and national experts are reduced to their role as implementers. At different periods of time, elements of SAWA – such as school-based management, introduction of voucher schemes, standardized testing at primary and secondary school, hiring of contract teachers, bonus payments for teachers, professionalization of school management, school choice, or per capita financing – have become travelling reforms that were passed on from one country to the next. This happened regardless of whether they really solved any local policy issue or, on the contrary, created new ones, and without examining the impact these SAWA policy instruments had on quality, access, and equity in the education sector.
“A reform is not only supposed to be scaled up but also scaled deep.”
Finally, the travel ban during the pandemic was a wake-up call for many international organizations. Even though the call for de-colonizing international cooperation by acknowledging local expertise had existed for years, it now suddenly became a managerial necessity. Several international organizations started to regionalize their offices and are currently exploring ways to better engage national experts in the use and production of research evidence for policy and planning. The KIX (Knowledge and Innovation Exchange), which was established before the pandemic in 2019, is funded by the Global Partnership for Education and administered at the global level by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), is a good case in point. It established four regional hubs that coordinate activities which help surface, amplify and use national policy expertise for strengthening education systems. Concretely, the KIX hubs offer opportunities for policy experts, based in government, think tanks, universities, and non-governmental organizations to use and produce sector analyses, policy briefs, and planning documents. Peer exchange is a key feature of KIX. Therefore, the hubs match policy experts working on a specific reform priority of their country with experts from another country of the region that face similar challenges. The work of the regional hubs is entirely demand-driven: rather than introducing yet another innovation that is supposed to be scaled up once external funding has dried up, the focus of KIX so far has been on systemic reform: a reform is not only supposed to be scaled up but also scaled deep (McLean and Gargani, 2019), that is, inconsistencies within the various policy instruments of a reform need to be identified, addressed and overcome. Another way of explaining it: any reform has different components that need to be in sync in order to make a change effective and sustainable. For example, curriculum reform consists of: establishing a national curriculum framework, adjusting the standards, content, student assessment in each grade and subject to the new framework; developing new teaching material and textbooks; reforming pre- and in-service teacher education; strengthening instructional leadership; and revising criteria for teacher promotion. However, due to pragmatic project thinking, in reality only one or two of the components are thoroughly revised simply because donors only funded parts of the reform for a short period of time. What the education sector ends up with is a patchwork of old and new practices, old and new material, and old and new policies sometimes contradicting each other. The short-lived project thinking is in stark contrast to systems thinking. The system transformation approach, which permeates the 2025 GPE Strategic Plan, but is not yet fully fleshed out in terms of what it really means and what it entails in actual practice, has the potential to remedy key inconsistencies and contractions in an education sector that have often resulted from a lack of national ownership and coordination.
Thus, a systems approach is the opposite of project-induced change that, for the short duration of external funding, generates in the best-case scenario a non-scalable, expensive innovation, and in the worst-case scenario contributes to further disintegrating an education system in which a few elements were reformed with external funding but key elements, due to the shortage of funds or the lack of political priority, have remained orphaned. KIX 2.0 (2023 – 2027) is a good case in point in two regards: to demonstrate, on one hand, the move of global organizations to support not only the production but also the uptake of research evidence for policy and planning and, on the other, to rigorously pursue a systems rather than a project approach to education reforms.
The quest for surfacing, amplifying, and disseminating national policy expertise enables possibilities to fix the broken feedback loop between global and national policy experts. Knowledge equity between the global and national levels is indispensable to identify bottlenecks in the system that have prevented globally-funded reforms from being scaled deep and sustained over time at the national level.
Gita Steiner-Khamsi is the former Academic Director of NORRAG and current UNESCO Chair in Comparative Education Policy of the Geneva Graduate Institute and Professor of Comparative and International Education at Columbia University (Teachers College) in New York.
Elfert, M. and Ydesen, C. (forthcoming, 2023). Global governance of education. The historical and contemporary entanglements of UNESCO, the OECD and the World Bank. Dordrecht: Springer
Grek, S. and Verger, A. (2021). World Yearbook of Education 2021. Accountability and datafication in the governance of education. London and New York: Routledge.
GPE 2025 Strategic Plan. Washington: GPE. https://www.globalpartnership.org/content/gpe-2025-strategic-plan
McLean, R., and Gargani, J. (2019). Scaling impact. Innovation for the public good. New York: Routledge.
Seitzer, H., Baek, C., and Steiner-Khamsi (forthcoming). Instruments of Lesson-Drawing: Comparing the Knowledge Brokerage of the OECD and the World Bank.
Steiner-Khamsi, G., Faul, M., Baek, C., Numa Hopkins, A. and Iwabuchi, K. (forthcoming). Strategic Review: Improving the Use of Evidence for Education Policy, Planning and Implementation. Paris: UNESCO.
Steiner-Khamsi, G. (2023). Understanding traveling reforms from a systems perspective. In M. V. Faul and L. Savage, eds., Systems thinking in international education and development. Unlocking learning for all? Cheltenham: E. Elgar.
UNESCO. (2021). Reimagining our futures together. A new social contract for education. Report from the International Commission on the Futures of Education. Paris: UNESCO.