Educational Policy in Comparative Perspective Research Paper

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Who and what are the key actors and institutions in education policy and how do they vary among countries? A difficult question is made more complicated by the fact that many languages lack a distinct equivalent to the English term ‘policy,’ whereas French and German have several terms to cover the concept of ‘education.’ But although politically developed countries vary in the degree to which parents, teachers, and private agencies share in influencing education policies, there are two sets of institution that are ubiquitous in this arena. These are the tiers in governmental authority and the levels of educational provision, ranging from preschool to university level education.

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1. Centralized And Decentralized Systems

Whether the relationships between governmental tiers and the hierarchies of educational institutions were in the foreground of academic attention varied among the earlier generation of scholars of comparative education. But one can discern some conceptual continuity between the classification of education along a centralized–decentralized continuum systems by writers like Isaac Leon Kandel, and the analytic schemas utilized by influential comparative education analysts of the 1970s.

For Margaret Archer, political centralization was the most important variable determining paths of educational system development, which she defined as ‘a nation-wide and differentiated collection of institutions devoted to formal education, whose overall control and supervision is at least partly governmental and whose component parts and processes are related to one another’ (Archer 1979, p.54).

In her historical analysis, Archer compared two centralized unitary European systems, those of France and Russia, with the decentralized unitary systems of the UK and Denmark. The process through which education became anchored in the public sphere in centralized political systems like those of France reflected different policy priorities from those in decentralized areas. As monarchs and their bureaucracies developed earlier controls over national and local administrations they sought to use these to lay down uniform rules regarding school establishment. Where states were able to go beyond regulation to direct operation of schools they aimed initially for unification, and subsequently for systematization of school systems.

In terms of the tiers of governmental organization, some less centralized political systems were classified as federal ones, especially where strong state autonomy is grounded in greater longevity than the federation, as in the case of Germany and especially Switzerland. During the Napoleonic period, the French and their Swiss sympathizers attempted to impose a centralized republican regime, but widespread resistance forced a return to a confederal system. Reactions against this led, after 1848, to the founding of some higher education institutions by the Swiss federal government, a development which states rights advocates kept from occurring in the USA. For pre-1933 Germany, the relationship between governmental tiers and education was influenced strongly by the varying role of Prussia, which came to set standards for the other states of the ‘German Reich.’

An opportunity for augmenting the traditional centralization–decentralization schema is provided by the fact that most technical and lay descriptions distinguish between three tiers of government—local, regional, and national, as well as three levels of education—primary, secondary, and tertiary. Much can be gleaned by seeking to distinguish among interactions and control patterns of different intensity within the matrix constituted by the two sets of institutions.

Other than the ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ of classifications, the analytical schema based on morphological symmetry distinguishes differing degrees of structural affinity mainly by assessing the strength of horizontal linkages. The more symmetrical the financial and administrative interaction between analogous levels, such as between secondary education and regional government, the higher the degree of isomorphism. The less symmetrical the correspondence of financial and administrative interaction between the analogous structures, as when local governments are shut out from running or financing primary schools, the greater the tendency to be anisomorphic (or unisomorphic). Relational sets that are neither very symmetrical or asymmetrical can be conceptualized as being heteromorphic.

2. Isomorphic Relations And Policy Emphasis

At first glance we would expect greater similarity between the German and Swiss systems, since in these federal systems the role of Swiss ‘cantons’ and German states generate more autonomous policy-making power than we can expect to find in the unitary and centralized Japan. However, this expectation is not borne out upon closer analysis. For, ‘it is overly ambitious to attempt universalistic expectations, across time and place, about how latent political motives drive decentralization policies’ (Lauglo 1996, p. 22).

The Swiss pattern differs most significantly from the German one with regard to the maintenance of the communities’ responsibility for operating the primary schools. Germany is one of numerous European systems that operate without local school boards or significant community influence on education policy. By contrast the Swiss communities have successfully defended these powers and retained the dominant role in financing primary schools, as Table 1 indicates. They have sustained their own identities by resisting the trend toward merger of small local governments, which in the course of the 1970s led to the disappearance through amalgamation of some two-thirds of German communities.

The role of the local Japanese school boards is not nearly as strong since their members are appointed and not elected, and since their power to affect hiring and retention decisions regarding teachers and principals is much more limited than in the Swiss case. Isomorphism is strengthened through enhanced regional responsibility for most secondary schools. This is lodged with cantons in Switzerland and mainly with the prefectures in Japan, but the autonomy of the latter with regard to areas like curriculum and personnel is much more limited, hence the heteromorphic classification.

Morphic affinities are less strongly manifested with regard to higher education, since in both these countries the national government agencies operate only one sector of the higher education institutions. Nevertheless, the fact that the Japanese Education Ministry, Monbusho, is in charge of the 96 national universities, provides some parallel to the Swiss case of national responsibility for the two technical institutes. The proportion of all higher education students in these institutions, 21 percent and 18 percent respectively, is very similar, whereas the German federal government operates no civilian higher education institutions.

2.1 The Anisomorphic German Case

The German case is distinguished from the other two insofar as the bulk of both operating and financing responsibility for all three levels of education is predominantly centered in one level of government, that of the state. Thus teacher appointments for both primary and secondary schools are centered in the state ministries to a degree not paralleled, especially for primary schools, in Japan or Switzerland. Since the appointment and financing responsibility for higher education are also lodged at this level, Germany constitutes a case that departs most strongly from the isomorphic pattern, since the inequality among the governmental tiers in education policy is so accentuated by the concentration of power in the states. The following attempts to explain how derivatives of party and bureaucratic influence and power positions can help to make the rationale for this placement more apparent.

One cross-national case of contrasting structural relationships can be found in the continued existence of small schools in which teachers have to instruct pupils from several grades in the same classroom. Such schools were gradually phased out in Germany in the course of communal amalgamation in the 1970s, whereas in typical Swiss mountain communities, quite a number of them were still operating in the 1990s.

In the anisomorphic German setting, the dominant state governments can impose strong uniform standards within their boundaries. But they can also pursue policies that differ somewhat from those pursued by the federal government, as well as by other states. Party majorities contrasting with the one in power nationally pursue different upper secondary school policies in both Japanese prefectures and German states. But the contrasting pattern was sustained more strongly in Germany, partly because the financing and credentialing powers of the national tier were lower than in the Japanese case (Heidenheimer 1997).

With regard to financing sources for public education, Switzerland is more like the USA and less like Germany. In the first two countries the states and cantons bear around half of the costs, the communities about a third, and the federal government only between 10 and 15 percent. Both are thus examples of bottom-heavy financing backing up relatively bottom-heavy decision making. But the Swiss pattern approaches the isomorphic model; as Fig. 1 shows, communities bear the majority of costs for primary schools, the cantons bear most of the financing of secondary and vocational education, and the federal government bears half the cost of higher education and almost all the burden of research financing. The US distribution is very similar, but there the national government does not operate any tertiary institutions. Hence we classify it as quasi-isomorphic.

Educational Policy in Comparative Perspective Research Paper

What is implied by regarding Germany, a federal country, as exemplifying an anisomorphic model, whereas the highly centralized Japanese unitary system is classified in the intermediate, or heteromorphic, category. Does this essentially lead to the hypothesis that Mombusho, the powerful national ministry, is on balance, faced by a greater series of constraints, than are the collective powers of the state education ministers, and their conference of German school ministers?

Whereas the weaker German and Swiss national education agencies have to share jurisdiction for the vocational dual sector with economic ministries and business interests, the Japanese ministry has not had to interact as directly with a bureaucratic rival. In contrast to other policy sectors that are of concern to several ministries and perhaps also foreign governments, the Japanese education sector was long unique for remaining predominantly subject to the influence of only one ministry and one party. Whereas a greater range of bureaucratic and political interests were at play in Japanese policy areas like agriculture and environment, education policy was uniquely ‘locked into the status quo’ because issues in this sector were ‘purely domestic concerns under the jurisdiction of a single ministry’ (Schoppa 1993, p. 260).

On the other hand some expert observers assert that the dominant stereotype of Japanese education conveys a false picture about the uniformity of the postwar education experience. It focuses attention on one level—that of academic secondary education—of a multitiered institution whose other levels can be understood to be organized along often different principles (Kelly 1993, p. 207).

In the longer run Mombusho proved to be more successful in overcoming opposition from the teachers’ union, and its allies on the level of secondary schooling, than in implementing its objectives for the tertiary level. This can be attributed to the greater strength of top-down bureaucratic influence, from the ministry to the prefectures, than the potential of bottom-up opposition party influence. The attempts of Socialist prefectural party leaders to oppose policies like those leading to prestige stratification of high schools were undercut by the way that prefectural bureaucrats followed the Mombusho line. Even though the Japanese prefectures have considerable potential education policy autonomy, they have seldom made significant use of it. It is telling that the Japanese Prefectural Superintendents Association has been characterized as an example of an ‘incorporated interest’ (Schoppa 1991, p. 146).

The reason why Germany and Switzerland constitute (an)isomorphic countermodels becomes clearer when one considers how decision-making powers reflect the way educational finances are shared by the three levels of government. Take the influence of Swiss communities over primary schools: They are much more powerful because of the way the selection of school personnel and other key powers are connected to a strong communal financing role, which is twice as large as in Germany. Also Swiss direct democracy has served to guarantee communal viability by providing veto protection against unwelcomed amalgamation from above.

While the similarity of the US and Swiss profiles in Table 1 is striking, there are two reasons for classifying the USA as only a quasi-isomorphic system. One is that like Germany, but unlike Switzerland, the US federal government does not administer any significant set of civilian higher education institutions in the way that the Swiss operate the Swiss technical institutes. The second is that the USA has a much larger set of private higher and secondary institutions, which has an indirect effect on the intensity of relations between government tiers and educational levels. Thus it contributes to promoting greater competition among US than Swiss universities. This would also hold for the contract between German and more mixed public private Japanese universities.

Educational Policy in Comparative Perspective Research Paper

By applying an ‘aquatic’ lens, one can discern the configurations through which swarms of adolescents are directed through gradually shifting channels in river beds whose capacity for carrying traffic loads undergo subsurface. Focusing this aquatic lens on the Swiss flow, one can see how size and political topography cause many streams there to be both smaller and slower. Mainly because the injunctions of referenda democracy safeguarded the powers of small and medium-sized communities and cantons, sandbars and dams kept the streams from changing or intermingling as much. Referenda democracy caused Swiss national interest groups to be superior to political parties for coordinating localized channel maintenance efforts (Heidenheimer 1997, p. 133).

3. Tiers Of Decision Making

Further insights become apparent when examining how countries compare in the allocation of decision-making powers for lower secondary education as between four levels of governance, those of the school, local school boards, and regional and national governments. Given its propensity toward ‘bottom-up’ and direct democracy, we might expect Swiss schools to enjoy more autonomy than those elsewhere. But in fact it was found in a 1993 OECD level of decision-making study that the Swiss came in last among 14 countries, four places behind Germany, in the degree to which lower secondary teachers and parents at the school level could share in decision making (OECD 1993, p.136). This finding makes the surprising lack of Swiss school principals somewhat more plausible, since it bears out that local and cantonal school boards preempt schools’ decision-making powers even more than in other countries with occasionally intrusive local school boards, like the USA.

The essential element that has kept the Swiss system bottom-heavy, and maintained the decision-making powers of the communes, is the ability of citizens to challenge both legislative and executive decisions through referendums. The decision-making powers of the parliaments and parties are limited because parliaments can only produce proposals for decisions which must expect to be submitted to plebiscitary finalization, creating an additional decision level, which increases greatly decision-making costs. The fact that referenda proposals from all three levels of government are simultaneously submitted to voters about four times a year contributes crucially to keeping the Swiss education system close to the isomorphic model. Otherwise the municipalities’ autonomy and influence might have declined somewhat in the way they did in both Germany and Japan.

Another indicator of the great state and cantonal level predominance of German and Swiss education can be deduced from the way in which the terms of office of top political and bureaucratic officeholders do or do not parallel each other. The average tenure of German state education ministers, five years, is about equal to the period of office of their top administrators, the state secretaries. When a Zurich education minister left office in 1995 he shared a platform with six rectors of Zurich University who had succeeded each other during his 24 years in office. Several Swiss cantonal education directors served terms during which as many as a dozen Japanese education ministers came and went. In Japan the average tenure of national education ministers is only about one or two years, or much shorter than the terms of office of their senior civil servants, or of many university presidents.

4. Isomorphism And Equality Goals: Switzerland And Sweden

An advantage of centralized educational systems has often been held to be that the greater uniformity of resources and curriculums which they can offer tend to be associated with reducing inequalities of achievement, especially those based on social class. Indeed comparative studies have shown centralized systems like those of Japan and Sweden as demonstrating decreasing dependence of educational achievement on social origins different from most other countries. (Shavit and Blossfeld 1993, p.112) Comparative research has shown that ’real and fairly substantial’ equalization of education opportunity took place in Sweden in recent decades. The lower level of education inequality compared with Germany is attributed partly to the greater school continuation encouraged by comprehensive schools which were uniformly adopted in Sweden from the 1960s. These were only partially implemented in some West German states so that school continuation continued to be ’ heavily dependent on grades and teachers assigned evaluations’ (Eriksson and Jonsson 1996, pp. 91, 199–204).

After having imposed numerous education reforms under a strong national board of education, Sweden in the 1970s started to move gradually toward the Swiss modal structure. Both national and regional education boards were abolished, and much of their power was transferred to local government, which in turn empowered their schools. Teachers who had been employees of the state and counties came to be hired by municipalities. These reforms were pushed through by the Social Democrats, who had previously been so committed to supporting equality goals through centralism, over the opposition of the bourgeois parties and the teacher’s union. One of the new goals was to allow individual schools to profile themselves as to content and ways of working. This led to uncertainty, complexity, and often changing divisions of labor.

What effect this tendency had on equality goals in education has come to be strongly contested. Some have continued to argue that ‘proposals for decentralization of education acts against democracy’ since ‘transferring authority to local communities or individuals acts to reduce the achievements of educational outcomes that favor the whole society.’ But some Swedes argue that they are observing a redefinition of policy norms, with ‘a new type of egalitarianism’ emerging as part of a more ‘rational’ long-term agenda. In education this trend moves away from the standardized system which had sought to facilitate the ‘less privileged’ to enter the more prestigious school tracks. Now an upgrading of vocational programs is held to exemplify a greater recognition of diversity so as to stress ‘equally valued’ service rather than ‘equal provision’ (Gustafsson and Lidstrom 1996, p. 156).

The Swedish move toward isomorphism illustrates how curricular contents and decision making at the level of the school can be linked dynamically to changes in the relationship between governmental tiers and educational levels. Gustafsson and Lindstrom claim that these changes have brought about ‘a new balance’ between the tiers of government, as well as different educational and other ingredients in the ‘emerging Swedish welfare definitions,’ which takes Sweden’s new position in the European context into account.

5. Educational Polices And National Choices: Some Illustrative Extrapolations

5.1 Japanese Uniqueness

What makes Japan appear so unique as an ‘educational society par excellence’ may not be due to a uniform tendency expressed in how steep all Japanese educational ladders seem to those who climb them. Rather it may be concluded that the Japanese heteromorphic configuration had helped produce somewhat contrasting sets of ladders at the various levels of education. At the lower secondary school level the prevalent type seems to be that of the boarding ladder, designed for facilitating entry into new realms of knowledge and cooperative learning. At the upper secondary level the students are trained to perform more on hook ladders, that become attached to the entrance ports of various groups of universities. Finally at the university or tertiary level it is the companion ladder, ensconced within a secure and protected setting, that constitutes the predominant model.

The synecdochal streak in the heteromorphic Japanese case is also anchored to the economics of the tertiary sector. Relatively low public expenditures there had been made feasible by leaving the bulk of tertiary expansion to be handled by the private sector. Thus private universities came to enroll the majority of students, in contrast to the minority enrolled in private US institutions.

5.2 American Test Rankings

The question as to whether, at the start of the new millennium, the USA’s strategic position as the ‘sole remaining superpower’ was matched by rankings in education would probably elicit very divergent responses. Typical ones from those focused on the university sector would probably be ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’, but there would be little chance of getting such a reply from those focused on the secondary school sector. The story behind this situation, as in Germany, involves crossed wires between the federal government and the largest member state.

Until the 1970s public education in California had stood out on both quality and quantity. But this changed drastically, largely as a result of a 1978 referendum capping tax revenues for education. From this followed a decline of quality thresholds of the primary and secondary levels, which in turn fed into the poor performance of US high school students on the international achievement tests which gained visibility in the 1980s. To meet demands for leadership on this front, President George Bush and the state governors led by Arkansas governor Bill Clinton met at a highly publicized conference in 1989 and adopted the goal of getting US rankings in these subjects to the international peak by the end of the century. A decade later 49 states had indeed adopted some sort of standards which schools and school districts were to be evaluated on, but the goal of moving US achievements significantly upwards in international rankings had made scarcely any progress.

5.3 Small Country Choices

The advantages and disadvantages of strong isomorphic attachments are strikingly illustrated by the way in which education changes have occurred in relation to the potential entry into the European Union of two rich small countries like Sweden and Switzerland. For the Swedes an adaptation of their dominant equality goals became accepted as part of the cost of entry into Europe. For the Swiss an unwillingness to tamper with the sacrosanct powers of referenda democracy and local self-government have gone hand-in-hand with the failure of campaigns to make European Union membership attractive for the Swiss voters in the way that they had in Sweden and Austria (Kobach 1997).

5.4 German Cultural Status

In the European context Germany’s anisomorphic inheritance has engendered what might be called a costly case of synecdoche, i.e., where the part is bigger than the whole. Germany’s largest state, Northrhine Westphalia, not only spends more on education than does the federal government. But due to the Social Democrats remaining in continuous control, its ministers also have a dominant voice in German education, especially higher education, with its great dependence on federal funding. This has permitted them to veto proposals to introduce student fees as a significant source of funding, in the way that this had been pushed through under Tony Blair in the UK. The continued financial plight of German universities contributed to a decline in their attraction for foreign students. In turn this and similar factors contributed to a declining cultural weight of the enlarged postunification Germany—as manifested, for instance, in the failure of attempts to upgrade German as an official language within the European Union.

6. Conclusion

The fruits of this analysis can perhaps serve as a basis toward efforts to seek to identify how governmental hierarchies affect the character of the ladders that link the various educational levels. This research paper has tried to show how isomorphic or nonisomorphic system configurations help to determine whether and to what extent the presumed ‘imperatives’ of centralization or decentralization are actually borne out, and sustained over time. Given a certain configuration, institutional outcomes may come out differently from what a path deterministic model would anticipate. In this manner it can be understood why a more decentralized Swiss political system has led to a larger national government role in operating higher education than in Germany; or why the more centralized Japanese higher education system encompasses a larger private sector than is found in these and other European countries.


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