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Agustina Paglayan on the Political Economy of Education

Sep 24 2015

Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Agustina Paglayan grew up wondering what went wrong in a country that was once among the wealthiest in the world. The problem, she suspected, was rooted in politics and in the choice of policies that harmed the country’s long-term prospects. Particularly troubling was what she saw as the deterioration of education quality, given the central importance of education for development. Why did politicians choose policies that were detrimental to education quality? Later, through her work at the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, her interest in this question expanded beyond the case of Argentina. “Virtually all countries provide some education,” she notes, “but very few ensure widespread access to high-quality education. I want to know why.”

Paglayan has turned her curiosity about the politics of education into a vocation. As a Stanford political science doctoral candidate and a SCID Graduate Student Fellow, she is investigating the links between politics and education on a large scale. She has found little correlation between the quantity and quality of education: among countries with similar levels of access to schooling, there are big differences in how much learning takes place in schools. Her goal is to build a theory that explains governments’ varying choices about the quantity and quality of education that they provide. Her approach is interdisciplinary: in addition to her training in political science, she holds degrees in economics, public policy, and education, and she draws on analytical techniques from each discipline.

An important part of Paglayan’s research agenda is the construction of an original historical database that traces the evolution of education quantity and quality across countries and over time, going as far back as the 1870s. With support from SCID, her database will include education quantity measures such as school enrollment rates, quality measures like grade retention rates, as well as information about policies that impact student learning like teacher training and recruitment policies and curriculum policies. The database will enable her to identify when the patterns of education provision that she observes today emerged and develop theories to explain why particular combinations of education quantity and quality emerge, such as the comparatively large quantities of subpar education that she finds tend to be provided in Latin America.

A key goal of Paglayan’s work is to identify strategies and opportunities to improve education quality. She agrees with the consensus view that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” and that teacher qualification depends on a constellation of policies that determine how teachers are trained, recruited and compensated. But she wants to go beyond the claim that poor policies are the cause of low-quality education to understand why some countries, such as Finland, have adopted policies that help attract, form and retain great teachers, whereas others have policies that prevent them from forming a highly qualified cadre of teachers. “I want to understand what led countries to adopt the teacher policies they have in place, and what were the political reasons why these policy choices were made. Once we understand the origins of these and other policies, we will be in much better shape to identify solutions to the problem of low quality.”

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