Conceptualization of quality of education has become a critical concern in international development as it is a baseline towards national development, sustainable livelihoods, and increasing individual capabilities (Barrett, 2011c). Defining quality of education has also become a focus area of international organizations working on education (World Bank, 2011, 2018). Though the issue of quality is difficult to ignore, there is a limited consensus among inter/national actors as its conceptualization depends on social, economic, historical, political, cultural and other contexts that interact with an education system of a given country (Tikly, 2011). Nonetheless, there are dominant practices that clearly influence the conceptualization of quality of education around the world, which mainly conveyed through international targets. Rose (2015) claims that internationally defined standards in education enable to avoid reliance on nationally set objectives because countries may set goals that might not address the global education inequalities. On the other hand, the field of comparative education is critical towards policy homogenization and international mechanisms of policy influence (Barrett, 2011a).
In this paper, I will examine the interaction of inter/national targets/policies regarding quality of education, focusing on the Ethiopian education system. Using the capabilities approach, which define quality as the one that provides all learners with real opportunities or capabilities (the freedom they have to choose the lives they have reason to value (in this case to pursue their education) by addressing all barriers that affect their education) (Sen, 1999; Tikly & Barrett, 2011), I argue that inter/national documents focus on improving quality of education shall define the term broadly in a way that enhances educational capabilities of students. Firstly, equal resources do not mean equal opportunity as a set of unfreedoms (economic, personal, environmental and infrastructural) might result in educational incapability that affects students learning (Warrington & Kiragu, 2012). Moreover, the focus on educational capabilities, in addition to measuring of learning outcomes, enables policymakers to evaluate the “real educational advantage” (Walker & Unterhalter, 2007, p. 5) experienced by disadvantaged learners by considering social, cultural, and economic factors. Thus, in this paper, I will address the following questions:
i. How do international goals/targets influence the General Education Quality Improvement Program (GEQIP) in Ethiopia?
ii. How do these inter/national targets and goals consider educational capabilities of students?
To examine the interplay of the inter/national in the conceptualization of quality of education in Ethiopia, I will use a comparative case study approach focusing on the vertical axis. While emphasizing the need for simultaneous attention at different levels, Bartlett and Vavrus (2009) argue that studies focus on the local level take for granted the influence of the inter/national institutions, discourses, and policies at the specific context. For this paper, I will focus on the vertical axis, and examine how conceptualization of quality of education at the international level (e.g., Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and Education for All (EFA)) influence the General Education Quality Improvement Program (GEQIP) in Ethiopia. To analyze these documents, I will use qualitative content analysis since this method focuses on the characteristics of language as communication with attention to the content or contextual meaning of the text (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005).
The paper has two parts wherein the first section focuses on defining quality of education through mainstream eyes (inter/national level) and examine how the conceptualization of quality of education at the international level influence policies at the national level. To explore the first question, I will use conventional content analysis in which coding categories are directly derived from the international and national documents since existing theory or research literature on the phenomenon is limited (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). The close reading of the documents indicates that the essence of the international targets, specifically the SDGs, is reflected in the GEQIP in terms of emphasizing learning outcomes, having qualified teachers, and providing educational facilities even though the national government of Ethiopia contextualizes and expand some of the targets to fit with national needs. This contextualization shows countries are not merely replicate what is stated in international documents; instead, they also consider national factors while adopting these targets.
The second part assesses how the inter/national targets consider educational capabilities of students. Since there is an already developed theory about the educational well-being of students, i.e., the capabilities approach, I will use a directed approach of qualitative content analysis (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). So, the analysis starts with the three dimensions of quality of education, i.e., inclusivity, relevancy, and participation, developed by Tikly and Barrett (2011), as guidance for codes. International documents, as well as the national quality improvement program in Ethiopia, emphasize measuring the relevancy of education in terms of achieving good learning outcomes measured through test results. Though knowing students’ performance has an undeniable role in understanding how students are doing in school, the problem arises when the opportunities or constraints that affect the result are missed from the discussion. Especially in developing countries, like Ethiopia, students are contending with issues such as hunger, sickness, economic demands that affect their education. For this reason, both in school and out of school factors that influence students learning should also be taken into account to improve the quality of education by equalizing capabilities (freedoms) not only opportunities. For this matter, it is crucial to incorporate the availability of educational resources as well as the ability of students to use the available resources while conceptualizing quality in addition to the focus on learning outcomes. Thus, quality should be broadly defined to eliminate all unfreedoms, such as economic, social, and environmental, that students experience.
In a conclusion, this paper will provide insights for educational policymakers to lessen the over-reliance on an outcome-based measure of quality of education, and consider educational capabilities of students as well while offering the drawbacks of the undue focus on large scale learning assessments, and the need to look beyond that to ensure the well-being of students.
Hanna Wedajo is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative and International Development Education (CIDE) program, and an ICGC fellow. Her research interest focuses on examining quality of education in Sub-Saharan African countries, especially for those who are from economically disadvantaged families in Ethiopia.
To contact Hanna Wedajo, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.