Education systems framework

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Systems thinking for education

Interactions, feedback loops & alignment
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Introductory articles
Interactions within education systems

This article draws heavily on Spivack, M. 2021. Applying Systems Thinking to Education: The RISE Systems Framework. RISE Insight Note 2021/028.

An education systems framework specifies and characterizes the relationships between they key actors in the education system and describes the outcomes we observe from the education system as the endogenous result of those interactions.

A systems perspective on Education is a perspective that asks 1) Why are learning outcomes poor in this school, district, or country? 2) Why do those conditions which we have identified as causing low learning to exist?

The answer to question (1) identifies the proximate determinants of low learning, and the answer to question (2) identifies the system determinants of those proximate determinants of learning. This second question, which asks what causes the conditions that cause the low learning is the hallmark of systems thinking.

This article outlines the education systems framework developed and deployed throughout the RISE Programme. This framework can be applied to conduct a diagnostic analysis of an education system.


Understanding Education Systems as Systems

An education system, like any other system, is made up of interactions between components. In the case of education systems the components are people, organizations, and things. At the same time the system is distinct from its component, and has its own emergent properties that can be analyzed independent from analysis of the components.

To take a more familiar example: an economy is made up of, people like consumers and producers, organizations like regulators and firms, and things like capital and products. Some emergent properties of the economy are Pareto optimality and prices. Similarly, education systems are made up of, people like teachers, students, and parents, organizations like schools and ministries, and things like classrooms, and teaching materials. Some of emergent properties of an education system are coherence for learning, and alignment for access.

People Organizations Stuff System Emergent properties of the system
Producers, consumers Regulators, firms Capital, products Economy Pareto optimality, prices
Teachers, parents, students Schools, ministries Classrooms, teaching and learning materials Education Systems Coherence for learning, alignment for access

To deliver learning for all the interactions between teachers and students in hundreds of thousands of classrooms around the world will need to shift towards higher learning productivity. A lot of effort in education reform is focused on changing teacher practices and behavior. Yet, most of these efforts fail to recognize that teachers and students are embedded in larger systems that help explain their behavior and characterize and constrain the scope for them to change and improve. [1]

The RISE Systems Framework

The RISE Systems framework (also referred to as the 5x4 Accountability Framework or its analogue the Accountability Triangle) is an approach for identifying the important actors in an education system and thinking about how they interact with each other to produce the outcomes we observe.

This framework characterizes a system of education as a set of four principal-agent relationships:

  • Politics – interaction between citizens (as the principal) and the highest executive, legislative and fiduciary authorities of the state (as the agent).
  • Compact – interaction between the highest executive, legislative and fiduciary authorities of the state (as the principal) and education authorities and organizations (as the agent)
  • Management – relationship between education authorities and organisations (as the principals) and school leaders and teachers on the frontline (as the agents).
  • Voice & Choice– the relationship between recipients of services (principal) and the providers of services (head teachers and teachers).

Each of these relationships is characterized by five design element:

  • Delegation – what the principal wants the agent to do.
  • Finance – the resources the principal has allocated to the agent to achieve their assigned task.
  • Information – how the principal asses the agent's performance.
  • Support – preparation and assistance that the principal provides to the agent to complete the task.
  • Motivation – how the principal motivates the agent, including the ways in which agent’s welfare is contingent on their performance against objectives. Can be extrinsic (mediated by principal) or intrinsic (mediated by agent).[2]

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The 5 design elements and 4 relationships of accountability in education systems
Politics Compact Management Voice & Choice
Delegation Delegation in Politics Delegation in Compact Delegation in Management Delegation in Voice & Choice
Information Information in Compact Information in Management Information in Voice & Choice
Finance Finance in Compact Finance in Management
Support Support in Compact Support in Management
Motivation Motivation in Compact Teacher motivation

Education systems deliver learning when the design elements of the relationships of accountability are coherent for learning, and coherent with each other.[3]

Cell-by-Cell thinking

Many programs are designed around the goal of alleviating symptoms of the learning crisis, or symptoms of a failing education system. These types of programs are characteristic of the type of "cell by cell" thinking that is very common in the education sector. Most programs are designed to improve performance or outcomes by acting on a single sell of the framework. The hallmark of a "cell-by-cell" policy is that it fits neatly within a single cell of the 5x4.[1]

Often, programs and policy designed to treat symptoms of learning crisis fail when they are incoherent with the system they are acting in. One prominent example from the RCT literature includes a 2007 paper on distribution of textbooks to Kenyan schools. An RCT found no effect of the books on pedagogy or average test scores, but a positive effect on test scores of the best performers. The authors noted that the textbooks were in English and as a result were inaccessible to most of the students. These textbooks were the standard government textbooks for children of this grade level, and the fact that they were in a language that most children could not read proficiently reflects the overambitious nature of the Kenyan curriculum at the time.[4] This intervention falls squarely in the "Management, Finance" cell. It acts as if the constraint to performance in Kenyan schools is a lack of resources to acquire textbooks. But as the evaluation revealed, the deeper cause of poor performance in the Kenyan system was the incoherent delegation in the management column, of a curriculum that moved too quickly and left students behind, so that the curriculum standard teaching materials were not useful to them.

Types of incoherence

Three types of incoherences can stymie progress in improving education systems.

Within a column

Incoherence between the design elements of a particular relationship of accountability

Between rows

Incoherence between the relationships of accountability, across one or more design elements.

Within a relationship: frontline providers

Frontline providers (teachers and school leaders) are the only actors in the system who are the agent of more than one principle. As a result they are particularly vulnerable to incoherence due to misalignment between their two principles.

Features of a strong relationship of accountability

Relationships of accountability exist between principals and agents. By definition, the principal sets an objective for the agent, however this does not mean agents are weak and principals are strong. In some instances, principals, maybe more economically and socially powerful or have more, better information about how to evaluate their own performance than the agent. A doctor is a good example of an agent with these features relative to their patients.

Even in relationships without this reverse power dynamic, the relationship of accountability will function well when agents know what the principal wants them to do, and are empowered to search for their own localized solutions to problems. A well-functioning relationship of accountability is one with the following features. 1. Clarity on who the actors are (roles and responsibilities are clearly defined) 2. Clarity on the mechanism: a two-way contract. The principal expects the agent to do certain things, and if these terms are fulfilled the agent expects to receive commensurate reward or sanction from the principal. 3. Agent is empowered. Empowered agents have space, and trust of principals, which allows them to innovate. If there is more than one way to achieve an objective and both are equally effective, or involve tradeoffs that the principal can’t detect, then the principal empowers the agent to decide how to complete the objective. In relationships with empowered agents, principals do reward or sanction based on performance, but power dynamics can vary. In the Patient-Doctor relationship mentioned above, the patient is a weak principal and the doctor is a very powerful agent.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Pritchett, Lant and Spivack, Marla. (Forthcoming). Diagnosing Systems of Education to Overcome the Learning Crisis.
  2. Pritchett, L. (2015). Creating Education Systems Coherent for Learning Outcomes: Making the Transition from Schooling to Learning. RISE Working Paper Series. 15/005.
  3. Crouch, Luis(2020). Systems Implications for Core Instructional Support Lessons from Sobral (Brazil), Puebla (Mexico), and Kenya [1].
  4. Glewwe, Paul, Kremer, Michael, and Moulin, Sylvie (2007). Many Children Left Behind? Textbooks and Test Scores in Kenya [2].