Positive Public Examples

Public Education Works

Lessons from Five Case Studies in Low- and Middle -Income Countries

In recent decades, governments have made considerable efforts to provide education for all. However, a large gap remains between international commitments, such as the Sustainable Development Goal 4, and the actual achievement of equitable quality education for all. As a result, certain actors often critique public education as  ineffective and inefficient, and thus incapable of addressing this issue. They argue for privatisation as a solution, deeming private providers as more innovative and effective than public ones. However, shortcomings in public education often arise not from lack of capacity, but lack of political will.    

These 5 case studies illustrate effective and feasible public approaches. They analyse examples of strong public education across diverse settings – from Namibia to Brazil to Vietnam – examples  which pave the way for a pragmatic and realistic transformation in education systems.

1. Bolivia and Ecuador

Buen Vivir and Indigenous Principles to Education

The principles of Buen Vivir applied to the educational systems in Ecuador and Bolivia expose how education is thought of as a tool for conceiving and building a new society. They exemplify an alternative indigenous/non-western reasoning applied to education to promote a new form of “sustainable development”.
After adopting new constitutions, Bolivia and Ecuador have implemented education reforms that aim to promote social changes towards more equal, harmonic and sustainable societies, based on the indigenous principles of “Buen Vivir”. Both countries positioned education as a strategic axis for national change and strengthened the role of the state as the main actor responsible for it. Bolivia included the “decolonisation of thinking” as a way to promote cultural change and a building of the new educational system, and Ecuador opted for policies aimed at guaranteeing the right to education, mainly focused on access and management.

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2. Brazil

 Participatory and Inclusive Rural Education with Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST)

The schools of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) are an example of increasing education access and quality to rural populations through the work of social movements with the government. The case also depicts the work of a participatory governance that draws from a critical approach, or Freirean pedagogy.

Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement – or Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Portuguese, is a Brazilian social movement for agrarian reform that has established a network of schools in its communities, promoting the inclusion of rural children and advocating for the improvement of public rural schools. With principles of radical democracy and social justice, its pedagogy draws from Freire’s critical pedagogy. The school work is done with the community, with localised curriculum and management. The schools also offer education to young people and adults who dropped out of school.

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3. Cuba

Quality and Equity in a Teacher-Based System

The Cuban educational system is an example of the centrality of teachers to promote high education quality with equity, which is based on intense training and support in schools.

Cuba has a national education system that is internationally recognised for its quality and equity, with high performance in tests and universal access. Education is seen as a right and educators are well-trained and supported by schools, principals, the government and the local community, following national policies and guidelines. In the Cuban case, education is embedded in a socialist system, with a series of policies for education and other social areas. Cuba is an example of a fruitful interplay between education and external factors, especially the reduced inequality in the country and universal quality education for generations, which create a positive cumulative effect that improves schooling for children.

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4. Namibia

Teacher Training: Teachers at the Centre of Education Reform

The education reform in Namibia, which was focused on reforming teachers’ training, illustrates how education can be thought of as a tool for social change and how teachers can, and should be, a central element in this effort.

After the Namibian independence in 1990, the creation of an education system that would break with the former one became a priority. In contrast to the education that was marked by authoritarian practices that reinforced racial segregation in schools, the new system aimed to promote access, equity, quality and democracy. With a learner-centred pedagogy, teacher training was set as a cornerstone of the reform, placing teachers as creative agents in schools.

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5. Vietnam

Accountability for Professional Development and Education Quality

The Vietnamese educational system is a case with remarkable performance that is centred on teachers. This case is focused on how accountability can be framed in a developmental way to foster teacher professionalism, instead of performativity.

Vietnam has been achieving impressive results regarding school enrolment, completed years of schooling and learning outcomes, and gained international attention after performing exceptionally well in PISA (2012 and 2015). Several policies have created the conditions for such improvement, especially a “double approach” of growing access and improving quality. This has been achieved mainly through teacher training and a creation of a framework for accountability that involves all school stakeholders and is focused on professional development and quality improvement.

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Conclusion: Five Approaches to Building Quality Public Education For All

1. Locally relevant education systems motivated by social justice can drive powerful social change

The approaches revealed in each case emerge from the local realities, needs, and cultural values, with education systems designed to address specific social contexts. Public education has an intimate relationship with society, being both a product of its context and a tool for social change. The local social purpose of education drives meaningful, acceptable and adaptable learning. It creates a shared commitment and propels innovation, instead of defaulting detached conceptions of quality or standard content from school-chains, which are often irrelevant or harmful to local dynamics. At the same time, education is not solely responsible for such developments; it remains a part of wider efforts and intersectoral and intersectional policies.

• In Ecuador and Bolivia, education seeks to create a new way of living and a new approach to social development, valuing the knowledge of indigenous people and cultivating the Buen Vivir worldview.

• In Brazil, historically excluded groups mobilise towards initiatives whose purpose is social inclusion and equality. Education aims to promote citizen engagement for ensuring rights, focusing on the most vulnerable and marginalised people.


2. Teachers serve as catalysts for change when valued, trained, and empowered in both schools and strategy.

In successful public education systems, teachers are treated as active and creative professionals, and are trained, supported, and empowered to play an active role in schools. They are central to education planning and to evaluating pedagogical processes. Professionalism is fostered as a reflexive practice and as a relationship of commitment embedded in communal and internal dialogues. This contrasts with approaches that position teachers as deliverers of content, dependent on standardised curricula and large-scale tests, or fast-track training solutions.

• In Vietnam, teachers receive support from the school principals, with a developmental form of accountability that promotes monitoring and cooperation between school stakeholders.

• In Namibia, teachers have a central role in education reform, fundamental to enacting the aimed social changes of inclusion in a post-Apartheid society and towards a student-centred approach in schools.


3. Participatory and supportive accountability promotes professional development and education quality

Across the case studies, accountability is a participatory process that engages several stakeholders. it has a developmental approach, which advances teachers’ professionalism and community engagement focused on improving education quality. instead of relying on high-stakes, test-based accountability, school leaders assess and assist teachers, who also evaluate and support each other, and parents offer and receive feedback, creating a loop of reciprocal accountability.

• In Vietnam, teachers receive feedback from peers, supervisors and parents, which is used for professional development.

• In Cuba, test results are not made public. Instead they are a tool for monitoring students’ learning and for informing teachers’ professional development.

• In the MST work in Brazil, citizens learn about their rights and how to monitor policies and demand for social and educational rights.


4. Engaged communities enhance the quality of education

Community engagement occurs in different forms in the five examples examined, but always as an active and relevant part of an ecosystem that elevates the quality of education. Local communities are part of the creation of locally relevant solutions. In contrast to approaches that treat students, families, and communities as consumers of education with passive roles, stakeholders are active in these case studies. Democracy is not an abstract concept, but rather a concrete relationship and practice lived and experienced by stakeholders. As a by-product of such engagement and consequent improvement, some cases saw a reversal of education privatisation.

• The MST initiative in Brazil includes local engagement with policy and advocacy, in which parents, students and communities learn about and exercise their rights, actively diagnose issues, search for solutions, and interact with other stakeholders to promote change.

• In Vietnam, parents are part of the accountability system, helping teachers in achieving quality.

• In Bolivia, schools improved with local engagement and the perception of public schools also changed, leading to the return of some families from private to public schools.


5. Sustained education finance drives social transformation through enhanced quality and inclusion

The elements for quality mentioned above require a sustained financial commitment by states- even in the context of constrained resources. The Education 2030 Framework for Action set two benchmarks: allocate at least 4% to 6% of GDP to education, and/or allocate at least 15% to 20% of public expenditure to education, a gaol reached by many of the analysed cases. most importantly, they illustrate a long-term commitment and a trajectory of increasing financing at the scale of each country’s possibilities, even when not reaching OECD standards in absolute terms in the short term. Retrogression in commitment and funding can have devastating impacts and austerity is not an approach taken in these successful cases. Finally, the experiences show that communities should be engaged in monitoring and demanding adequate financing.

• Cuba has consistently spent more than 5% of GDP in education since 1994, and more than 10% since 2007.

• Vietnam adopted a commitment to invest “20% of all public spending” in education (McAleavy et al. 2018). Despite not reaching this goal and having oscillated through the years, the investment has been consistently high, from as high as 18.05% in 2008 to 15.24% in 2009, followed by a yearly rise, reaching 18.79% in 2012, and then dropping to 14.47% in 2018 (World Bank, 2021a). As a percentage of GDP, it rose from 3.57% in 2000 to 5.6% in 2013, but fell to 4.1% in 2018 (World Bank, 2021).

• Ecuador has increased its expenditure in education from 1.15% of the GDP in 2000 to 5% in 2015, and 5% of public expenditure to 12.8% in the same period. Thus, despite remaining below the targets, the trajectory and constant increase in funding has been key to the country’s educational progress.