Educational Transfer Essay

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The study of policies that have been transplanted from one cultural context to another occupies a prominent place in comparative education research. To some extent, educational borrowing and lending implies artificially isolating education from its political, economic, and cultural context. Consequently, numerous warnings have been made about this kind of educational transfer, whether it is wholesale, selective, or eclectic.

Comparative research on policy borrowing has undergone several major discursive shifts in the past twenty years. Arguably, the largest shift was the move from normative to analytical studies; the first being concerned with what could and should be borrowed and the latter interested in understanding why and how references are made to experiences from elsewhere. Jürgen Schriewer, noted German comparative education researcher, needs to be credited for critiquing normative or meliorist approaches to the study of policy borrowing. Using a theoretical framework of system theory, Schriewer proposes to study the local context of policy borrowing to better understand the “socio-logic” of externalization.

According to this theory, references to other educational systems provide the leverage for carrying out reforms that otherwise would be contested. Schriewer also finds it indicative of the “socio-logic” of a system that only specific educational systems are used as external sources of authority. Which systems are used as “reference societies” and which are not tells a great deal about the interrelations of actors within various world systems.

Using a similar approach, David Phillips identifies factors that account for “policy attraction” between two educational systems. By studying British interest in German education over a sustained period of time, he finds that the same educational system can be an object of attraction for different reasons at different times. Pursuing an analytical rather than a normative approach to the study of educational borrowing, a conclusion may be reached that is quite the contrary to what normative borrowing advocates have suggested: Borrowing does not occur because reforms from elsewhere are better, but because the very act of borrowing has a salutary effect on domestic policy conflict.

Several scholars have applied the concept of externalization to comparative policy studies and found that it is precisely at moments of heightened policy contestation that references to other educational systems are made. Thus, borrowing, discursive or actual, has a certification effect on domestic policy talk. Against this backdrop of system theory, three common phenomenon, which at first appear to be counterintuitive, make perfect sense: (1) very often the language of the reform is borrowed, but not the actual reform; (2) borrowing occurs even when there is no apparent need, that is, even when similar reforms already exist in the local context; and (3) if the actual reform is borrowed, it is always selectively borrowed and sometimes locally recontextualized to the extent that there is little similarity left between the original and the copy.

The concept of externalization has also been applied to policy lending, where the political and economic reasons for policy export have been examined. For example, Phillip Jones, of the University of Sydney in Australia, focuses on the duality of the World Bank’s education portfolio: the World Bank’s portfolio with regard to monetary loans and its portfolio with regard to the lending of ideas about educational reform to low income countries. Although using finance as a means to drive policy change is hardly new, the scale and global reach of international organizations raise critical questions for education theory, policy, and practice. For example, have national educational reforms gradually converged toward an international model of reform that produces a shared global belief in progress and justice? Driven by questions like this, Stanford neo-institutional sociologists John Meyer and Francisco Ramirez have greatly contributed to theory in globalization studies and to research on educational borrowing and lending.

In the context of globalization, research on educational transfer has experienced a revival in recent years, with researchers turning their attention to what the established field of comparative education can contribute to understanding the processes of local adaptation and recontextualization that occur as a result of reform import.


  1. Anderson-Levitt, K. (Ed.). (2003). Local meanings, global schooling. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. Baker, D. P., & LeTendre, G. K. (2005). National differences, global similarities: World culture and the future of schooling. Stanford, CA: University of Stanford Press.
  3. Jones, P. (1992). World Bank financing of education: Learning and development. New York: Routledge.
  4. Phillips, D. (1993). Borrowing educational policy. In D. Finegold, L. McFarland, & W. Richardson (Eds.), Something borrowed, something learned? The transatlantic market in education and training reform. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
  5. Phillips, D., & Ochs, K. (Eds.). (2004). Educational policy borrowing: Historical perspectives. Oxford, UK: Symposium Books.
  6. Ramirez R., & Meyer, J. (1985). The origins and expansion of education. Comparative Education Review, 29, 145–170.
  7. Schriewer, J., & Martinez, C. (2004). Constructions of internationality in education. In G. Steiner-Khamsi (Ed.), Lessons from elsewhere: The politics of educational borrowing and lending. New York: Teachers College Press.
  8. Steiner-Khamsi, G. (Ed.). (2004). The global politics of educational borrowing and lending. New York: Teachers College Press.

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