Beyond belief? A historical institutional analysis of contemporary school reform in Nicaragua

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“School autonomy” began in Nicaragua in 1993 as a voluntary program, maintained through ministerial directive. In 2002, the newly passed New Law of Education Program extended ‘school autonomy’ to all public schools in the country. Essentially, the New Law introduces a new set of principles and rules for parental participation, local accountability, and local coordination in Nicaraguan schools. However, new rules and principles are nothing more than instructions that can be ignored- in fact, in Nicaragua, they often are. In this study, we problematize the one-to-one relationship between rules and behaviour that has been the cornerstone of contemporary change theorizing in the developing world. In contrast to the ‘change as rule-based’ perspective, we argue that a more effective approach is to study an actor’s motivation to follow the new rules. In this study, we suggest that an actor’s motivation to follow the rules is conditioned by their expectations about how others will behave in relation to those rules (behavioural beliefs). This attention to the relationship between rules, institutions, and behavioural beliefs represents a new way of studying change in the context of underdevelopment. We employ Avner Greif’s Historical Comparative Institutional Analysis (HCIA) to study school change in Nicaragua in order to demonstrate how stakeholders’ normative beliefs and behavioural beliefs condition their motivations towards the change initiative. By examining the evolution of these ‘normative beliefs and expectations’, we show how historical norms encapsulated in the country’s institutions, shape stakeholder responses to new initiatives, such as school autonomy. Our study reveals how change requires all aspects of the educational institution (its formal rules and organizations) to come together to perpetuate the new normative understandings associated with the new rules. However, in Nicaragua, our findings reveal that despite the introduction of new rules and principles for education, the organizations of education in Nicaragua have continued to perpetuate historical, normative understandings that are opposed to the norms of ‘school autonomy’ and the principles of good governance. Thus, the prospects and possibilities of change under the ‘school autonomy’ reform have been limited.
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