Institute of Education

Research & Expertise to Make a Difference in Education & Beyond

‘By Observing Best Educational Practices at the International Level, Schools and Universities Can Improve Efficiency’

Tommaso Agasisti, Associate Professor at the Politecnico di Milano School of Management, researches management and economics of the public sector and teaches business administration, accounting, and control & performance management. In an interview with the HSE News Service ahead of his presentation at the XVIII April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development, he spoke about his recent research and the importance of taking a multi-country perspective to today’s questions of education reform.

— During the conference, one of the topics you are planning to talk about is the efficiency of educational institutions from a multi-country perspective, something that is of particular interest around the world today. What are some of the main findings from your research?

— My main finding is that management of educational institutions does matter in terms of their efficiency. We can observe institutions that are very similar to each other in terms of size, activities and resources but that report very different levels of performance. The role of managers in shaping the ability of a school or university to ‘make the most’ with the available inputs, i.e., to maximize educational outputs, is then substantial.

I also show the benefits that can arise from benchmarking at an international level. By observing best educational practices at the international level, schools and universities can activate improvement processes that can lead to better efficiency in operations. 

— What are the most promising methods of assessment that you have used in your research? Can they be implemented in any country?

— I use frontier methods for the empirical analyses, including statistically based ones such as Data Envelopment Analysis, and econometric approaches such as Stochastic Frontier Models. They can be used in various contexts, and my challenge is to use them in cross-country comparisons of the efficiency of schools or universities. 

— What are the implications of actively reshaping syllabus and method, including the 21st century skill needs, e-learning, etc., for evaluators and evaluation tools?

— Evaluating the performance of educational institutions will be more challenging in the next few years, for fundamentally three reasons. First, the outputs of the educational activity must include more and more indicators about non-cognitive skills and students’ success in the labour market and society. New data will help a wider perspective on the real role of schooling in the society, thus. Second, the quantitative and qualitative techniques for assessing the performance of educational organizations are constantly evolving over time. Nowadays, a variety of methods, ranging from multiple case studies to statistics, from econometrics to machine learning tools, can be used for a more comprehensive and multidimensional assessment of various areas of the institutions’ activities. It is no more possible to imagine an evaluator in the educational field who is not familiar with various of these methodological tools. Lastly, the forms of educational activities themselves are evolving and diversifying (consider, for example, the big transformations implied by digital learning and innovative pedagogies), so that the competences and approaches of evaluators should also change accordingly. 

— What are the key areas (both in terms of method and organizational domains) where education evaluators could – and perhaps should – learn and source from businesses?  

— Big data is a key topic that is gradually investing education, and one in which business can help the innovation in the evaluation of educational results. While in the business context the main focus is on using big data for extracting economic value from the market, in education the core focus is on using new (big) datasets for understanding “what works” in the educational process to maximize student learning (broadly defined). The use of new techniques for analyzing big data is becoming a new skill that will be required for every evaluator in the educational field. Thus, the “educational data scientist”, in the spirit of the evolving discipline called “learning analytics”, is likely to be one of the smart new professions of the future. 

— What else are you working on? Are you developing any joint projects with HSE?            

— I am working on several interesting topics, including the use of statistical methods to estimate the ‘value added’ of schools in influencing students’ achievement; the analysis of those students who, despite their disadvantaged background, are able to obtain good academic results (the so called ‘resilient students’); and the impact of digital learning and social engagement on the assessment of educational institutions’ efficiency and performance.

I am also working to find potential partners to collaborate on a promising research unit called Laboratory for University Development. We are already exchanging ideas, comments, and suggestions on our academic work. I would be really glad to explore further areas of partnership for research and teaching projects. 

Anna Chernyakhovskaya and Igor Manokhin, specially for HSE News service