Integrity is not just a cornerstone of quality and equity in education; it is the foundation of a healthy, open society. School is typically the first place where children are exposed to diverse cultures and interact with public institutions. Young people’s early experiences with fairness and justice have a profound influence on their own attitudes and behaviors—and trust in social structures—as they become adults.
Addressing highly visible and criminal misconduct in education is a first step in establishing this trust. In Mexico, for example, a national union leader was recently arrested for having collected millions of dollars in illegal bribes. Her arrest liberated the Mexican school system of a major funding bottleneck.
Late last month, I traveled to Kyiv to support Ukraine in its own ambitious efforts to build a stronger and fairer education system, a system in which the best education opportunities would go to the brightest, not the wealthiest, children. Compared to other countries in the region, the post-Maidan government has of late shown a much keener interest in tackling both high-level corruption as well as the kind of public corruption that people see in their everyday lives.
However, the review that we conducted did not look into the wrongdoing of any particular individual or organization; rather, based on a methodology developed in coordination with the Open Society Education Support Program, it focused on ways to strengthen the country’s institutions and policies, and to change the incentive structures in ways that foster integrity and prevent corruption.
We studied problems such as the misappropriation of parents’ contributions to schools; the private, supplementary (and paid) tutoring provided by teachers to their own students; preferential access to higher education; and academic dishonesty.
First, we looked at how to reform current policies in Ukraine that seem to allow for, if not encourage, violations of integrity. Such violations—including gifts provided to obtain entry to selective school programs—are partly rooted in poorly designed incentive structures for educators and learners.
For example, some cities lack sufficient preschool placements to meet demand, causing families to try and bypass prioritization rules through bribes or family connections. In higher education, student work may be intentionally misassessed, or plagiarism accepted, when institutional funding formulas and faculty compensation policies penalize stringent grading and the dismissal of students.
There are obvious ways for the government to encourage the right incentives. In preschool, a digital queuing system can prevent meddling with prioritization rules. Funding formulas can be modified so that higher education institutions are not penalized when enforcing standards of academic integrity.
Second, we looked at ways in which Ukraine can balance professional autonomy with public accountability. It is tempting to bureaucratize every process so that restrictions seemingly become more difficult to flout. But when you don’t earn people’s faith in institutions as a whole, they will eventually find their way around onerous rules. Overall efficiency also suffers.
To strengthen integrity, public officials must balance vertical with horizontal accountability, making peers and colleagues as accountable to each other (and families) as to their bosses. It means implementing reforms that provide teachers and administrators with wider professional autonomy, while providing greater opportunities for colleagues and external parties to monitor and participate in decisions.
For example, public schools in Ukraine routinely use parents’ donations to advance their education mission—doing so without recording those donations so they can preserve flexibility in allocating resources and avoid burdensome reporting requirements. Educators effectively circumvent the system, though for legitimate educational purposes.
Policymakers can provide schools with more flexible use of extrabudgetary funds, while at the same time establishing a legal right for donors to oversee how donations are managed. This would allow families to detect any misappropriation of school funds, and effectively rebalance vertical and horizontal accountability.
Building institutional capacity for integrity is key. This means, for example, expanding outside validation of teaching and learning, but in a participatory way that requires parents, teachers, and school leaders to work together. It can be supplemented by the wider use of benchmarking, peer review, and standardized assessments—as well as improved training and support.
Merit-based, high-quality education is essential for Ukraine’s economic growth and social progress. Trust, openness, and transparency are the building blocks of a well-functioning education system and society.
With these, Ukraine can achieve better outcomes from its education system, ensuring that human and financial resources are well used, that students have equal opportunities to learn, and that educational qualifications faithfully reflect students’ achievements.