School autonomy, accountability and evaluable learning standards have become core policy principles in an attempt to modernize public education and make education systems more effective, innovative and responsive to the challenges generated by the global economy. To date, a very wide range of countries have adopted educational reforms articulated around school autonomy with accountability policies (SAWA), whilst the most active international organizations in the education sector, such as the OECD, are strongly promoting this reform approach worldwide.

The SAWA reform movement involves a more intensive presence of external evaluations (usually under the form of standardized tests of student achievement), together with the adoption of more explicit targets and strategic planning at the school level. External evaluations allow governments to ensure that schools adhere to centrally-defined learning standards and establish accountability relationships with principals and teachers. For accountability to happen, some consequences need to derive from the results of evaluations. These consequences vary according to their material or symbolic, individual or collective nature. Examples include, but are not limited to, using national assessments to supervise more closely teachers and/or schools performance, decide on teachers’ salaries and promotion, encourage and inform school choice via the publication of test data, or intervene underperforming schools.

“There is not sufficient scientific evidence about how and under what particular circumstances school autonomy with accountability policies can contribute to improve education.”
  • More and more OECD countries are adopting external evaluations
  • National assessments are increasingly census-based
  • National assessments focus on literacy and numeracy

General questions

Countries with very different administrative traditions and levels of economic development are adopting SAWA reforms. Nonetheless, existing scholarly research on SAWA policies is inconclusive and contradictory in relation to their effects on learning outcomes, instructional practices, the governance of schools or equity in education. Currently, there is not sufficient scientific evidence about how and under what particular circumstances SAWA policies can contribute to improve education. This makes conducting innovative research on this topic highly relevant for both academic and policy purposes.

Overall, the emergence of SAWA as a global education reform model generates two broad research questions:

First, why and how are SAWA policies disseminating globally, and to what extent does this reform model generate policy convergence in education systems internationally?
Second, how and under what particular contextual and institutional circumstances do SAWA policies 'work',


The REFORMED project analyzes how and why SAWA policies are being adopted and re-formulated by policy actors operating at different scales (from international organizations to teachers), and inquires into the institutional frameworks and policy enactment processes that explain the different effects of SAWA at the school level. At the country level, the project will be developed in The Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Chile, Mexico and Brazil.

The project analyzes SAWA reforms according to two interconnected research strands:



Research strand 1 aims to understand how and why SAWA reforms are disseminating globally.
The specific objectives of this first strand are to:



how a range of strategic actors, including international organizations, but also other types of policy entrepreneurs and educational experts, promote SAWA reforms internationally.


the multiple rationales as well as the institutional, cultural, political and economic factors that intervene in the adoption of SAWA policies in different educational settings;


how domestic politics, and related dynamics of negotiation and resistance interfere in the final retention of SAWA policies at the country level;


how SAWA policies have been reformulated in different regulatory frameworks, and how they interact with previous forms of evaluation and accountability in education.


how and to what extent SAWA regimes contribute to the emergence of new economic actors and political subjectivities (testing industry, opt-out movement, and so on) within educational systems.


In this second research strand, the project focuses on the complex relationships between SAWA policies, contextual and institutional contingencies, policy enactment dynamics and educational outcomes. The related objectives are to:



how teachers and principals enact SAWA policies and respond tto emerging performative pressures at the school level.


how variables of a regulatory and contextual nature, as well as those related to the teaching profession ethos, mediate the way SAWA policies are being enacted.


how the institutional design of SAWA policies has the potential to activate/inhibit a series of attitudes among school actors, and what the implications are in terms of the performance and equity of the system;


possible trade-offs within the SAWA mandate - for instance, whether there is a tension between the promotion of school autonomy on the one hand, and accountability and centrally-defined learning standards on the other.


the impact of SAWA policies at the school level in multiple dimensions (school results, internal equity, socio-economic composition, educational innovation), as well as the aggregated effects of SAWA policies at the level of the educational system.

Overall, the REFORMED project reflects on what does it mean being a school principal and teacher in the 21st century, in an era of big data, large-scale evaluations and changing managerial and performative pressures.

The results of the project will contribute to promote evidence-informed decisions on how and to what extent using certain SAWA modalities could contribute to improve the effectiveness, equity and inclusiveness of educational systems.


The REFORMED project has developed a comprehensive research approach that scrutinizes the different, but mutually constitutive stages of global education policy, from the inception of SAWA in global agendas to their operationalization, performance and effects in multiple school contexts. A robust and multi-scalar methodological strategy that combines quantitative and qualitative methods contributes to advancing our research approach. The main instruments of our research, including our surveys, interview scripts and school observation protocols, can be found here
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The REFORMED project will be implemented in a sample of countries with different levels of economic development and administrative traditions including the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Chile, Mexico and Brazil. Our data will be analyzed from an international comparative perspective, although within-country comparisons will be particularly relevant in the countries of our sample with federal and decentralized educational systems.


The REFORMED project is funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (GA-680172). The project is being developed in the context of the Global and Comparative Studies in Education research group (GLANCE, ref. 2017-SGR-1789), which is part of the GEPS research center at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. The project is developed in close collaboration with a network of associated international partners.