For the first time in forty years, the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR), released on Tuesday, focuses exclusively on education. We are pleased to see its core messages resonating so well with our past reports, especially the 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report on teaching and learning. The WDR is a welcome addition to the Bank’s flagship series. It shows that many changes have happened in the past 40 years in education, not least in the Bank’s thinking about it.
With its crisp presentation and clear threads of argument, the report is aligned with the Bank’s 2020 Education Strategy, which marked a strategic shift to learning over schooling when it was published in 2011. The WDR reiterates that the benefits of education are poorly linked to years spent in school and urges countries to engage in system-wide commitment to improve learning outcomes. Its main messages are to assess learning, as the key to re-align education systems; to act on evidence; and to align actors so they work in the direction of improved learning outcomes.
Education systems are ‘sticky’ – but our approach to solving education problems should not be
The WDR acknowledges that education systems are ‘sticky’, meaning that they are slow and difficult to change. Yet, the WDR also shows that its own thinking behind solving education problems is not sticky. Several past convictions have been questioned in this report and this is a positive sign.
Having said that, one discerns two voices running through it. One sticking to orthodoxies and certainties; the other being more reflective. For example, information and communications technologies are presented as having “some of the biggest impacts on learning” while elsewhere the evidence from technology-based interventions is judged to be one of “varied returns and so many challenges to implementation”.
Similarly, the evidence used on learning outcomes draws exclusively from results of reading and mathematics assessments, even though the WDR also acknowledges that “impacts on literacy and numeracy are not the only measure of success”.
There is some hard talk arguing that “abdicating responsibility and avoiding blame erode an education system’s ability to function, thereby perpetuating a low-accountability, low-learning equilibrium”, leading one to think that accountability is the only solution to get education systems on the right path. But at the same time, the WDR recognizes that:
- “learning is a complex process that is difficult to break down into simple linear relationships from cause to effect”; and
- “when actors in the system interact to pursue many goals, the mechanisms that hold them accountable for learning are weakened”
both of which pull the carpet under the core assumption linking sanctions and rewards with results on learning outcomes. With accountability being the theme of the 2017/8 Global Education Monitoring Report, which will be launched on October 24, there will be another chance to look at these assumptions.
The Bank’s 2020 Education Strategy had emphasized its role and that of the International Finance Corporation in strengthening private sector education provision. In an unexpected turn, the WDR concludes that “there is no consistent evidence that private schools deliver better learning outcomes than public schools, or the opposite”. Given the questionable record of expanding private provision on equity, this open a window for a more frank discussion of the need to fully support public education systems.
Different visions of what constitutes good practice
The report highlights a few country examples as positive case studies, including Chile, which is praised for its “sustained commitments to reforming quality”, as reflected in the country’s performance in the PISA reading assessment. However, these findings fail to look beyond the average and do not recognise that Chile is also one of the most educationally segregated countries in the world. There is no doubt that Chile has made major efforts in recent years to improve the system. However, these have come as a result of massive protests, leading the state to assume again the responsibilities from which it had abdicated. What the WDR does not acknowledge is that since 2005, when households used to be responsible for half the total spending on education, the government of Chile has been gradually taking up a much higher share of the total education cost to deliver more equitable education.
Source: UIS database
What can be substituted in education?
The WDR does seem ambivalent about the impact of sharing costs between governments and households, even though it highlights the high burden carried by households in low and middle income countries. In explaining why spending does not always lead to better and more equal student learning outcomes, it mentions that one of the reasons is that “public spending can substitute for private spending”. It quotes the example of school grants in India and Zambia that “had no effect on learning because parents reduced their own financial support in anticipation of increased government funding” making it sound as though there was nothing to be gained from this, and ignoring the obvious positive impact on equity.
Similarly, there is ambivalent coverage of teachers. Despite the WDR’s resounding conclusion that “education systems perform best when their teachers are respected, prepared, selected based on merit, and supported in their work”, it then draws attention approvingly to the idea that replacing the least effective 7–12% of teachers could help bridge the gap between student performance in the United States and Finland. Treating education as a production process with substitutable inputs is not a good starting point.
Drawing conclusions about what to do next – some housekeeping?
The World Development Report adds a strong and welcome emphasis on cognitive neuroscience and its insights on how children learn in conditions of extreme poverty. The spotlight on the biology of learning suggests clear directions about the structure of early childhood education programmes and their approach to foundation skills and protective factors from stress. But maybe the report could have dug deeper to learn from the Bank’s vast experience in delivering different interventions of this type. What are the different costs of such interventions and how could future programmes be designed to deliver this progress?
Having worked for the past year on accountability here at the GEM Report, it is also hard not to notice that the WDR absolves international actors from their many potential responsibilities, including the Bank itself. For example, there is a welcome emphasis on the importance of global public goods on learning and a reminder of an estimate that only 3% of aid for education is spent on global public goods, such as data and research, compared with 20% in health. But here again, it is important to practice what we preach. Let us not forget that the World Bank stopped funding the UNESCO Institute for Statistics in 2016, which is all the more surprising given the extent to which the report has relied on it as a source of data.
Each actor should look first how to meet their own responsibilities. It has to start at home.