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Analysis of the World Bank's study on "Education Quality and Economic Growth"

published 5 August 2008 updated 5 August 2008

The World Bank has recently launched a new study on Education Quality and Economic Growth. The study was launched by the Bank’s Vice President for Human Development and Chief Economist, in Brussels on 23 June 2008. While the study recognizes the importance of educational quality and the impact teachers make towards the attainment of quality education, some of the issues it raises may undermine the very essence of quality education. For example, the study argues for the teaching of cognitive skills, ignoring the importance of other essential life skills. While there is no doubt that cognitive skills are important, reducing education to the inculcation of cognitive skills, while ignoring other essential life-skills, undermines the critical role played by education in contributing to the development of a total being. Essential life skills such as artistic skills, social skills, including responsible citizenship, are equally important and relevant, to both the individual and our world. In addition, the study encourages testing, competition, the establishment of private schools and merit pay for school principals and teachers. What is emerging from this report and other studies conducted by the World Bank recently, is the importance attached to competition, testing, and performance-related pay for teachers and school principals. Therefore, EI and the teachers’ unions have an enormous challenge to respond appropriately and collectively to these developments. Below is EI's analysis of the study.

1. Introduction The World Bank has released a study entitled, “Education Quality and Economic Growth.” The study, conducted by Erick A. Hanushek and Ludger Wößmann, was launched in Brussels, Belgium on 24 June 2008. Education International attended the launch and expressed EI’s policy and views on quality education. The World Bank report explores the connection between educational quality (not just education) and economic growth. It concludes that there is a strong link between educational quality and economic growth. However, the study’s definition of educational quality is rather narrow and some of the measures proposed for improving educational quality may be controversial. 2. The Study’s View of Educational Quality The study defines education quality as “…ensuring that students actually learn”1. Indeed, students should learn, schools ought to ensure effective teaching and learning for all their students. But what is it that the students should actually learn? According to the report, the students should acquire cognitive skills because these are the skills that contribute to individual earnings, to the distribution of income and to economic growth. Indeed, cognitive skills are important, but they are not the only skills that matter when it comes to quality education. Education is much broader than the acquisition of cognitive skills. Knowledge, attitudes and all life-skills are also important. For example, social skills or attributes such as responsible citizenship, tolerance, peace, love and democratic values are equally important, particularly in today’s world which is sometimes characterized by xenophobia, civil strife and terrorism. Artistic skills such as drawing, singing and dancing are also important; so is sport. Just like cognitive skills, these skills may contribute to individual earnings and economic growth. Therefore, the study’s focus on cognitive skills as the only contributor to economic growth, is a serious limitation. So is the measure of educational quality, which is limited to learning outcomes or test scores. Thus, the study has a very narrow view of educational quality and a very simplistic view of its measurement. 3. Educational Quality Does Matter The publication emphasizes the importance of quality education, arguing that mere school enrolment is not enough. The report asserts: “There is credible evidence that educational quality has strong causal impact on individual earnings and economic growth.”2 The report gives an example from three recent studies conducted in the United States showing that one standard deviation increase in mathematics performance at the end of high school translates into 12% higher annual earnings. The report also highlights the importance of the teacher in the provision of quality education. It argues: “…one consistent finding emerging from research is that teacher quality strongly influences student outcomes.”3 This is in line with EI’s longstanding contention that there is a strong connection between quality teachers and quality education. Therefore, every child deserves to be taught by a qualified teacher who has received adequate pre-service training, appropriate induction and continuous professional development and support. Teachers ought to be well-paid and highly motivated to deliver such quality services. The study correctly notes that most education reforms, particularly in developing countries, tend to focus more on the quantity of schooling and less on the quality of education. This, as we know, also includes education programmes initiated or supported by the World Bank. That probably explains why the World Bank prefers the term “Universal Primary Completion (UPC),” when referring to the second Millennium Development Goal, which actually aims for Universal Primary Education (UPE). The report aptly warns:

The description of school completion ignores the level of cognitive skills acquired. Completing 5 or 9 years of schooling in the average developing country does not mean that the students have become functionally literate in basic cognitive skills. 4

In view of the above, one would hope that the World Bank, other UN agencies, multilateral and bilateral institutions, governments (particularly in the developing world), and other stakeholders, would pay much more attention to educational quality in their current and future programmes. 4. Too much emphasis on competition and testing The World Bank study suggests various measures for improving educational quality. But first of all, the report claims that expanding educational inputs such as physical expansion of educational facilities, increased spending per student and increasing teacher salaries do not seem to lead to substantial increases in learning achievement when the institutional structure is not changed. While this observation may sound appealing, it seems to lose sight of the fact that a significant number of schools in developing countries, particularly in Africa, are without basic infrastructure and resources such as classrooms, furniture and textbooks. Teachers in some, if not most of these countries, are grossly underpaid and unable to meet their basic needs. As a result, they are forced to moonlight in order to supplement their meagre income. Therefore, increasing inputs to meet minimal conditions for effective teaching and learning remains relevant, legitimate and necessary. In any case, you cannot get the learning outcomes without the necessary inputs and the teaching/learning process. The study proposes three main measures for improving educational quality. These are:

  • Choice and competition
  • Decentralization and autonomy
  • Accountability for outcomes

With regards to choice and competition, the study encourages the establishment of private schools in order to “provide alternatives for students.”5 Competition between schools is also encouraged as a way of improving performance. Encouraging the establishment of private schools, which are usually fee-paying, may undermine the fact that education is a public good which should be available to all. Schools should not be viewed as economic entities competing for higher test scores, but as social entities committed to equalizing opportunities, particularly for the disadvantage and most vulnerable groups. Therefore, the state has the primary responsibility to provide education to all its citizens, including children from poor families. While competition based on league-tables, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and public examinations, may result in improvements in test scores, such competition might cause schools to focus on those areas or subjects that are tested, ignoring other essential elements of education. While school autonomy and local decision-making are positive recommendations, the notion created by the report that decentralization is always good is not correct. For example, in Tanzania and Zambia, decentralization of the payment of teachers’ salaries to local authorities has resulted in serious salary delays and teacher absenteeism. In Poland, decentralization of the provision of early childhood education and care services has resulted in the closure of a large number of these facilities because the local authorities did not have enough money or political will to maintain them. For decentralization to be successful it must be properly planned and supported with adequate resources. Capacity building programmes for local authorities, school governing bodies and school leaders ought to be instituted. The decision on the aspects of education to be decentralized should involve various stakeholders, including teachers’ unions. On school accountability, the study stresses the importance of examinations, and performance-related pay. The study asserts that performance-related pay has had substantial impact on student achievement in England and Israel. However, the study seems to ignore the negative effects of performance-related pay such as the difficulty in implementation , particularly when it comes to teachers handling non-external examination classes, the amount of paper work involved, unjustifiable salary differentials between teachers caused by scores awarded by different supervisors in the same school or school district and the inevitable tendency to focus on examination subjects, as opposed to offering holistic education to the student. 5. Conclusion What is emerging from this report and other studies conducted by the World Bank recently is the importance attached to testing, competition and performance-related pay for teachers and school principals. The same emphasis is evident in OECD’s current education policy as reflected in PISA, the envisaged Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) and international assessment at primary school level. Therefore, EI and the teachers’ unions have an enormous challenge to respond appropriately and collectively to these developments. ____________ Notes: 1 Education Quality and Economic Growth, p.1 2 Education Quality and Economic Growth, p.1 3 Education Quality and Economic Growth, p.1 4 Education Quality and Economic Growth, p.12 5 Education Quality and Economic Growth, p.17 To download "Education Quality and Economic Growth" in pdf format, please click on the link below.