Reforms and teachers

published 1 February 2016 updated 12 February 2016
written by:

Over the last decades, a global movement of education reform has transformed education systems worldwide (Salhberg, 2006). The intensity of this movement is such that some observers even speak about an ‘epidemic’ of education reforms (Levin, 1998; Steiner-Khamsi, 2004). This reform movement emphasises a mix of market and managerialist policy solutions as the most effective way to solve old and new educational problems. As a consequence, choice, competition, incentives, and accountability are becoming increasingly central policy principles in the global education agenda and in the re-structuring of educational systems all around the globe.

The main objectives of the current Global Managerial Education Reforms (GMERs) are to improve countries’ competitiveness by upgrading students’ learning achievement and, at the same time, enhancing the efficiency of education systems. Some of the most well-known policies being implemented in the context of GMERs are school-based management and related forms of decentralization, accountability policies, teachers’ evaluation, standards-based curriculum, target-setting and public-private partnerships (PPPs) in education. GMERs tend to modify the working conditions of teachers and their responsibilities, as well as how teachers’ performance is assessed and judged by the state and society.

This introductory chapter is structured as follows. In the first part, we present the main characteristics of GMERs and review the key policies and ideas that constitute them. We also discuss how these types of policies transform the relationship between the state and education, and why and how they are being disseminated and adopted in many parts of the world. In the second part, we explore the main issues and controversies of this type of reforms in relation to teachers. Specifically, we highlight some of the main paradoxes of GMERs in the way they understand teachers’ labour and aim to transform it. In the third and last part, we present the book’s structure and content, and outline the main questions that it addresses.


The education reforms analysed here have a strong managerial understanding of what are the most important educational problems, how education change should be carried out and how educational systems should be organised. One of the main objectives of GMERs is to increase education quality standards, but without necessarily investing more resources in education systems. GMER focus on how schools should be managed, financed and made accountable, and on how conditional incentives should be introduced into the education system to reward or punish actors according to their performance. In particular, they are very supportive of school autonomy ideas, and of promoting competition between schools via standardised testing and demand-side interventions such as vouchers or other types of capitation grants. In general, GMERs are strongly framed by an economic rationality and assumptions coming from economic theory concerning families, principals and teachers behaving as self- interested and benefit-maximiser agents, and about the possibility of retrieving and sharing perfect information about schools’ quality.

Interestingly, GMERs promoters’ main aim is to improve the levels of student learning, but, in their analysis and prescriptions, they do not explore sufficiently how and why students learn. In other words, they want to transform education without engaging directly with the core business of education: the teaching-learning processes.

The new role of the state in education: Neoliberal reforms, or something else?

Educationists usually qualify the managerial type of reforms analysed in this book as ‘neoliberal’ (see, for instance, Hill, 2009). There are different and competing definitions of neoliberalism; however, we do not think that the neoliberal label completely captures the type of phenomenon discussed here. Neoliberal reforms are, first and foremost, finance- driven reforms. They are committed with efficiency, above all else (Carnoy, 1999). However, the managerial change of education system is not necessarily more efficient than conventional education provision.

GMERs advocates are enthusiastic about importing market rules and using market analogies when promoting their policies, as neoliberalism is, but this does not mean that they advocate the pure marketisation/privatisation of education, or the retirement of the state. In fact, this type of reform requires the state being more active than ever in education, although by adopting different roles. Thus, according to GMERs, the state should not provide education directly, and focus on the regulation and funding of schools –preferably, under demand funding formulas–, as well as on the evaluation and control of the performance of schools. Moreover, as many accountability policies establish, the state should use evaluations to inform society about schools’ performance publicly, and reward and punish schools according to their progress.

Why are managerial reforms globalised?

The fact that the managerial approach to education reform has been globalised is, to a great extent, related to the material and ideational power of the organisations backing them. These reforms count on persistent promoters strategically located in very influential and well-connected international organisations, the World Bank being the most outstanding.

The global education reform movement benefits from the fact that, especially in developing contexts, governments feel increasing pressure to achieve the Education For All (EFA) goals. However, rich countries are not exempt from international pressure either. due to the increasing international pressure stemming from international standardised tests, loan conditionalities, the EFA Action Framework and so on, more and more governments are open to experimenting with ‘innovative’ ways of education delivery and to adopting new managerial approaches.


In a globalised economy, education, skills and knowledge are increasingly seen as key assets for economic competitiveness, and most countries and regions in the world aspire to become “knowledge economies” (Gouvias, 2007). As part of this aspiration, education becomes more central in the development strategies of governments and, in particular, “schools and teachers are being asked to do more than they have done before, but also in a different way” (Sahlberg, 2006, p.283). Overall, the international development community pays increasing attention to the key role that teachers play in the provision of quality education for all (Leu, 2005).

What social sciences research and, more recently, the OECD/PISA show is that, if education quality or learning outcomes are to be improved, society needs to take the equity between and within schools, as well as the social, economic and cultural conditionings that affect student learning more seriously. Unfortunately, managerial educational reformers tend to omit the importance of these types of elements when prescribing specific policy tools that aim at improving student learning (Verger and Bonal, 2012).

Main paradoxes in the relationship between GMERs and teachers

Global education reformers join the international consensus about teachers’ performance as a key determinant of education quality and, very often, put teachers at the centre of their policy ideas and interventions. The policy interventions designed in the context of the GMERs movement have the potential to transform teachers’ work in several ways. Teacher evaluation and related accountability policies aim to enhance the visibility of teachers’ work vis-à-vis both the state and the rest of society; merit-based policies aim at regulating teachers’ salaries according to their performance; standards-based reforms detail what teachers have to learn and teach; PPPs favour the deregulation of teachers’ labour; and school-based management reinforces the role of teachers as both school managers and, to some extent, community workers.

Overall, the way teachers are perceived and treated in GMERs often involves a multitude of paradoxes and shortcomings. Below, we highlight the most evident of them.

Thefirst paradoxconsists of the fact that GMERs continuously stress the importance of teachers and emphasise the key role they play in education quality, but simultaneously disempower them in several ways. Specifically, they do so in three ways: a) by not sufficiently taking into account their preferences in policy processes, b) by treating teachers as assets to be managed rather than as agents of change, and c) by undermining their autonomy in front of the state and students’ families.

Thesecond paradoxrelates to the fact that managerial reforms request more responsibilities from teachers but, at the same time, advocate their de-professionalisation. Teachers are supposed to do more things than before and in a different way, even when their preparation and work conditions might be poorer.

Thethird paradoxis related to how GMERs advocates use evidence in a very ‘selective’ way. On the one hand, they promote managerial reforms even when they are aware of the fact that evidence of the positive impact of such reforms in learning outcomes is still inconclusive (Bruns et al., 2011; Experton, 1999; Patrinos et al., 2009; Vegas, 2005). On the other hand, however, they seem to ignore that the level of learning outcomes is higher in countries where their policy prescriptions are very marginal (or, in fact, have not been even implemented yet).

Thefourth and last paradoxidentified is that GMERs ask teachers and schools to assume new duties and more complex mandates, but without taking into account whether there are the necessary material and technical conditions to undertake them.

Overall, this book is openly explicit of the limitations of basing education reforms on the mix of managerialist and market ideas that GMERs represent. Specifically, the main questions that this book aims at answering are:

  1. How are global education reforms re-contextualised and translated into particular contexts? What are the mediating elements and institutions affecting the translation and re-contextualisation of GMERs to particular education contexts??

  2. What are the specific difficulties associated with the implementation of global/managerial education policies in local contexts? Specifically, how are they received by teachers and other local education stakeholders? To what extent are GMERs enacted or resisted by them??

  3. According to the key education stakeholders involved in the reforms, do GMERs bring about the intended results? What are the main challenges and opportunities of this type of reforms when it comes to achieve their expected outcomes??

  4. To what extent are the main assumptions and ‘theories of action’ behind GMERs substantiated by the actual facts, once the reforms are implemented and translated into specific educational practices??

However, it should also be pointed out that this is not an “anti-reform” book. Rather, it is hoped that the different chapters provide elements to teachers, practitioners, aid agencies and other education stakeholders to reflect on educational change processes that could be, on the one hand, more in line with the education realities and problems prevailing in their particular contexts and, on the other, more participatory and respectful in nature with teachers’ needs and identities.


Bruns, B., Filmer, D. & Patrinos, H. (2011). Making Schools Work: New Evidence on Accountability Reforms. Washington: The World Bank Group.

Carnoy, Martin. (1999). Globalization and Educational Reform: What Planners Need to Know. Paris: UNESCO.

Experton, W. (1999).“Desafíos para la Nueva Etapa de la Reforma Educativa en Argentina”. LCSHD Paper Series Department of Human Development 20964. Washington DC: World Bank

Gouvias, D. (2007).“The ‘Regulatory’ State and the Use of ‘Independent’ Agencies as Legitimising Mechanisms of Educational Reform.” Research in Comparative and International Education, 2(4), 297–312.

Hill, D. (2009).Contesting Neoliberal Education: Public Resistance and Collective Advance. Vol. 2. London: Routledge.

Leu, E. (2005).The Role of Teachers, Schools, and Communities in Quality Education: A Review of the Literature. Washington DC: AED.

Levin, B. (1998).“An Epidemic of Education Policy: (what) Can We Learn from Each Other?” Comparative Education, 34(2), 131–141.

Patrinos, H., Barrera-Osorio, F. & Guaqueta, J. (2009)The Role and Impact of Public Private Partnerships in Education, Washington DC: The World Bank Group.

Sahlberg, P. (2006).“Education reform for raising economic competitiveness.” Journal of Educational Change 7, 259-287.

Steiner-Khamsi, G. (2004).The Global Politics of Educational Borrowing and Lending. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Verger, A. & Bonal, X. (2012).“All things being equal? Policy options, shortfalls and absences in the World Bank Education Sector Strategy 2020”. In Klees, S., J. Samoff, & N. Stromquist (eds.) World Bank and Education: Critiques and Alternatives. Rotterdam: Sense, 125-142.