Worlds of Education

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Education International

Why does the World Bank hate teachers?

published 21 September 2012 updated 21 September 2012
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In an insulting, biased, and ignorant blog, Shanta Devarajan, World Bank Chief Economist for Africa, blames teachers for Africa's educational problems.  He points to teacher "absenteeism, neglect, and ignorance" as the culprits of low levels of student learning.  Moreover, Mr. Devarajan argues that teachers, in the form of unions, actively campaign against reforms that would boost student learning.  Why?  Because, he says, the reforms would cause them to lose jobs to private schools.  What nonsense!

Given this tirade, it should come as no surprise that education is not one of Mr. Devajaran's specialties, but that does not stop him from wielding his considerable power to attack teachers.  Nor has it stopped him in the past.  Mr. Devajaran was the architect of the influential 2004 World Bank World Development Report that portrayed teachers as drunk and rioting in the streets.  Unfortunately, these views are not those of a single individual but reflect a broad World Bank consensus.  One of their most recent book covers portrays a teacher asleep in the classroom.

There is, of course, the issue of casting the first stone.  How many World Bank staff take three-martini lunches?  How many come back to work drunk?  How many don't come back at all?  Is anyone studying that?  Mr. Devajaran holds teachers responsible for low levels of learning.  The World Bank has been the premier global architect for development for decades.  Look at the awful state of the world in terms of poverty, inequality, and development.  Should we hold World Bank staff responsible?  Certainly many of us would argue that they neglect, are ignorant of, and/or actively resist reforms that could help change that state of affairs.

Mr. Devajaran's charges are simply biased, with the accusations actually often the result of actions of development agencies like the World Bank itself.  Yes, in some places teacher absenteeism is a problem.  But the studies done have been biased, often run or sponsored by the World Bank and reporting much more absenteeism than exists.  Moreover, much of teacher absenteeism can be directly traced to World Bank policies that for decades have pushed for lower teacher salaries, making taking a second job necessary.  Teacher "ignorance," to the extent to which it exists, can be traced to decades of World Bank policies that cut in-service and pre-service training for teachers and more recent policies that substitute untrained teachers for trained ones.

Blaming teachers is untrue and unproductive, taking attention away from the relevant, serious problems inside and outside the education system.  Yes, there are low levels of learning (not only in Africa; take high schools in the U.S., for example).  Within schools, learning materials are scarce, oversight is minimal, facilities are in disrepair, and class sizes are extremely high. The World Bank actually argues, based on one flawed study, that classes with 60 pupils are fine (for whom? not for children of World Bank staff, I am sure).  Many of the reasons for low levels of learning are due to out-of-school factors -- health and nutrition problems are severe (50% of children under 5 in Eastern and Southern Africa experience malnutrition), home resources are often minimal, and poverty generally poses multiple disadvantages.

Why does the World Bank hate teachers and teacher unions?  Partly, because they are looking for simplistic solutions.  Partly, because they are always looking for cheap solutions like large classes and untrained teachers.  Partly, because they do not want to deal with their utter failure to improve out-of-school factors.  But it is more than that and goes beyond education.  They do not just hate teachers, they hate all government workers.  This is tied to their antipathy to government in general as embodied in their pro-market zeal (which policies have been disastrous for three-plus decades).  And, more generally, the World Bank is not too fond of any workers, even private sector workers, who are, of course, necessary even from the point of view of the World Bank,  However,  these workers are seen as recalcitrant, with management needed to shape and control them.  Any form of organized labor, like unions, is seen as threatening to the pro-market order.  Teacher unions are not dismissed because they are self-interested and anti-education as claimed but are dismissed because they embody a different vision of education and challenge the hegemony of agencies like the World Bank.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.