Worlds of Education

Credits: World Bank Photo Collection
Credits: World Bank Photo Collection

#WDR2018 Reality Check #4: Realizing education’s promise: teachers are the solution, not the problem.

published 21 November 2017 updated 27 March 2018
written by:

The World Bank’s 2018 world development report, with its focus on education and the need ‘to realize education’s promise’, is a welcome, if perhaps surprising, step forward. The report scores highly on intent, but it must work with teachers, not against them, if the report’s ambitions are to become a reality.

The focus on education, and the recognition of how education can transform the lives of learners, is a positive development that should be acknowledged as such. In particular, the recognition that the drive for improved outcomes for all in education is a moral imperative that is much more ambitious than purely economic aspirations is to be warmly supported. However, whilst the report identifies the problems faced, and the need for bold action, the policy solutions presented look little different to a form of re-heated scientific management (or ‘Taylorism’) in which the teachers are directed how to teach (by setting students into ability groups), trained in appropriate methods using drill-and-repeat methods of training, their ‘output’ is measured through more testing and finally their efforts are either rewarded or penalised by linking their pay to their students’ test scores.

These are not the policy solutions that value, support and motivate teachers and that are likely to lead to the high quality outcomes that the report identifies as its goal. It is why teachers have consistently challenged the policy solutions offered in the World Bank report, and why they expect their unions to speak up for them and give voice to their concerns. Unfortunately the authors of the report see these issues very differently.  Teacher unions are criticised for not prioritising student learning, but rather protecting their members’ so-called ‘vested interests’ (p.189). In particular, in specific contexts, they are criticised for challenging the introduction of performance pay and the use of flexible employment contracts. The report refers to specific studies that claim an inverse relationship between union membership and student attainment, and although some caveats are offered, the overall conclusion is clear – teacher unions are bad for student attainment.

There is not the space here to challenge these points in detail but it is important to recognise that the arguments presented are poorly evidenced and undermine the credibility of the report. It is all too easy to identify studies from very specific contexts and give the impression these are generalizable, whilst too little effort is focused in distinguishing correlation from causation in the reports presented. It is interesting to note that the literature from this area that is referenced in the report is drawn from researchers with a long history of criticising education unions, whilst sources that are more positive about education unions are conspicuous by their absence. For example, the recent edited collection by Terry Moe and Susanne Wiborg (2017) is cited, whilst a similar collection, but with very different conclusions, edited by Nina Bascia (2015) is not.

Perhaps of most concern is the manner in which the report’s authors too easily counterpose a ‘focus on teaching and learning’ against the defence of ‘vested interests’ as though this is an unreconcilable binary. Teacher unions are criticised in the report for eschewing the former and apparently favouring the latter. It fails to acknowledge that it is entirely legitimate for teachers as workers to fight to defend and improve their working conditions. Teachers should not have to apologise for fighting for a wage that reflects the work they do, and on which they can afford to live. Nor should they be made to feel guilty for doing so. Too often teachers are asked to sacrifice their working conditions (and all too often their health) in the name of the children they teach. Setting up a simplistic and naïve tension between a focus on teaching and learning and teachers’ vested interests fails to recognise the difficulties teachers face, the complexity of the issues being discussed and how improved working conditions are often a central feature of improved learning conditions.

Second, the authors of the report assume that the ‘focus on teaching and learning’ is itself an uncontested goal about which there exists a unanimity of views, ie that the choice is between a focus on teaching and learning or a focus on other issues - this is manifestly not the case. Education does not simply prepare young people for their place in a future world, but it develops the people who will create that future world. Such a task is inevitably highly charged, and perhaps particularly so in today’s world which is more complex, more fast moving and arguably more unstable than it has been for decades. Teachers must make sense of this world, and think about how they equip young people to shape the future. At the same time they must make sense of all the competing demands that are articulated in wider society, and which education is expected in some way to resolve and reconcile. These competing demands are real and legitimate and cannot be wished away by an apparently neutral appeal to a ‘focus on teaching and learning’.

I welcome the World Bank’s development report and its focus on education. However, if the Bank really wants to tackle the challenges identified in its report it must first appreciate all the complexities, and diversities and tensions that make education what it is, and that teachers have to reconcile every day in their professional lives. Policy makers must stop treating education systems like some form of economic model, which, when the algorithms are right, automatically produces the correct policy solutions. An evidence informed approach to policy development is to be welcomed, but it is an approach that must be applied critically. A desperate search for ‘what works’ rarely yields the desired results, whilst simultaneously failing to address the real questions about what matters.

In conclusion the World Bank, and others, must appreciate that teachers are the solution, not the problem and develop the policy responses that flow from this. Improvement in education is not brought about by working out which switch to press, or which lever to pull, but it is achieved by working with teachers, understanding them and the issues they face, and addressing challenges appropriately. Specifically, it is brought about by working with the organisations that can legitimately claim to represent the collective interests of teachers – teacher unions. Rather than trying to circumvent teachers’ collective organisations policy makers need to develop the structures that ensure teachers’ voices are at the heart of policy development. Such an approach may not offer a quick fix, but teachers everywhere have experienced too many of those. Genuinely engaging with teachers in an inclusive and democratic approach to policy development is the only method that offers a realistic prospect of securing long term and sustainable improvement.


Moe, T. M., and Wiborg, S. (Eds) (2017). The Comparative Politics of Education: Teachers Unions and Education Systems around the World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Bascia, N.(Ed.) (2015). Teacher unions in public education. Palgrave Macmillan.

#WDR2018 Reality Check is a blog series organized by Education International.  The series brings together the voices of education experts and activists – researchers, teachers, unionists and civil society actors - from across the world in response to the 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. The series will form the basis of a publication in advance of the WB Spring Meetings 2018. If you would like to contribute to the series, please get in touch with Jennifer at [email protected]. All views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of Education International.

Check out the previous post in the series by Juliet Wajega: #WDR2018 Reality Check #3: Say No to for profit experiments in education: support Public education

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