Worlds of Education

Credits: Global Partnership for Education
Credits: Global Partnership for Education

#WDR2018 Reality Check #6: “A sceptic’s review” by Prachi Srivastava

published 5 December 2017 updated 24 April 2018
written by:

When the World Bank announced that the 2018 World Development Report (WDR) would be on education, I was sceptical. I’m not denying the Bank’s research expertise. It devotes substantial money and staff and has a trove of reports that are accessible in the public domain. It’s also open to criticism – and receives lots of it, especially on education. So why the scepticism?

To begin with, the Bank is one of the largest external donors for education in developing countries. ‘[M]anaging a portfolio of $US 9 billion with operations in 71 countries as of January 2013’, yet the 2018 WDR is the first since the series launched in 1978 to focus solely on education. What took it so long?

Secondly, how the Bank frames problems and assesses ‘evidence’ matters. It’s no secret that the Bank, even if implicitly, favours certain disciplines (i.e., economics) and methodological approaches (usually ‘big n’ quantitative studies). I’m not debating their virtues or vices. But this propensity has implications for the evidence that gets filtered in and out, and consequences for the ‘take-aways’. This is important because it has direct policy influence and signalling power, not only to governments and institutions with years of sectoral expertise, but also to a new community of actors, including private sector donors, with less experience in education.

Scepticism aside, the 2018 WDR Learning to Realize Education’s Promise does a few welcome things, two of which I elaborate on below:

1. It invokes education as a basic right, and makes a strong moral case for prioritizing education and learning. The Report starts with the bold statement, ‘Education is a basic human right, and is central to unblocking human capabilities’ (p. 1), referencing Amartya Sen’s now seminal capabilities approach. Coming from the Bank, this is big.

It has been heavily criticised ( famously by the late Katarina Tomasevski, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education) for distancing itself from the rights-based approach in favour of an instrumental approach, and eschewing the moral imperative to act in education. While the instrumental approach remains, there are also rights-based and moral assertions. The Report even mentions examples of using litigation to claim the right to education in India and Indonesia (Box 11.3), and states that such action can work in the interests of the disadvantaged.

As the business case for education has taken hold, the report’s opening messages on rights and moral obligations may help reset the tone. I would have liked to see a stronger attempt at building a moral case for financing education, especially by OECD-DAC donors, many of which have not fulfilled their commitments, but this is a start.

2. It does a relatively decent (if condensed) job of presenting evidence on private sector provision and private schooling. Cards on the table—I was invited to meet with some members of the WDR Team to discuss this issue during informal consultations on the Report. Firstly, despite the unclear position on user fees the Bank has sometimes been known to take, the WDR is explicit about the negative impact of school fees and costs (p. 117). A range of policy interventions to help with schooling costs and fees are presented (e.g., non-merit scholarships, conditional cash transfers), as well as country experiences of eliminating fees (Figure 5.4, p. 118).

While it supports the theoretical assumption that competition increases quality, despite insufficient evidence in developing countries, regarding outcomes, the Report is clear: ‘there is no consistent evidence that private schools deliver better learning outcomes than public schools’ (p. 176). Huge.

The Report addresses concerns about ‘cream-skimming’ of students. Also leaving me pleasantly surprised, it is open about the potential of commercially-oriented providers to exploit incentives for profit, ‘Some private suppliers of education services…may, in the pursuit of profit, advocate policy choices not in the interest of students (p. 13).

It is refreshingly forthright in admitting difficulties in overseeing systems with a myriad of private schools, suggesting ‘governments may deem it more straightforward to provide quality education than to regulate a disparate collection of providers that may not have the same objectives’ (p. 177). Finally, the report considers systemic effects, albeit briefly, that private schooling expansion ‘can undermine the political constituency for effective public schooling in the longer term’ (p. 177). Massive.

So- the 2018 WDR makes some welcome interventions. However, to fully realise its potential, here are my top two suggestions for what it could have done better (there are others—for example, the issue of teachers—but in the interest of brevity I’m limiting myself here).

1. Make the case for financing education less ambiguous.

The ambiguity is incongruous with recommendations of high-level fora. For example, the Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action for SDG4 is unequivocal: The ‘Least developed countries need to reach or exceed the upper end of these benchmarks [4-6% GDP, 15-20% national budgets] if they are to achieve the targets’ (emphasis mine).

The discussion is also somewhat ahistorical. An earlier analysis by Mehrotra of what he termed, 10 ‘early high-achievers in education’ concluded that high public expenditure as a proportion of GDP and as a proportion of national budgets were among the factors that contributed to expansion of relatively better quality primary education in early post-colonial contexts. If the aim now is to universalise education to secondary by 2030 (SDG Target 4.1), surely stable, secure, and increased financing by donors and domestic governments is pivotal, especially in countries that do not meet even the minimum benchmarks.

2. Focus on learning processes within schools and classrooms and their potential effects on learning outcomes. The Report acknowledges: ‘Learning is a complex process that is difficult to break down into simple linear relationships from cause to effect’ (p. 78). And it rightly attributes poor learning outcomes to poor quality provision. No one would argue otherwise.

However, ‘quality’ is influenced by a host of factors, many of which may be normative, socio-political, and micro-political (i.e., informal institutions). The learning outcomes that are the subject of the WDR are produced through learning processes structured in formal schooling processes. And formal schooling processes are embedded in the overt and hidden curriculum of the schools and classrooms (i.e., values and the reproduction of those values in formal schools) that children of different backgrounds have access to, and how those children, in turn, are positioned within them.

For example, research in India shows that broader societal caste-based practices continue to affect how children experience schooling even within universalising initiatives. Based on emerging analysis from my current study of roughly 1500 school-aged children in Delhi, I argue that silent exclusion reflects broader societal exclusion and will impede meaningful learning even if children are enrolled.

This is messy stuff. Which means that improving quality will be harder than ‘aligning all the ingredients’ (Box 9.2). These are deep-seated issues that cannot easily be overcome by the ‘proper’ incentives.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to David Evans, a Lead Economist on the 2018 WDR Team, for sharing insights and clarifying questions on the WDR process. Any errors or misunderstandings are mine.

This blog is an abridged version of a blog first published on From Poverty to Power.

#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 Diane Ravitch: #WDR2018 Reality Check #5: "Improving Education Requires Much More Than Testing"

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