Worlds of Education

Credits: Khasar Sandag / World Bank
Credits: Khasar Sandag / World Bank

#WDR2018 Reality Check #9: A Critical Analysis of the World Bank’s World Development Report on Education by Steven J. Klees

published 9 January 2018 updated 12 April 2018
written by:

The annual World Development Report (WDR) is the World Bank’s flagship publication. The 2018 report is entitled Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. In the 40 year history of the WDR, this is the first time its focus has been on education. Many commentators have welcomed this as needed in this time when education systems around the world face so many challenges. I am less sanguine.

While the report has some redeeming features, I see it as part of the Bank’s long-term very narrow – even for economists -- view of education.

Despite its 216-page length, the WDR has a fairly simple message.  Primarily, the message is that learning in developing countries is seen as in crisis with many statistics given on how so many students are learning so little in basic education.  Hundreds of millions of students who have completed a number of years of primary school are illiterate; only 14% meet minimum learning standards in reading and less in mathematics.  The sources of this crisis are examined and three solutions are proffered: 1. We need widespread assessments of student learning; 2. We need to act on the “explosion” of evidence regarding what works to improve learning: and 3. We need to remove technical and political barriers in order to align the whole education system towards improving learning.  Below I examine the problematic nature of the Bank’s analysis along various educational dimensions.


One basic problem is that the Bank – and perhaps too much of the rest of the international community -- cannot keep two ideas in their head simultaneously.  We have long cycled between attention to education access and equity, on the one hand, and quality and learning, on the other hand.  Expanding access often leads to deterioration in quality, and attention to quality too often leads to ignoring access.  Yet clearly, access and quality are intricately connected.  Access to What?  And Quality for Whom? are always the questions.

In its focus on the “learning crisis” the WDR gives short shrift to issues of access.  While the 260 million children and youth who are out of school are mentioned briefly, there is no attention at all paid to what is needed to get them an education.  And, of course, they are the worst victims of the learning crisis.

The WDR also gets low marks for its narrow focus on what is learning – basically on reading and math.  While socioemotional skills are mentioned at various points, other than the repeated reference to problematic narrow blame-the-victim ideas of “grit” and “resilience,” there is no attention to what this means for improving a broad idea of learning.  Almost all the research they cite to decide “what works” to improve learning is based only on impact on reading and math.  This narrow focus compounds the problematic results of attention to early grade reading and math over the last decade that has distorted primary school curricula to focus on what is tested.  The massive assessment regime that the WDR recommends will continue that trend and result in the same distortion to tested subjects that we saw in the U.S. No Child Left Behind initiative whose measurement focus did nothing to improve test scores.


While there were occasional sensible comments about teachers and teaching in the WDR, the overall tenor of the report is that unmotivated and unskilled teachers are one of the principal sources of the learning crisis.   Teachers with too little training is definitely a worldwide problem.  But that is a problem in which the Bank has been complicit.   For decades, the Bank has criticized preservice and in-service teacher training as not cost-effective.  For decades, the Bank has been pushing hiring untrained contract teachers as a cheap fix and a way to get around teacher unions – and contract teachers are again praised in the WDR.  This is in contradiction to the places in the WDR where the Bank argues that developing countries need to follow the lead of the few countries that attract the best students to teaching, improve training, and improve working conditions.

There is no explicit evidence offered at all for the repeated claim that teachers are unmotivated and need to be controlled and monitored to do their job.  The Bank has a long history of blaming teachers and teacher unions for educational failures.  The Bank implicitly argues that the problem of teacher absenteeism, referred to throughout the report, means teachers are unmotivated, but that simply is not true.  As anyone knows who has worked extensively with teachers in developing countries, as I have, it is clear that, even under the very trying current circumstances, most teachers are very motivated to do the best for their students.  This is true even if they must be absent at times in order to get paid or comply with bureaucratic needs – or even if they miss schools because they are working at other jobs to make ends meet.  Teacher absenteeism is not a sign of low motivation.  Teacher salaries are abysmally low, as is the status of teaching.  Because of this teaching in many countries has become an occupation of last resort, yet it still attracts dedicated teachers (see my recent study with colleagues on teachers in four African countries).  Once again, the Bank has been very complicit in this state of affairs as they and the IMF for decades have enforced neoliberal, Washington Consensus policies which resulted in government cutbacks and declining real salaries for teachers around the world.  It is incredible that economists don’t recognize that the deterioration of salaries is the major cause of teacher absenteeism and that all they are willing to peddle is ineffective and insulting pay-for-performance schemes.


The biggest problem with this WDR is the lack of any serious attention to whether and how to finance meeting the learning crisis and other education challenges.  Only a half a page of the regular text of the report is devoted to finance, supplemented by one of their 5-page spotlights at the end.  I find the tenor of their treatment of finance unconscionable and let me explain why.  The title of the spotlight embodies its problematic nature: “Spending more or spending better -- or both?”  Spending more gets short shrift – “maybe, sometimes” is their answer, emphasizing that more money (in the research they choose to cite) doesn’t lead to more learning (vs., e.g., a recent study of spending and PISA scores).  This is even a weaker approach than the tenor of Bank reports for many decades in which they devote a line or two saying that “yes, more money is needed,” “but” then spend the rest of the report giving their narrow views of what more efficient spending would mean.

This approach to finance contradicts the most sensible parts of the WDR which lay out all the many very expensive things that have to be done to solve the learning crisis, including: much better prenatal and postnatal care; tackling widespread stunting and malnutrition; home visits and caregiver programs to support parents of 0 to 3-year olds; daycare centers for the very young followed by three years of quality preschool; make available libraries and recreation centers; eliminate chemically toxic and physically dangerous environments; attract the best students into teaching; improve preservice and in-service training; use technologies that complement teachers skills; improve school management; lower school fees and costs; provide cash transfers and psychosocial support; remedial and dropout prevention programs for at-risk youth; and more!

Yet nowhere do they say that implementing this very impressive agenda will be very expensive.  Nor do they mention the costs of getting the 260 million children and youth out of school back in school.  Nor do they mention decades of UNESCO studies that we are facing a vast shortfall in the international assistance necessary to improve the access to and quality of primary and secondary school in developing countries – to the tune of $40 billion/year – 80 times what the Global Partnership for Education has managed to cajole form donors.  This is a bank full of economists, finance should be front and center, not forever buried in some “yes, but” asides!

Other Problems

Space limitations preclude me from doing more than mentioning some of the many other significant problems with this report: once again, barely recognizing the right to education instead of elaborating how it could use the 4As approach to frame attention to the learning crisis; a half-hearted brief mention of Sen’s capabilities approach whereas serious consideration would lead to a much broader view of learning issues; a very narrow view of what constitutes evidence, privileging problematic RCTs, and essentially treating one study on one topic in one country as universally valid; offering advice on a very narrow view of what good management means from an institution that has been a management morass for decades; promoting a view of higher education that says primary and secondary education are the priority investments, continuing its decades-long relegating of developing countries to compete based on lower-wage labor; a naïve and unrealistic view of politics and political barriers to some distorted view of the need for complete system alignment behind the one (narrow) goal of learning; and the lack of recognition that the two developing country outliers exhibiting very high achievement test scores – Vietnam (mentioned repeatedly) and Cuba (never mentioned) – are outliers because of socialist egalitarian policies.


In its discussion of political barriers, the Bank argues:

Vested interests are not confined to private or rent-seeking interests.  Actors in education systems are often driven by their values or ideology….[190]

Including the Bank!  The World Bank prides itself on being evidence- and research-based, but it is not.  Its premises and conclusions are based on ideology, not evidence.  The Bank selects and interprets the research that fits with its ideology.  In this sense, it resembles conservative ideological institutions like the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation.  However, it differs in two important ways.  First, everyone realizes Cato and Heritage are partisan.  The Bank, on the other hand, makes a pretense of objectivity and inclusiveness.  Second, Cato and Heritage are private institutions with limited influence.  The Bank is a public institution, a monopoly at that, financed by taxes, which gives grants, loans, and advice around the world, yielding a vast global influence. [1]

The ideology of the Bank is neoliberalism, a term Bank economists barely acknowledge.  In the 1960s and 1970s, liberal education economists at the Bank, like Jean-Pierre Jallade, routinely recommended substantial investments in education access and quality financed by progressive taxes.  Without any basis in evidence and with specious reasoning, the Bank, along with the IMF, imbibed and spread so-called Washington Consensus policies for the next four decades through SAPs and their PRSP successors, delegitimizing government and starving the public sector of resources.

Of course there is a learning crisis.  The world is replete with crises of education, health, poverty, development, environment, war, and more.  How the Bank and other neoliberal institutions frame these crises, cast blame, and proffer solutions, as we have seen here, reflects their ideology.  In education, the WDR privileges a narrow view of learning, separates it from attention to access, blames teachers, and, unbelievably, does worse than ignore finance – actually questions whether more resources are needed.

We need to challenge the legitimacy of the Bank – and the IMF.  A few decades ago, there was a strong “50 years is enough” campaign that did so.  We need to revisit that campaign.  We are coming up on the 75th anniversary of their founding in 2019.  The Bank and the Fund are undemocratic, technocratic, neoliberal institutions unfit for the necessities of today’s world.  It is high time for a new Bretton Woods conference to re-think and re-formulate the role and nature of these institutions.

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published on the Bretton Woods Observer (available here).

#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 Marie-Antoinette Corr: "#WDR2018 Reality check #8: In the Gambia, the positive role of unions in contributing to quality education"

[1] The Bank (and other aid agencies) like to say that policies are always country-driven and country-owned.  This is belied by decades of imposing conditionalities that, for example, forced countries to cut taxes and social services or by a 1200-page manual to “guide” countries in developing PRSPs.

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