Credits: Jonathan Ernst/World Bank
Credits: Jonathan Ernst/World Bank

#WDR2018 Reality Check #10: “We Need More than Just Better Teachers?” by Pasi Sahlberg

written by: Pasi Sahlberg published 2018-01-16 updated 2018-04-12

The World Development report 2018 (WDR2018) is right about the global learning crisis: many children not in school, educational inequity, and low quality of learning outcomes. But it often misses the point when trying to use available evidence to realize education’s promise. The problem is that there are so many ‘facts’ now available about how to fix education, that anyone – including the Bank – can easily gravitate towards data that confirms what they believe, and then select sources that deliver it.

The WDR2018 argues that poor initial teacher education, lack of motivation of and incentives to teachers, and ineffective teaching are some of the key factors behind this crisis. It is surprising, as Steven Klees[1] noted, that the Bank now comes to this conclusion. For years it has rejected teacher education in its own education operations by saying it’s not worth investing in. Instead the Bank favours hiring unqualified and contract teachers as a solution to inadequate teacher quality among its clients. The report goes on arguing that there are too many teachers who are not ‘motivated’ to teach, and that monetary and other incentives would be effective remedies to fix that. According to research, however, performance-based pay doesn’t work in schools and value-added measurements of teachers are impossible to employ reliably in practice. Those who teach in or work with schools on a regular basis know that most teachers teach to change people’s lives and contribute to the common good, not for incentives determined by students’ test scores.

The report falls short in its analysis of the teaching profession in three ways: its use of the human capital view to analyze teachers’ work; its narrow view on teacher policies; and the mixing of facts and myths about Finland.

1. Human capital vs. social capital perspective to teaching.The human capital paradigm assumes that performance improves by betterment of people. That is true in education but it is not the whole truth. Research shows that when teachers collaborate, everybody benefits[2]. Furthermore, when schools collaborate and help one another to improve, the pace of change can exceed expectations (e.g. the London Challenge or the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement). Investments in social capital, in other words collaboration, teamwork, and networks, often improve human capital, but not vice versa. It is also true, that investing in the quality of professional collaboration[3] – not just to increase quantity of it – has appeared to be more cost-effective than trying to seek change through investments in human capital alone.

2. Narrow view on teacher policies.It is true that teachers cost about three quarters of the total education spending around the world. But again, this is not the whole truth. In countries ranging from Albania to the United States, inadequate teacher pay is a significant reason for young people not to consider teaching as a lifelong career. It is easy to ask for better teachers but that is not enough. Teacher policies have to get better. The WDR2018 gives some examples of good policies in successful education systems, but it fails to establish a convincing recommendation to improve national teacher policy frameworks. Teacher shortages and, as a consequence, too many ill-prepared and unqualified teachers is a consequence of poor teacher policies and a lack of properly funded education. Better teacher policies, as research shows[4], often lead to better teachers and improved educational performance over time.

3. Myths about Finland.On page 13 (and again on page 136) the report explains how Finland’s education system gives considerable autonomy to its well-educated teachers and how they can tailor teaching to the needs of their students. It then argues that lower-performing education systems would not benefit from that autonomy because their “poorly educated, unmotivated and loosely managed teachers would only make things worse” (p. 13). Now, let’s be clear here. The pedagogical strength of Finnish schools cannot be narrowed down to ‘teacher autonomy’. The culture of Finnish schools is based on a system-wide professional collaboration between schools and collaborative professionalism within schools. Instead of consequential accountability that the Bank often requires its clients to embed in their education reforms, Finnish schools have collective autonomy[5] that makes schools more autonomous from bureaucracy but less independent from one another. Research proves that professional collaboration is particularly beneficial to early-career and less qualified teachers. It is the culture of professional collaboration that improves educational performance in Finnish schools, not teacher autonomy as the report assumes.

Another myth about Finland is that academic ability would be the best predictor of teacher effectiveness. “To promote effective teaching, Finland … attract some of the most highly skilled graduates from tertiary education into teaching”, the WDR2018 argues on page 23. But in reality, minority of those accepted to very competitive research-based academic programs come from the top quintile of the talent pool[6]. The WDR2018 also fails to report that student-teachers are carefully selected to competitive academic programs based on combination of multiple talents and personal characteristics. All students go through demanding scientific and clinical training. Therefore, teachers in Finland have advanced pedagogical skills, content knowledge, moral purpose and clear teacher identity that form the core of professionalism.

 In search of ways to escape low-learning traps the WDR2018 could have relied more on what we have learned about successful education nations that often prioritize quality, equity, and teacher professionalism in education policies to strengthen public education.

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


[2]Quintero, E. (Ed.) (2017). Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[3]Andy Hargreaves, A., O’Connor, M. (2017). Cultures of professional collaboration: their origins and opponents. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, Vol. 2 Issue: 2, pp.74-85, https://doi.org/10.1108/JPCC-02-2017-0004

[4]Darling-Hammond, L., Burns, D., Campbell, C., Goodwin, L., Hammerness, K., Low, E-L., McIntyre, A., Sato, M., & Zeichner, K. (Eds.) (2017). Empowered Educators: How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality Around the World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[5]Hargreaves, A. & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional Capital. Transforming teaching in every school. New York: Teachers College Press.

[6]Sahlberg, P. (2017). FinnishED Leadership. Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

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