Worlds of Education

Credits: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank
Credits: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

#WDR2018 Reality Check #11: School-Based Management: Questions and Concerns by D. Brent Edwards Jr.

published 23 January 2018 updated 3 April 2018
written by:

One of the primary avenues highlighted for educational improvement in the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR) 2018 is school-based management (SBM). This is not surprising, as SBM has been one of the World Bank’s preferred education governance reforms since the 1990s. Indeed, as Dean Nielsen, former Senior Evaluation Officer of the World Bank’s own Independent Evaluation Group, pointed out, the World Bank began supporting SBM in its 1999 Education Sector Strategy without offering “any evidence that [SBM] made a difference in valued education outcomes” (Nielsen, 2007, p. 84). While much has changed in the past 20 years, a careful reading of WDR 2018 raises questions and concerns about the World Bank’s portrayal of SBM and about the advisability of SBM as a strategy for improvement of education quality.

The first question that arises has to do with definitions. The World Bank does not seem to be entirely clear or consistent with what it means when it discusses SBM. The WDR 2018 states that “providing schools and communities with decision-making power and resources can solve two problems” (p. 149). First, SBM “may make teachers more immediately responsive to student needs” if it gives “local school leaders and parents more direct influence over teachers and other school representatives,” though it is not clear who these “others” are (p. 149). Second, the WDR 2018 states that “schools and communities may have better information about the needs of local schools, which, along with access discretionary resources, means they can more nimbly meet those needs” (p. 149). Despite these statements, the WDR does not actually define what SBM looks like beyond a broad comment on “providing schools and communities with decision-making power and resources.” This is a key omission, as it makes it impossible for one to turn these comments or the ensuing discussion of SBM into practical knowledge that is useful for one of the WDR’s primary audiences: policymakers in middle- and low-income countries. Although SBM has been defined previously in World Bank publications as involvement by some combination of principals, teachers, and parents in school councils for the purpose of carrying out a range of management tasks, the vague definition provided in the WDR 2018 may necessarily result from the fact that the range of examples mentioned in the Report do not conform to this definition—a fact which reinforces the above concern about what, exactly, the World Bank is promoting in the WDR 2018 beyond a vague claim about the benefits of enhanced decision-making power and resources when placed in the hands of schools and communities.

Relatedly, the second question has to do with the range of examples referenced and how to interpret them. While SBM (or school management more generally) is one of the four core key areas that the WDR 2018 specifies as influencing learning, the Report only dedicates three pages to discussing it (pp. 148-150). In spite of such limited space, numerous examples are mentioned. One consequence of covering many examples in a short space is that the WDR 2018 sacrifices depth. What we have are general comments about community monitoring, school grant programs, the necessity of giving parents time to learn “how to effectively engage in school management” (p. 149), and the importance of parents and communities being “able to harness increased information to hold teachers and schools more accountable” (p. 150). However, in none of these cases is it clear how these strategies should work in practice. We are left with the broad theoretical claims mentioned earlier that the World Bank has been promoting since the 1990s—that is, that SBM should enable relations of accountability, that it should be more responsive to local context, and that it should be more efficient because local actors know what their schools need and can act “more nimbly.” Unfortunately, the World Bank has not used the years since the 1990s to carry out research that helps us understand how the theory of SBM translates to practice.

Third, in terms of interpreting the evidence cited, an additional concern arises. First, however, the World Bank should be given credit for the fact that it acknowledges more than once that certain SBM models have had mixed results or have failed to increase parent engagement or student learning. That said, anyone familiar with the literature on SBM will note that the two recently-completed systematic literature reviews of SBM were used scantly or not at all in the WDR 2018 (Carr-Hill et al., 2015; Westhorp et al., 2014). This is concerning because these reviews not only underscore the difficulty of drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of SBM (Carr-Hill et al., 2015) but also highlight the kinds of circumstances in which SBM is likely to work better (Westhorp et al., 2014), with the latter being exactly the kind of commentary that would strengthen the WDR 2018. Given that the above-mentioned reviews have arrived at inclusive results, one wonders about the individual examples highlighted in the WDR 2018. Concern about biased interpretation or partial disclosure of research details is certainly warranted when it comes to the World Bank, given that this institution has a track record of this behavior, particularly in relation to SBM (Edwards & Loucel, 2017).

While there are many studies cited—over 25 in the three pages on SBM—one example from the WDR 2018 is sufficient to make the point that we cannot be sure of any of the interpretations offered in the WDR 2018 about the evidence on SBM.  The WDR 2018 references a program from Mexico that is a successful example of a monitoring program that can increase accountability through “feedback loops between multiple stakeholders” (p. 150). We are told that this program is successful because it did “not reach out to only one group, but rather share[d] information explicitly with school leaders and teachers, as well as with communities and parents” (p. 150). And that is all we know from the WDR 2018. However, if one reads the cited evidence on this example, an example for which no name or specifics were shared in the WDR 2018, one learns that the schools in Mexico that participated in the underlying program (known as the Program of Specific Attention for the Improvement of Educational Achievement) chose to implement one or more of four different school management improvement strategies, with SBM being one of the four (de Hoyos, Garcia-Horeno, & Patrinos, 2015). Yet the research does not provide any information on how many schools engaged with SBM, how it worked, or why we should believe that it contributed to improved test scores. Moreover, on this latter point, the study’s own findings are unclear. The study employed two different statistical approaches, with one of the two finding no significant effect of the school management intervention when similar schools are being compared in the treatment and control groups. However, if we assume that the program did have an effect, we still do not know what it says about SBM. Even this minimal information about the underlying research on the example from Mexico casts doubt on the already-vague statements of the WDR 2018 when it comes to SBM. We should be hesitant to take any of the Report’s claims about SBM at face value.

The fourth and fifth concerns can be mentioned more briefly. For the first of these, the WDR 2018 states that “everything else [in the education system] should strengthen the teacher-learner interaction” (p. 145), yet it is difficult to see how the monitoring and accountability functions that the WDR 2018 envisions for SBM will support rather than undermine this interaction. Although a later chapter of the WDR 2018 indicates that the World Bank believes that all learning challenges can be solved with the correct combination of “incentives, accountability mechanisms, and power relations” (p. 172), there is no practical discussion of how SBM mechanisms operate in practice, in what contexts, under what conditions, etc., nor how these mechanisms will or will not strengthen the teacher-learner interaction (not to mention the fact that the meaning of “teacher-learner interaction” is not defined and seems only to be a euphemism for the ability of teachers to raise test scores). Put differently, the WDR 2018 is short on meaningful discussion of implementation of SBM, a curious absence given the importance that this report gives to a “systems” perspective on education reform.

For the fifth issue, it stands out that equity is not addressed. Intuitively, equity is a concern for SBM because the ability of schools and communities to implement SBM (or not) depends on their capacity. Though the World Bank notes the importance of capacity for the success of SBM, no concern is expressed for the potential that SBM will exacerbate inequity across communities because of pre-existing levels of capacity or social capital and the differential ability of schools and communities to take advantage of (or else suffer because of) SBM arrangements. By extension, no comments are made about the fact that addressing these differences in capacity would require significantly more support and resources from the government and/or international actors. Of course, this is not a popular perspective with World Bank policy specialists, as it does not fit with the preferred framing of SBM as more efficient.

The above comments are not intended to indicate that SBM is an altogether undesirable kind of reform. Rather, in concluding, the message here is that those interested in SBM should shift how they think about this approach to school management. It is argued here that we need to think about community social capital more broadly, that is, that we should think beyond narrow SBM programs to also examine the processes, policies, conditions, and strategies that can reinforce community capacity building, community empowerment, community well-being, and community social capital more generally. In so doing, community involvement in SBM is likely to be more successful in implementation, is likely to be more meaningful in itself, and is likely to lead to more meaningful outcomes. In light of the characterization of SBM in the WDR 2018, the World Bank and other aid agencies are encouraged to shift their thinking in this way, in addition to addressing the issues highlighted above.

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


Carr-Hill, R., Rolleston, C., Phereli, T., & Schendel, R. (2015). The effects of school-based

decision making on educational outcomes in low and middle income contexts: A systematic review, 3ie Grantee Final Review. London: International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie). Retrieved from: http://r4d.dfid.gov.uk/pdf/outputs/SystematicReviews/61233_dfid-funded-decentralisation-review.pdf

de Hoyos, R., Garcia-Moreno, V., & Patrinos, H. (2015). The impact of accountability intervention with diagnostic feedback: Evidence from Mexico. Policy Research Working Paper 7393. World Bank. Available at: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/297561468188928817/The-impact-of-an-accountability-intervention-with-diagnostic-feedback-evidence-from-Mexico

Edwards Jr., D. B. & Loucel, C. (2016). The EDUCO Program, impact evaluations, and the political economy of global education reform. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 24 (49), 1-50, 2016. https://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/index.php/epaa/article/view/2019

Nielsen, H. D. (2007). Empowering communties for improved educational outcomes: some evaluation findings from the World Bank’, Prospects, 37, 81-93.

Westhorp, G., Walker, D.W., Rogers, P., Overbeeke, N., Ball, D., & Brice, G. (2014). Enhancing community accountability, empowerment and education outcomes in low-and middle-income countries: A realist review. EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. Available online at: http://r4d.dfid.gov.uk/pdf/outputs/SystematicReviews/Community-accountability-2014-Westhorp-report.pdf

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