Worlds of Education

Credits: USAID Guatemala
Credits: USAID Guatemala

#WDR2018 Reality Check #14: Where is the World in the WDR 2018? An Appeal to Rename it the ‘American Development Report’ by Jeremy Rappleye & Hikaru Komatsu

published 13 February 2018 updated 12 February 2019
written by:

The 2018 World Development Report “Learning to Realize Education’s Promise” provides deep insights into the worldview of the World Bank, the world’s most powerful development institution. Instead of critically questioning the Bank’s explicit claims – as most of the blogs thus far have done – it is also worth pausing to listen for silences. Among the most deafening of these is the absence of Other views of learning.

Below is a simple chart showing the number of mentions of six countries in the main text of the Report (note this excludes the Foreword, multi-country composite figures, and citations):


Number of mentions in the Report

PISA 2015-Math (points)

PISA 2015-Science (points)

Creative Problem Solving (points)

Collaborative Problem Solving (points)







United Kingdom






East Asian countries



















The overabundance of examples drawn from the United States, while long the modus operandi of Western-led development, now seems oddly out of place in a PISA-dominated education world. Not only have the countries listed – Korea, Japan, and Taiwan – consistently led all international learning assessments from the 1960s forward (FIMS, TIMSS, PISA), but these same countries have taken all the top spots in the newest ‘next generation’ learning assessments explicitly designed to capture “21st Century Skills”: the OECD creative problem solving exercise (2012) and collaborative problem-solving (2015). Meanwhile, the United States (and the United Kingdom) continue to perform well below this average. Would it not make more sense to look to the alternative concept of learning and education in these countries as a guide, rather than place an overwhelming focus on the United States?

What makes this parochialism-turned-silence all the more glaring is that the Report opens by explicitly touting the success of Korea: the Foreword penned by the Korean-national President of the Bank touts the centrality of education to Korea’s development. Yet nowhere in the subsequent Report is this followed up with deeper research and analysis. “The most effective systems – in terms of learning – are those that have narrowed the gaps between evidence and practice,” the Report argues, “On learner preparation, for example, East Asian countries such as Korea and Singapore have achieved high levels of children ready to learn” (23). Unfortunately, the “evidence” the Reports then highlights is limited to inputs of “new information and communication technology” and “school management and governance reforms” (22-23).  Such leaps in logic completely misrepresent the sources of East Asian learning (see Komatsu & Rappleye 2017).

Meanwhile, several of the most innovative policy reforms in the United States and the United Kingdom over the past several years are attempts to learn from East Asian practice. For example, Japanese teacher development practices called Lesson Study have been widely adopted by several American states (Florida) and major urban districts (Oakland and Chicago). In England, there are on-going attempts to adopt Shanghai mathematics. Of course such attempts are often highly problematic (see Rappleye & Komatsu 2018). But our point here is that many in the United States and England are already “looking East” for insights into how to improve learning. Scholarly works like The Teaching Gap(Stevenson & Stigler 1999) that provide rich insights into core differences in teaching and learning worldwide have been run-away bestsellers in the United States. Yet all of this is completely absent from the Report. Here it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the World Bank is still trying to win the Cold War and its analysts are still imprisoned in the logic of modernization theory:  the United States leads the world.

The sources of the Bank’s image of ‘learning’ fundamentally come down to only two: neuroscience and the American experience. “Cognitive neuroscience has evolved dramatically with brain imaging,” the Report suggests, “revealing new insights into how children learn” (108). The promise of “development solutions” somehow emerging from decontextualized neurosciences are then supplemented with discussions of “what works” drawn from America. For example, consider Box 6.2 where the Report asks: “What Works in Preservice Teacher Training?” (133), then proceeds to answer with an episode from New York City. If such approaches to learning are working so well, what explains America’s mediocre performance on international comparative learning assessments?

As Robert Wade (1996) insightfully described over two decades ago in a piece entitled Japan, The World Bank, and the Art of Paradigm Maintenance, the Bank continues to refuse to acknowledge Other views, seeing American practice as universal solutions for the entire World. Yet, it is precisely East Asia that has been the most ‘successful’ case of development and yet largely chartered an alternative course as that prescribed by the Bank: state over market forces, a heavy focus on welfare and equity, and schooling as primarily a cultural rather than economic project. As a recent article in The Atlantic(2017) entitled Japan Might Be What Equity in Education Looks Like underscores, “Japan has different goals for its schools than somewhere like the United States does,” leading to this thorough commitment to equity.

So we ask: Is it not thus time to rename the “World Development Report” simply the “American Development Report”? The only aspect that deserves the label “world” is the scope of its ambition, not the ideas that go into formulating the analysis. A future renaming of the Report would help avoid misunderstandings about what it really represents.

And finally, lest we be mistaken:  we are not advocating that developing countries copy from East Asia. We quite agree with the Report’s somewhat disingenuous claim that “Interventions cannot simply be exported from one country to another” (110). We also agree with Silova (2018) who writes in her blog that the purported “learning crisis” is really a deeper crisis of recognition of where the source of the problem lies. Based upon both scholarly research and our first hand experience actually working inside the Bank (see Rappleye & Un 2017), we too see the sorry history of the past six decades of Western-led development as failure. We too would like to see the whole colonial-Cold War artifact eventually dismantled.

Yet, we submit that a first step in this direction is that the Western-led international development industry – most of all the America-centric World Bank – is exposed for what it really is: peddling American practices as universal solutions. Diversifying the potential sources for learning – particularly by including examples outside the Western experience – is one way that we can resist the fallacy of universal solutions.

#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 Iveta Silova: #WDR2018 Reality Check #13: “It’s not a learning crisis, it’s an international development crisis! A decolonial critique”


Komatsu H and Rappleye J (2017) Did the shift to computer-based testing in PISA 2015 affect reading scores? A View from East Asia. Compare 47(4): 616-623.

Rappleye J and Komatsu H (2017) How to make Lesson Study work in America and worldwide:  a Japanese perspective on the onto-cultural basis of (teacher) education. Research in Comparative and International Education 12 (4): 398-430.

Rappleye J and Un L (2018) What drives failed policy at the World Bank? An inside account of new aid modalities to higher education: context, blame, and infallibility. Comparative Education(forthcoming) http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03050068.2018.1426534

Silova I (2018) It is not the learning crisis, it is the international development crisis! A Decolonial Critique. Education International.

Stigler JW and Hiebert J (1999 [2009]) The Teaching Gap. New York, NY: Free Press.

Wade R (1996) Japan, the World Bank, and the art of paradigm maintenance: The East Asian Miracle in political perspective. New Left View 217: 3-36.

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