Worlds of Education

Photo: GPE/Koli Banik
Photo: GPE/Koli Banik

#SABERexposed “SABER School Autonomy & Accountability”, by Lê Minh Hằng.

published 31 October 2019 updated 31 October 2019
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SABER School Autonomy & Accountability argues that a closed loop model of autonomy, assessment, and accountability will lead to better education outcomes. This blog post critiques some of the central assumptions behind this model and argues for alternative ways to view accountability.

Continuing the previous overall critique of the World Bank’s Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative, this blog post focuses on the School Autonomy & Accountability (SAA) domain. The inclusion of SAA in SABER should be no surprise given the World Bank’s intense efforts to promote certain versions of decentralization and accountability in education for over a decade now. Similar to the other domains, SABER SAA draws on a selective base of evidence (many of them funded by the Bank itself) to promote five policy goals: (1) increasing level of autonomy in the planning and management of school budget; (2) increasing level of autonomy in personnel management; (3) increasing the role of school councils in school governance; (4) strengthening school and student assessment; (5) increasing accountability to stakeholders.

These five policy goals are conceptually tied together by a preference for the short route to accountability model (Figure 1). This is a Bank argument that dates back to the Bank’s 2004 World Development Report ‘Making services work for poor people.’ It argues that in the past, citizens were only able to hold the public sector accountable through a long route of voting for officials or policies they preferred. The shift to a short route to accountability, in contrast, would allow people to directly take control over services delivery, drawing on the assumption that the market-based approach of allowing consumers more direct interaction and influence would make service providers (in this case, schools and teachers) more responsive to the customers’ (i.e., parents’ and student’s) needs. Applied to education, this short route to accountability is used to promote more decentralization and school autonomy, particularly through the school-based management (SBM) model.

Figure 1. Long vs. short route to accountability (SAA Framework Paper, p. 5)

However, SABER also acknowledges that decentralization alone is not enough: Autonomy requires assessment in order to ensure accountability (the 3A closed loop model, see Figure 2). In other words, to ensure that actors within this decentralized education system are still accountable to each other, the Bank argues that they need constant information through assessment of school and student performance that will help local school councils make budget, personnel, and pedagogical decisions. This, of course, is the model of ‘test-based accountability’ that has been shown to have disastrous results in many parts of the world (see other blog posts here, here, and here). We know from these examples that this SABER SAA approach of ‘holding someone accountable’ with test scores, with its strong ‘blame the teacher’ undertone, can lead to perverse incentives to promote short-term increase in test scores rather than long-term educational outcomes and public good.

Figure 2. SAA’s 3A closed loop model of Autonomy – Assessment – Accountability (SAA Framework paper, p. 7)

Indeed, teachers continue to be the scapegoats and the objects of regulation in this SAA domain. For example, under one policy indicator “Autonomy in teacher appointment and deployment decisions”, an ‘advanced’ education system would have to meet the following criteria: “Schools (school principals, school council, parent association, etc.) have legal authority to appoint teachers. Union and civil service agreement may or may not regulate the appointments.” This is another example of the ideological biases behind SABER and how it contributes to the World Bank’s consistent push to fight teacher union power and de-professionalize teachers.

Is more information about school quality and student results enough to motivate educational improvement? This is simply a pipe dream that forgets the complex relationships, power struggles, and political agendas always present in schooling and education. Information (whether from testing or teacher evaluation) is just one of the many factors influencing how educational stakeholders act and relate with each other. SABER SAA does not recognize this. The only reference to ‘power’ is made in terms of ‘client power’ which ignores the potential impact of ‘provider power’ and ‘state power.’ Neither does it recognize that ‘civil society’ itself can be fragmented into different power groups. A technical, apolitical version of accountability like in SABER only erodes responsibilities, using economic relationships to replace political relationships and thus reducing the space for parents, students, teachers, and other actors in society to truly participate in public debates about education. This is why some within the World Bank itself have also changed their positions over the years and acknowledged that in order for the short route to work, the long route of political, democratic accountability must also be well-functioning. This requires a strong regulatory environment and state capacity to intervene when things break down.

Accountability does not have to be conceptualized in this narrow, punishment-based way. More than anything, accountability is more about the social relations between different actors involved in the education system – and it can be built on trust rather than measurement, blaming, and punishment.

Who is actually being held accountable in SABER SAA? From the policy indicators, mainly teachers (and as the framework acknowledges, only in public schools!). But any education system is a complex ecosystem of actors, and all of these actors should be held accountable. The 2017/2018 Global Education Monitoring Report offers a much more sensible treatment of accountability than SABER. It not only focuses on schools and teachers but on all stakeholders in education, including government, teachers, parents, students, private sector actors, and international organizations. It is notable that in SABER SAA, no mention is made of the need for accountability mechanisms for international organizations, private for-profit actors, and most baffling of all, government actors at all levels. Arguably, decentralization and the shifting of accountability from government officials to decentralized actors provides an opportunity for those in more powerful positions to turn away from their own responsibilities and the need to be held accountable themselves.

Considering that the World Bank is one of the biggest international organizations at play in education, I want to end with a question: Who, then, is holding the Bank and its SABER tool accountable?


The World Bank’s Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) assesses education systems against “global best practices”, judging countries as latent, emerging, established or advanced in their policy maturity. Though SABER has been around since 2011, it has not yet received much critical scrutiny. This 4-part blog series analyses SABER, pointing out the fundamental flaws in both its conception and application.

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