The acronym for the World Bank’s Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) suggests two meanings. The first, based on a pronunciation with a short “a” sound and stress on the second syllable, calls to mind the Spanish term meaning knowledge (or to know). The second, based on a pronunciation of a long “a” sound and a stress on the first syllable, conjures up the idea of a type of sword or weapon. While we acknowledge that the many documents and other resources produced by SABER constitute a knowledge source, we want to focus attention on how the “evidence” and “recommendations” promoted by SABER represent information which has been filtered by the neoliberal ideological bias of the World Bank.
We think that it is important to critically analyze this major World Bank initiative (i.e., SABER), because it has for the most part flown under the radar with hardly any critical scrutiny, unlike the 2018 World Development Report on education, which has been subjected to critical reviews (e.g., see collection of papers in Education International 2018).
In this blog, which is based on a paper soon to be published in the Comparative Education Review (Klees et al., 2020), we present our overall critique of SABER. This paper is the result of a course we ran on SABER, and in subsequent blogs some of our colleagues at the University of Maryland will critically examine three of the thirteen SABER domains (Teachers, School Autonomy and Accountability, and Engaging the Private Sector), illustrating how SABER promotes neoliberal ideas such as pay for performance, de-professionalizing teachers, narrow learning outcome assessments, consumer-producer type accountability, reducing central government’s role, and privatizing provision of schooling.
We organize our overall critique of SABER around Gita Steiner-Khamsi’s (2013) notion of three fundamental problems or “façades” in the pursuit of best practices in education. These are the façades of universality, precision, and rationality. Before discussing these facades and how they apply to an analysis of SABER, however, we need to clarify why we view SABER to be an important initiative to analyze and critique.
Description of SABER
SABER, which was initiated by the World Bank in 2011 to help operationalize its Education Strategy 2020: Learning for All, was purportedly designed to amass “the best available evidence on what works” in order “to assess and benchmark education systems against global best practices.”
SABER covers 13 topics or “domains”: Early Childhood Development, Education Management Information Systems, Education Resilience Approaches, Engaging the Private Sector, Equity and Inclusion, Information and Communication Technologies, School Autonomy and Accountability, School Finance, School Health and School Feeding, Student Assessment, Teachers, Tertiary Education, and Workforce Development.
Operationally, for each of the domains, Bank staff or consultants produce a “What Matters Most” framework paper that reviews and evaluates some of the research relevant to that domain in order to determine best policies, system characteristics, and practices (henceforth just called practices). The framework paper is then used by the Bank’s core SABER team to develop a rubric for most domains. The rubric is a table with often dozens of “indicators,” of which SABER now has over 16,000 listed in the rubric rows; the four columns indicate practices that they consider to represent different levels of maturity: latent, emerging, established, or advanced
In order to apply the framework and rubric, the Bank usually hires one consultant to spend a few weeks in a country examining documents and conducting interviews to gather data on education policies, system characteristics, and practices. The result of this data gathering process is to score a country on each applicable indicator on the country “maturity” scale. The scoring is done by a process that involves the consultant, the core SABER team, and a meeting with country stakeholders, with the core team being the key actor.
That SABER is a significant initiative is evidenced by the facts that, as of 2018, there had been over 400 applications of SABER, producing 190+ country reports covering 130+ countries. In addition, over 500 World Bank staff and more than 800 external participants had been trained about SABER. Moreover, SABER reports have been used in policy dialogues with Ministry of Education staff and to inform Bank loans and grants.
Critique of SABER in Terms of the Three Facades
The first façade that we view to be reflected in SABER is the façade of universality, that is, the idea that what might be considered best practice in one setting can – and should be – generalized to all other settings. The idea that practices are universally applicable flies in the face of the need to pay attention to context. Harold Noah (1984) identifies de-contextualization in interpreting and generalizing findings as one of the “abuses” in comparative education.
We believe that a fundamental problem with SABER is the universality of its recommendations. The Bank has long been criticized for its “one-size-fits-all” approach and universality is built in to the linear latent-to-advanced rating on the various indicators of practices. SABER implies that all countries should try to attain “advanced” practices. SABER’s de-contextualized universal ranking of literally thousands of practices is so problematic as to invalidate the approach for this reason alone.
The second façade that we observe to be reflected in SABER is the façade of precision, that is, the reification of “the uncontested authority attached to numbers.” SABER relies heavily on the three sources of evidence: RCTs, regression analyses, and the practices of educational systems that perform well on international achievement tests (Vegas et al., 2013). Each of these sources has significant problems; findings generally are not robust and the empirical evidence is debated. Furthermore, the evidentiary basis for SABER is problematic in that almost all supporting studies are based on whether certain practices increase cognitive achievement, in particular, literacy and numeracy. As we all know, there are many other valued and valuable outcomes of education. Choosing “best practice” based solely on whether it increases literacy and numeracy test scores makes little sense; even if we could agree on this (and we don’t), it is quite possible that practices that do so can actually negatively affect other outcomes.
The third façade that we see to be reflected in SABER is the façade of rationality. It is not that recommendations are irrational, but that the “guise of scientific rationality” is used to mask the extent to which recommendations of “best practices” are based on ideology, not evidence. We believe that focusing on the façade of rationality raises fundamental questions about the trustworthiness of SABER, or, more precisely, about the trustworthiness of the World Bank as an objective arbiter of “best practice” in education. The Bank’s analyses, strategies, and recommendations have long been seen by many as ideology-based, not evidence-based. And in education, the Bank has long promoted the neoliberal ideology embodied in what Pasi Sahlberg has called GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement – that privileges a particular, highly disputed, set of education reforms involving privatization, a strong emphasis on testing, and narrow versions of accountability (Sahlberg 2015). SABER is helping to spread GERM around the world, not some objective, agreed-upon, evidence-based assessment of best practices.
SABER has been widely disseminated, used to give advice around the world, yet it has flown under the radar with hardly any critical scrutiny. In this blog, we argued that SABER is fundamentally flawed in conception and in application: it takes what may or may not be good practices and promotes their universalization as if context does not matter; it uses disputable analysis and evidence to support its recommendations; and it selects many practices or policies (and the research “evidence” on which they are supposedly based) because they conform with prevailing Bank ideology.
Of course, it can be useful to learn about good practices and policies from others. However, as some of the policy borrowing literature argues, too often North-South interactions are less a form of “borrowing” and more like an imposition, especially when the reforms are being touted by international agencies that stand ready to fund such reforms – and perhaps only such reforms. While the Bank (and other aid agencies) always talk of “country ownership,” countries need their grants and loans which may often turn SABER’s “advice” into mandates – reimaging a knowledge source as an ideologically-honed weapon to compel neoliberal educational reform. Instead, rather than trying to find – and promote –universal remedies, efforts toward understanding, borrowing, and adapting better education practices need to be embedded firmly in participatory processes of evaluation, decision-making, and management.
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 #SABERexposed blog series analyses SABER, pointing out the fundamental flaws in both its conception and application.
Education International. 2018. Reality Check: The Bank’s 2018 World Development Report on Education. Brussels: Education International. https://issuu.com/educationinternational/docs/2018_ei_wdr_realitycheck_publication.
Klees, S. Ginsburg, M., Anwar, H., Baker Robbins, M., Bloom, H., Busacca, C., Corwith, A., DeCoster, B., Fiore, A., Gasior, S., Le, H., Primo, L. & Reedy, T. 2020, forthcoming. The World Bank’s SABER: A Critical Analysis. Comparative Education Review 64 (1).
Noah, H. 1984. The Uses and Abuses of Comparative Education. Comparative Education Review 28 (4): 550-562.