Do as you say, or say as you do? The World Bank's doublespeak on teachers

The World Bank has become an increasingly influential player in the education policy debate and is now the largest supplier of external funding to the education sector. With this in mind, but also as the education goal, Sustainable Development Goal 4, moves towards implementation, EI commissioned us to conduct a research and to take a closer look at recent (2005-2014) World Bank publications and projects to carve out an understanding of how the World Bank perceives and conceptualizes teachers and which teacher policies it recommends.

The final review of the World Bank’s activity around teachers in the last ten years reveals a significant disconnection between, on the one hand, the policy preferences that predominate in the Bank’s publications on teachers and, on the other hand, the teachers’ related policies that the Bank effectively supports through its lending operations.

With regard to its official discourse, circulated through numerous books, technical reports and research papers (also known as knowledge products), the World Bank’s position on teacher-related matters seems to be fundamentally consistent with its long-standing preference for pro-market and incentivist policies, usually grounded on a selective use of evidence. In fact, most of the Bank’s publications tend to emphasise the poor contribution of teachers to educational quality. Here the publications often refer to a certain lack of teachers’ effort – through pervasive references to work absenteeism and the absence of performance-based incentives.

Nonetheless, in these publications, there is also some consideration given to a range of factors that mitigate teachers’ responsibility on these issues (e.g., the effect of school location), as well as for the limitations affecting teacher training. However, the policies most frequently advanced as a solution by the Bank’s publications end up failing to address these more systemic issues. In fact much of the World Bank literature, which is very much inspired in neoclassic economics, takes rather a favourable view on performance-based incentives and school-based management schemes as its preferred policy options, suggesting that it all comes down to a matter of individual motivation, effort and control.

Lending projects favour a teacher professionalisation agenda

Conversely, the lending projects supported by the World Bank appear to be less driven by such beliefs. The project appraisal documents behind the World Bank loans are more focused on the limitations and weaknesses of teachers’ training programs. The inadequate content of teacher education, the lack of opportunities for professional development and the presence of under-qualified teachers are regarded as more central problems. In coherence with this diagnostic, most of these projects support some sort of activity directed at strengthening teachers’ preparation, including the extension and improvement of pre-service and in-service training schemes. In contrast, arrangements such as school-based management schemes, the use of contract teachers or performance-based incentives enjoy only limited support and are concentrated in particular regions, such as the South Asian region.

Figure 1: Most frequently reported teacher-related issues (% KP/LP)

Figure 2: Frequently promoted teacher policies (% KP/LP)

Disconnect between talk and action

In a nutshell, the World Bank “public discourse” seems to be far more supportive of managerialist and market solutions than its operations on the terrain, with the latter being more attentive to real teachers’ problems such as insufficient teacher training, support and preparation. Hence, on a wide range of teacher-related themes, the World Bank takes differing (and at points contradictory) stances, reflecting a clear gap between “talk and action” and the co-existence of conflicting agendas within this institution.

However, it would be a mistake to deduce from this that the WB is “all bark and no bite”. Considering the World Bank role as a “knowledge bank”, able to inform and inspire education reform in a variety of settings, their “ideas” cannot be overlooked – even if they do not translate into financial and policy priorities mechanically. Moreover, it is possible to identify some common elements between the two types of products – and most notably, the portrait of teachers’ organisations as a problem, the absence of a discourse on teachers’ welfare, or the fact that teachers are conceived of as human resources to be managed, but not as active agents of educational change (whose professional expertise and voice should be more listened to in processes of educational reform).

The central role of the World Bank in the global governance of education, and its increasing attention to teachers, call for further investigation on the preferences and beliefs of an institution that will definitely lead and exert a decisive influence on the future of the teaching profession. In any case, for the sake of quality education and the promotion of quality teachers, it would be better that the World Bank does not do so much as it says, but says as it does.

Note: The EI study “The World Bank’s Doublespeak on Teachers – An analysis of 10 years ”, conducted by Clara Fontdevila and Antoni Verger, will be launched at this year’s Civil Society Policy Forum prior to the WB spring meetings on 14 April, 2016.The full report in English as well as a summary in Spanish, French and English is already available on the Education in Crisis webpage under EI Publications.


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Clara Fontdevila

Clara Fontdevila is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, with a thesis project on the post-2015 global education agenda. She has collaborated in different projects of the Globalisation, Education and Social Policies (GEPS) research center, and her main research areas of interest are private sector engagement in education, education and development and the global governance of education.

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