Worlds of Education

Credits: Masaru Goto / World Bank
Credits: Masaru Goto / World Bank

#WDR2018 Reality Check #12:The World Bank and the chalkface: a teacher’s perspective by Jelmer Evers

published 30 January 2018 updated 14 May 2018
written by:

My colleagues in my school probably know the World Bank quite superficially, at least if they teach economics history, geography or social sciences. For the rest of them I would say there is name recognition, but not much more than that. However, they would recognize its policy, the tone and the implicit messages on education and teachers it has promoted for a long time in a heartbeat.

New Public Management (NPM) is characterized by marketisation through greater school choice, enforced detailed teacher and students standards, punitive accountability through standardized testing and top-down school inspections, school rankings, performance pay, flexibility of employment and even outright privatisation, many of which have plagued Dutch education and me over the last twenty years (Evers & Kneyber 2013). The World Bank has a history of recommending these policies of distrust, external accountability and privatisation and promoting a narrow view of education (Mundy & Verger 2015; Fontfevila & Verger 2015; Murphy 2007)– a deficit model of the teaching profession. As Clara Fontdevila points out in this blog for Education International, the World Bank promotes“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”.

In its latest World Development Report – which focuses on education for the first time - it takes a somewhat different tone. And that is to be welcomed. However on reading the report worries remain, especially if I look at what the Bank is doing in practice.

First of all it is interesting to see what kind of language the World Bank uses. The report talks about the “learning crisis”, “Schooling is not the same as learning” and “learners” whilst moving away from the word “education”. It says “ schooling is not the same as learning. Education is an imprecise word, and so it must be clearly defined. Schooling is the time a student spends in classrooms, whereas learning is the outcome—what the student takes away from schooling”(p. 45).

However education is not so much imprecise as much as it is multidimensional. Education has several goals- qualification, socialisation and subjectification - often in tension with one another. Qualification relates to knowledge and skills which students require for their role in society and work, it qualifies them, allows them to do things. Socialisation is about internalising the norms, values, culture and history of the society you live in. Subjectification relates to the importance of students as individuals who“come to exist as subjects of initiative and responsibility”(Biesta p.77). The claim that education is imprecise and that learning isn’t doesn’t hold up. It’s more a question of how we deal with the moral judgements that come with the multidimensional nature of education. In his work Gert Biesta has critiqued the ‘ learnification’ of education:

“‘Learnification’ encompasses the impact of the rise of a ‘new language of learning’ on education. This is evident in a number of discursive shifts, such as the tendency to refer to pupils, students, children and even adults as ‘learners’; to redefine teaching as ‘facilitating learning,’ ‘creating learning opportunities,’ or ‘delivering learning experiences;’ or to talk about the school as a ‘learning environment’ or ‘place for learning.’ It is also visible in the ways in which adult education has been transformed into lifelong learning in many countries”(Biesta 2015 p. 76)

And this is problematic. As Biesta (2015) states:“Whereas the language of learning is a process language that, at least in English, is an individual and individualising language, education always needs to engage with questions of content, purpose and relationships”(p. 76). It requires the judgement of those engaged with education - in schools  just as much as from those who make policy or those who research it. Learning is focused on outcomes, but“such theories in themselves do not give us access to and insight into the construction and justification of these contexts and settings themselves. For this, we need theories of education and educating”(Biesta 2015 p. 77). The language of learning and its focus on outcomes makes education easier to manage and measure. And although the World Bank is more restrained in the WDR than it used to be it still pushes the report and policy in a certain direction, one which is part of a bigger trend.

The report still resorts to the failing teacher and schools narrative.“Schools are failing learners” is the heading of one the sections (p.80). It goes on to say that“Teachers often lack the needed skills and motivation”(p. 80). This is actually the first thing mentioned, highlighting their lack of knowledge, expertise and motivation. That they don’t show up for work is framed as a“loss of instructional time.” It is argued that“This problem is particularly concerning because the bulk of national education budgets goes to teacher salaries (…) Reducing absenteeism in these schools would be over 10 times more cost effective at increasing student-teacher contact time than hiring additional teachers“(p. 80). The suggestive heading“Teachers may perceive low effort as being justified” is given to a prominent box and graph (p.81). Teachers are in general portrayed as unmotivated and under-skilled, and teacher absenteeism is mentioned over 30 times.

One other worry, related to privatisation and reducing costs, is the push for technology. The relationship between education and technology is increasingly problematic. Technology is often portrayed as increasing efficiency in education. Yet we now know that the overuse of technology can seriously hamper learning (OECD 2015). Furthermore,  big technology firms exert an increasing influence over the direction of public education.“Corporate platforms [are] attempting to control if not monopolize what has been (or should be) public institutions” as writer Audrey Watters says in her excellent end of year review series on education and technology. One of the most worrying examples of course is Bridge International Academies. Bridge’s technology platform is reducing teachers to read from a tablet and a second-by-second script. No need for training and reducing the biggest cost factor: the teacher. Cheap instructors instead of well educated professionals.

In the overview section the report states that we need to“focus everything on teaching and learning.” (p.22) and outlines three points to achieve that goal.  In two out of three points it emphasises technology. Firstly we need to“provide additional inputs, including new technologies, in ways that complement rather than substitute for teachers.”(p.23). The following paragraph consists mainly of examples of how ICT improves student outcomes. And the second point states that policy should“Ensure that new information and communication technology is really implementable in the current systems” where it states that “ Interventions that incorporate information and communication technology have some of the biggest impacts on learning”. Again, this is not backed up by evidence. If one should choose three points that would encourage us to focus everything on teaching and learning this is not what comes to mind. Teacher knowledge of evidence of good pedagogical practices perhaps. Or more collective autonomy, networking and collaboration; professional learning communities maybe. Yet technology is given as the answer. The World Bank suffers what Evgeny Morozov calls solutionism:“the idea that given the right code, algorithms and robots, technology can solve all of mankind's problems, effectively making life "frictionless" and trouble-free.”

A good example of this solutionism is how the World Bank proposes to tackle teacher absenteeism in projects not mentioned in the World Development Report.  Technology is clearly seen as crucial to solving this issue. In this IIEP UNESCO blog, Technologies to improve teacher attendance and motivation, Rachel Cooper describes World Bank projects in India.“In India—one country that is leading experimentation on this issue—these technologies have ranged from daily in-class photographs, to setting up video cameras and classrooms, to registering teachers’ fingerprints each day.” The World Bank is experimenting with Orwellian control systems, biometrics for example, and touting it as a success. “These approaches can and often do work to improve teacher attendance rates,” says Cooper. A similar experiment failed in Haiti, but that was due to the fact that“It wasn't linked to any financial incentives or otherwise.”

Besides all the practical problems associated with these techno-centric projects the World Bank seems to be not even considering the very troubling ethical ramifications of these policies. Or those considerations aren’t deemed important enough. In a world where authoritarianism is on the rise, and also where there are serious issues with Big Data and the influence of tech giants, do we really want to promote this? And when the WDR talks about the importance of agency for a democratic society this is not the way to go. There are many other proven, humane policies - that involve teachers themselves - that will increase the quality of education.

As a teacher at the chalk face I’ve become cautious of international institutions driving education policies. The World Bank has a very troubled history when it comes to education reform, and I have a heavy dose of distrust for the Bank as an institution. For a long time it didn’t have the best interests in mind for my students and my profession. There are many positive things in the World Development Report, but its practice remains very troubling. It is now promoting a global learning metric, (p.97) but I wouldn’t trust any organization that is pushing for surveillance policies like the World Bank to be involved in such a metric.  I’ve heard and read similar positive rhetoric from Dutch policy makers so often, whilst they were continuing bad practices which deprofessionalised teachers and increased inequities in the system. As long as that disconnect remains, I remain wary. And that should worry the World Bank. With post-World War institutions and liberal democracies rapidly decaying it should build trust in those that it serves. If the profession does not have a fundamental say in the shaping and implementation of policy in the Global South and North I think it is time we consider building new institutions.

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


Biesta, G. (2015), What is Education For? On Good Education, Teacher Judgement, and Educational Professionalism. European Journal of Education, 50: 75–87.

Evers, J. & Kneyber, R., 2013. Het alternatief : weg met de afrekencultuur in het onderwijs! Amsterdam: Boom.

Fontdevila, C. & Verger, A., 2015. The World Bank's Doublespeak on Teachers: An Analysis of Ten Years of Lending and Advice, Brussels: Education International.

Mundy, K. & Verger, A., 2015. The World Bank and the global governance of education in a changing world order. International Journal of Educational Development, 40, pp.9–18.

Murphy, J., 2007. The World Bank and Global Managerialism, London: Routledge.

OECD, 2015. Students, Computers and Learning: Making the connection, Paris: OECD

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