Reflections on the World Development Report: Learning to realise education's promise

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 - 13:47

The World Bank still has much to learn.

The World Bank has published its first ever World Development Report (WDR) on education (‘LEARNING To Realise Education’s Promise), helping to make the case for greater priority and investment to be given to education. This should be a cause for celebration, but despite some useful observations the focus is too narrow to be of real value in helping us accelerate progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4. The WDR focuses on improving equity in learning outcomes - and particularly the assessment of those outcomes - but does surprisingly little to break new ground on these issues.

In discussions and consultations around  the WDR over the past year civil society organisations raised concerns about whether it would address the continuing crises in access and financing of education, what it would say about public education and privatisation – as well as what it would conclude on learning, teachers and assessment. We urge the World Bank to more fully engage civil society organisations in future report consultations to ensure more comprehensive civil society participation. Below are a few initial observations on what the report says - and does not say - in these respects.

Observations on access to education

The report celebrates the remarkable progress made in access to education, noting that:

Schooling has expanded almost universally. In 1970 the gross primary enrolment rate was 68 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa and 47 percent in South Asia. By 2010, that rate was above 100 percent in both regions’. 

The effect of this is to give the impression that the job is largely done in terms of access.  But of course the report goes on to recognise continuing challenges in access:

‘Exclusions based on poverty, location, gender, and ethnicity persist. In 2014 an estimated 61 million primary school-age children and 202 million secondary school-age youth—with a disproportionate share from poor households—were out of school.’

However, there is almost no analysis of what should be done to address this immense challenge. Just two pages look at ‘demand side interventions’ that make a difference to access. The most notable observation is that:

 ‘Significant costs—both formal fees and a wide array of other expenses—prevent children, especially the most vulnerable, from learning. Nearly 90 percent of the world’s low-income countries proclaim free primary education. But for lower secondary education, more than 40 percent of the countries charge fees’.

This is an important acknowledgment from the World Bank which has an inconsistent record in this area, often having promoted user fees (apart from a brief period in the early 2000s). We should be shouting from the rooftops that the World Bank recognises that making basic education genuinely free is crucial and transformative, particularly for the most excluded groups:

 ‘so-called demand-side interventions—have been so effective at getting children to school. In many countries, the elimination of school fees has raised enrolments … The interventions, which have sought to reduce other costs associated with school, have consistently improved access in the form of enrolment as well as attendance’.  

There is even a bold statement that, even with low learning ‘Getting learners into school is beneficial in its own right’.

The trouble is that these vital observations are hidden away in the detail of the report and fail to make it into the central narrative. Rather, everything is brought back to learning – as if solving the learning crisis will itself magically solve the crisis in access – which is patently not the case. For a report that is overtly concerned with the injustice involved in disadvantaged communities being additionally disadvantaged by low learning outcomes, the lack of weight given to the continuing and persistent challenges of access is disappointing. There should and easily could have been bolder recommendations to address the access crisis as well. Largely ignoring this leaves a gaping hole.

Observations on financing

One might reasonably expect the World Bank to have something important to contribute to debates about the Financing of Education.  As it is the main section on financing is a sub-heading under a sub-heading on page 173 with the central message is that ‘public spending does not correlate strongly with learning’. Thankfully there is also a 5 page “spotlight” on ‘Spending More or Spending Better – or Both?” This concludes that ‘there is a strong rationale for public investment on education’ and that ‘financing needs will rise’ – but the most consistent message is that ‘spending does not always lead to better and more equal student learning outcomes’.  Five reasons are given for the mismatch – that spending is not allocated equitably, funds do not reach schools, public spending can substitute for private spending, decisions on funding are not coherently aligned with learning and government agencies lack the capacity to use funding effectively.

Of course some of this is self-evident - money can always be spent badly and often is – but to imply that there is little or no connection between financing and improving learning advances a dangerous myth. The World Bank could have looked further to understand how the lack of correlation is so often connected to money being mis-spent on simply not arriving, particularly in disadvantaged areas. Where money does arrive in practice on the frontline, in classrooms, the link to improved learning is almost invariably strong. This whole section could and should have been framed in a much more positive manner with a much more detailed analysis. The Global Campaign for Education has long been arguing for the need to increase 4 S’s in respect of education budgets - increasing the share of spending on education (up to 20%) and the size of government budgets overall (through a progressive tax base) and the sensitivity of how that money can be spent effectively on education to increase equitable outcomes – and finally the scrutiny needed to make sure the money arrives in practice in disadvantaged areas.

Sadly the report gives no such detail. One justification for largely ignoring financing issues has been that the Education Commission addressed this in 2016. It was however one of the principal concerns of civil society that the ‘Learning Generation’ report of the Education Commission gave remarkably little space to financing – and this report repeats that same fundamental mistake. This is a serious missed opportunity. Policy makers in Ministries of Finance who read this report might have taken seriously what the World Bank says on financing education – but will be left none the wiser. We strongly recommend that the World Bank weigh in right away to urge Finance Ministers and policymakers to strengthen financing for quality, inclusive, public education. This is especially critical to do in the coming months as country governments are making vital decisions and advance commitments in the lead up to the February 2018 replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education.

Observations on public education and the private sector

Throughout the 240 page report the World Bank seems averse to using the phrase ‘public education system’ – but there is in fact a significant focus on strengthening systems and some challenging observations about the private sector. The focus on building consensus and coalitions for reform is implicitly focused on the public sector and there is one striking observation about the risk of middle-class parents  ‘opting out of the public education system, weakening pressure on governments to improve learning across the system’.

On the sensitive issue of for-profit private schools the report notes that ‘there is no consistent evidence that private schools deliver better learning outcomes than public schools’. Indeed, it insists that ‘Comparisons across 40 countries that seek to adjust for these differences in student characteristics find no private school advantage‘.  There is even a warning that:

‘Private schools may skim off the higher-income students who are easiest and most profitable to teach, leaving only the more disadvantaged students in the public system. Private schooling may also deepen social cleavages along dimensions other than income if it causes students to be sorted by language, ethnicity, or religion.’

This is bold stuff coming from the World Bank whose President was, until recently, advocating for Bridge International Academies. Indeed there is not one reference to Bridge – which civil society campaigners might reasonably celebrate! 

The report goes further than expected on this issue, saying that private schooling ‘can undermine the political constituency for effective public schooling in the longer term.’

We applaud the World Bank and World Development Report authors for highlighting the importance of quality public schools for all and the real concerns about public funds going to for-profit, private education providers. The section that explore these questions observes that for governments ‘overseeing private schools may be no easier than providing quality schooling’ and so concludes ‘governments may deem it more straightforward to provide quality education than to regulate a disparate collection of providers that may not have the same objectives’.

This represents an unexpected shift of tone from the World Bank that is also echoed in other observations. For example there is an acknowledgement that ‘some private suppliers of education services pursue profit which can lead them to advocate policy choices that are not in the interests of students’.  The idea that the profit motive might be in tension with an agenda on learning outcomes could have been fruitfully pursued further. Likewise there is a remarkable line that the ‘business community often fails to advocate for quality education, instead lobbying for lower taxes and spending’. This is the seed of a powerful intervention to call for fairer taxes to invest in public education. We urge the World Bank to do more in future messaging, reports, events, and interventions to be consistent in its support for public education

Observations on learning outcomes, teachers and assessment

Given the limited focus on learning and learning assessment there is surprisingly little that is new in this report. It is good to highlight that disadvantaged children are further disadvantaged by poor learning outcomes but the report fails to grapple with the real causes of this. The focus on preparing children to learn through early childhood interventions is to be welcomed – with support for more integrated and sequenced interventions to address nutrition, care, stimulation and learning. The nutrition leaders at the World Bank have been effective champions and advocates – and we welcome such advocacy and linkages between nutrition, education, early childhood development, water/sanitation/hygiene and health. It would have been good to see a more powerful case for positive discrimination in early childhood provision – and for other interventions that address the poverty, low literacy and lack of voice of parents, for example by supporting a second chance to learn for adults.

The report overtly values professional teachers and strongly argues that technology is not a standalone solution, arguing that well-trained teachers will always be needed and that training needs to be sustained and ongoing.  This is to be welcomed, but the World Bank’s historic double-speak on teachers continues with a rather sweeping dismissal of existing training programmes (that implicitly undermines the existing teaching profession) and numerous references to absentee teachers - without a credible analysis of this phenomenon and what can be done to address the system-failure that underlies this. There are also suggestions that teachers should be given financial and non-financial incentives to improve learning – implying a system of performance-related pay but knowing better than to advocate for it directly given the poor track record of such models in education. It is disappointing not to see some acknowledgment of the World Bank’s own record in respect of the teaching profession. This would have been an ideal moment to distance the Bank from its past practice of closing teacher training colleges and supporting non-professional teachers. We urge the World Bank in future to be more consistent in its support for a coherent and adequately funded teaching profession.

In terms of learning outcomes there is an initial acknowledgment of the importance of more than just literacy and numeracy, that learners ‘require the higher-order reasoning and creativity that builds on these foundational skills. And they need the socioemotional skills—such as perseverance and the ability to work on teams’.  Indeed, there are dozens or references to the importance of socioemotional skills in particular. However, the report does much less than previous interventions in this area (such as the former Learning Metrics Task Force) to get to grips with how to effectively value, balance and assess these broader / more diverse skills.  The argument is made that ‘a focus on learning—and on the educational quality that drives it—is more likely to “crowd in” these other desirable outcomes’.  However, there is little clarity on how this is the case and how to ensure that focusing assessment on what can be easily measured does not unintentionally undermine these other dimensions of learning. In this sense there is less substance than might be expected in such a focused report.

Much of the report focuses on learning assessment – despite an acceptance that assessment is not in itself a solution if it is not linked to change (though sadly the earlier acknowledgment that ‘weighing pigs doesn’t make them fatter’ has disappeared). There is a very welcome push back against high stakes testing, recognising the risks of overtesting or an overemphasis on tests’ seen in some parts of the United States where:

‘two decades of high-stakes testing have led to patterns of behavior consistent with these concerns. Some teachers have been found to concentrate on test-specific skills instead of untested subjects, and some schools have engaged in strategic behavior to ensure that only the better-performing students are tested.’

However, the report argues that in many countries the problem is that there is too little focus on learning and too little assessment. Overall the report sees significant value in formative assessment in classrooms (by teachers), in nationally tailored assessments and international standardised assessments and  indeed household surveys.  However this report does not give sufficient guidance about where a resource-constrained country might best make limited investments in assessment – what interventions could most effectively contribute to improving learning or strengthening systems.


The latter part of the WDR makes a strong call for coalitions of actors to work together to get behind a learning agenda and to overcome the political and institutional obstacles to reform. Surprisingly, aside from brief references to Ghana and India there appears to be no significant attempt to learn from the past twenty years of civil society coalition building – where efforts have been made to build broad-based national coalitions on education to get quality education higher up domestic agendas.

Near the end the report emphasises that, even in a fast changing world, learning how to learn will always be important. We encourage the World Bank to critically learn from and review its own past practice in the education sector. The absence of a meaningful and substantial contribution to the challenge of mobilising more sustainable financing for public education shows that the World Bank still has much to learn about how to use its role and position effectively.

­This report will undoubtedly help to continue the renewed attention being placed on education by the international community. The visibility of education in the recent UN General Assembly was refreshing and the initial momentum behind the Global Partnership for Education replenishment is promising. There are more leaders and champions getting behind education than ever before. We urge the World Bank to more fully support the call to action for stronger domestic and international financing of education, using the replenishment of the GPE in early 2018 as a key catalytic moment.