The World Bank puts the spotlight on education with flagship report

October 6, 2017
by Milagros Lechleiter, Global Education Associate

Every year since 1978, the World Bank chooses a theme to conduct in-depth research as part of their “World Development Report” (WDR) series. The WDR is an important publication because it provides policy recommendations generally followed by the World Bank, other multilaterals, development agencies, national governments, and civil society. For the 2018 edition – and for the first time in 40 years – the World Bank chose education as the exclusive theme of the WDR.

Schooling without learning: a wasted opportunity, a great injustice, and a broken promise.

The 2018 WDR explores the current state of learning and identifies a global learning crisis. The WDR team recognizes three broad main issues around the learning crisis: systemic inefficiencies, inequality in school participation, and misalignment and incoherency with public policy goals. The WDR argues that all actors – students, teachers, school administrators, bureaucrats, policy-makers, government officials, international aid organizations, and financers of education – need to work together as part of the solution to the global learning crisis.

In response to the WDR, RESULTS Educational Fund highlights the need for improved education financing solutions to address inefficiencies, inequality, and misalignment and incoherency through civil society and national partnerships. One opportunity to do so, is by fully supporting the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) at its upcoming financing conference.

Inefficiencies: A wasted opportunity

“Costing exercises are sometimes misinterpreted as implying that more spending is all that Is needed. But because there is no certainty that spending will lead to better outcomes, spending better will also be essential (…)” (p. 187)

Interestingly, the 2018 WDR research team did not find strong linkages between public spending and learning outcomes in primary and secondary education. The linkages were evident, though, when looking at the relationship between economic development and higher learning outcomes, and in settings with strong governance and less corruption. According to the WDR, this could be based on the variable ability of education systems to translate increased education expenditure into learning outcomes, and unfortunately, this situation tends to disfavor the poor. According to the WDR: “It’s not just that spending patterns typically disadvantage marginalized communities, but also that resources are used less effectively there, exacerbating the problem.” (p. 12). In other words: more financing leads to better learning only if used well. 

The report refers to recent key moments around education financing such as the Education Financing Commission’s call for total expenditure on education to increase by 117 percent from 2015 to 2030 to achieve education for all. The WDR team states that spending more is an important first step to spending better and that spending alone is not sufficient to improve learning. While spending efficiently is important to solving the learning crisis, that alone will not fill the funding gap. An increase in funds is also very much needed.

Inequality: A great injustice

“Fees and opportunity costs are still major financial barriers to schooling, and social dimensions of exclusion.” (p. 10)

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the learning crisis is who it affects the most. A huge divide remains in learning outcomes between OECD countries and poorer countries. For example, it would take Tunisia 180 years and Brazil 260 years to match current OECD reading scores. Seeking a solution for this injustice, some governments have begun to turn to private education provision – but private providers typically rely on school fees as part of their business model. After analyzing existing evidence, the WDR finds that it is impossible to conclude whether the benefits of private education outweigh the risks or vice versa. The WDR states that countries that allow or encourage private schooling need to ensure that it does not undermine learning for all, and that those countries remain alert to all risks that private provision of education brings, such as selecting higher-income students who are easiest and most profitable to teach while leaving the most disadvantaged students in the public system or by deepening social divisions based on language, ethnicity, or religion. Taking the WDR argument, international donor institutions who finance private education should be aware of the negative consequences and risks to equity that private provision presents, especially in fee-charging and for-profit schooling.

Misalignment and incoherency: A broken promise

The WDR presents alignment and coherency as two necessary conditions to ensure successful education systems. Alignment is understood as the various components of a system pursuing the same goal, and coherency as the need for mutual reinforcement among actors to achieve the system’s goal.

The WDR calls out the conflictive and harmful goals sought by some state and non-state actors involved in the education system. The WDR provides the example of private-public partnerships providing substandard school building to ensure financial gains (p. 12). This critique closely resembles the case of some, for-profit, fee-charging, private school chains funded by the World Bank Group. Some of these school providers cut costs by hiring instructors that do not meet national requirements and by building substandard facilities. In Uganda, these issues led the High Court to stand behind the Ministry of Education’s decision to close some of these schools in the country.

The report highlights the importance of homegrown context-specific solutions. By drawing on local knowledge of what works at the micro-level, governments, in collaboration with CSOs and other education stakeholders, can identify what can and cannot be replicated nationwide, and globally. For instance, GPE is already bringing together national governments, donor countries, multilateral agencies, international organizations, foundations, the private sector, teachers, and civil society to allocate technical and financial resources where they are needed most. Moreover, through its newly developing Knowledge and Innovation Exchange mechanism, GPE will tap into the knowledge, expertise, and capabilities of its partners to further identify successful tools and methods, scale up innovation, and share effective solutions for the world’s most challenging education problems.

The Global Partnership for Education Financing Conference: An opportunity to realize the education promise

The WDR concludes that a social growth mindset to address the learning crisis would recognize “the barriers to learning, but also the very real opportunities to break them down” (p. 16). RESULTS Educational Fund welcomes the 2018 WDR findings and recommendations as they increase attention towards more efficient education investments — those with a proven track record of impact, effectiveness, and sustainability, such as GPE. As GPE embarks on its third replenishment, the 2018 WDR findings and recommendations point to a clear need to fully replenish GPE and help realize education’s promise.

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