#WDR2018 Reality Check #2: Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions: Lost opportunities in World Bank education report

The dedicated reader of the 2018 World Development Report (WDR) on learning and education will find moments of nuanced discussion. Unfortunately, these gems are brief caveats to flawed headlines and conclusions. The World Bank report valorizes professional teaching while degrading the voices and needs of teachers.

More than halfway through is a three-paragraph section on “one factor undermining teaching: Poor working conditions” (p. 138). It acknowledges problems plaguing the profession around the world, including a multi-decade decline in “pay, respect and working conditions,” lack of professional development, “oversized, multi-grade classes,” and staff shortages that burden teachers with long working hours, extra shifts and non-classroom administrative duties.

These problems create a downward spiral as teachers abandon the profession, further damaging quality and the efficiency of education spending as teachers with the skills and experience to deliver quality learning outcomes are lost. To support better learning, the World Bank should promote social dialogue and fair working conditions for teachers.

The description of the profound and often unrewarded dedication of teachers is a breath of fresh air in a report that creates a false opposition between working conditions and learning outcomes. This is starkly stated in the introduction: “Teachers and other education professionals, even when motivated by a sense of mission, also may fight to maintain secure employment and to protect their incomes” (p. 13). A table on the following page labels pay, job security and employment as “competing interests” against student learning and a professional ethic.

This is a simplistic and unnecessary conclusion, and it is an especially dangerous message for developing countries that look to the World Bank for advice. Teachers are the frontlines of education systems. To improve learning outcomes, teachers must be better supported with quality jobs, adequate classroom resources and professional development.

The WDR lumps teachers alongside outside interests such as private, for-profit suppliers that disregard learning and seek to glean money. Throughout the report, the Bank describes a lack of motivation, preparation and commitment among teachers, and casts a concerned eye toward spending on teacher salaries. In the real world, teachers sacrifice daily in underfunded systems and pursue the career despite meagre pay. When stretched too thin, they are liable to leave and add fuel to the crisis of learning that the WDR seeks to address.

The report acknowledges the need for better pay but casts this aside as a long-term solution. In the short-term, the report recommends further erosions to job security and measures including performance-based pay that add workplace vulnerability to the challenges facing overburdened teachers.

Decent work for teachers cannot wait. In fact, better learning systems are not possible without it. If reform increases the precarity of teachers, undermines basic labour rights and introduces uncertainty to low-pay regimes, then learning outcomes will suffer as teachers face further struggles inside and outside the classroom.

The report falls back onto politically-motivated stereotypes of teachers’ unions as obstacles to reform, failing to see unions as partners in professional development, learning and spending efficiency. Teachers and their organizations are typically ardent proponents of these goals. Professional development and professionalization a particular passion for many unions, and the WDR describes how these approaches improve learning outcomes. Training and development also promote decent work, respect and good pay by firmly establishing teachers as skilled workers. The WDR could have recommended partnerships for better professional development, in which unions ensure accountability and participation.

There is also a lost opportunity to support social dialogue and the productive involvement of teachers in policymaking. The World Bank itself conducted limited and scattershot consultation in drafting the report. The WDR focuses on engaging parents and other stakeholders in coalitions to support reform, but seems to position broader coalitions as an antidote to unions. The report recognizes the need to have the support of teachers and dialogue with unions, but largely portrays unions as a risk to change. The development of productive dialogue in Chile and the positive involvement of Zambian, Ugandan and Bolivian unions in reform are described as exceptions to the negative impact of unions on education systems. 

Most prominent is the example of Kenya, where low-paid temporary contract teachers with little training were hired to reduce class size. In court, the union argued that the contracts violated the constitutional principle of equal pay for equal work. This principle is also an important part of international labour standards and the environmental and social standards of the World Bank. The WDR describes how education can reduce overall income inequality and improve labour market outcomes, but ignores the topic with regards to teachers. In the majority-female profession of teaching, teacher pay also has implications for gender equality and wage gaps.

The Bank argues that the Kenya program failed to improve learning outcomes because contract teachers were no longer in a precarious position, desperate for contract renewal and therefore motivated to work harder. This is not the way to produce motivated and professional teachers. In fact, it does the opposite by degrading and destabilizing teachers, making it difficult for them to focus on learning and plan for successful classrooms. Only in passing is it mentioned that student learning was damaged because contract teachers were paid three months late, on average – a rare but underplayed admission that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.

Despite its failings, the report vindicates the importance of skilled teachers who have strong relationships with students, and warns against get-rich-quick schemes that promote technology as a replacement. Hopefully this memorandum will be sent to the World Bank’s private sector arm, which holds an equity stake in for-profit Bridge International Academies. The company uses untrained teachers who read curriculum from tablets.

The WDR is pessimistic about further funding to education, declaring that “public spending does not correlate strongly with learning” (p. 173), despite recognizing that funding is necessary to achieve quality education for all. The Bank is right to call for better efficiency, especially to ensure that money reaches students and teachers in the classroom. However, the WDR could undermine efforts to address funding gaps and improve education.

Moving forward, the World Bank should disregard the contradictory and divisive tone in parts of the WDR, and instead focus on dialogue with teachers and their unions in pursuit of learning and equality.

#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 jennifer.ulrick@ei-ie.org. 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 Francine Menashy: #WDR2018 Reality Check #1: A Guide to Reading the Rhetoric.


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Leo Baunach

Leo Baunach is Research Officer for the Washington office of the International Trade Union Confederation and Global Unions group. His work on labour rights, development and shared prosperity covers international financial institutions including the World Bank and IMF.

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