Global reports on education: Results-based management versus professionalism

10 November, 2017

Context, Learning crisis, Monitoring, Political will, SABER, Accountability

1175 hits till Sept. 2019

It is a busy season with many global reports on education. Reports from World Bank, UNESCO, OECD, the Education Commission.
These kind of global reports define the backdrop for our reasoning about education and educational management in the next year(s). The reports build extensively on results of research in the field, presenting the interpretation of that research by these organisations.

In this blog I will reflect on two of the reports *1:
• Learning to realize educations's promise (World Bank, 2017) 240 pages;
• Accountability in education (UNESCO, 2017) 505 pages

My main conclusion will be that these are excellent reports but both in a positive and a negative sense.

Learning to realize educations's promise *2. 
This 2018 World Development Report is (the first time for the series) completely dedicated to education. 
The report covers global education as a whole, emphasising its learning crisis.

The crisis in a nutshell:
'Worldwide, hundreds of millions of children reach young adulthood without even the most basic life skills. Even if they attend school, many leave without the skills for calculating the correct change from a transaction, reading a doctor’s instructions, or interpreting a campaign promise - let alone building a fulfilling career or educating their children.
This learning crisis is a moral crisis. When delivered well, education cures a host of societal ills. ….But these benefits depend largely on learning. Schooling without learning is a wasted opportunity. More than that, it is a great injustice: the children whom society is failing most are the ones who most need a good education to succeed in life’ (p. 3)

The main reasoning in the report is: The learning crisis is often hidden - but measurement makes it visible. The report fits with other reports from organisations like OECD and Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS) hammering out the need for collecting more and more data in education *3.

In my opinion there is nothing new about the learning crisis. It was not hidden. Many reports and high-status meetings were dedicated to the problem. Not much has changed but that, in my view, is mainly because of lack of political will. Measurement will - unfortunately - not automatically change the game.

According to the report the first action needed at national level is: 'assess learning, to make it a serious goal' (learning in contrast to just caring for access to education). It is assumed that having information on learning helps. I agree that such information is needed and will help especially at school or board level. But at national level reality is different. Politicians and officials sometimes (many times?) have a stake in not revealing the facts, especially about inferior education for disadvantaged groups. Measuring the results of children of those groups e.g. would lower the national results (and it does).
And although striving for equity is more and more the right thing to say, reality shows that decision makers deliberately in stead choose for extending the advantages for the middle and upper classes.

Also presenting measurement as major key to solving the crisis is not new to the World Bank. In 2010 the WB started the project SABER (System Assessment and Benchmarking for Education Results) *4 next to (continued support) to global assessments like PISA *5.

This report chiefly seems to be an effort to continue those projects that also focussed on the need for data gathering. Strange enough SABER is only mentioned in the acknowledgments and in the literature of the report, but not in the text itself. 
One of the problems of the rather demanding attitude of the WB at the start of SABER was that statistics agencies of ministries of education did not have enough time for national or local priorities on statistics. (So it turned out when in 2011 I did an investigation on EMIS *6 development in the Pacific). 
Hopefully this demanding attitude did and does not continue *7.

Accountability in education, Global Education Monitoring Report 2018
The mandate of the Global Education Monitoring Report is to be the mechanism for monitoring and reporting on Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all) and on education in the other SDGs. The report is prepared by an independent team hosted by UNESCO.

The massive report (505 pages) covers almost all aspects of accountability in a clear way. It is supportive to but also critical on accountability and its methods. The critical part is a pleasant surprise to me. The foreword e.g. states:
'There is extensive evidence showing that high-stakes tests based on narrow performance measures can encourage efforts to ‘game the system,’ negatively impacting on learning and disproportionately punishing the marginalised’. A fundamental recognition from what is said over and over again but seldom in reports like this one. And this time said without using the word neoliberal to characterise or explain the trend towards detailed measuring to serve the need for accountability.

Conclusions and recommendations are clustered under the headings:
• There are large education problems that call for solutions;
• Accountability is part of a solution but should be designed with humility;
• Accountability mechanisms work in specific contexts...
• …but can be detrimental in other contexts if poorly designed;
• How should governments design and implement robust accountability systems?

I like the deliberations under the first four headings, The last heading however should also include: What can governments do when they don’t have the budget, the human resources and the systems to implement robust accountability systems? Some of the recommendations in this section are unrealistic. To me it almost sounds like: all countries should live up to the standards of developed countries. Luckily elsewhere in the report context is reckoned with. About setting data available to decision-makers the report formulates: 'The information should be tailored to its intended use and the cost of collection should match the capacity of the country to process it’. (p. 297). Right.

To me making the connection between trust in a school and success of accountability in that school is very relevant. The report states: 'The growing emphasis on accountability places new burdens on schools and can unintentionally undermine professional trust and educator motivation mechanisms both linked to school functioning and reflective of community and stakeholder efforts'. (p. 43)
Relevant is also the comment that 'The trend towards more accountability …. has significant implications for principals in terms of workload, nature of responsibilities, and skills and knowledge required to fulfil more complex roles. (p. 59) and 'Accountability pressure affects principals, but they often lack the capacity or motivation to use the opportunity to improve their school'. (p. 60).

These are good warnings to be thoughtful about (lacking) conditions for far-reaching accountability systems.

Both reports
Both reports are excellent. They cover almost all aspects of the crises in education *8 and present the pros and contras of a focus on data management and accountability. (Even about the the lack of political will). The reports are well written, very good readable while presenting many specific examples from countries all over the world (Not only the normal US and UK examples). There is an ongoing warning about the simplistic copying and misuse of good examples from elsewhere. Focus is on differences in context and complexity of problems at hand. In short: the reports are overwhelmingly convincing.

But to me exactly that also holds a negative characteristic as it contains an unwelcome invitation to some stakeholders. These reports can become major stepping stones toward strengthening the focus of global education stakeholders on results-based management and on further degrading professionals to protocol-driven actors instead of strengthening the professionalism of teachers and school leaders.
One might counter argument that these negatives effects are already mentioned by referring e.g. to the results of the Bush project 'No Child Left Behind’, (NCLB, UNESCO report p. 53 box 3.3), or by advising governments to treat teachers as professionals (UNESCO report p. 297). However compared to the (implicit) drive to foster results-based management this information does not feature strongly. Elsewhere in the reports professionalism is hardly mentioned, and certainly not as the most important fundament to build on.

*1 Other current reports are:
• The OECD Handbook for Innovative Learning Environments, OECD, 2017
• Progress Report 2016-2017: Delivering the Learning Generation, The Education Commission, 2017

*2 For ongoing comments read the #WDR2018 Reality Check’s on the sites of Education International, the starter and the first check being on
https://www.ei-ie.org/en/ and on https://worldsofeducation.org/en/

*3 For UIS see their Information Paper No. 46: Mind the Gap: Proposal for a Standardised Measure for SDG 4– Education 2030 Agenda (October 2017). Also see the blog (November 8, 2017) from the Director of UIS about their new approach: A quick win in monitoring how much children learn on http://www.globalpartnership.org/blog/quick-win-monitoring-how-much-children-learn (site of Global Partnership in Education).

*4 See for example: 
• Porta, Emilio and Gustavo Arcia (2011), Information Systems for Planning and Policy Dialogue-assessing the quality of education statistics, SABER (System Assessment and Benchmarking for Education Results), The World Bank Group.
• In 'Learning for All: Investing in People’s Knowledge and Skills to Promote Development' (World Bank Group Education Strategy 2020, 2011) SABER is mentioned several times, see especially p. 61. 
http://saber.worldbank.org/index.cfm

*5 'In addition to national assessment systems, the Bank will encourage country participation in international and/or regional assessments, such as IRLS, PISA, SACMEQ, and TIMSS, as a means of building a global database on learning achievement’. (Learning for All p. 62)

*6 EMIS = Education Management Information System

*7 Look also at 'A Guide to Reading the Rhetoric’ about disjunctures and double speak in the language of the World Bank. https://worldsofeducation.org/en/woe_homepage/woe_detail/15505/wdr2018-reality-check-1-a-guide-to-reading-the-rhetoric

*8 I, however, would have preferred more attention for problems associated with vouchers, private schools funded by public money and the growing influence of private financing of major innovations by business-related funds (without democratic control). But see e.g. p. 73, 74, 107 of the GEM report.
See also my blog: Verger and The Global Education Industry.

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