#WDR2018 Reality Check #13: “It’s not a learning crisis, it’s an international development crisis! A decolonial critique” by Iveta Silova

The 2018 World Development Report (WDR) “Learning to Realize Education’s Promise” has been widely praised for placing education at the forefront of the international development agenda. But while signaling a global commitment to increasing education access and quality in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 2018 WDR is also a reflection – and reminder – of what’s been historically wrong with the broader international development industry itself.

Despite more than six decades of development efforts to eradicate global poverty and inequality through sustainable practices, the results are not promising: poverty is persisting, inequality is widening, and environment degradation is accelerating. Will education fair better in addressing these global challenges or is it just the latest panacea for the deeper structural problems of the international development industry?

Between 2000 to 2017, the World Bank Group invested more than US$45 billion in education. Billions more have been dedicated to education development by other bilateral and multilateral donors, various foundations, as well as non-governmental organizations. Yet, as the 2018 WDR points out, the global progress towards SDG 4 – ensuring inclusive and quality education for all by 2030– remains meager. Although access to education has increased, “learning outcomes in basic education are so low, in so many contexts, that the developing world is facing a learning crisis”(p. 71). Drawing on OECD’s Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA), IEA’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and other international and regional large-scale assessment studies, the report warns that the progress in student learning is either too slow or non-existent in many countries of the world:

Although some countries are making progress on learning, their progress is typically slow. Even the middle-income countries that are catching up to the top performers are doing so very slowly. Indonesia has registered significant gains on PISA over the last 10–15 years. And yet, even assuming it can sustain its 2003–15 rate of improvement, Indonesia won’t reach the OECD average score in mathematics for another 48 years; in reading, for 73. For other countries, the wait could be even longer: based on current trends, it would take Tunisia over 180 years to reach the OECD average for math and Brazil over 260 years to reach the OECD average for reading. Moreover, these calculations are for countries where learning has improved. Across all countries participating in multiple rounds of PISA since 2003, the median gain in the national average score from one round to the next was zero. (p. 7, emphasis added).

The situation appears to be hopelessly grim.

While the evidence of this ‘learning crisis’ should be (and has been) seriously debated2, the 2018 WDR inadvertently points to another, more urgent crisis, which needs our urgent attention:  a crisis of the international development industry itself.

This crisis stems, in part, from the logic of colonialism underpinning the collective work of many international financial institutions, bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations, as well as non-governmental organizations. The colonial logic perpetuates divisions of the world into ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, reinforces hierarchies of power and knowledge, and re-inscribes Western ‘best practices’ as solutions to the so-called ‘learning crisis.’ Silently unfolding through the pages of the 2018 WDR, this colonial logic reflects the foundations of the international development industry, contradicting the very goals it aspires to achieve. Let’s look at some examples.

Perpetuating colonial divisions of the world

The conceptual framing of the report itself - anchored in the idea of a ‘learning crisis’ in the ‘developing world’ – openly evokes dichotomous thinking characteristic of the logic of colonialism. This logic maintains the division of the world into North/South or developed/developing countries vis-à-vis learning outcomes, setting low-income and middle-income countries distinctly apart from the West. Furthermore, the report portrays ‘developing’ countries as trapped in an endless loop of poverty, corruption, and backwardness, while positioning Western countries as examples to emulate. For example, the report explicitly discusses how various “technical and political constraints can trap countries in a low-learning, low-accountability, high-inequality equilibrium” (p. 171). Moreover, it readily points to Western examples for ‘developing’ countries to follow, citing “Finland’s admirable record of learning with equity” (p. 13) and occasionally mentioning non-Western countries which adopted neoliberal reforms, such as Poland’s decentralization reform of the late-1990s or Chile’s teacher incentive pay of the mid-2000s, which presumably resulted in improved student learning outcomes.Interestingly (but not surprisingly), the report remains relatively silent on education policies and school characteristics of non-Western top-performing countries such as China or Japan, further delineating the contours of the logic of colonialism to a ‘Western’ geography. (Japan, after all, was a colonial power but has not retained the same level of power as Western Europe, the United States, or Australia.)

Reinforcing colonial hierarchies of power and knowledge

In the section “What is causing the learning crisis?” (p. 78), the 2018 WDR predictably points to the problems of expertise, resources, and implementation at the local level. It argues that “schools are failing learners” because teachers lack skills or motivation to teach (and occasionally do not show up at school), while school leaders lack management skills and resources (p. 9). Pointing to the deeper causes of the ‘crisis,’ it states that “systems are failing schools” because policymakers are either unaware of the existence of the ‘learning crisis’ or incapable of managing technical complexities and political forces that “pull education systems out of alignment with learning” (p. 12).The report inadvertently incapacitates local efforts to engage in education reform by positioning education stakeholders in national settings as unaware, passive, corrupt, or simply incapable of meaningful participation in education policy making and school practice. Echoing the now commonplace storyline from Edward Said’s Orientalism,it reinforces the power of Western ‘experts’ who are readily available to offer (and profit from) technical assistance, while facilitating the spread of ‘best practices’ across the vast array of ‘developing’ countries.

Reinscribing Western ‘best practices’ as solutions

Admittedly, the international development rhetoric has become smarter. No longer selling Western ‘best practices’ wholesale to underperforming countries, the 2018 WDR includes a disclaimer about the need for a more careful transfer of ‘best practices’ and the risks involved in borrowing system elements from other countries. Referencing ‘PISA tourism’ in Finland, the report warns that “lower-performing systems that import Finland’s teacher autonomy into their own contexts are likely to be disappointed: if teachers are poorly educated, unmotivated, and loosely managed, giving them even more autonomy will likely make matters worse” (p. 13). While suggesting that “home-grown, context-specific solutions are important” (p. 13), the report nevertheless proceeds with outlining three policy responses “to realize education’s promise”: (1) assess learning, preferably using global learning metrics such as OECD’s PISA; (2) act on evidence, especially “scientific evidence” from impact evaluations or randomized controlled trials; and (3) align actors so that politics do not “undermine well-designed programs” offered by the West (p. 23). Despite the disclaimer, we are clearly back to square one: the 2018 WDR encourages the use of particular Western measurement tools to diagnose problems and therefore sets the stage for Western-inspired solutions, while strictly controlling for any local interference – whether human, economic, or political.   

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A decolonial reading of the 2018 WDR thus points to the structural problems within the international development industry. Interventions based on a colonial logic – and its unfair principles – will never lead to realizing “education’s promise,” despite the optimism of the 2018 WDR and good intentions of many donors. Rather than blaming teachers, schools, and local communities for undermining “well-designed programs,” we must honestly reevaluate the principles of engagement in international development, acknowledging their deep colonial logic that continues to perpetuate global inequalities. We need to hold the international development industry accountable for the failure of its own work.

It is time to reframe the issue of the ‘learning crisis’ more broadly to encompass the international development industry itself. Doing so makes it obvious that the ‘crisis’ we are discussing is not the crisis of the ‘developing world,’ but rather the crisis of the international development industry. And this requires different and far more radical interventions.  

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

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1 For the first time in its 40-year history, the report isdevoted entirely to education, putting it on par with such global development issuesas poverty and economic growth, climate change and environment, and jobs and markets.

2We also need to discuss the broader issue of feasibility and desirability of using international large-scale assessments to measure the complexity of ‘learning’ across different cultural contexts.See for example, Education International’s blog essays by Ravitch, 2018; Fischman et al., 2017; Handal, 2017; Pizmony-Levy, 2016; Rappleye & Komatsu, 2017; Bangs & Henry, 2017; among many others.


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Iveta Silova

Iveta Silova is Professor and Director of the Center for the Advanced Studies in Global Education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.  She holds a PhD in comparative education and political sociology from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Columbia University. Her research focuses on the study of globalization and post-socialist education transformations, including intersections between post-colonialism and post-socialism after the Cold War. Since 2008, Iveta has served as a co-editor of European Education: Issues and Studies.

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