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Education After the Spring Meetings: The Way Forward as a Global Practice

Simon Thacker's picture
Also available in: العربية | Français
adult literacy program for young Moroccan womenIt’s the first class of an adult literacy program for young Moroccan women. Ghita comes to the front of the class, picks up a piece of chalk and carefully draws a line on the blackboard. It is the letter alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, one of the simplest to recognize and write: a single downward stroke.

She reviews what she has done, takes a moment to be sure of it, then turns tentatively toward the others in the classroom. The teacher takes a look but defers to Ghita’s classmates to see what they think. Ghita hesitates, notices she has made a mistake, then nods and makes the change. Usually reserved by nature, it is clear how she is feeling—she is jubilant—for her newly-drawn letter, a line of only about an inch, represents a huge step forward. At 27 years old, she has begun to learn how to write.

This year, the Spring Meetings, Global Challenges and Global Solutions, refer of course to the World Bank Group’s critical mandate of addressing global development concerns. Yet, the title also seems to make an implicit reference to the new approach the Bank is adopting, which consists of Global Practices.

It is the position the Bank adopts at the heart of each of these practices that should help it focus on global challenges in a unified, targeted fashion, to find the right global solutions for some of the nineteen new practices and areas chosen for cross-cutting solutions, such as climate change, water, agriculture, governance, health, nutrition, and population.

Education, for good reason, has also been selected to be one of the practice groups. The challenges faced in education—associated with access and equity, quality and relevance, governance and expenditure—are global issues to be addressed through global practice. But though education is recognized to be a global public good, issues in it can never be separated from their specific local context. And therein lies some of the tension.

The same can surely be said of other practices? At any rate, this is why the Bank’s restructuring should make sense. The groupings are expected to go a long way toward eliminating the Bank’s internal barriers (the silos we all talk about) so that from now on, for instance, an expert working in adult literacy in the Middle East and North Africa can more readily share his expertise with his colleagues working on the same issue in other regions of the World—something that has not happened so easily in the past.

The recently drafted World Bank Education Sector Strategy 2020Learning for All” offers clear direction. It places great emphasis, as its title suggests, on providing learning opportunities for all, which means both those in formal and non-formal education—like Ghita and her classmates—and in both the public and private sectors.

Effective teachers are integral to learning. While this might seem obvious, teaching, or what actually happens in the classroom, is often not the immediate focus of policy. There are many reasons for this: For a start, there are just such a diverse number of issues involved, all more or less important depending on the circumstances, that teachers and teacher training only seem one part of a much larger equation. These include questions of infrastructure, curriculum, standards, incentives, accountability, and budgets.

And yet, the “instructional core”—the essential interaction between teacher, student, and content that constitutes the basis of learning—is the first place that policy makers should look to help improve student learning. Research clearly shows that no other attribute of schools comes close to this in terms of its impact on student achievement. Richard Elmore from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education makes the case that the learning moment is so fundamental that education policy should in fact be reverse-engineered, designed with it in mind in such a way that all other aspects of education serve as scaffolding to support it.

Traditionally, the Bank’s comparative advantage has not lain in the classroom, though there have been people like Helen Abadzi whose focus can truly be said to have been just that, on “learning”. But if the Bank is to become a “Solutions Bank”, the challenge in education will be to find a working balance between the new opportunities offered by global practice, and the specificities of learning that are local and contextual. The two are not incompatible: the Bank, as a global actor, can draw on its comparative advantages in terms of resources—material and technical—all the while refining in terms of strategy what is required to improve learning right down to the level of instructional practice.

As education at the Bank grows into a Global Practice, in other words, the question is really how it can focus on that crucial moment: when Ghita makes her mark.

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