Can Teachers Unions Change? Can The World Bank Change?


This page in:

In December 2006, I travelled to Santiago, Chile, with a small team to conduct consultations with education stakeholders on a study we were carrying out at the request of the Chilean Government to help them identify lessons from high-performing countries on how to strengthen the institutional arrangements for education quality assurance. I was the Task Team Leader (at the Bank this is the title of the Project Manager) and also heading the trip. I was joined by an external expert consultant, Joseph Olchefske who is a former Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools and was during this period at the American Institutes for Research, and a Junior Professional Associate, Erika Molina. Among the round of meetings we held with all stakeholders ranging from government officials (legislative and executive), business sector leaders, think- tanks (both from the right and left of the political and economic spectrum), student organizations, academic leaders, and opinion leaders, we met with the leaders of the national Teachers Union, the Colegio de Profesores.

The meeting took place at lunch time, at the Teachers Union’s headquarters. They welcomed us into their conference room, where we were offered a nice lunch. I recall that in his welcoming remarks, in very polite terms but nevertheless explicit and clear, the head of the Union emphasized that during the past 15+ years when the Bank had been supporting the Government of Chile in the education sector, the Bank had never met with the national teacher union, and that this was indeed the first time that anyone from the World Bank had visited their headquarters.

In my introductory remarks, I responded that organizations do change over time, and that as they would see in my presentation, the Bank too had evolved.  I even used humor and said that they probably didn’t expect the World Bank to look like me – a woman, non-Anglo Saxon, and in her 30s (mid-30s but 30s nevertheless). I went on to make the presentation, which included a comparative analysis of the institutional arrangements of 9 countries around the world, including, Chile, and indicated what were our preliminary conclusions and possible policy options. We had a very technical and fruitful discussion, and I was highly impressed by the technical knowledge and thoughtfulness of the Chilean union leaders.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to present a new project I’m leading at The World Bank, which is designed to collect, analyze, and synthesize information on Teacher Policies Around the World (or TPAW, in CAPS because that is the name of the project) at the meeting of the countries that have expressed interest in participating in the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) of the OECD in Paris. TPAW, and the parent project of which it is part, System Assessment and Benchmarking for Education Results (SABER), try to build on the vast amount of research that the Bank and the global research community regularly produce, as well as on the Bank’s presence in a majority of countries around the world, to generate a systematic knowledge base on education systems across the world.  Our goal is to widely share this knowledge base, thus facilitating learning on what are the education policies that are most conducive to achieving high levels of learning for all students.  Because we have learned that no one policy works in all settings, our goal is to provide a rich forum – by collecting and analyzing substantial information of education systems and policies around the world – for our staff, partners and client countries to learn from relevant experiences in education policy reform.

The meeting was 2 days long, and I participated as an observer (along with representatives from UNESCO and the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the OECD, (an international trade union organization that has consultative status with the OECD and its various committees, and thus, in education, it serves as an interface between the teachers unions and the OECD), which enabled me to learn all the details about the sampling approach, technical requirements, and commitments that TALIS countries agree to.  In the closing session, I was offered 10 minutes for my presentation.  I don’t want to talk too much about TPAW or SABER here, but I do need to say –as I showed in the presentation – that the initiative is about documenting the various teacher policies that countries actually have in place, using a common framework, so that both Bank staff and our client countries can be better informed at the time of promoting teacher policy reforms. To do this, we have conducted extensive research and analysis and really tried to be as comprehensive, evidence-based, and non-ideological as possible.

Yet, the one comment  I received at the end of my presentation was a scathing criticism from one of the TUAC representatives who said that this is the kind of initiative that is focusing on particular issues for particular teachers, such as the ability to fire the small group of low performing teachers, as opposed to TALIS which is much more about building teacher autonomy.  I must say that in 1 of the 8 policy goals that we include in TPAW, 1 of the 9 indicators we use to assess the level of progress of an education system toward achieving that teacher policy goal is the extent to which “information from evaluations is used to dismiss ineffective teachers.” But TPAW also includes many, many other indicators (there are about 95 in total) to get at a comprehensive picture of teacher policies in a specific country.

I want to recognize the kind email message I received a few hours later from that same TUAC representative, apologizing for as he put it, a “somewhat one-sided response” and saying that “although there were a number of aspects in it with which I disagreed there were equally ideas which I supported.”

We all make mistakes of judgment as individuals and organizations. As representatives of large organizations, we also  carry the history of our workplaces, both the good and the bad. But organizations (as do individuals) evolve over time, hopefully for the better.



Join the Conversation

Nachiket Mor
January 26, 2011

Dear Dr. Vegas,

I think you make an excellent point that things can change but I do believe that in order to get a fuller understanding of why things change one has to look at the context within which these unions are now operating in their home countries. As Dr. Beteille points outs in this article (based on her research at Stanford University):, the underlying politics of it all matters.

I am personally of the view that there is an even deeper issue behind the politics, particularly in a vibrant democracy like ours (India): what do the people "say" that they want most when the elect their political representatives and why? How can we make it more beneficial for the politician to demand better outcomes from schools than for him to shield non-performing teachers? Because, in my view, the abrasive commentator in the audience picked exactly the right issue to challenge you on -- how the system treats the non-performer sets the norm even for the high performers and the entire equilibrium responds to how that 5% is dealt with. I feel that in this context the work of Dr. Khemani is very illuminating on how benchmark competition in politics can start to inform citizens that if their child is not doing well it is not automatically the case that the child is unintelligent but that the "system" is not delivering and can be made to deliver if they decided to make it sufficiently important when they voted.

One of my big anxieties of the "no-exams" direction that our national human resources minister is pushing the country towards is that while it works beautifully for the middle class parents like me it is withholds key information from illiterate parents and makes it impossible for them to judge if the "Right to Education" that has been granted to their child has indeed been fulfilled. It may not be entirely accidental that exams were sought to be taken out completely exactly when the "Right" was offered so that the system could continue to operate essentially unchanged.

Both Dr. Beteille and Dr. Khemani are now a part of the World Bank and I would like to invite both of them join this dialogue. They will do a much better job of presenting their perspectives than I could.


Nachiket Mor

Emiliana Vegas
January 27, 2011

Dear Mr. Mor:

Many thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the blog. I agree with you that the politics in each country affect the positions of individuals and organizations. I've asked my colleagues Tara Beteille and Stuti Khemani too to step into this discussion, as they are the "experts" on the political economy aspects, especially in India.

My main point, however, is that when we can meet and discuss our positions, we can make progress. As institutions, we are not often open to engaging in these discussions with other institutions that have historically opposed our positions. I believe that the more technically sound is our work, and the more we are open about our approaches and even our thinking, the more likely it is that we can engage all stakeholders in productive conversations that may lead to reforms resulting in real improvements in student learning. I know this is more easily said than done, and that it takes effort from all parties.

I was grateful that the representative reached out after meeting. I hope we can now engage in a more productive discussion around how we can together promote more effective teaching and learning.


Tara Beteille
February 04, 2011

Emiliana and Nachiket – thanks for an interesting discussion! Emiliana – you are right to point out that individuals in organizations can change. This makes it important to figure out how these individuals can help turn the organization. Two questions come to mind immediately. First, to what extent has the individual really changed – although he apologized to Emiliana in private, would he do this in public (where his outburst may have built his political credibility among his colleagues)? This is not insignificant: peer pressure causes private and public behavior to diverge, reducing the reliability of the former. It is hard to know how this teacher will react when amidst his colleagues, or in a more public setting.

Next, how does one channel potentially positive behavior to get effective outcomes (from the perspective of student learning)? I want to give the example of an organization in India, Eklavya Foundation. Eklavya operated an innovative program of teacher training, curriculum design and examinations in science (Hoshangabad Science Teaching Program; HSTP) in public schools in several districts in Madhya Pradesh, a large Indian state, for nearly 30 years. Eklavya reached HSTP to the average teacher through a network of highly committed and capable public school teachers, who motivated thousands of their colleagues to teach a curriculum that made far greater demands on them than the traditional curriculum.

Now coming to Nachiket’s point about the political economy of such reform. After running the program for nearly 30 years with a lot of government support, HSTP was abruptly shut down by the government in 1999-2000 without any convincing explanation. The widely believed explanation for the abrupt shutdown was “politics”, driven largely by the education bureaucracy in the state. What is sad -- but important to note -- is that while some teachers held protests etc, my understanding is that most teachers returned to teaching in the traditional manner.

So what happened? Why did thousands of teachers who had hitherto been motivated by HSTP offer such little resistance to its closure? This is it a difficult question to answer, but I’ll end my long response with two points:
(1) Many government school teachers, at least in India, have to expend a considerable amount of their energy on tasks that have nothing to do with teaching. These include negotiating opaque rules on teacher transfers, and needing to pay bribes for a range of tasks including being reimbursed for routine expenses. Who has time to work when they are constantly being harassed for other things?
(2) There are several systemic factors at play at the same time. A complicated set of incentives and disincentives determine how the education bureaucracy will behave, how para-political entities such as teachers unions will react, and how political leaders will respond. Nachiket’s example of Education being made a Constitutional Right in India (which was preceded by several debates on what teachers could be held accountable for), and the current minister’s enthusiasm for “no (standardized) exams” really gets to the heart of how complicated getting education to low-income students is.

Ana Santiago
March 17, 2011

I enjoyed your post and agree with the position that dialogue based on openness to the other's positions and constraints, as well as based on as much objective information as possible, will definitely lead to change. I only wish institutions were more flexible, thus allowing for quick change, because as time passes, another generation of children missed out on the benefits of having a good teacher.

Good luck with the project, I look forward to reading the results!