Can Teachers Unions Change? Can The World Bank Change?

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ImageIn 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.

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