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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Scholz

The World Bank’s Global Education Policy Dashboard – a declaration of war against reality

An opinion piece by our advisory board member Martin Haus

A fatal metaphor: Trying to control complex systems with dashboards

The World Bank, with support by the UK’s Department for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has announced its latest invention to tackle the learning crisis: A Global Education Policy Dashboard.

The idea behind is as simple as deeply flawed and disturbing: Give us data and we will tell you what to do.

But let us take a closer look first:

The Global Education Policy Dashboard aims to “highlight gaps between current practice and what the evidence suggests would be most effective in promoting learning, and it will give governments a way to set priorities and track progress as they work to close those gaps.”

It will do so by

1. “Develop tools to collect data at all levels of the system on a regular basis.”

2. “Embed innovative measurement approaches in a coherent, system-wide framework.

3. “Present a user-friendly dashboard interface.

Point 3 is worth to take a closer look at:

“After gathering data, the dashboard initiative will display the indicators in an easy-to-use interface, focusing attention on key constraints. The primary audience will be policymakers, placing a premium on a visual representation that illuminates key relationships and constraints on learning.”

The underlying disrespect for governments and bureaucrats of the targeted countries is astonishing. This is made even more clear in the introduction:

“Policymakers in low- and middle-income countries who are working to improve student learning often find themselves flying blind. They see the budget that goes into education and (sometimes) the learning that students come out with, but they lack information on the crucial factors in between—the practices, policies, and politics—that drive those learning outcomes.

This paragraph alone should make governments decline any offer by the Bank to be part of this undertaking. Policymakers in low- and middle-income countries are not stupid. They often know at least as much, usually more than, World Bank consultants about their education system and its inner workings.

"Baking an education system" is not how it works

The World Bank’s conception of how education systems work is mistaken. One cannot create education systems like cakes. Mixing certain universal ingredients to then bake a working education system is not how things work.

Indeed, one would have thought the Bank had learned from previous such approaches which failed miserably. Indeed, education systems (the following points are largely taken from Meadows/Wright: Thinking in systems – A Primer) consist, like all systems, of the following components: elements, interconnections and functions/purposes.

Systems are complex

But a system is more than the sum of its parts. It is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. This something might be learning and civic education and preparation to be a citizen in a democratic society based on respect and equity – values enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

Systems are complex. Changes in some subsystem can often have unexpected implications on other subsystems or the system as a whole. Consequences of changes are (ex ante, but often still ex post) contested. Take the no-detention policy. Many State governments claim that the no-detention policy led to lower learning levels – a causal chain that is highly contested and contradicted by most experts. It is a deeply political question. And so is the term “expert”. The Bank for instance plans to include an Expert Survey, apart from a School and Bureaucracy Survey as part of its data collection exercise. It is interesting how this categorization works: Bureaucracy and Expert are two separated categories. Also, who is selected as an Expert is a political act.

Not everything that is important can be measured. Systems and societies function better (more efficient) if there is trust. Former Principal Secretary, Department of Education, Government of Bihar, Amarjeet Sinha stressed this important requirement time and again in his book An India for Everyone. Former Secretary, School Education, Government of India, Anil Swarup has stressed the need for State-specific actionplans. Both of these bureaucrats obviously have a much better understanding of the system than the World Bank. Both of them have learned to "dance with the system".

Back to the systems approach. It has for long been clear that changing systems is a tough task that requires humility and reflection. Indeed, as Meadows/Wright stress, social systems (and also education systems) are external manifestations of cultural thinking patterns and of profound human needs, emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. Changing them is not as simple as saying “now all change”.

Dancing with the systems requires to know its beat and history

Nor is a system a simple accumulation of elements. Saying “Tell us what you have, and we tell you the gaps” exposes a deeply flawed idea of how systems function and change. Also, one core insight, as Meadows/Wright put it, is to “learn to dance with the system”. To learn its history. To feel its beat. They warn explicitly: “before disturbing a system in any way, watch how it behaves”. Well, not so for the self-proclaimed Gods of the World Bank.

Meadows/Wright give some more cautious warnings: Stay humble, stay a learner. Expand time horizons. Defy the disciplines. Encourage forces and structures that help the system run itself. And don’t be an unthinking intervenor and destroy a system’s own self-maintenance capacities.

All these warnings are ignored by the Bank. Humbleness and learning? Experimentation? History? No.

Instead, a simple interface is required as otherwise the policymakers don’t get it. What a disrespectful hubris.

This whole thing also underlines the issue of lacking accountability for philantrophies. The Melinda and Bill Gates foundation has a certain track record. As the Washington Post put it:

Bill Gates spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve teaching. New report says it was a bust.

Hopefully not too many government will make the mistake to sign up for this “dashboard approach”. Rather, they should trust their own researchers, bureaucrats, teachers and people who know how to dance with the system.

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