School Choice and Inequality: A showdown between the World Bank and the OECD?

I am just back from Chile, for some preliminary research on the World Bank and its policy advocacy for private provision of K-12 schooling. In the Chilean case (where a large proportion of K-12 students attend private schools funded by vouchers), “the World Bank had nothing to do with it” – to quote some of our informants. Still, it is fairly clear from discursive analysis that many recent World Bank reports trumpet private provision as a magic bullet for improving educational outcomes – including its new benchmarking tool for public private partnerships in education, SABER.

Chile – often touted as a model in earlier World Bank policy syntheses – is not much mentioned in more recent World Bank reports, perhaps because of the stunning evidence of increasing stratification of schools that followed on Chile’s introduction of vouchers. Popular  social protests have focused on this stratification:  national policies supporting private schooling were the target in 2011 for a “Chilean winter” of student protests across the country  (a play on “Arab spring”).  Yet the social stratification evidenced in the Chilean experience is not treated as a significant risk in recent policy advice from the Bank. For the Bank, privately provided schools continue to be described as likely to improve the quality of learning outcomes for children, despite the limited evidence that they’ve supported better learning in Chile. How come?

Today an OECD study on school choice comes to exactly the opposite conclusion from the World Bank about the value of publicly funded choice mechanisms in education.  This looks to me like a “showdown” between two the most important global institutions operating in the educational policy space.  We should all question how two global public institutions can derive such very different policy conclusions from “evidence.”  

I’m also interested in what the  OECD study has to tell us about Canadian schools, where school choice continues to expand. I’m sensitive to this issue – in the middle of “choosing” a high school in Toronto with my 13 year old son.  I’m grateful for the alternatives, but as a Globe and Mail story today summarizes:  “only a few studies found a link between school competition and student performance, and the gains were small. Most of the research – including international comparison of test scores – found that it didn’t improve schools or impact individual student achievement. ….[furthermore…] affluent parents were more likely to exercise choice.

My Chilean colleagues have, like the OECD, concluded that achieving good quality education for all is less about  choice, and more about  good teachers.

Education for All and the Adult Learner

For the past decade, the international community has focused on elementary schooling as the key to achieving the goal of “education for all”. But what about youth and adults? We know now that many of the school leavers from the past decade of universal access have limited literacy and numeracy skills; the building blocks for access for future learning and skills development. One reason we continue to shy away from this critical problem is that large scale efforts to raise adult literacy in the past had trouble producing sustained gains for the adult learners. See this thoughtful study, for example, by Roy Carr-Hill’s on the Tanzania national literacy program of the 1970s and 80s.

Today an article in the New York Times gives us more evidence about the critical role that learning plays across the adult life. According to a large, longitudinal study, adults who engage in formal learning maintain higher levels of fluid intelligence across the lifespan. The punchline: investments in learning, even in adulthood, produce huge gains in memory and cognition.

Learning for all: an investment the keeps really keeps on giving! Isn’t it time we in the global community developed effective programs to ensure that the right to a basic education is enjoyed by youth and adults?


Karen Mundy
University of Toronto

CIES Vice-President Nomination! (& Bio)

I’m excited to announce that I’ve accepted the nomination for the Vice Presidency of the Comparative and International Education Society for 2012. Its a chance to bring CIES back to Canada, and to OISE. Here’s my bio statement for the electoral contest, which is coming your way soon if you are a CIES member:

Karen Mundy: Biographical Statement for Nomination to the Vice Presidency of the Comparative and International Education Society

January 11, 2012

I began my career as a teacher and school librarian in rural Zimbabwe, where I began a lifelong interest in the role of external actors who shape educational policies and practices. I did not expect to become a career academic, and certainly not a career educator – but after a stint in a Canadian NGO, I made the fateful decision to pursue a graduate degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where the mentorship of CIES past presidents Joe Farrell, Ruth Hayhoe, Vandra Masemann and David Wilson helped set things in motion. My first article in the Comparative Education Review appeared in 1992 – a term paper that the late CIES president David Wilson insisted I try to publish. I became an assistant professor at Stanford University in 1996, learning enormously from students and my colleagues Martin Carnoy and Chiqui Ramirez. As a pair, they bring the “convergence/divergence” debate that has haunted our field for most of the last half century into living colour like no others! In 2002 I was recruited back home to Canada, accepting a Canada Research Chair at the Ontario Institute for Studies of Education. At OISE I co-direct our growing program in Comparative and International Education, now comprised of 150 graduate students.

The central theme of my research is “global governance” in the field of education. I remain keenly interested in the politics, prospects and limits of intergovernmental cooperation in education – an arena that is undergoing sharp changes with the rise of the G20 and the massive reorganization of the global political and economic order. My research has also focused on civil society organizations as educational policy actors; the achievement of education for all; public private partnerships in education; and global citizenship education. I’ve become increasingly interested in the utility of comparative education research for educational practitioners, preparing in 2006 a book that introduces our field to this audience. I’ve worked with more than two dozen Ph.D students during my 15 year career; I enjoy co-authorship with them and am much sought after for advice on “work life balance” (I am the mother of three active boys). More information on my research, students, along with my new blog, can be found at http://karen-mundy.net/

Like so many comparativists, I’ve also been keenly attracted to the “real worlds” of international education in practice. In 2004 I founded a coalition of Canadian faculties of education, NGOs and teachers unions to monitor and enhance a stronger Canadian role in the achievement of the universal right to education (http://www.cgce.ca ). I’ve acted as an external reviewer of the World Bank’s education sector work in Africa and the Hewlett Foundation’s support for EFA advocacy activities. I sit on the advisory board of the NGO Room to Read and have been a consultant or researcher for projects funded by the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Open Society Institute, Unicef Canada and the Mastercard Foundation.

Over the years, I have valued and treasured my association with CIES and its members. I joined the society in 1992, and sat for one term as the student rep on the CIES Board and chair of the new scholars committee. In recent years I have been a regular reviewer for the Comparative Education Review, a member of the Bereday award committee, and helped to craft the CIES initiative to commemorate Jacqueline Kirk after her death in Afghanistan. I have published regularly in CER – including the Bereday award winning “Educational Multilateralism and World (dis) Order”; my 2002 article “Transnational Advocacy/Global civil Society,” several book reviews, and two moderated debates.

As president of the society, I would hope to sustain and build on what I consider to be the best features of our society. CIES is a venue where civil (though still heated) debate between those holding different political and practical views has continued to thrive; where new ideas can be floated without fear of ridicule or reprisal; and where the contributions of theorists and practitioners, economists, sociologists, philosophers and pedagogues intermingle. It is also a uniquely supportive environment for students and new scholars –a venue not only for cross national but also for intergenerational learning. I would be honored to expand on these strengths, while enlarging our engagement with the digital world and mining new opportunities for stronger linkages with the many other comparative education societies flourishing in our rapidly changing world.

Education for all: A Canadian vocation – Karen Mundy

Children attend primary school in Mali, where CIDA is helping the government boost enrolment and provide quality education.

At a pledging conference earlier this month, Canada pledged a mere $21 million in new money to support the Global Partnership for Education over the next three years. In contrast, Australia committed $278 million US and the United Kingdom committed $353 million US. Can Canada afford to let its educational support for children in the poorest parts of the globe lag?

By Karen Mundy

Published Nov 22, 2011 1:21 AM

This morning, in every part of Canada, thousands of parents will wake up, wash children’s faces, and send them off to school.

Each of us has come to expect access to educational institutions that, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and a recent report by McKinsey and Company, rank among the best in the world.

Yet for more than 67 million children around the world, attending school is still a distant dream. Even those lucky enough to make their way to a classroom face steep challenges. Poor facilities, poorly trained teachers and few books mean that learning is not a guarantee.

via Education for all: A Canadian vocation | Embassy – Canada’s Foreign Policy Newspaper.