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.