From Metaphor to Global Nightmare: The World Bank’s Influence on US Education Reform Policies

A while back I wrote a piece called “Like Water for Education”  using the analogy of what multinational corporations and world banking do to natural resources in impoverished developing nations to what is happening in education reform in the U.S.

I thought I was just being metaphorical.  Lately, I’ve come to discover that it’s a whole lot more.

The same folks who brought you the water crisis, as documented in the film Flow , are literally (not figuratively) the same people bringing neoliberal, free market, and privatized “education reform” to a global scale, and directly shaping United States policy to fit its image. The World Bank.

Of course, one would agree that the World Bank- having its fingers in the huge global pie of agriculture, energy, and finance- would also have an interest in education. And to look at their websites (at a glance) their motives seem altruistic, of course.  I mean, who doesn’t want to bring good education to farthest and poorest regions of the planet, and to elevate the standard of living for whole groups of people?

But read the fine print.  As they say, “the devil’s the details.”

What I discovered was how deeply entrenched the free market ideology of education reform has in common with the efforts of the World Bank. And clearly, they have the political and financial power to get pretty much whatever they want.

What is the World Bank?

In a short paragraph or less, according to Forbes:

“With 188 member countries and an army of 9,000 employees and consultants, (it is) one of the world’s most powerful institutions–charged with saving the world’s poor–but also one of its most dysfunctional. It is an endlessly expanding virtual nation-state with supranational powers, a 2011 aid portfolio of $57 billion and little oversight by the governments that fund it. And–according to dozens of interviews over the past few weeks, atop hundreds more over the past five years, plus a review of thousands of pages of internal documents– problems have gotten worse, not better, at the World Bank despite more than a decade of reform attempts …  The bank deals with both the public and private sectors, and as the number of projects and amounts of money have escalated, so has the mischief, corruption and cover-ups, since no agency has the power to audit them.”

Meet the Global Partnership for Education

According to Forbes (again):

“Lead Education Specialist” Luis Crouch helps manage the billion-dollar Global Partnership for Education, run out of the bank’s headquarters. Crouch is a revolving door within a revolving door–over the past ten years he has shuttled back and forth between the bank and Research Triangle Institute, a nonprofit that sells education tests to the bank and USAID, according to a USAID consultant familiar with the deals who says Crouch consistently favors RTI. Asked about his apparent conflicts of interest, Crouch declines to comment, while bank spokesmen also decline.”

Who else supports the Global Partnership for Education? Well for starters, private sector corporations and private foundations are the newest members represented on the Global Partnership Board of Directors. Current Board members from the private sector include representatives from Microsoft Corporation and Intel Corporation

Additionally, Microsoft and Pearson will provide a combined $30 million between 2012 and 2015 to increase school access, improve teacher development, school innovation and effective use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Global Partnership developing country partners.

How Does the World Bank Connect with National Policy Here in United States?

Several of our key players in education reform also have played ball with The World Bank- conducting research with and for them, and providing policies and workshops for their education outreach. Here are few examples:

The Democrats for Education Reform. Their attack on unions is straight out of the neoliberal blueprint for education, articulated in its most unvarnished form in a draft report of the World Bank “Making Services Work for Poor People.” 


Sir Michael Barber  is now a CEO at Pearson.  Following his time leading the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, Barber served as partner and head of McKinsey’s Global Education Practice. In the summer of 2010, Sir Michael Barber teamed with leaders from the Education Trust and Achieve to found the U.S. Education Delivery Institute. This Institute works with leaders of K-12 and higher education systems around the United States to adapt the delivery concept pioneered by Barber in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit to drive American education reform efforts. Major international organizations including the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Bank, DFID, and the IMF have sought the advice and guidance of Sir Michael.

David Coleman (key architect of the National Common Core Standards and now President of the College Board) collaborated in writing a book with Phillip Jones on United Nations and Education, which “addresses educational futures: UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF and UNDP.”

The authors write, “Far from being a neutral lender, the bank is the keenest of participants in the struggle over education policy content. While education lending rarely exceeds 10%, usually 5%, that 5% elevates the bank to a primary position. The combination of its financing levels, and the force with which it promotes its views help account for its emergence as the strongest player in the world of multilateral education.

Both Coleman and Barber, along with a host of other education reformers have their roots deeply tied to McKinsey and Company, one of the most powerful consulting organizations in the world.

McKinsey and Company plays a deeply influential role in shaping education reform in this country. The links between McKinsey and the World Bank, by individuals and by sharing of education-related research and recommendations, are too many to mention.  But this one statement here suggests much about their possible motives:

“McKinsey & Company conducted a series of surveys to discover how shareholders perceive and, importantly, value corporate governance in both developed and emerging markets. Undertaken in co-operation with the World Bank and the Institutional Investor’s regional institutes, the surveys gathered responses about investment intentions from over 200 institutional investors, who together manage approximately US$3.25 trillion in assets. Forty percent of the respondents were based in the U.S.

So this might explain some of the World Bank’s interest in connecting U.S education reform to the global education reform agenda. And mind you, large globs of unified, large-scale, systematic, and consistent data are needed to “manage” education as a source of “big data”– to manage education as a private investment. The National Common Core Standards, the collection of student data into the hands of third party private corporations like Wireless Generation should serve this purpose nicely.

But What is the World Bank’s Education Policy,  Exactly?

It’s hard to summarize in a nut shell, but if one scrolls through their websites and ongoing education roundtables, workshops, and initiatives, one finds the same key words cropping up over and over again: decentralization, market-based reform, privatization, accountability, anti-unionism.

1)      The following is an outline from their link on Global Education Reform, summarizing what they think are key issues:

Types of Reform

    • Governance Reform
      • Decentralization & School-Based Management Resource Kit
        Directions in Development: Decentralization Series

        • Politics and Consensus
        • Demand-Side Financing
        • Community Financing
        • Legal Issues
        • Teacher Management
    • Financing Reform
      • Vouchers
      • Contracting
      • Private Sector
      • Charter Schools
      • Privatization
      • Private Delivery of Services
    • Teacher Reform
      • On-line resources related to teacher career development
      • Teacher Evaluation as part of Quality Assurance
    • Curriculum Reform
      • Country Examples of Curriculum Reforms
      • Accountability in Education
      • Standard in Education

Education Compendium

    • Teaching and Learning
    • Curriculum, Instructional Materials, and  Assessment
    • System Reform and Management

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

2)      World Bank Institute (WBI) offers the Education Reform Core Course: Strategic Choices for Education Reform.  Among other things outlined in this course they cite “Applying economic concepts to guide reform choices and exploring alternative financing approaches and public expenditure tracking systems (PETS) to support desired reform objectives,” as well as “the promise and challenges presented by ICT, and decentralization and governance issues,” and finally recommending an emphasis on monitoring, defined as,Strengthening student and education system evaluation and performance monitoring, with emphasis on key indicators and assessment approaches and their effective use.”


3)       Javier Corrales, in The Politics of Education Reform- The highlight of the Global Education Reform Centerpart of the World Bank (2006) writes that:

In 1993, the World Bank concluded that a crucial factor in the economic success of East Asia from the 1970s to the 1990s was investment in human capital, especially through well-targeted educational investments. Many governments are finally taking this conclusion seriously.”

The author proposes, “greater salience of international institutions such as development banks, bilateral aid agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and consulting firms” in education reform.

He adds that, “Quality reforms consist of:  efforts to improve the efficiency of invested resources, with the goal of improving the academic performance of students, increasing teacher productivity, reducing student drop-out or repetition rates, achieving optimum teacher/student ratios, penalizing teachers’ inadequate performance, granting greater autonomy to school boards, etc. (see World Bank 1995; Savedoff 1998)”

Finally Corrales defines the following for his readers:

Policy entrepreneurs:  “actors, usually at the cabinet level or with close links to the president, who find a way of pulling together a legislative majority on behalf of interests not well represented in government”


(Sounds a lot like ALEC to me)….

“Policy entrepreneurs (who) dramatize an issue, galvanize public opinion, and mobilize congressional support for policies that would not otherwise be approved (Wilson 1986:440).”

Furthermore the author takes issue with teachers unions, suggesting strategies to “reduce the political leverage” of such groups.  Describing with support, reform efforts in Mexico in the 1990’s the author writes:

“By channeling funding into previously under-funded education sectors and actors, the government gained new political allies and, in the process, diminished the alliance possibilities of unions. For instance, the government funded the creation of 18 new technological institutes with close links to private sector employers. Public institutions were urged to augment their income using nongovernmental sources, including raising student fees, selling services and establishing contracts with the private sector. As a result, new actors—businessmen, rectors, department heads, policy consultants and researchers—were included and, consequently, the potential cost-bearers—union leaders, student activists and sectors of academia—were “pushed off to the sidelines” (Kent 1993).


What Does this Mean?

One report I found by Pauline Lipman (2012)  summarizes all of this quite nicely:

Under the Global Agreement on Trade in Services, all aspects of education and education services are subject to global trade. The result is the global marketing of schooling from primary school through higher education. Schools, education management organizations, tutoring services, teacher training, tests, curricula online classes, and franchises of branded universities are now part of a global education market. Education markets are one facet of the neoliberal strategy to manage the structural crisis of capitalism by opening the public sector to capital accumulation. The roughly $2.5 trillion global market in education is a rich new arena for capital investment. This policy agenda has been aggressively pushed by transnational organizations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Objectives and performance targets are the order of the day, and testing is a prominent mechanism to steer curriculum and instruction to meet these goals efficiently and effectively.


If in fact the World Bank’s influence in natural resources like water, as the movie Flow  is any indication:

World Bank colludes with multinational for-profit water companies, which has led to the promotion of water privatization in developing counties. In Bolivia, short-lived water privatization at the insistence of the World Bank polluted rivers with blood and sewage flowing from slaughterhouses into Lake Titicaca.”

Then American education, and our children, are up an educational shits creek without a paddle.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

7 thoughts on “From Metaphor to Global Nightmare: The World Bank’s Influence on US Education Reform Policies

  1. In 1991 Douglas D. Noble published The Regime of Technology in Education where we were then and where we were going and he was screaming off the pages.

    “Above all, high-tech coroporate interest in education reform expects a school system that will utilize sophisticated performance measures and standards to sort students and to provide a reliable supply of such adaptable, flexable, loyal, mindful, expendable, “trainable” workers for the 21st Century. This, at bottom, underlies the corprate drive to retool human capital. :We in the personal computer industry,” notes Apple CEO John Sculley, also Chair of the National Center on Education and the Economy “are really in the behavior-changing industry. We have the clallenge to create the tools that fundamentally are going to change the way people learn, the way they think, the way they communicate, the way they work!” such is the scope the hubris of the regime of technology in education, a legacy of miitary fantasy conjoined with the unbridled self-interest of corporate power.”

    Add to the statement by Sir Michael Barber of Pearson that ‘-everything can be measured and therefore controlled.’ You have the makings of a coalition of power mongering, creed obsessed, and the ‘others’ who would come to survive and grow the octopus of what will be a one world initiative beyond the yearning for freedom and creative uniqueness inherent in each of us. We are racing to space for the few and leaving behind the great majority.

    As for the privatizing of our water supply, ask Collegeville, Pa., what happened there, privatizing education, as Camden, NJ, privitizing the prison system, ask Texas or Michigan and where the manufactoring or service industry are thriving? It goes on and then where has America gone and who kidnapped our government process or policies or laws?!! We’ve all gone to look for America!!

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