Meyer H-D. & Benavot A. (eds.) (2013) PISA, Power, and Policy: the emergence of global educational governance. Oxford: Symposium Books

335 pages

ISBN 978-1-873927-96-0

The book is a series of essays from 23 different authors. After an overview in the introduction, and an insight into how PISA data has been used, the book is divided into four main sections: The Finland paradox; PISA, institutions, and the globalization of education governance; Non-educational influences on PISA outcomes; Policy.

The goal of the book, as laid out in the introduction, is to problematize the development of PISA and to question it as an institution-building force in global education. The authors question the presumption that the quality of a nation’s school system can be evaluated through an assessment that claims to be politically and ideologically neutral. They propose that PISA’s dominance in the global educational discourse runs the risk of engendering an unprecedented process of worldwide educational standardization for the sake of hitching schools more tightly to the bandwagon of economic efficiency, while sacrificing their role of preparing students for independent thinking and civic participation.

The success of Finland’s students in PISA testing is examined, including an interesting discussion of the political dynamics that have brought Finnish education to its current state, most particularly the tension between the national and local levels of governance. In his chapter, Kamens argues that world society has spawned an assessment culture that is spreading across nation-states and regions. Enthusiasm for this is partly a result of increased international acceptance of social science models and quantitative models of assessment. The search for ‘best practices’ has created pressure for a standardizing of educational systems, with many policy-makers searching for a ‘magic-bullet’ that will solve wider societal and economic problems. Tröhler then considers the growth of international testing during the Cold War and the impact of the OECD in defining what educational skills were worth testing. However, the main argument put forward by Lockheed that developing countries have benefitted from participation in PISA tests by improving their own internal assessments is not convincing. Sellar and Lingard make the case that the approach of the OECD towards education is governed by theories of human capital, lifelong learning and knowledge-based economies, underpinned by the construct of neo-liberal globalisation. In their chapter, Meyer and Schiller analyse the impact of individualism / collectivism and the power distance variables on different countries’ students’ performance in PISA tests and conclude that there are particular cultural and economic patterns underpinning success. Zhao and Meyer argue that what the PISA tests measure is not relevant to entrepreneurial success. They make the case that high achievements on standardized tests may reflect a school system’s efficient functioning as a disciplinary mechanism, but may also represent the absence of independent and creative thinking. Finland bucks this trend, as their schools are ‘standardized-test-free zones’.

Given that the stated aim of the book is to raise questions about the utility and purpose of PISA it is certainly successful in doing that. While a range of perspectives are presented, the central theme running through the book is that there are limits as to what PISA is able to measure, that too little attention is paid to local influences, and that the widespread acceptance of PISA is more broadly linked to economic and cultural globalization. As such, the arguments put forward do raise questions about how PISA is used by governments to justify policy changes and more broadly by richer nations to promote a particular form of educational philosophy. Although many questions are raised, the book does seek to provide many answers or alternatives – it is a valuable contribution to a wide debate rather than a programme for action.

For researchers wishing to make use of PISA data the book provides a helpful guide to some of the benefits and pitfalls of doing so. For students examining the impact of globalization on educational practice it gives them access to a range of issues, which could serve as the start point for further research. However, the book is of limited use as a practical tool for those wishing to learn about teaching practices in other countries.

Andrew Thomas
History teacher