- Anna Brix Thomsen
OECD, PISA and the New Discourse of Paranoia in our Education Systems. 108
A discourse of paranoia is slowly but surely creeping into the core of our education systems and if you are a parent who has a child in school, you will know that education today is not what it was, even 10 or 20 years ago.
One of the main culprits of the discourse of paranoia, is the increase of comparative testing of children’s’ cognitive development, especially when it comes to reading, writing and math.
This increase in standardized testing is spearheaded by a private global interest organization called the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) who runs a program called PISA (Program For International Student Assessment).
The OECD has with its PISA program become one of the most influential organizations when it comes to setting the agenda for the future of education, and they are rapidly working towards standardizing the world’s school systems into one streamlined model with a singular aim of optimizing profits.
So why is a private economic interest organization having such a significant influence on school systems all over the world?
In mere 20 years the OECD has become one of the world’s leading forces with regards to affecting education policies and currently, more than 70 countries solicits OECD to test its students through international comparative tests and accordingly give ‘expert advice’ based on the results of these test on how each country can optimize its education system.
It is for example based on results from the PISA tests that Finland’s education system was glorified and appraised and it is because of their high rankings in PISA that South Korea and Singapore currently are seen as having some of the best education systems in the world.
In previous articles I have discussed standardized testing from a critical perspective when it comes to the effect it has on children on a psychological level as well as on teachers, but also in regards to it being symptomatic of a development towards global competition and market capitalism.
In this post I will therefore rather present a critical perspective on the subtle way in which an economic organization has penetrated the very fabric of our education systems in ubiquitous ways that seems to go unnoticed by most – and this includes parents and teachers but also local governments.
There are two ways in which OECD with PISA is slowly but surely monopolizing educational policy:
The first is the seemingly innocuous ways in which our education systems are changing through the ways standardized testing are affecting schools and curricular all over the world on a rather ubiquitous level.
The other is how OECD with PISA is acting as a global overseer of quality in education with which it penetrates the education system to further a specific economic and ideological agenda. Countries are literally basing educational reforms on directions from OECD, in some countries with what some would call devastating effects. More on this later.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at the first:
The fact of the matter is that standardized testing is not simply a ‘tool’ as the OECD presents it, which is used to optimize the quality of our education systems. It is in itself changing the way education is carried out, addressed and seen.
It is not a passive tool for measuring the quality of education at a school because it requires students active participation and at many schools the result of PISA and other tests are included as part of the students final grading. Teachers have to change their curricular to ‘teach to the test’ and local budgets are set based on competitive results between schools in the same area.
This is not simply adding an innocuous tool which only effect it is to optimize the equality of education – it is pervasive in nature and it is changing our education systems more rapidly than we realize.
This is seen no more than in how students experience having to take one standardized test after another. One of my 7th grade students for example experiences perpetual stress over having to do tests close to every week. She is a young bring woman with an immense drive and creative ambition. She wants to become a movie director and often sits at home writing long scripts. She is even working on a novel. One time she mentioned to me that they had been learning about the ancient Mesopotamia in a history class. To me that sounded like a fascinating subject and I asked her with excitement what she had learned. “I’m not really sure,” she said. “The teacher is moving so fast through the curriculum pushing us towards the test so it is difficult to keep up.”
This is coming from a bright and intelligent young woman who still has an immense curiosity and interest for learning. How much learning potential is not wasted when students are rushed through a curriculum only to get to a test at the end?
Another tragic example of the effects that standardized testing has on students can be seen on the American art teacher Mrs. Chang’s blog. She gave her 10 – 12th grade students the task to illustrate how they felt about taking tests. You can see the outcome of that project for yourself here.
In 1998, Noel Wilson, a scholar from the Flinders University of South Australia wrote a paper in the journal EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS titled Educational Standards and the Problem of Error on the devastating effects that standardized testing has on students that is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. A summarized and updated version was added by someone called Duane Swacker in the comment section of this article which I also recommend reading in relation to a critical perspective on PISA.
In it, Wilson criticizes the entire notion of standardized testing in schools and asks:
“So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named. So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self-evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”
Paraphrasing Wilson on the epistemological error of the notion of testing, Swacker writes:
“A quality cannot be quantified. Quantity is a sub-category of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category by only a part (sub-category) of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as one dimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing we are lacking much information about said interactions. A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place. The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?”
It is indeed highly problematic that testing is seen as a benevolent tool to improve and optimize education, when it in fact appears to have an oppressing effect on students subjected to it.
The question is then whether this oppressing cookie-cutter effect of standardized testing is an innocuous but problematic side effect of a benevolent project regarding educational reforms or whether it is actually part of a much more sinister agenda to propagate a certain mindset in students graduating from schools around the world?
One of the most revered critiques of OCED and PISA is professor Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon.
In the fourth part of his often-referenced four-piece series of articles titled “How Does PISA Put the World at Risk“ Zhao argues that the PISA program
”was designed to capitalize on the intense nationalistic concern for global competitiveness by inducing strong emotional responses from the unsuspecting public, gullible politicians, and sensation-seeking media. Virtually all PISA products, particularly its signature product—the league tables, are intended to show winners and losers, in not only educational policies and practices of the past, but more important, in capacity for global competition in the future. While this approach has made PISA an extremely successful global enterprise, it has misled the world down a path of self-destruction, resulting in irrational policies and practices that are more likely to squander precious resources and opportunities than enhancing capacity for future prosperity.”
Zhao criticizes the PISA program for measuring the quality of education purely based on academic achievements, entirely leaving out and disregarding socioeconomic facts as well as the psychosocial well being of students. I have discussed this in a previous article where I mentioned how countries such as South Korea might score high on the PISA tests, but they also have some of the highest suicide rates amongst students – and the question is then whether that is an education system that is worth modeling?
In his closing statement of the article Zhao argues that:
“Until OECD-PISA became the only employer in the world with PISA scores as the only qualification, I would not suggest lawyers and doctors in the U.S., U.K., or any nation to replace your children’s activities in music, arts, sports, dancing, debates, and field trips with math tutoring. For the same reason, it is not time yet for schools in developed countries to close your swimming pools, burn your musical instruments, end museums visits, or fire your art teachers.”
In an 2014 article for the UK-based TES (Times Educational Supplement) newspaper titled “Is Pisa fundamentally flawed?” Educational reporter William Stewart outlined the scope of influence that the OECD has gotten over the past decade: ”Politicians worldwide, such as England’s education secretary Michael Gove, have based their case for sweeping, controversial reforms on the fact that their countries’ Pisa rankings have “plummeted”. Meanwhile, top-ranked success stories such as Finland have become international bywords for educational excellence, with other ambitious countries queuing up to see how they have managed it.”
Like Zhao, Stewart argues that measuring educational quality based on results from PISA is flawed. He argues that the tests are not based on common results but on different results from different students and that this creates highly fluctuating results from country to country and even within the same country, despite the OECD’s claim that PISA is one of the most accurately tools for measuring the quality of education. Stewart argues that it is absurd to expect that 50 countries with widely different cultures can be expected to fit into a one-size-fits-all measurement of educational quality and that the tests may therefore potentially be culturally biased.
So how has a private economic interest organization like OECD within the span of a decade managed to influence the course of national education policies on a global level?
In the past 20-30 years a discourse of global competition has become ubiquitously part of the conversation in media and in political sphere. Global competition for profit and resources (where knowledge is one of the most valuable assets a country can mine), is seen as a natural outflow of the processes of globalization and it is in that discourse that the OECD positions itself within and from which it gains its self-proclaimed relevance. PISA is presented as a tool that governments can (and must) use to optimize their educational policies to not fall back in the global competition.
The question is whether the OECD is doing that in fact or whether they, with PISA are adding gasoline to the fire to further their own agenda, specifically through generating panic and paranoia amongst member countries who feverishly fight tooth and nail to not be at the bottom of the ranks.
When Sweden, a country who otherwise prided itself of having one of the world’s best education systems, keep dropping in the PISA results year after year, it begs the question of whether PISA is doing more good than harm. Students are becoming increasingly more stressed and meanwhile politicians are acting as lapdogs for the OECD, following their every decree, to do whatever it takes to not fall back and risk being losers in this global game of thrones.
It seems as though the increased focus on global competition in our education systems has done nothing but decrease the actual quality of education, which is in itself an irony of massive proportions. It seems as though an undercurrent of paranoia based on an ethos of ‘survival of the fittest’ is governing our education systems and the question is: who stands to gain from a system that is set up to make students fail, despite getting an education?
I leave you with this analogy that may serve as a precautionary tale, to not let organizations like the OECD dictate the future of education based on paranoia.
In the classic 1954 book about survival and human nature, Lord of the flies, Jack (leader of the choir boys) convinces the other boys that there is a monster on the island and he soon spreads paranoia to gain power over the tribe. The boys vehemently start hunting the monster. Later, in a vision, another boy called Simon realizes that the monster is not real and that the boys have created the monster as a figment of their own imagination through the intoxication of fear. Jack and his followers kill Simon before they eventually burn down the entire island and destroy what little community was left.
Education is about learning how to navigate the world in the most effective way, to live together and to take care of the world and each other in the best way possible. Education is about learning from those who came before us, both from their experiences and examples, but also from their mistakes. Education is about developing and living one’s utmost potential so as to best contribute to a world that is best for all, and so for oneself. This is not the type of education that is promoted neither by the OECD, nor by our countries officials when they so desperately follow the OECD’s recommendations without questioning its political agenda.
If we are not interested in an education system designed by a private economic interest organization, whose goal it seems to be to increase paranoia to encourage competition – it is important that we come up with sound alternatives; alternatives such as the democratic (Sudbury) schools that are emerging all over the world, alternatives such as unschooling that questions the very notion of schooling and its capacity to true education our children. At the very least, we ought to question the starting-point with which we send our children to school: is it to teach them to compete and survive in a global version of Lord of the Flies or is it to become the best people they can possibly be, so that they may leave a world that is better than the one they came into?
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