The OECD has assumed the power to shape education policy around the world
Andreas Schleicher of its Education Department was referred to by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove as the most influential man in world education.
But what is the OECD’S vision of education and the purpose of schools? What do we know about it and to whom is the OECD accountable? Big questions, without easy answers.
Education policy and interventions worldwide are significantly influenced by the Pisa process and league tables. Governments have been known to change their policy in response to their Pisa rating, and the phenomenon of ‘Pisa shock’ is now all too familiar.
Though Gove is long gone, Schleicher is still very much in post. Given that Pisa is so important, shouldn’t there be greater transparency and mechanisms of effective democratic participation in its education decision-making process. Some critics suggest that the OECD lacks transparency and accountability. And, perhaps most seriously, that there may be a conflict of interest at the heart of what it does,
The OECD has entered into alliances with multi-national for-profit companies, which rather obviously stand to gain financially from any deficiencies real or perceived—unearthed by Pisa. The OECD runs courses to help students and schools improve their Pisa scores. So there is an incentive there, is there not, for the OECD to paint a picture of failing students and education systems. The politicians who run these failing systems then turn to the OECD for help and support.
And is it not strange that ,given our politicians view Pisa as so important, and are so preoccupied with our league table position , and worry so about its results (broadly we didn’t budge on our low rankings in the last Pisa results) yet they do nothing to improve our students performance in Pisa?
I am not saying they should do anything, by the way, let alone buy into programmes run by the OECD to help improve Pisa ratings. Its just that if you decide that the metrics the OECD use are important and you want to be part of it all, surely you should make sure that you put in place interventions that help improve your students’ performance and outputs against the chosen metrics. But we don’t do this. Now that’s odd. Why ask to be measured against something over which you have no control or influence. You are expecting certain outputs without being in control of inputs. That’s just not clever.
Pisa has taken on a big challenge, for sure, in measuring performance between widely different education systems and curricula.
Arguably, and this is a point made by Professor David Labaree of Stanford University, instead of measuring how well students learn what they are taught in each system, it measures a set of economically useful skills that nobody actually teaches. It looks at how well students demonstrate mastery of these particular cognitive skills. These skills may be important, but they are not taught,
And as Labaree points out ,in focusing on it’s a narrow range of measurable aspects of education Pisa takes attention away from the less measurable or immeasurable educational objectives.
To understand the OECD you have to understand where it is coming from. It is not looking to measure students for a rounded education. Its interested in utilitarian skills that are economically useful. It:
‘assesses the extent to which 15-year-old students have acquired key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies’ and it attempts to capture how well they can apply what they have learned in school.’
The message is that the only learning that is seen as worthwhile is the kind that is immediately useful.
Though the methodology for collecting the results is clear to some , the way they are interpreted and analysed to become final results is less so. US researchers, for example, have found that US PISA scores are depressed partly because of a sampling flaw resulting in a disproportionate number of students from high-poverty schools among the test-takers Shanghai , did very well in the last Pisa, but there are allegations that it managed to exclude from the tests its most disadvantaged students, skewing the results. .And many academics suggest that the OECD frequently confuses correlation with causation..not uncommon in research but one is entitled to expect better from the OECD. A lack of statistical transparency has been a focal point of criticism levelled at Pisa and indeed the OECD for some time now.
However, even some of the OECDs strongest critics concede that much of the data it generates as part of the overall exercise are very useful. And to be fair, Schleicher himself urges caution among policy makers when reacting to the Pisa results and warning against knee jerk reactions.
But given the importance of Pisa that is hard. Undoubtedly there needs to be more informed discussions about the role and influence of Pisa, its methodology, accuracy and the way League tables are interpreted and , above all ,used. There is also the knotty issue of a possible conflict of interests that needs to be addressed. And if our government really wants us to do better in rankings it should either do something about it, or if its not prepared to do so , not treat Pisa as so important. Why not take a closer look at TIMSS ,where we do rather better?