Education International, and its member organisations in the OECD and partner countries, are increasingly concerned about politicization of the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
With the release of the latest PISA 2006 results, educators have witnessed the same story unfolding around the world. In countries where students achieved near the top, politicians congratulate themselves and take credit for sound education policy. In countries with lower achievement, politicians blame the school system and teachers for poor performance. In both circumstances, media reports tend to focus on rankings and offer a simplistic "league tables" style approach. "PISA is about more than ranking the performance of countries and systems, but that is often how it has been reported. And we can rightly ask the question: has PISA just become a media phenomenon?" asked EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen. He urged parents and policy-makers to read such reports with a sceptical eye. "The complexities of education cannot be reduced to sports scores, in which some children are portrayed as winners and others as losers," van Leeuwen said. Administered every three years in 30 OECD countries and 27 partner countries, PISA tests achievement of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. EI welcomes comparative international research in education, and the merit of PISA is that it highlights both quality and equity issues. However, PISA can offer only a snapshot of how a group of students respond to a set of questions. It does not, and cannot, portray a full and nuanced picture of education in any country. Van Leeuwen said it is of grave concern to teacher trade unionists when they see national governments implementing education reforms with the stated objective of ranking higher on the PISA. "Such superficial objectives are deeply threatening to quality of education and access to education for all," he added. EI also questioned the OECD's underlying assumption that education systems must focus their objectives to meet labour market demands in the hyper-competitive global marketplace. "Schooling should be more than learning for earning. We advocate for a more comprehensive, rounded approach to education that takes into account students’ futures as global citizens, not merely as workers," van Leeuwen said.
“The OECD has, from the beginning, developed a very successful communication strategy, and the release of PISA and the OECD work in general actually come quite close to releases of big, commercial events such as the newest Harry Potter book or the new version of Microsoft Windows – and are almost awaited with the same excitement, not by consumers, but rather by policy-makers.” -- From “The Political Use of PISA,” by Ditte Søbro in Education International Guide to PISA 2006.
This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 25, February/March 2008.