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20 Jun 2014

Expanding PISA: The OECD and Global Governance in Education by Sam Sellar and Bob Lingard By Sam Sellar and Bob Lingard

By Sam Sellar and Bob Lingard, School of Education, The University of Queensland.

PISA for devThe education work of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has grown and changed significantly since the Organisation was established in 1961. Education has always had an inferred role in the OECD’s economic analyses (Papadopoulos 1994), but it has become more central over the past two decades. This is due to a combination of factors. First, with the end of the Cold War the OECD’s role as a bulwark against communism—an economic NATO—became redundant and a host of new countries gradually became eligible for accession as they developed free market economies, liberal democracies and respect for human rights. In this context the OECD has strengthened its statistical analysis function, becoming a global ‘centre of calculation’ (Latour 1987). During the 1990s, the OECD took an influential position in relation to the knowledge economy and the importance of human capital, as well as introducing its Indicators of National Education Systems (INES) program, published annually in Education at a Glance (e.g. see for 2013), and developing the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which was first conducted in 2000.

The release of results from the first round of PISA created a ‘shock’ in Germany (Ertl 2006), which performed more poorly than expected. This PISA shock demonstrated the impact that the assessment could make on policy and the programme has gone from strength to strength since, becoming the most well-known and influential international large-scale assessment in education. The success of PISA has been a catalyst for the growing influence of education work within the OECD and globally. In 2002 the Directorate for Education was established and for the first time education had an independent organisational location. Education is seen as a model of efficiency and effectiveness, given the high impact of its programmes and its relatively modest and often project-specific funding. Indeed, the release of PISA results every three years has become the Organisation’s largest media event and generates significant coverage and debate around the world. PISA is now providing a prototype for the development of an array of new programmes, including PISA for Development, PISA-based Tests for Schools, the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO).

PISA and related education programmes are now expanding the education work of the OECD along three interrelated fronts: scope (what is being measured), scale (where and when it is being measured) and explanatory power (how these data are used). This expansion involves development of the infrastructure through which the OECD produces, analyses and disseminates education data. For example, PISA and related programs are developing to measure a broader set of skills, including noncognitive skills, as elements of human capital. We are seeing an expansion in the quantification and comparison of more dimensions of learning, personality and social life, which are being drawn into human capital models and opened up to new kinds of policy intervention. The scale of PISA has expanded dramatically to cover 65 participating systems in 2012, compared with the 32 systems that initially participated in 2000. The OECD claims that participation is now representative of 80% of the world economy. The introduction of PISA-based Tests for Schools in 2013, which allows individual schools to compare their performance against schools and systems globally, has also changed the scale at which PISA is implemented. Finally, efforts are being made to increase the explanatory power of PISA by linking different data sets and providing data in formats that are easily accessible and useful for policymakers. For example, next week the results of the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) will be released, providing data on teaching conditions in 34 countries (up from 24 in 2008). The OECD is working to link this data with PISA results in order to better understand the relationships between teaching conditions, teaching practices and student learning outcomes.

What does this expansion mean for the OECD’s role in education globally? We would argue that with the rising importance and influence of education within the Organisation, and the success of PISA and related programs in terms of shaping education policy debates globally, we are seeing the OECD become a most influential agency in education policy globally, superseding other organisations such as UNESCO and developing new modes of global governance in education. The OECD largely exerts soft power influence through peer pressure on member nations to confirm to shared values and norms and through the capacity of its analyses to shift perspectives on economic and policy issues. We would argue that this shaping of values and perspectives constitutes a form of epistemological governance. This is coupled with what we have characterized as infrastructural governance. The OECD exerts a form of ‘logistical power’ (Mukerji 2010) by developing global data infrastructure in education, which shapes the environment in which analyses of educational performance and actions to reform education systems take place. Both modes of governance are mutually reinforcing: the development of data infrastructure generates the information that shapes values and knowledge in relation to education, and a belief in the need for this information to produce ‘evidence-based’ policy drives the demand to extend and develop data infrastructure.

With the success of PISA the OECD has been able to pioneer new data-driven modes of influence in education globally. This work is continuing and we are now starting to see others, including edu-businesses such as Pearson, with their new Learning Curve initiative, attempting to emulate this success in order to play a new role in global policy networks.

[Blog Editor’s note: of course there are those who have concerns about the spread of PISA’s influence and suggest that it is damaging education worldwide. What’s you view on this? Please feel free to add your thoughts and comments below].


Sam Sellar is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Education at The University of Queensland. His current research interests include the education work of the OECD, national and international large-scale assessments and new accountabilities in schooling. Sam is an Associate Editor of ‘Critical Studies in Education and Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education’.

Bob Lingard is a Professorial Research Fellow in the School of Education at the University of Queensland. His most recent book (2014) is ‘Politics, Policies and Pedagogies in Education’ (London, Routledge). He is also an Editor of the journal, ‘Discourse Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education’.


>>See other NORRAG Blogs on Learning Assessments

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