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27 May 2014

The Legitimation of OECD’s Global Educational Governance? by Clara Morgan and Riyad Shahjahan

By Clara Morgan, Carleton University and Riyad Shahjahan, Michigan State University.

oecdDespite a flurry of book-length publications on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) (see for example, Morgan, 2009) and a few journal articles on the International Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO), we lack a thorough understanding of the complex ways in which the OECD enacts governance during the production of its assessment tools.

By focusing on the stages of assessment production, we gain insight into governance processes of international organizations (IOs), such as techniques to instil certain forms of knowledge or to transfer educational practices from the supranational to the national, deployed as the assessment is being built. Once the assessment is built, evaluation policies and practices have already been transferred by the IO to the participating country. Close attention to the process and techniques through which IOs construct tests can enhance our understanding of how IOs acquire the legitimate power to define what counts in education during the early stages of test production.

Building on the existing studies of international assessment tools, we ask how IOs establish their legitimate power and expertise during the initial production stages of AHELO and PISA.  We find that the OECD gains considerable influence in governing education as it deploys three mechanisms of educational governance to inform what counts in education.

These mechanisms, each embodying a set of complex practices and processes, include: (1) building on past successes; (2) assembling knowledge capacity; and (3) deploying bureaucratic resources:

  1. Building on past successes

The OECD creates and disseminates internally shared interpretations of the importance of educational benchmarks or student assessment.  By building on its past successes, the OECD gains authority as an expert and a reliable resource for evidence-based education policy.  These ‘successes’ play a key role in constructing the OECD as an “authoritative voice” (Barnett  & Finnemore 1999, p. 710) in governing education. In the process, the diffusion of OECD’s products and tools (here, PISA and AHELO) help embed a shared meaning and an educational assessment culture among participating states.

  1. Assembling knowledge capacity

In deploying this operational category, we draw on Haas’s (1989) work on epistemic communities to analyze the role of experts in the production of PISA and AHELO.  As Barnett and Finnemore note, IOs gain autonomy by embodying a “technical rationality” (1999, p. 709).  We suggest that the OECD created its own epistemic communities for these two assessments to strategically ensure validation of its technical expertise.  Drawing on the policy transfer and policy diffusion scholarship, we identify how agents within these epistemic communities transfer ideas through both soft and hard policy transfer (Stone, 1999).  We demonstrate in our case studies of PISA and AHELO, how a set of micropractices in educational evaluation travel between supranational and local levels through both diffusion of ideas and direct copying.

  1. Deploying bureaucratic resources

The OECD, as a bureaucracy comprised of mostly rich nations, derives power from its “rational-legal authority and control over expertise” (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999, p. 707).  OECD officials are adept at capitalizing on their bureaucratic resources in order to achieve the organization’s goals.  In our case studies of PISA and AHELO, we illustrate how OECD officials leveraged the organization’s administrative structure to bolster the OECD’s position as a think tank in global educational governance.

In conclusion, our analysis suggests the need for more theoretical and empirical research on the complex ways IOs legitimate and enact global educational governance as they produce large-scale international assessment tools.

First, such empirical research would illuminate the complexity of the production of assessment tools that is fraught with tensions and contradictions, while simultaneously revealing that the production of these tools are important sites for fixing meaning about ‘learning’ in education.

Second, our analysis suggests that the assessment production process is fragile (often with lots of push back and criticisms); hence we draw attention to the role of IOs involved in the policy production process.  IOs justify, legitimize, and sustain the production process using an arsenal of past experiences, epistemic networks, and bureaucratic structures.

Third, the early stages of the assessment production process raise questions about the epistemic origins of ideas, and the adoption, translation, and incorporation of these ideas into global templates.  We recommend moving beyond the plentiful methodological critiques and impact studies of assessment tools in the existing literature to critically examine the geopolitics of producing global education policy.


This blog is derived from a recent journal publication by Clara Morgan and Riyad Shahjahan (2014) The legitimation of OECD’s global educational governance: Examining PISA and AHELO test production. Comparative Education 50(2): 192-205.

Dr Clara Morgan teaches at Carleton University while also pursuing academic research and working full-time as a policy manager for the federal government in the area of strategic policy development. Email:

Dr Riyad A. Shahjahan is an assistant professor of the Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) programme at Michigan State University. His areas of research interest include the globalisation of higher education policy, teaching and learning in higher education, equity and social justice, and anti-/postcolonial theory. Email:

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