Local Wisdom versus Global Assessments

A significant shift continues to occur within global education markets. It is signified by the manner in which it makes sense to speak of a global education market. It is driven by neo-liberalism and the expansion of markets into all aspects of our lives and it is made possible by manipulation of the third messaging system within the educational triad of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. It is a drive towards accountable, comparable and productive education systems fine-tuned to maximise the return on investment and provide industry with the workforce it desires. What must be asked is how does this trend impact students and are these the forces that should be driving change in our education systems?

The concept of an International Education market has its origins in the emergence of global testing initiatives. Without measures for meaningful comparisons between national systems, the very idea of a market remained abstract. With the emergence of international tests such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), it has become possible for direct comparisons of national education systems to be made using a score and with that ranking tables. Assertions such as 'We are falling down the international rankings and our students are performing at a lower level in some subjects than they were a decade ago, according to the OECD’ (Jensen, Hunter, Sonnemann & Cooper 2014 p3) become possible, and nations compete to out-educate each other.

PISA brings with it an interest in particular aspects of educational systems through its manipulation of the messaging system of assessment. What PISA measures is given value and focus but the true breadth of PISA is rarely discussed while the traditional domains of reading, writing, mathematics and science take the limelight. This narrow focus on select disciplines results in a narrowing of the curriculum and the logic behind this focus needs to be analysed.

While reading, writing and mathematics have always been considered of importance the emerging STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) discipline is easily seen as a response to emerging trends in industry, a trend that predates PISA. 'The role of schools has become increasingly regarded as being to supply appropriate human capital to serve the needs of business and industry.’ (Angus 2009 p38) Imaginings of national prosperity are increasingly linked to the quality of graduates in the STEM fields as seen in reports from Australia’s Office of the Chief Scientist which state ‘Australia is now the only country in the OECD not to have a current national strategy that bears on science and/or technology and/or innovation.,’ (Chubb. 2014 p10) and PwC suggests a focus on our capacity for innovation linked to OECD reporting 'But we need to lift our game; the OECD recently rated Australia as only ‘average’ in its competency and capacity to innovate.' (PwC 2015 p13)

In 2018 PISA added an evaluation of students’ global competence and an optional assessment of financial literacy. For 2021 an assessment of creative thinking is planned and work on developing appropriate measures for this are underway. It will be interesting to see how the results of these assessments are reported by the mainstream media and the influence that they might have on educational policy. Will we see a renewed emphasis on global competence and creativity fuelled by reports that nations are slipping on these dimensions compared to a new global education elite?

The influence that PISA has on education is profound, and many of the problems it creates are outlined in an open letter written to Dr Andreas Schleicher, director of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment by a group of concerned academics. Chief amongst their concerns is that PISA brings a focus on the use of quantitative data and with that an emphasis on aspects of education which are easily measured. 'By emphasising a narrow range of measurable aspects of education, Pisa takes attention away from the less measurable or immeasurable educational objectives like physical, moral, civic and artistic development, thereby dangerously narrowing our collective imagination regarding what education is and ought to be about.’ (Letter to OECD)

That PISA is a product of an organisation whose focus is on economic development is also seen as problematic. 'But preparing young men and women for gainful employment is not the only, and not even the main goal of public education’ (Letter to OECD). The writers go on to state that 'OECD's narrow focus on standardised testing risks turning learning into drudgery and killing the joy of learning’ (Letter to OECD). The globalisation of education that PISA allows for sets an agenda that sits divorced from local issues and stands separate from cultural traditions and values. Driven by economic forces and linked to growth targets as it is, PISA shifts our thinking of what is important for education in one specific direction.

In this trend towards globalisation, the place that schools and education play within local communities is lost, replaced by national and global imperatives, 'the policy framework within which schools now work is characterised by new public management, top-down leadership, performativity and remote ‘standards’ (Angus. 2009 p37). In this market economy, 'Students and teachers are expected to turn themselves into the kinds of people demanded by ostensibly ‘high performing’ and ‘effective’ schools that succeed in market competition.’ (Angus 2009 p38)

The realities of how this transformation may occur are less clear and it is apparent from the dialogue that it is the responsibility of the individual to transform. PISA and NAPLAN create a setting in which ‘highly effective’ schools, teachers and students are believed to thrive and those who do not achieve success are the deviant minority. 'This minority has to be cajoled or coerced into being achievement-oriented, industrious, self-helping and properly trained for the workforce, and this is the strategy to overcome social exclusion.’ (Connell. 2013 p5) This blaming of individuals ignores the clear research that assesses the effect size of various influences on educational outcomes and reveals '85% of the effect being due to family circumstances’ (Angus. 2009 p38) What truly works or does not work for any individual child, or even any particular community is not easily measured and surely cannot be measured by one assessment.

The complexity of international comparisons is given little attention in the mainstream press. Where this complexity has been analysed and studied a more complete picture of what is working for some nations but also why this might not transfer to another system emerges. In ‘The Smartest Kids in the World’ Amanda Ripley (2013) looks at the education systems of some of the reportedly high-achieving nations including Finland, Germany, South Korea and Poland. Through this analysis, it becomes clear that each education system is a reflection of the culture in which it functions. While there may be some lessons to be learned and applied from one system to another, it would not be possible or effective for Australia to wholesale adopt another nations systems and process for education. It is deeply flawed to believe that such a move would be positively transformative and so one needs to ask what purposes are achieved through simplistic comparisons of national systems.

If one approach from international systems must be widely adopted, perhaps it should be the one that seems to deliver positive results with greatest consistency across multiple systems. Identified by the OECD and discussed in depth by Jensen et al, (2014) it is a commitment to professional learning programmes for teachers. The consistent features of such programmes are that they give time for teacher development, collaboration, mentoring, feedback and teacher driven research. Such programmes have the power to transform schools for the betterment of all. However, if such programmes are not allowed to develop in response to locally identified needs and are not driven by teachers and researchers working within local communities, they are bound to produce limited results.

Globalisation and market forces will not improve the educational success of all students. 'Broadly, we know how to make schools work even in environments of poverty: build up local experience, develop relevant curricula, create social solidarity and mutual help, put in serious resources’. (Connell 2013 p6). For education to thrive, we need a more honest discussion of what our schools need, one driven by richly complex and humanistic data and understandings, not global test scores.

by Nigel Coutts

Angus, L. (2009) Problematizing neighborhood renewal: community, school effectiveness and disadvantage Critical Studies in Education Vol. 50, No. 1, February 2009, 37–50

Chubb, I. (2014) Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future. Office of the Chief Scientist; Australian Government, Canberra

Connell, R. (2013) Why do market ‘reforms’ persistently increase inequality? Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education

Jensen, B., Hunter, J., Sonnemann, J. and Cooper, S. (2014), Making time for great teaching, Grattan Institute

Jensen, B & Sonnemann, J. (2014) Turning around schools: it can be done Grattan Institute

PwC (2015) A smart move: PwC STEM Report April 2015 (Accessed online April 2015) -https://pwc.docalytics.com/v/a-smart-move-pwc-stem-report-april-2015

Ripley, A. (2013) The smartest kids in the world: and how they got that way. New York; Simon & Schuster Paperbacks