PISA’s Passive Aggressive Assault on Education

by John Connell

Gary Younge wrote in a recent Guardian article about the global economy’s swift, and harsh, response to the election of President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil in 2002. Elected on an anti-poverty and wealth re-distribution platform, the sort of agenda usually dismissed as ‘populist’ by the Right, Lula came to office with a mandate to tear up an agreement with the IMF and to free the Brazilian economy from the shackles placed on it by the international economic order. As Younge wrote:

….on the way to Lula’s inauguration the invisible hand of the market tore up his electoral promises and boxed the country around the ears for its reckless democratic choice. In the three months between his winning and being sworn in, the currency plummeted by 30%, $6bn in hot money left the country, and some agencies gave Brazil the highest debt-risk ratings in the world. “We are in government but not in power,” said Lula’s close aide, Dominican friar Frei Betto. “Power today is global power, the power of the big companies, the power of financial capital.

The limited ability of national governments to pursue any agenda that has not first been endorsed by international capital and its proxies is no longer simply the cross they have to bear; it is the cross to which we have all been nailed. The nation state is the primary democratic entity that remains. But given the scale of neoliberal globalisation it is clearly no longer up to that task.

I detected a resonance or two from Younge’s article when I came across a recent piece from the always-interesting Yong Zhao about how Shanghai is considering whether to have anything more to do with PISA and withdrawing from the 2015 round of data gathering by the OECD. While the hand of PISA is by no means an invisible one, nor is it nakedly vindictive in the way that the international economic order can choose to be, it is in my opinion nonetheless a heavy hand that is doing more harm than good to education across the globe. Shanghai is a case in point.

Education officials in Shanghai feel that PISA, with its crude dependence on test scores, does not give them the  deeper and more meaningful levels of evaluation that other methodologies can offer. An example they offer is that their consistently high PISA score masks the fact that their education system has relied on excessive amounts of homework for its young people:

….teachers in Shanghai spend 2 to 5 hours designing, reviewing, analyzing, and discussing homework assignments every day…Teachers’ estimate of homework load is much lower than actual experiences of students and parent. Although the homework is not particularly difficult, much of it is mechanical and repetitive tasks that take lots of time. Furthermore, teachers are more used to marking the answers as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ while students are hoping their teachers can help them open their minds and point out their problems.

Shanghai is working its way towards what it believes is a much better system of evaluation, known as Green Evaluation, a framework that demotes test scores from being the only criterion to just one amongst ten. It brings factors such as moral development, creativity, psychological and physical health, development of individual potential and talent, and much more into consideration. It even looks at questions of ‘academic burden’, including class time, time spent on homework, sleep time, quality of instruction and overall academic pressure (such a far cry from the Gradgrind mentality of Gove and his acolytes who want to keep on increasing such pressures on our friends in England). It will also help Shanghai move away from the pretence that there can be any truly meaningful international comparison of education systems. PISA can only promote that pretence by its reductionist focus on test scores, and every additional step taken to measure (where measurement is even possible) and analyze the much deeper and broader criteria that must surely be included if we really want to understand an education system multiplies exponentially the complexity involved in making international comparisons.

Where the global economic order that assailed Brazil immediately following Lula’s election in 2002 (and just one amongst so many similar examples in recent times) was deliberately and aggressively malicious, the seemingly-gentler hand of PISA is much closer to the passive end of the aggression continuum. It has in its own way, however,  been just as effective in pushing its coarse agenda by the simple fact that so many governments around the world have chosen to buy in to its reductive methodology. Scotland is unfortunately one of the countries that currently plays the PISA game. Every two years, governments, schools and the media get caught up in a meaningless game of comparison, and every year the same pointless exhortations can be heard around the world pushing schools to do ‘better’ so that countries can climb the ladders of success at the expense of those passing them on their way down the slippery snakes.

But, if more and more jurisdictions can take the potential lead of Shanghai and tell PISA they are no longer interested in playing their absurd and valueless game, education internationally will be all the better for that.