PISA’s influence on national education agendas By Shefa AlHashmi

In December 2016, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released to the public their 2015 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) results. The results and subsequent analyses occupy a big share of educational discussions, but some educational organizations may be placing unnecessary weight on how countries rank within PISA results. As an educator who sees that assessments, like PISA, should be used as tools for guiding instructional enhancement, I find it conflicting to use it to speculate on topics such as future human capital and national economic growth by governments in participating countries. Focusing on these rankings emphasizes that education is merely part of a tool kit that is acquired to be used in the future job market. This perception undermines the goal of education as a mean to harness values like solidarity, empathy, care for the environment and civic engagement.

Policy makers currently use PISA scores in ways that I believe dangerously misconstrues the meaning of its scores.  Doing so is akin to using PISA rankings like sport leagues tables; those with the highest points at the end win. Measuring education quality by numbers on a yardstick distracts education stakeholders from more useful purpose of assessment, which is to inform curriculum and pedagogy. This practice also positions education as a marketing competition between nations where higher PISA scores serve as markers for better economic and political image.

Policy makers who prioritize PISA ranking are essentially concerned about competition. Competitiveness has become a central point in the agendas of many developing and developed countries. It has even been a buzzword in the discourse of prosperity for many nations.  The aspiration that emerges from a competitive market place is one of the factors that combats stagnation and renews the capacity to sustain development. In speculating about the future, instead of limiting competitiveness to the economic sector, it is assumed that competitive forces will continue to grow and extend to other sectors where competitiveness were not seen to be demanded, such as the education sector (Miller, 1999).

Measuring education quality by numbers on a yardstick distracts education stakeholders from more useful purpose of assessment, which is to inform curriculum and pedagogy.

Excellence is a fine value that every educational leader should strive to achieve, with competitiveness being considered a motivator for excellence. However, Sahlberg and Oldroyd (2010) emphasize that this practice is contradictory to the pedagogical meaning of competition. According to them, “the focus on […] standardised international comparisons of educational performance in core subjects divert the attention of policymakers and practitioners from competitiveness” (p. 293). Policy makers see competitiveness achieved by securing a high rank in the proverbial leagues tables, such as PISA scores and other international assessments. In contrast, instead of focusing on achieving high scores, integrating the skills of entrepreneurship into curriculum could prepare students to innovation, risk-taking and collaboration skills. These skills are developed when students learn in small co-operative groups and when teachers use open and alternative teaching methods. Such practices are not favored in contexts that are committed to the achievement of high scores. Teaching and learning in these contexts is mostly characterized by fear and stress which is not an environment where entrepreneurs, innovators and risk-takers can thrive (Sahlberg, 2006).

Aside from using competitiveness as a motivator to excellence, the rhetoric of competitiveness has also been used as threat to the competitive economic status of some countries. It is a rhetoric that has been conventionally used to create a channel through which politicians can promote the urgent legitimization of education reform (Bonal, 2003). This sense of urgency has been evident in calls of setting educational priorities of competing for higher rankings in league tables (Hazelkorn, 2009). For example, A Nation at Risk, one of the early and influential calls for education reforms in the United States, established the threat of losing the nation’s status as an economically competitive world power. The federal report starts with the indication of competitors’ threats: “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world” (United States. National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983, p. 5).  Other countries have reacted similarly, creating urgent education reform based on international test scores—for example, Japan (Takayama, 2007), Norway (Sjoberg, 2015) and Switzerland (Bieber and Martens, 2011).

Looking at this trend of competitiveness in education explains the reason for enlisting a high PISA rank as an indicator of excellence in education. Ranking tables are used for publicity and marketization purposes, which highlight the top achievers (Hazelkorn, 2009). Targeting a high rank in the leagues’ tables sends a public, political message that a certain country has achieved excellence in education, and therefore has an educated and qualified citizenry with the capital to be productive in the job market. The implication of such a political message is that the country competes economically not because they have land and/or resources, but because they have a competent workforce. Marketing for such an economic environment would work in attracting investors and international experts who may be interested in working within such a powerful economy.

When PISA scores are used as a facade of economic competitiveness, educational processes are perceived to be means towards economic ends. In the past, education agendas were constructed based on social and cultural objectives. However, in recent decades, agendas have been heavily influenced by the discourse of preparing students to participate in the industry and services market (Peters, 2009). Recent agendas are motivating students to look up to jobs that requires breadth and depth of knowledge such as legislation, management, business executions, humanitarian services, science and technology. Even when education goals are stated as preparing students to transfer their learning into real life contexts, the emphasis of their professional career is represented as the main realm in which they will engage. Intrapersonal and interpersonal goals such as acting as a rightful citizen and a respectful community members come secondary to career goals (Labaree, 1997).

Setting educational goals based on market agendas has been criticized by public policy scholars (Sjoberg, 2012; Moutsios, 2009; Labaree, 1997; Giroux, 2003; Westheimer and Kahne, 2004; Peters 2009). Many of these scholars believe that the value of education is to help the students learn engagement, solidarity, empathy, care for the environment and not to think merely on how to contribute into economy in order to have a higher profit and a better income. Labaree (1997) proposes that the contrast between market-based and citizenship-based education agendas is not a discussion about pedagogy, organization or society. Indeed, he argues that it is fundamentally political in a sense that the conflict is not on how to make schools better but what goals schools should pursue. Labaree sees that education may serve the goal of “democratic equality” where an education system aims to empower students to practice their civic role in a community and strive for equality of opportunities. The other goal that education may serve is that of “social efficiency” which Labaree describes as educating students to run efficient future economic roles and competencies. As the term “social efficiency” implies, market driven education goals are essentially concerned about filling a function in society more than learning. According to Labaree (1997), despite the criticism expressed against this goal, it is still irresistible and it is found in every education reform rhetoric because of its practicality and compelling logic. In this logic, school does not only have ideal moral and civic functions, but it should also invest in the human capital that will operate the future national economy.

Instead of polarizing education agendas towards being merely civic or economy based, it is more realistic to perceive these two agendas as a spectrum. It is difficult to ignore that education stakeholders are interested in the future human capital and its pipeline represented in today’s students. However, education policy researchers continue to suggest and support initiatives that call for integrating civic based education. For example, Rifkin (1998) emphasized integrating programs of volunteering, character building, collaborating with civic and community organizations and empowering students and parents to express their voice at school.

At the end, even if education policy makers believe in the integration of civic based education, they might keep using PISA scores at their face value. This phenomenon is expressed by Rosen (2009) as “symbolic action” and by Schneider and Ingram (1990) as “hortatory” policy instruments. The purpose of these policies is to use heuristics to emphasize culturally defined values such as achieving excellence by being competitive. By prioritizing PISA rankings, policy makers convey to constituents and international organizations their commitment to excellence. Therefore, competing for achieving a high rank is merely a symbol that marketizes their commitment to quality education.

With all of that said, I believe that policy makers could use a more meaningful part of PISA, which is the “proficiency levels” (OECD, 2012). They define the specific competencies that students maintain and they give information about what it means when students attain a certain level in a certain competency. Proficiency levels provide instructional guidelines that enhance planning of education interventions. However, designing education reform is not the interest of policymakers whose job is to use “symbolic activity” and “hortatory” policy instruments. It would be the interest of policymakers who care about the details that inform the design of quality interventions.


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Shefa AlHashmi is a Ph.D. candidate in the Educational Leadership program at Penn State. Her research focuses on the skills needed for knowledge-based economy jobs and how to prepare students to be knowledge workers. After graduation, she plans to conduct research that supports governmental policies and decision making.

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