23 SES 09 B, The Impact of PISA on National Education Policies
The rise of transnational testing regimes like PISA and TIMSS create both a demand for and obligation to respond to transnational comparison by national policy makers and administrators (Lawn 2013). “Benchmarking” to transnational standards by national (and even regional) administrators has now become common place, leading some scholars to speculate that testing regimes like PISA have issued in a new era of “global educational governance” (Martens, Rusconi et al. 2007; Meyer and Benavot 2013). International testing regimes also create conditions that can “trap” national-policy making in cycles where one ineffective policy follows another (LeTendre, Baker et al. 2000). Many academics and policy makers are familiar with the impact of “PISA shock,” see (Breakspear 2012). But, PISA shock was actually preceded by “TIMSS” shock (see chapters in (LeTendre 1999) as well as (Baker, Gerald LeTendre et al. 1998). A longer historical perspective highlights the pervasive transformation of national educational policy formation patterns that has occurred in the last 20 years, and the role that economic competition has played in driving nations to reform their systems (LeTendre 1999). As more and more nations enter into these testing regimes and policy-formation processes, the potential for trans-national policy cycles increases. In this paper, we describe and analyze the course of academic reduction reforms in East Asia (Japan, China, S. Korea and Singapore) over the last 20 years and argue that transnational policy cycles now play a great role in affecting national educational reforms.
The four nations we consider – China, Japan, S. Korea and Singapore – have all been the objects of considerable media and policy attention at some point in the last twenty years -- alternatively derided for their educational problems (Bracey 1996) and lauded for their educational accomplishments (Darling-Hammond 2010). Despite their standing in the eyes of their peers, all four have institute reforms aimed at reducing academic pressure in the last twenty years. Japan led the pack with its “relaxed education” (yutori kyouiku) reforms in the 1990s. China’s recent (2013) reforms (aimed at reducing academic competition), S. Korea’s attempts to reduce academic competition and Singapores, “Teach Less, Learn More” reforms appear to have some striking parallels, as national policy makers respond to international success in academic ranking and subsequent internal political concerns about reducing academic pressure on children. These cases suggest that the hegemony of international testing regimes is less compelling than some have theorized, and that national policymakers must balance a desire to appear internationally competitive against internal resistance to increasing educational competition and market-based educational reforms.
The current study has broad implications for the scholarship of national and transnational policy making. Studies of “global” trends in educational policy have tended to reify nation-states as discrete, homogenous actors (see critique by (Robertson 2012) or (Shahjahan and Kezar 2013); rather than focus on analyzing the conditions that generate pressures on national policy actors to promote or ignore certain policies. When economic progress stalls, national policy makers will likely have great difficulty sustaining educational reforms by arguing that such reforms equal economic progress (see (Moutsis 2010). Grass-roots groups can also form, creating considerable political pressure against academic pressure or competition (as in the case of the US anti-homework movement, see (Bennett and Kalis 2007; Kohn 2007). The history of reforms and counter-reforms over academic pressure and competition in nations like Japan, China, S. Korea and Singapore show that national-level conditions, and policy-makers sensitivity to internal political unrest, strongly affect how they respond to, and frame, globalized narratives about education and economic competition.
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