23 SES 01 A, PISA and Education Governance
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey and the knowledge it produces, has built its status as an expert in education policy. It has been often described as the international actor with greatest impact in the steering of education reforms in a vast number of countries and in the global policy scene (Grek, 2009). By describing the best performers’ education policies and creating standards based in these countries’ practices, this organization re-directs PISA’s lower performers to learn from the best, urging practices of policy borrowing from education systems with proven success.
A growing number of researchers employ the externalisation thesis (Schriewer, 1990) and theories of policy borrowing and lending (e.g. Steiner-Khamsi, 2002; Steiner-Khamsi & Waldow, 2012) as their lenses to understand the use of global organizations, policies and trends or practices in other countries as external points of reference.
Earlier studies analysing individual countries or regions, show that, PISA has been (re)constructing the reference societies (Bendix, 1978) utilised as models in the debates on education reform, as societies where to look to improve the education systems (e.g. Takayama, 2009; Carvalho & Costa, 2014; Sellar & Lingard, 2013; Waldow et al., 2014, Waldow, 2017). Some of these authors argue that the use of the ‘other’ is a mere discursive construction useful in the (de)legitimation of contested policy reforms (Steiner-Khamsi, 2002; Waldow, 2012, Takayama et al., 2013). This study contributes to this line of research by asking if and how are the successful countries in the OECD’s PISA survey used as reference societies in the Portuguese parliamentary debates focusing on education.
While there is enough evidence to state that the participation of Portugal in PISA is influencing national policymaking in education (e.g. Afonso & Costa, 2009; Carvalho & Costa 2009; Costa, 2011), it has not been yet explored if and how PISA high performers are being used as a discursive construction aiming at strengthening arguments pro and against education policy reforms and continuities.
Considering that recent research analysing Australia, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, UK and the USA (e.g. Rautalin et al. 2018) demonstrated that neither PISA nor its high performers have been used as the main point of external reference in these countries’ parliamentary debates on education this topic proves to be as interesting as it is controversial. Our study analyses the use of reference societies in the Portuguese parliamentary debates discussing the state of education and on education reforms, and explores political ideologies and agendas driving the choice of these reference societies or, as Schriewer posits, the ‘socio-logic’ (Schriewer, 1990) which leads to the discursive use of selective policies and practices from elsewhere.
The analysis aims to develop the understanding on the strategic use of external references as an instrument to strengthen the arguments presented in the parliamentary debates on education in Portugal, with a special focus on the uses of PISA’s high performers as reference societies, between January 2002 and December 2017.
This study contributes to the European discussion on comparative education and policy studies through the identification of political agendas and argumentative strategies in the education policy debate in Portugal, expanding our understanding of the strategic use of the ‘other’ in these argumentations. Consequently, the study will contribute to both, the understanding of convergence/divergence of education policies, processes of policymaking and the global-local intertwinements in these processes, with Portugal as member of the European Union and being therefore, confined within its hard governance norms.
For this research, we consider, within the time-frame of 2002-2017, all parliamentary general debates on the topic of education (n=108), as well as a sample of the debates on reform bills (n=32), available in the Portuguese parliament web-page (www.parlamento.pt) in a total of 140 debates. We find this arena of debate of major interest to study the use of reference societies in education discussions, as the parliament is a place rich in political strategy and power games, played in the formal process of policymaking. The empirical questions are: - What are the main external references used by the Portuguese policymakers in the parliamentary debates while discussing education issues? - When and under what conditions are PISA’s high-performers referenced, by Portuguese policymakers, in the discourses concerning education policy in the parliament? - What features of PISA’s high-performers’ educational systems are used by Portuguese policymakers in their education discourses in the parliament, and what are the functions of these references? - What are the changes (if any) of the patterns of referencing identified in the education policy arguments, developed by Portuguese policymakers over the time-frame studied? To answer the research questions, we performed qualitative content analysis in order to facilitate the necessary reduction of the amount of data and enable us to concentrate on selective elements that relate directly to the research questions (Schreier, 2014). We created beforehand concept-driven categories focused on our research questions and aims, such as ‘Problem/issue debated’, ‘Kinds of reference’, ‘Functions of the reference’, ‘Reference society’. Further, we developed data-driven categories that emerged from the text, as for instance: ‘Problem/issue debated: teacher assessment’, ‘Kinds of reference: positive’, ‘Function of the reference: legitimization’, ‘Reference society: Denmark’.
Our preliminary conclusions support the earlier evidence that PISA’s high-performers did not become the most referenced societies in education policy discourses performed in the parliaments. In fact, more than using specific countries, Portuguese policymakers tend to use general, open references, such as ‘European countries’, ‘the European average’, ‘among the OECD countries’, ‘other countries’ as their reference societies when legitimizing or de-legitimizing proposals and critiques. In addition, more than the OECD, its PISA survey and high performers, the European Union, its recommendations, its legislation, and member countries seem to hold to their historical position as main external points of reference used in the debates focused on education by the Portuguese policymakers. Additionally to the use other countries to project what the country’s education policies should aim at, Portuguese policymakers also use other countries and regions to demonstrate how bad the education system is, using negative arguments such as “worse than us, just Albania.” to justify policy reform or to criticize decisions of the actual government. Our analysis also demonstrates that it is difficult to draw a rational pattern of the use of single countries as reference societies in the parliamentary debates on education in Portugal, and it is not possible to identify a significant change in the external references used due to PISA results. The survey’s high performers remain far from being the main reference societies in the Portuguese parliamentary debates.
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