Good performers as Bad Examples? International Educational Assessments and the Re-narration of Numbers

What makes good reference societies in International Educational Assessments?

Sam Sellar responds to Professor Florian Waldow’s ESRC Seminar Plenary presentation on projections of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools among the top performing countries in international educational assessments.

Why do some of the top scorers on international educational assessments turn into negative reference societies?  In responding to this question, I want to consider what the phenomenon of negative reference societies suggests about relationships between value and measurement in a ‘datafied’ education policy world – a world where efficiency is coming to replace other kinds of educational values. At the heart of Professor Waldow’s presentation is the concept of ‘projection’, which describes how policy ideas can be borrowed from other contexts – even if they don’t actually exist there. The practice of projection describes a disjuncture between what is attributed to a particular context and the ‘reality’ of that context.

As an example, we can look at how educational achievement in China is presented in the UK by certain groups (e.g. politicians, some policymakers), including for the former Secretary for Education, Michael Gove. In an opinion piece titled, My revolution for culture in classroom: Why we must raise education standards so children can compete with rest of the world, written shortly after a visit to China and around the time that PISA 2009 results were released, Gove wrote: ‘I’d like us to implement a cultural revolution just like the one they’ve had in China. … Like Chairman Mao, we’ve embarked on a Long March to reform our education system’. Many in the UK may have been taken aback by Gove’s references to the Cultural Revolution. However, we can see here that what is projected onto a reference society can say more about the idiosyncratic perspective of those making projections than it does about educational realities in the reference society. In contrast, Florian Waldow describes ‘bad examples’ –  negative reference societies that score highly on large-scale assessments, but are considered as examples of what should be rejected or avoided in policy borrowing (i.e. as societies that we might not want to emulate). Again, as Professor Waldow describes, those negative features of high performing reference societies may also involve ‘projections’ that have origins in our own anxieties and concerns, rather than necessarily being features of those societies.  

Re-narrating the numbers?

What is particularly interesting about projections of education in reference societies is how they involve a certain re-working (or re-narrating) of the relationship between technical data and wider educational values.  In the context of governance by data and the imperatives of evidence-based policy, the numbers generated by large-scale assessments offer a powerful source of legitimised knowledge for political decision-making and policy narratives – as a veneer of scientific authority. Large-scale assessments are part of modern knowledge systems in which Jean-François Lyotard observed a tendency towards the collapsing of different criteria (e.g. technical, moral, mythical) for grounding truth claims. Lyotard argued that ‘the technical criterion, introduced on a massive scale in scientific knowledge, cannot fail to influence the truth criterion’. There is tendency towards what is seen to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ becoming defined in terms of performance: the best possible input/output equation. Lyotard argued that we are seeing a decline of metanarratives and their replacement by a post-ideological emphasis on the technical criteria of performativity. This is evident in the attention that is captured by top performance on PISA. As Professor Waldow observes, whether education systems become positive or negative reference societies, it is the top performers who are referenced either way. Poor performers are simply ignored. However, technical criteria and evidence do not necessarily determine public discourse about good and bad education systems or good and bad schools. With systems that are good performers, but which are seen as a negative example, top performance is rejected as ‘best-practice’ based on a set of non-technical values (e.g. moral).  For example, we have seen arguments in Germany that top performing East Asian educational systems should not be emulated because they might narrow the purposes of schooling, raise the spectre of transmission pedagogy and place undue pressure on students. The process of re-narrating the performance of reference societies creates an interesting space in which technical values become mediated through moral values and national concerns. This raises an interesting tension between avoiding ‘inaccurate’ projections onto top performing reference societies in order to avoid problematic policy borrowing and mediating technical values that have become fundamental to ‘accurate’ measures of performance.  

Sam Sellar is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Education at The University of Queensland.

Photo credit. Literacy Practices in Vietnam. Copyright Camilla Addey.