PISA in a post-truth world

By Sotiria Grek, University of Edinburgh


I think people in this country have had enough of experts

Michael Gove


Two thousand and sixteen (2016) has been a year like no other. After the Brexit referendum in June, a few days ago we saw the rise to power of one of the most unbalanced and dangerously inexperienced presidents-elect the US and the world have known.  Both events were seen as a threat to globalisation and multiculturalism. The Trump victory has even been likened to the end of the liberal world order as we know it, given Trump’s racist and misogynistic rhetoric; a rhetoric that is already being normalised, despite the steep rise of racist crimes both in Britain and the US after the votes.

However, in spite of the multiple effects that both events have had and will be having for a long time from now, one phenomenon that perhaps led to them was the advent of the era of ‘post-truth politics’. The culture of ‘post-truth’ gave rise to the sharp critique of experts, who were seen as also part and parcel of the ‘elite establishment’ and mostly out of touch with ‘reality’. Similar to the older idea about the academic ivory tower (and the reductionist ‘social impact’ tsunami that followed it, at least in the UK), expert knowledge became the new banal. In a world drowned in data and with quantification having conquered all aspects of public and often private life, the ‘ordinary people’ turned to more emotive, populist rhetoric that coincided with their daily experience and their world view. The increasing class, gender and racial inequality, on top of a financial crisis which economists largely failed to predict, have given rise to a mistrust of expert facts. Experts were even seen as a conspiracy against ‘the will of the people’:

The big guns of the international liberal order were wheeled out to stop us going headlong for the Puerto Rican option: the IMF, the WTO, the OECD. Ten Nobel economists added to the din; Obama wagged a finger; Clinton too. Then Soros. In reply a forest of fingers was stuck in the air. (Harding, 2016)

But how does the post-truth culture relate to education and PISA? We are only days away from the publication of the PISA 2015 results and the heat is on. Invitations to seminars have been made and interviews with the media will be given in order to ensure the most immediate reaction to the new PISA naming and shaming tables. The OECD has done a brilliant job with PISA, since it combined both the technical and the emotive. The spectacle of PISA hit right at the heart of the idea of the nation-state, since education has always been at its cornerstone. Hysterical reactions followed PISA results in Germany for example, when a ‘Bildungskatastrophe’ was declared. Sweden has also gone through its own PISA downfall, with the Director of Education and Skills at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher, suggesting  that ‘Sweden was once seen by many as a model for high quality education’ – not anymore. We are told that the Asian tigers have risen and that we need to do more to prepare tomorrow’s citizens for a highly competitive global labour market. Since 2000, PISA has grown and multiplied. With PISA for Development and PISA for Schools, we are entering a new era of all things PISA; despite predictions about the fall of its leaning tower, we are witnessing a complete reliance of education policymakers on decontextualized, numerical assessments that standardise education ‘outcomes’ across the globe.

However, how will the OECD react to what appears as a new era of politics and the nation-state? Throughout its history, the OECD has been masterful in horizon-scanning and preparing advanced policy recommendations, dependent on evidence collected through its statistical machinery. Nonetheless, this is half of the story; it has to be.  The OECD is not just a large, influential technocracy; it is a major International Organisation (IO). The reputation and existence of IOs is not only legitimised through their technical expertise, but also – and crucially- through their adherence to values of liberalism, democracy, development, justice, tolerance and human rights – and education is core in defending all of them.  We need to ask sooner rather than later: What will the OECD’s response be to what appears as a changing world order? Will the OECD produce more of the same fast food for fast policy? Or could this be an opportunity for the OECD to capture the moment – this dark moment we are finding ourselves in – and return to an era when education was much more than simply tables and graphs?

This is not nostalgia for a long-gone past. It is a plea to the world’s most powerful education policy actor to seize the opportunity and offer a different narrative; a narrative that promotes humanistic, tolerant and democratic education values. The OECD has done this in the past (as I and Bob Lingard detail here); surely it can and should do it again. It is a question of survival.


Sotiria Grek is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. 




To reference this blog: Grek, Sotiria. (2016) PISA in a post-truth world. Laboratory of International Assessment Studies Blogs. Accessed at http://wordpress-ms.deakin.edu.au/international-assessments/pisa-in-a-post-truth-world/

Copyright: The featured image is a painting by Liubov Popova, reproduced with permission.