Since its first outing in 2000, the Programme for International Student Assessment, widely known as PISA, has become highly influential in the education world with its three-yearly assessment of 15-year-olds in a growing number of countries around the world. Now the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA’s midwife and parent, plans a new offspring, the International Early Learning Study (IELS). An international assessment of early learning outcomes among 5-year-olds, IELS is intended “to help countries improve the performance of their systems, to provide better outcomes for citizens and better value for money…[by showing] which systems are performing best, in what domains and for which groups of students…[and providing] insights on how such performance has been achieved”.The IELS has now reached the stage where a call for tenders has been issued to ‘design, develop and pilot an international study on children’s early learning’, with (as I write) the OECD choosing an ‘international contractor’ to lead the work. The aim is for piloting to be undertaken in 3 to 6 countries in late 2017 and the first half of 2018. A group of 16 countries has worked with OECD to ‘scope’ the study, including the UK, though it is not clear if this means England.
A preschool PISA is in the offing, yet few in the early childhood field, except for governments, are aware of what is in store. To stimulate wider discussion, nine senior academics from Europe, North America and Australia/New Zealand have this month published an article, the main points of which I summarise here. We argue that the proposed IELS raises many causes for concern, flagging up five of these.
- Education is firstly a political issue, raising political questions with alternative and often conflicting answers. Yet the OECD makes no attempt to set out its political questions or to argue for its choices. Instead it treats early childhood education and the proposed study as if they are purely technical practices, epitomising what the IOE’s Paul Morris (2016) has described as a “drive to position policymaking as a technocratic exercise, to be undertaken by an elite band of experts who are immune to the influence of politics and ideology”.
- Adopting a technical facade, the OECD implies that its conclusions and recommendations are self-evident, objective and incontestable. They are anything but that. It adopts a particular paradigmatic position, that might be described as hyper-positivistic. It values objectivity, universality, predictability and what can be measured. It chooses to work with certain disciplines, notably particular branches of psychology (child development) and economics (human capital). It assumes an economic and political model of a world of more of the same, for which we must ‘future-proof’ children through the application of human technologies. Of course, the OECD is free to choose its position. However, it should be aware that it has made a choice and taken a particular perspective. It should also be aware that there are other choices and other perspectives. Yet on both counts it shows a total lack of self-awareness.
- Reading the IELS documentation, you might be forgiven for thinking that its precursor, PISA, had not been the subject of criticism. But it has, and the IELS fails to engage with those criticisms, which apply as much to comparative testing of 5-year-olds as 15-year-olds. Some are of a technical nature, with, as Gorur (2014) argues, a “vast literature that critiques aspects of [PISA’s] methodology”. But there are more substantive issues, for example PISA’s failure to address complexity, context and causality, and an implied but naïve model of enlightened policy-makers objectively and rationally applying lessons from other countries.
- The IELS, and similar testing regimes, seek to apply a universal framework to all countries, all pedagogies and all services. This approach rests on the principle that everything can be reduced to a common outcome, standard and measure. What it cannot do is accommodate, let alone welcome, diversity – of paradigm or theory, pedagogy or provision, childhood or culture. The issue raised – and not acknowledged, let alone addressed by the OECD in its documentation – is how an IELS can be applied to places and people who do not share its (implicit) positions, understandings, assumptions and values.
- The OECD is an extremely powerful organisation, applying extremely powerful ‘human technologies’, including PISA and IELS. Yet the possible adverse effects of this power, such as the narrowing and standardisation of early childhood education, do not figure in the IELS documentation, not even in the section headed ‘risk management’.
We end our article with a clear statement of intent: “in the interests of a democratic politics of education and of a comparative approach to education that provokes thought rather than regulates performance, we hope that early childhood communities around the world will raise their voices and that the OECD will enter into dialogue with them”.