Governing by numbers: the PISA effect

sotiriagrek.jpgEditor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly prepared by Dr. Sotiria Grek, Research Fellow at the Centre for Educational Sociology, University of Edinburgh. Dr Grek (pictured to the left) currently works on the ESRC funded project Governing by Numbers, which seeks to understand and explain the origins, processes and impact of the increased emphasis on measuring quality in education against standardised indicators of performance in Scotland and England. Governing by Numbers forms the UK (Scotland and England) element of the European Science Foundation collaborative research project Fabricating Quality in European Education (FabQ), which extends the focus of the research in the European education space and, more specifically, into comparative contexts in Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is conducted in three yearly cycles and examines the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in compulsory education. Although PISA began as a joint study of the OECD member countries, it has developed its scope to involve non-member countries as well. Indeed, since the year 2000, when the first PISA study was conducted, more and more countries have been taking part, with the latest PISA (2006) having assessed students in 57 countries all over the world, thus involving 27 non-member participant nations (see an OECD map from the executive summary of PISA 2006 below). The international dimension of the survey, which overrides the boundaries of Europe to compare student performance of countries as diverse as the United States, Greece and Indonesia, gives PISA a particularly significant weight as an indicator of processes of education policy and governance at a national and an international, even global stage.


Indeed the sheer scale of this enterprise may distract attention from fundamental questions about its purposes and effects. PISA is the OECD’s platform for policy construction, mediation and diffusion at a global level. The assessment of comparative system performance has direct effects on the shaping of future policy directions, and the reporting of PISA results adds to the sense of urgency in responses to it, as Nóvoa and Yariv-Mashal (2003; 425) point out:

Such researches produce a set of conclusions, definitions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ educational systems, and required solutions. Moreover, the mass media are keen to diffuse the results of these studies, in such a manner that reinforces a need for urgent decisions, following lines of action that seem undisputed and uncontested, largely due to the fact that they have been internationally asserted.

Although it is probably too early to evaluate the impact of the publication of the latest PISA results, different cases across Europe illustrate quite different reactions: from the PISA-dominance of Finland, to the PISA-shock of Italy this time and the PISA-‘slump’, as the British press characterised it, of the UK. What is constant − and very similar to the experience after the publication of PISA 2000 and 2003 − is the acceptance of PISA in terms of the parameters and direction that it establishes and its incorporation into local policy making.

Responsiveness to PISA across the different participating nations can be seen as an instance of what Luhmann and Schorr called ‘externalisation’ (1979). That is, the reference to ‘world situations’ enables policy-makers to make the case for education reforms at home that would otherwise be contested. Thus ‘local’ policy actors are using PISA as a form of domestic policy legitimation, or as a means of defusing discussion by presenting policy as based on robust evidence. The local policy actor also signals, to an international audience, through PISA, the adherence of their nation to reform agendas, and thus joins the club of competitive nations. Moreover, the construction of PISA with its promotion of orientations to applied and lifelong learning has powerful effects on curricula and pedagogy in participating nations, and promotes the responsible individual and self-regulated subject. Finally, PISA is a major governing resource for Europe: it provides knowledge and information about systems, and implants constant comparison within the EU member states − without the need for new or explicit forms of regulation in education. This reading of PISA supports the argument about its use and meaning as a political technology: a governing resource for both the national agency and the trans-national forces of EU and the OECD.


Luhmann, N. and Schorr, K. E. (1979) Reflexionsprobleme im Erziehungssytem (Stuttgart, Klettcotta).

Nóvoa, A. & Yariv-Mashal, T. (2003) Comparative Research in Education: a mode of governance or a historial journey, Comparative Education, 39 (4), 423-438.

Sotiria Grek

3 thoughts on “Governing by numbers: the PISA effect

  1. Pingback: Benchmarking ‘the international student experience’ « GlobalHigherEd

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  3. Pingback: OECD’s Education at a Glance 2008: a ‘problem/solution toolkit’ with problems? « GlobalHigherEd

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