Questioning OECD’s Growing Role in Public Education

By Heinz-Dieter Meyer - 05 May 2014
Questioning OECD’s Growing Role in Public Education

The Open Letter to Dr. Schleicher expresses concerns that OECD’s influence in public schools has dramatically increased on a worldwide scale, promoting the narrowing of education reforms in the interest of greater “economic competitiveness,” while parents, educators, and local communities have little chance to participate in the formation of its objectives and standards. There is thus an unprecedented divergence between a global organization’s power to shape the affairs of millions of people and the ability of these people to participate in making it.

OECD's education testing is seen by many as the culmination of a historical change in education whereby the center of power and policy is shifting from the nation-state to experts in international organizations with weak or no democratic accountability. Only a few decades ago, these organizations played a largely auxiliary role, leaving national governments at liberty to pursue their own policies. But in the wake of the globalization of economic markets and information technology the OECD—an organization dedicated to the growth of market economies—is now operating as a global authority of public education, defining standards and evaluating performance in public schools worldwide. Nor are these standards the result of uncontested, neutral expertise. In the 1990s the OECD has begun to aggressively advocate for the controversial policies promoting the private, for-profit production of public services. It is now promoting the benefits of private-public partnerships in education and cooperates with companies like McKinsey or Pearson—a corporation that has recently rebranded itself as “global learning company.” One of Pearson’s goals is to bring for-profit education to Africa.

In the wake of PISA, dozens of governments have revamped their education systems to align with PISA standards, potentially sacrificing precious cultural diversity. In some countries, OECD/PISA experts have begun to act as consultants and advisors to education officials. Thus, Mr. Schleicher recently took sides in education policy debates in New Zealand. And with concerns about the fairness of data collection, e.g. in Shanghai (where there is strong evidence that only select groups of students were taking the test), the PISA data are further invalidated.

If we believe in the central importance of democratic accountability especially as globalization seems to make that goal ever more elusive; if we believe that those who exercise de jure or de facto political power must be subject to institutional checks and balances, transparency, and popular control, then these developments pose serious and entirely novel problems. They raise the question how we can defend education as a public institution when the most influential policy impulses increasingly come from democratically unaccountable global organizations committed to subsuming education under the narrow logic of economic competitiveness.

As a first step in redressing the issue we would like to bring it to the awareness of concerned members of the global policy community. Our hope is to invite deliberations adequate to the global scope of the problem in the hope that they may eventually induce those in power to pay a "decent respect to the opinion of mankind" (Thomas Jefferson). Global Policy, as a leading voice promoting deliberative democratic participation in the formation of global policy, could direct attention to this mismatch.


The author: Heinz-Dieter Meyer (Ph.D. Cornell University) is Associate Professor of Education and Governance at the State University of New York. His latest book is “PISA, Power, and Policy—The Emergence of Global Educational Governance, Oxford: Symposium” (co-edited with A Benavot). He is also author of “OECD’s PISA—A Tale of Flaws and Hubris”, Teachers College Record. He has taught at the University of Goettingen (Germany) and the State University of New York, and held many visiting appointments including at Peking University and the East-West Institute (Hawaii). More information on the letter can be found here.

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