Against the educational tyranny of PISA

Clara Steinkellner | Mr Meyer, we received you open letter via at least ten different email lists – what triggered this action?

Heinz-Dieter Meyer | It happened quite spontaneously. There was a congress of the American Education Research Association in Philadelphia in April 2014. There was a panel with Andreas Schleicher who developed the PISA study. I asked him whether he was aware of the extent of the influence of the OECD as an economic organisation and its very narrow concept of education on national education systems and what the democratic legitimisation for that was. He only said: “We only supply the information. What governments do with it is not our concern …”. That kept gnawing away at me and so we wrote this letter which was published in the journal Global Policy und in the Guardian.

Thomas Brunner | Was there a response?

HDM | The OECD published a pretty anodyne statement in the Guardian. It disputes that PISA has the standardising effect which we ascribe to this project.

CS | Have you followed the PISA studies from their beginnings in 1999?

HDM | My interest in PISA arose when I realised at some point – I do comparative education here – what was happening in the half dozen countries I was watching: everywhere the talk was of PISA, PISA, PISA. Governments swallowed the PISA results wholesale and immediately started to change their school systems accordingly, introducing binding standards and converting everything to output-oriented, quantitative methods. And at some point I then decided that it’s not right that the OECD, which has no mandate whatsoever in the education field, has turned into a global education ministry! That is why we wrote the book PISA, Power and Policy in 2013 which I think is the first one that reflects PISA as a political and ideological problem.

CS | As long ago as 1998 you already published the collection Bildung und Zivilgesellschaft (Education and Civil Society), a collaboration between German and American academics. How did you become aware of this research field?

HDM | My path to civil society actually has a lot to do with my experiences in the USA. It was something completely new for me that the large and well-known American universities do quite well without the state.

If we look at the way that the universities in America arose, we can see that it was private patrons who joined together with leading academics and generously supported their plans. They received the money from the Carnegies and Rocke­fellers, Johns Hopkins, Ezra Cornell und Cornelius Vanderbilt to build up these universities, the state never intervened. That something like this is possible at all, this experience is in a certain sense a call to think again when you come from Germany, where the state is involved everywhere.

But then I still had another experience – in Cornell I had a host family who home school their two children. At the beginning I thought, how is that possible, how are you two parents, who also have other things to do, able to give your children the same education as a state school system – but of course that is possible! And frequently it works very well. A considerable number of home schooled pupils, who have never attended a school, even get to Harvard and other top universities. These experiences, that a lot is possible in the education system through self-organisation from the bottom up, contributed a great deal to make me rethink.

TB | Did you also study certain forward thinkers of civil society?

HDM | Yes, I discovered Tocqueville, who was a contemporary of Karl Marx, and his classic Democracy in America – this is actually the foundation for the theory of civil society. Tocqueville says: American democracy can only remain vital if voluntary association retains and brings to expression its role in the life of society. In other words, democracy cannot only consist of going to vote every four years but it has to consist of people performing self-organised political and social services which would otherwise have to be done by the state.

And this is important not only because as a result the state does not have to do everything, but this is at the same time a school for social and political consciousness. If we know that we can organise education ourselves, we also know that we can do other things independently, that the state does not have to interfere in that. This led me to investigate civil society also academically and sociologically as having the potential to bear responsibility in the education system and to create an awareness of that.

TB | This basic thought is also found in Wilhelm von Humboldt who wanted his university in Berlin to be independently run even to the extent of the finances …

HDM | Yes of course … Humboldt, who wrote to the king that a foundation should be established so that the university would be independent and not be a drain on the king’s pocket. … Unfortunately that never happened because such a university would have been too independent for the king. Here an alternative path would have been possible which we did not take in Germany.

Another interesting point from the USA was the wide debate about education vouchers and charter schools – schools which receive a charter from the state or federal government granting them – theoretically – greater autonomy. Both concepts were of interest because they promised the individual family a greater choice in education matters. Unfortunately nothing came of that because in both cases these instruments were kidnapped by private, profit-led companies. With few exceptions – schools working with Waldorf education for example – it was not parents and teachers who founded these schools but companies, commercial education providers who also immediately advertised that these schools achieve particularly good results in all standardised tests, something they of course achieve by squeezing out weaker pupils. And so here the need for more civil society once again came into play in a different way because this concept is just as much against market dominance as state dominance.

TB | You also address growing social inequality in the PISA letter and make clear that even the best education system cannot solve this question …

HDM | When I came to the USA in 1983, I found a middle class society which was largely intact. But the economic crisis of 2008 and the reorganisation of the education sector which I experienced was a turning point for me, the one-to-ninety-nine percent inequality which inevitably also affected the education system. Schools are increasingly becoming institutions for private economic interests. To forestall any misunderstanding: I am not at all against the free market. But we need new forms of communisation which do not represent total communitisation as would be the case under socialism and communism, but which also tame capitalism and create a balance through the mobilisation of civil society.

Clara Steinkellner and Thomas Brunner ( met Heinz-Dieter Meyer in Albany, NY on 6 September 2014.

Links: | www.Oecdpisaletter.org