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Is a preschool PISA what we want for our young children?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 8 August 2016

Peter Moss
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.

  1. 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”.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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”.

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12 Responses to “Is a preschool PISA what we want for our young children?”

  • 1
    jameswilding wrote on 8 August 2016:

    Of most concern to me is the adoption by OECD if the ‘learning is linear’ model. As OECD proposes a new baseline at 5, the next steps for govt will be to join up the dots, and expect year by year progression.
    What the OECD can find to measure across countries and cultures at age 5 will be such a reduced measure as to be of little value.
    But we all know that governments will capture such data and use it for its own ends, as Education is on of the few industries over which it still has a semblance of control.

  • 2
    Why you shouldn’t trust the OECD with your children, especially the under-5s | Faith in Learning wrote on 8 August 2016:

    […] handy summary of the main conclusions is found on the IoE blog today, under the title “Is an early years PISA what we want for our […]

  • 3
    chriswq wrote on 8 August 2016:

    No. We do not want this for our children. How can we aim to prevent it?
    Sent from my iPad

  • 4
    John Mountford wrote on 8 August 2016:

    Certainly the power of the OECD to influence the short-term interests of the political classes worldwide is well established. This concise expose of the latest plans to ensure that future generations of young people are denied choice and opportunity by equating education with schooling is very welcome. As Peter Moss poses, the crucial question that should be addressed is ‘how an IELS can be applied to places and people who do not share its (implicit) positions, understandings, assumptions and values.’ In response, I wonder whether this has something to with the capacity of the OECD to dictate to peoples and governments from a position of perceived authority.
    In response to chriswg’s question, I fear such a development cannot and will not be prevented unless parents and educators find a way of combining to resist this latest move on behalf of the OECD to employ its massive data processing power to shape global education policy.

  • 5
    Paul Morris wrote on 9 August 2016:

    This article will hopefully make educators aware of what is going on. If the UK Government tried to push this testing regime on the sector they would have to face a lively debate/discussion. By routing it through the OECD that process is largely bypassed as it is presented as an International and technical exercise.

  • 6
    educationstate wrote on 9 August 2016:


  • 7
    thelearningprofessor wrote on 9 August 2016:

    Governments already publish and compare data on many aspects of young children’s lives. Health indicators and mortality rates are commonly used to compare the well being of children in different countries. Other examples include family types, the proportion of young children in care, the effects of breast-feeding, ownership of mobile technology, the prevalence of obesity, participation on social media, crimes committed against young children, and so on and so on.
    So the obvious question is whether we should now call on governments to collect and publish no data at all about young children’s lives? Or – and this might be reasonable – perhaps we need an inquiry into what data we allow governments to collect and publish, maybe not only about young people? But I can’t see an obvious reason to stop collecting and publishing data about education alone.

  • 8
    Does preschool need PISA? | International Education News wrote on 11 August 2016:

    […] his recent IOE Blog post, Peter Moss describes a new OECD study, called the International Early Learning Study (IELS), which […]

  • 9
    guy roberts-holmes wrote on 5 September 2016:

    What would the IELS reductionism produce? What sort of curriculum and children, families and teachers’ subjectivities and identities be produced, encouraged and valued?

  • 10
    Latest news | TACTYC wrote on 13 September 2016:

    […] In an alarming international development, the OECD is planning to introduce a cross-national assessment of learning outcomes for 5-year-olds. It is currently in the process of developing and piloting the assessment (a contract will be awarded very soon for an ‘International Contractor’ for development and piloting work). In a recent article, academics from nine countries provide information about OECD’s plans and raise a number of concerns about these plans for a ‘preschool PISA’.  Prof Peter Moss has published a blog summarising the issues, which can be found here.  […]

  • 11
    Mercedes Mayol Lassalle wrote on 25 October 2016:

    Thanks for the article! In Latin America we are concerned with the neoliberal positions!
    See you in the 69th Assembly and Conference of OMEP!

  • 12
    Charlotte Hall wrote on 12 December 2016:

    outcomes outcomes outcomes, when will the government realise all children are different and so what if a child cannot write their name when they get to school, they learn that there. Surely as an early years practitioner our job is to help develop our children into independent little learners who want to learn and enjoy being at school whilst having the confidence to play with their friends and ask for help when needed. PSED is surely the most important thing when a child starts school. Rant over!!!