Assessment, Diversity, Promising Practices

International Organizations and Educational Reform

The transnational reach of some organizations is a powerful stimulus for change

International organizations are ideally positioned to influence education policies and large-scale reforms on a global scale. This article discusses the impact of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Bank, and the European Union (EU) on transnational and global education policy. Although the previously noted organizations have been in existence for decades,[1] these prominent international bodies are increasingly influencing the global education discourse through their research and policy activities.

The OECD primarily exerts influence in the education sector through its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is recognized as the largest survey of student achievement in the world. According to the OECD, the PISA triennial survey “assesses the extent to which students near the end of compulsory schooling have acquired key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies.”[2] More specifically, PISA assesses 15-year-old student performance in the areas of mathematics, science, and reading in OECD member states and in a growing number of non-OECD countries and economies. The most recent administration of this international assessment took place in 2015 and included 70 countries and/or economies from around the world. Given its global status, it is not surprising that the popular media in Canada and abroad have likened PISA to the “Olympics of education.”[3]

The current director of PISA, Dr. Andreas Schleicher, has indicated that PISA provides “policy makers and practitioners with helpful tools to improve quality, equity and efficiency in education, by revealing some common characteristics of students, schools and education systems that do well.”[4] In order to support and provide this type of guidance, the OECD provides resource documents within their online library. Policy brief series such as PISA in Focus, Teaching in Focus, and Education Indicators in Focus, help governments identify features and characteristics of the best-performing education systems around the world. Although the OECD is quick to point out they do not tell participating countries how to run their education system, their publications are designed to focus policymakers’ efforts in formulating and implementing specific policies that they contend will improve equity and educational achievement across schools.

UNESCO is also dedicated to supporting national policymakers in the development and implementation of education policies and strategies. This organization provides technical assistance in policy analysis, education sector development plans, and donor mobilization in support of national education priorities. UNESCO also provides easy access to its various publications, which include profiles of various education systems around the world. The United Nations’ international financial institution, the World Bank, also influences education policy and implementation through various programs. One particularly high-profile World Bank program, Education for All (EFA), is repeatedly cited for its laudable goals – namely, to bring the benefits of education to “every citizen in every society” by 2015. (UNESCO is currently formulating a post-2015 agenda through a consultative process that includes governments, civil society, the private sector, and academic and research institutions.) The EFA seeks to improve outcomes at various levels: early childhood education, primary education, secondary education, and adult education. In 2000, 189 countries adopted two key EFA goals: universal primary education and gender parity.

The EU is comprised of 28 member states that possess individual sovereignty in the formation and implementation of education policy. Nevertheless, the EU has developed research and communication strategies to facilitate the exchange of best practices, the gathering and dissemination of educational performance measures, and perhaps most importantly, advice and support for national policy reform. Additionally, shared programs have been implemented across EU nations, which have essentially led to the formation of one of the largest transnational policy networks in the world. The Education and Training 2010 program, for instance, led to the formulation of common targets and initiatives that encompass all types of education and training. The more recent and comprehensive Education and Training 2020 outlines four common objectives identified as priorities for EU member states’ reform efforts: making lifelong learning and mobility a reality; improving quality and efficiency of education and training; promoting equity, social cohesion, and active citizenship; and enhancing creativity and innovation, including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training. Collectively, these objectives have important implications for education governance and policy within national education systems.

In education, as in other sectors such as health, economics, or the environment, the uptake of recommended policies and reforms that are suggested by international bodies is influenced by geo- and socio-political forces. Thus, large-scale reforms, including those in compulsory education, must be juxtaposed against contextual issues that are dominant during particular historical periods. Why countries like Germany and Japan have embarked on a series of PISA-initiated reforms while other nation states have remained largely unaffected exemplifies the previous point. In the case of Germany, their mediocre performance on the initial administration of PISA in 2000 provoked “PISA-shock,” which is credited with initiating a sweeping set of reforms that have been characterized as the greatest shift in national educational policies to occur since the fall of the Soviet Union.[5] In both Germany and Japan, scholars have noted how the national context was ripe for large-scale educational change.[6]

Critical concerns

Despite the previously noted context issues, a growing number of academics, particularly those focused on education, have expressed concern with the expanding role of international organizations on national education policymaking. In the case of PISA, a significant number of academics have disputed the “system improvement” claim that the OECD has touted. Academic condemnation of PISA is evidenced by an open letter to Dr. Andreas Schleicher, the director of the OECD program, from a group of more than 80 high-profile academics from around the world. The open letter essentially argued that PISA was damaging education worldwide by escalating testing, emphasizing a narrow range of measureable aspects of education, and shifting education policies to find “short-term fixes” designed to help a country climb in the rankings.[7] Originally published in the British national newspaper The Guardian, the points raised in the open letter were reiterated in a special edition of the academic journal Policy Futures in Education.[8] It is worth noting that the list of signatories grew from the initial 80 to more than 130 (as of May 6, 2014) in the most recent letter.

Critics of the World Bank have also voiced their concerns with the growing, and some would argue skewed, influence of this international organization in the education sector. Although the EFA is a global priority, some have suggested that the World Bank has focused too heavily on developing countries, and not held the U.S., Europe, and industrial democracies to the same level of scrutiny.[9] Similarly, agencies with specific educational mandates such as UNESCO have been criticized for not emphasizing the interdependence and importance of various education sub-sectors. Thus, it is fair to say that both the scope and the selective nature of large-scale education reforms promoted by the World Bank and UNESCO have not been immune to academic scrutiny.

The EU has also drawn criticism for the structure of education governance that is facilitated by their open method of coordination (OMC). Although OMC has never been given a formal legal definition, it is widely regarded as the principal means of spreading best practice to achieve greater convergence towards the main EU goals, including those in the education sector. OMC achieves these transnational goals through the establishment of indicators and benchmarks and their corresponding translation into national and regional policies. Critics have referred to OMC as “soft law” that seeks to undermine traditional constitutional doctrines and values that support a limited view of Social Europe.[10] In the education sector, the previously noted critics suggest that OMC impinges on education policies and that policy learning across member states is susceptible to highly politicised interests. The latter underscores how influential groups may skew priorities and large-scale reforms in the education sector.

Collectively, the previous critics raise important points to consider, particularly when a nation or regional government is put in the unenviable position of negotiating competing demands that impact their education system. However, the more general and overarching criticism that international organizations have eroded the power of nation states and now possess a hegemonic grip on education policymaking is overstated and simplifies important cross-cultural differences. Certainly, we need to guard against reductionist approaches to education that may distill a child’s educational experience to a test score. We also need to guard against policy networks that may set unrealistic targets and benchmarks that could strip schools and teachers of their professional autonomy. However, there is little evidence to suggest this has systematically occurred across a continent or the globe.

Certainly, we need to guard against reductionist approaches that may distill a child’s educational experiences to a test score.

Not all countries respond in a predictable or consistent fashion to the policy suggestions of international organizations – a finding supported by a large number of researchers. Similarly, one should acknowledge that regardless of important contextual issues, some policies promoted by international organizations, namely basic education and equity in educational opportunities for all children, should be non-negotiable. There is definitely merit in trying to ensure that these are truly global priorities, irrespective of a nation’s economic and/or political standing on the world stage. Rather, it is the implementation of these laudable goals that is often a source of contention and one that should be closely monitored. For their part, the academic community can play an important checks and balance function by conducting programs of research that evaluate the impact, intended and unintended, of policy reforms on national education systems.

From my perspective, the global community needs to be open to the opportunities and vigilant to the constraints that may be associated with the work of international organizations that facilitate large-scale education reforms. The contemporary forces of globalization suggest this challenge will have to be navigated by public policymakers and school systems for generations to come – and Canada is no exception. Interestingly, since education is a provincial/territorial responsibility under the Canadian constitution, we provide the rest of the world with a unique context to study the intersection of international organizations, education policy, and large-scale reform. In many respects, our provincial autonomy is an important characteristic in helping our vast nation successfully address external international pressures in a manner that is respectful of and consistent with our regional culture, history, and geography. Canada seems well positioned to meet the challenges of large-scale educational change that may be precipitated by international organizations.


En Bref : Les organisations internationales telles que l’Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques (OCDE), l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour l’éducation, la science et la culture (UNESCO), la Banque mondiale et l’Union européenne (UE) influent de plus en plus sur la nature et l’envergure des politiques nationales d’éducation dans le monde entier. Cet article indique certaines des influences les plus marquées sur les politiques d’éducation mondiales qu’ont engendrées ces organisations transnationales. L’auteur conclut que la communauté mondiale doit faire preuve tant d’ouverture aux possibilités que de vigilance à l’égard des contraintes susceptibles d’être associées au travail d’organisations internationales favorisant des réformes à grande échelle en éducation. Compte tenu des forces contemporaines de mondialisation, il s’agit d’un défi que devront relever les décideurs publics et systèmes scolaires pour les générations à venir.




Photo: Tuomas Kujansuu (iStock)

First published in Education Canada, June 2016

1 The OECD was formed in 1961, based on its predecessor the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), founded in 1948. The World Bank and UNESCO were formed in 1944 and 1945, respectively, and the EU, which presently comprises 28 member states, was established by the Maastricht Treaty in 1993.

2 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, About PISA (2014), 1. www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/PISA-trifold-brochure-2014.pdf

3 C. Alphonso, “Stakes high in OECD student testing,” The Globe and Mail (November 29, 2013), www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/stakes-high-in-oecd-student-testing/article15699429/; M. Scardino, “The Olympics of education,” The Guardian (December 11, 2008), www.theguardian.com/education/2008/dec/11/primary-maths-science-politics

4 A. Schleicher, “Can Competencies Assessed by PISA Be Considered the Fundamental School Knowledge 15-Year-Olds Should Possess?” Journal of Educational Change 8 (2007): 356.

5 V. Bank, “On OECD Policies and the Pitfalls in Economy-Driven Education: The case of Germany,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 44, no. 2 (2013): 193-210.

6 D. Niemann, Changing Patterns in German Policymaking: The impact of international organizations – TranState Working Papers No. 99 (Bremen, Germany: Transformations of the State Collaborative Research Center 597, 2009); K. Takayama, “The Politics of International League Tables: PISA in Japan’s achievement crisis debate,” Comparative Education 44, no. 4 (2008): 387-407.

7 P. Andrews et al., “OECD and PISA tests are damaging education worldwide – academics,” The Guardian (May 6, 2014). www.theguardian.com/education/2014/may/06/oecd-pisa-tests-damaging-education-academics

8 H. D. Meyer et al., “Open Letter to Andreas Schleicher, OECD, Paris,” Policy Futures in Education 12, no. 7 (2014): 872-877.

9 S. P. Heyneman, “The Failure of Education for All as Political Strategy,” Prospects 39, no. 1 (2009): 5-10. 

10 B. Lange and N. Alexiandou, “New Forms of European Union Governance in the Education Sector? A preliminary analysis of the Open Method of Coordination,” European Educational Research Journal6, no. 4 (2007): 321-335.

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Louis Volante

Professor, Brock University & UNU-MERIT

Louis Volante, PhD, is a Professor at Brock University and a Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT/Maastricht Graduate School of Governance. His current research is focused on multi-level education governance, comparative policy analysis, impact evaluation of policies and programs, politics of education reform, international large-scale assessments and transnational governance, and cross-national educational inequalities.

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