Moral panic, miracle cures and educational policy: what can we really learn from international comparison?

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In many countries, including the UK, the potential of international student achievement surveys such as TIMSS and PISA is being subverted by political and media fixation on the resulting league tables.
These prompt not just well-founded efforts to learn from others’ success but also ill-founded assertions about educational cause and effect, inappropriate transplanting of the policies to which success is attributed, and even the reconfiguring of entire national curricula to respond less to national culture, values and needs than to the dubious claims of ‘international benchmarking’ and ‘world class’ educational standards – the latter equated with test scores in a limited spectrum of human learning. Informing such responses are the attractively simple nostrums of high profile and highly selective literature reviews that massage policymakers’ urge for the quick fix by playing down the complex interplay of culture and schooling and ignoring the kinds of evidence that can provide a truer and more nuanced picture of education systems in action. Using a typology developed by the US National Research Council, the paper critiques three recent and influential examples of this paradigm before illustrating an alternative approach. This draws on the author’s comparative studies of culture and pedagogy to show how explicating the principles that underpin observed classroom practice, rather than copying national policies, can lead to genuine transformation of the quality and outcomes of student learning. The paper ends by contending that PISA panic and the supremacist mindset it feeds have dangerously distorted the debate about what a ‘world class’ education should entail. With PISA 2012 now in progress, policymakers are urged to redress the balance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-21
Number of pages18
JournalScottish Educational Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2012

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