Seeing Like PISA: A Cautionary Tale about the Performativity of International Comparisons

Year: 2015

Author: Gorur, Radhika

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Seeing Like PISA: A Cautionary Tale about the Performativity of International Assessments
If you google ‘PISA’, the first entry that shows up is not the ancient Italian city which has been in existence at least from the 5 BC, but the OECD’s flagship education survey, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which came into being in the late 1990s. In just fifteen years, PISA has enrolled so many systems that they represent 90 per cent of the world’s GDP. PISA shock, PISA envy and PISA anxiety are now part of the education policy lexicon. PISA has influenced policies and practices in a majority of participating nations Breakspear (2012). More and more, countries are beginning to ‘see like PISA’. And this could be far more problematic that we might imagine.
To elaborate the phenomenon of ‘seeing like PISA’ and to reflect on its consequences, I use James Scott’s account of 18th Century German forestry management techniques, and their extremely influential and ultimately disastrous attempts to domesticate and regulate nature, as a cautionary tale. The account of German forestry management is used by Scott himself as a parable in his seminal 1998 book Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed. Scott describes several grand schemes that were developed to tame societies and nature and to produce social and natural order. Scott’s concern was not that the schemes to make things orderly and governable failed; rather the schemes succeed all too well in this endeavour. Where they failed was in improving the human condition, imposing, instead, hardship and often irreversible damage on the focus of their efforts and interventions.
This paper makes three proposals: First, understanding PISA as a project of legibility enhances our appreciation of its purpose and possibilities and alerts us to the scope and scale of what it obscures or makes invisible in its bid to make a narrow range of things legible and calculable. Second, PISA is not merely a descriptive exercise or just a map of existing conditions. Its effects are already changing education systems in quite recognisable ways, shaping policy debates and priorities, influencing curricula, and introducing new forms of national assessments. Indeed, it appears to have colonised our policy imaginations. Finally, as with Scott’s forestry management techniques, we might only understand the full extent of its influence over the next decade or so, and by then, the possibilities of redressing some of the ill-effects may be very limited.