Looking East: Shanghai, PISA and the reconstitution of reference societies in the global education policy field

Year: 2012

Author: Sellar, Sam, Lingard, Bob

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This paper focuses on the outstanding performance on PISA 2009 of Shanghai and its effects on other national systems and within the global education policy field. The paper begins by considering the ways in which the OECD's PISA and the IEA's TIMSS and PIRLS are helping to create an emergent global education policy field through constituting the globe as a commensurate space of measurement of national school system performance. Here we see a manifestation of Sassen's (2007) argument that globalization is in effect the creation of a new global infrastructure and we would count international testing as significant component of that infrastructure.The paper traces the rise of China, through the 2009 PISA performance of Shanghai and Hong Kong, and the repositioning of these systems as significant new 'reference societies' for other national schooling systems. We also note how China uses comparative performance measures to inform educational development and to strategically position the nation within changing global labour markets.

The paper provides three cases of responses to China's performance in England, Australia and the US. The England case draws on research interviews with senior policy makers and contextualizes these data against the Coalition government's use of comparative international performance data to pressure the schooling system for further reform. The Australian case draws on the Australian Prime Minister's view of the significance to Australian schooling of the high performance of a number of Asian countries on the 2009 PISA and a report by The Grattan Institute on this topic, which has also received much media coverage. The USA case focuses on President Obama's 2011 state of the union address, his press releases, where he likens the impact of Shanghai's 2009 PISA performance on US schooling with that of the 1957 Sputnik moment, which pushed the Soviet Union ahead of the US in the space race. For the US case, we will also deal with the OECD's publication of the Strong Performers and Successful Reformers: Lessons from PISA for the United States Report. We will argue that these responses are indicative of the shifting of the global gaze in education from Finland to the East, particularly China, set against the so-called Asian century and related shifts in the balance of geo-political and economic relations.

Sassen, S. (2007). Sociology of globalization. New York: W. W. Norton.