Public Policy in the Spiral of Universalising Education Standards
The expanding circulation and globalisation of cultural artefacts, lifestyles, beliefs and consumption patterns increasingly clashes with a growing demand for the affirmation of local, regional and/or national identities. Current patterns of 21st-century skills and international student mobility are no exception, as illustrated by the spread of international standards and tests set by private institutions.
What kind of schooling parents envision for their own children mirrors to some extent broader developments in society. Over the past few years, middle-class families have pressured governments to internationalise public education, responding to a proliferation of studies and league tables comparing educational outcomes across countries. The demand for internationalisation ranges from adopting broadly defined “21st-century skills” to introducing English as a language of instruction. In several countries, state institutions have come under attack for being public (rather than private) and for being national (rather than transnational). Public education is associated with being parochial, whereas elite private schools benefit from their reputation of being cosmopolitan.
In response to the crisis talk, governments have started to actively engage in the practice of transnational accreditation by integrating programmatic elements of international schools into public education systems. In developing countries, a new category of innovative schools has emerged over the past few years. state institutions have come under attack for being public (rather than private) and for being national (rather than transnational). It is associated with English as a language of instruction in select subjects, student-centred teaching, critical/creative thinking, periodical assessment of students on 21st-century skills, and the extensive use of technology in instruction. Different from many other innovative schools or pilot projects, the International Standard Schools are not donor driven, but are government initiated. Examples are the International Standard Schools in Indonesia, the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools in Kazakhstan and the Cambridge International Schools in Mongolia.
By far, the most renowned and widespread International Standard Schools are the ones of the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) – with historical roots in the Ecolint, or International School of Geneva – and Cambridge International Assessment. Both types of schools have experienced exponential growth over the past few years, not only as private schools but, more interestingly, as semi-private educational programmes, that is, programmes that governments adopt, and pay for from public funds, to reform or internationalise education in regular public schools.
There is a growing body of research that attempts to understand why, how, by whom, and when the talk about the crisis of public education has been generated, thereby opening up opportunities for private providers such as IBO and Cambridge International Assessment. Among the multitude of possible explanations, two are highlighted here: the shift from government to governance in education policy and the “scandalisation” of public education generated by league tables of international large-scale student assessments, notably OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
The shift from government to governance is commonly seen as the result of new public management policies that most OECD countries introduced in the wake of neoliberal reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. In the education sector, the shift implied a new role for the state, new ways of regulating the education system, and new tools for generating or alleviating reform pressure. The reforms were undertaken with the rhetoric of breaking the “state monopoly”, using “market forces” (demand and supply) to improve the quality of public education, and cutting inefficiency in the “state bureaucracy”. Regardless of whether the public education system was high or low performing, governments were under political pressure to selectively borrow new public management policies that encouraged non-state actors such as businesses, churches, communities and families to open and operate schools with funding from public resources. Within a short period of time, the governments scaled back the role of the state in education from one in which it was at the same time provider and regulator to one in which it withdrew to being only a standard-setter and regulator.
Target setting and benchmarking became the key governance tools. In education, the outcome orientation of new public management reform triggered a proliferation of standardised student assessments such as PISA but also the less-known international large-scale assessments such as TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). The tests have, for a variety of reasons, been utilised as the primary monitoring tool for governments to assess the quality of teachers, the school, the district, and the education system, and to make policy decisions based on these standardised assessments. The shift from government to governance has not only fuelled a “governance by numbers” but also required from governments that they engage in network governance in which non-state actors, including education businesses, are not only seen as providers of goods and services but also as key partners in the policy process. The empowerment of non-state actors, notably businesses and philanthropies, as key policy actors in the new millennium has been interpreted as a clear sign of the destatalisation of the policy process, which neoliberal reforms of the past century intended, and managed, to achieve.
Even though the private sector directly benefits from the critique or scandalisation of the public education system, government officials sometimes welcome the attack against public education as it enables them to mobilise financial resources and build political coalitions for introducing reforms. PISA focuses on so-called 21st-century skills and measures preparing students for skills needed in a global knowledge economy. In an attempt to accelerate innovation and internationalisation of public education, governments started to closely collaborate with private providers.
Does the exit of the middle class from government-run schools signal the beginning of the end of public education? The growth of public-private partnerships in education has been applauded by some, and criticised by others for being expensive and for favouring some (middle-class) students at the expense of others. But also more principled concerns have been raised: What is the future of public education when a government’s push for more privatisation leads the middle class to de-invest in the public sector and instead create its own parallel educational system, funded from private as well as public sources? Does the exit of the middle class from government-run schools signal the beginning of the end of public education? Should schools be allowed to operate for profit, thereby being able to increase their revenues by cheapening the means of instruction, standardising the curriculum, and underpaying teachers?