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date: 21 January 2018

Globalization of Educational Knowledge and Research

Summary and Keywords

Transnational flows of educational knowledge and research are fundamentally guided by the global geopolitics of knowledge—the historically constituted relations of power born out of the continuing legacy of modernity/coloniality. In the early nation-building stage of the 19th century, state-funded education was at the core of states’ pursuit for economic and social progress. Newly formed nation states actively sought new educational knowledge from countries considered more advanced in the global race toward modernity and industrialization. The transnational lesson drawing in education at the time was guided by the view of modernity as originating in and diffusing from the West. This created the unidirectional flow of educational influence from advanced economies of the West to the rest of the world. Central to the rise of modernity in Western state formation is the use of education as a technology of social regulations. Through the expansion of state-funded education, people were turned into the people, self-governing citizens, and then the population that was amenable to a state’s social and economic calculation and military deployment. But this development was embedded in the geopolitical context of the time, in which Western modernity was deeply entangled with its underside, coloniality in the rest of the world. Various uses of education as a social control were tested out first in colonial peripheries and then brought back to the imperial centers.

Today, the use of education for the modernist pursuit of perfecting society has been intensified through the constitution of the globalized education policy space. International organizations such as the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) act as the nodes through which transnational networks of education policy actors are formed, where the power of statistics for social and educational progress is widely shared. Both developed and developing countries are increasingly incorporated into this shared epistemological space, albeit through different channels and due to different factors. The rise of international academic testing such as OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has certainly changed the traditional pattern of education research and knowledge flows, and more lesson drawing from countries and regions outside the Anglo-European context is pursued. And yet, the challenges that PISA poses to the Eurocentric pattern of educational knowledge and research flows are curtailed by the persistence of the colonial legacy. This most clearly crystalizes in the dismissive and derogatory characterization of East Asian PISA high achievers in the recent PISA debate. Hence, the current globalization of education knowledge and research remains entangled with the active legacy of coloniality, the uneven global knowledge structure.

Keywords: modernity, coloniality, globalization, de-colonializing knowledge, PISA, education policy borrowing, East Asia

Globalization and Epistemological Diffidence

Any discussion of globalization requires a degree of sensitivity to the problem of extrapolation. That is, many globalization theorists, almost all of whom are based in the privileged Global North, theorize “the global” from their particular historical, social, and geographical positions of privilege. These positions necessarily shape how the phenomenon called globalization unfolds itself for them and how they experience and make sense of it. To put it differently, there exist inherent limits to the generic and universalist understanding of globalization due to its highly differentiated manifestations and effects in different parts of the world as well as to the observer’s particular positionality that delimits what is knowable. There is no doubt that the manifestations and the effects of cultural, economic, and educational globalization can radically differ between developed and developing countries as well as among countries of different historical and geopolitical contexts. Hence, any discussion of globalization requires a dose of epistemological reservation vis-à-vis a false sense of universalism. As Chen (2010) puts it, universalism should not be considered as “an epistemological given but a horizon which we may be able to move in the remote future, provided that we first compare notes based upon locally grounded knowledge” (p. 245). This “epistemological diffidence” (Appadurai, 2000, p. 4) about what can be known about the global is often lost in the existing theorization of globalization, resulting in the uncritical application of analytical constructs developed within a particular cultural, historical, and economic context of globalization in Europe or North America—where theories are usually generated—to the rest of the world with radically different cultures and histories and locations in the global economy (Connell, 2007).

Any discussion of globalization, therefore, must sensitize itself to this problematic presumption of “sameness.” In particular, those who enunciate from the privileged social location on the globe must exercise this caution more than anyone else. Inevitably, my upbringing (in Japan), the place of scholarly training and current institutional affiliation and residence (North America and Australia) and my reliance on Japanese- and English-language education scholarship set clear limits on how and what I come to learn about globalization of educational knowledge and research. My attempt to draw as widely as possible from research undertaken in and about different countries and regions of the world is still curtailed by the fact that the majority of such studies are published in English. In order to practice my epistemological diffidence, every effort will be made to make explicit the situatedness of my discussion by indicating the particular regional and national contexts of my discussion and the studies cited so that readers are reminded of what is unsaid, the possible existence of geographically and culturally specific experiences and perspectives that are excluded.

Modernity and Education

Since the establishment of modern schooling, educational knowledge and research have always circulated on a global scale. This is because the “practice of learning from elsewhere” has been at the heart of the historical formation of national systems of education (Waldow, 2012, p. 422). Throughout the 19th and the early 20th century, for instance, the governments of what we know today as “advanced” industrial countries dispatched their officials to countries that they considered advanced in the global race toward modernity and industrialization. Two of the most known examples are the trip to Prussia by Horace Mann, the secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1844 and the Meiji Japanese government’s Iwakura Mission to North America and select European nations in 1871–1873. Upon their return, lessons learned from the overseas trips informed, though often heavily re-contexutalized, the debate and design of the education reform back home.

The provision of compulsory state schooling was the primary means through which newly formed sovereign states attempted to reconstitute people into “the people” and then the “population” via the integration of technologies of social regulations into schooling. State sponsored education was part of the newly established liberal-democratic state’s technologies of government wherein children learned to govern themselves in new ways, as modern citizens (Rose, 1996). Education research has been part and parcel of these states’ modernizing projects; education officials and researchers have engaged in cross-national learning on the premise that “education borrowing was the primary means of perfecting society” (Silova, 2012, p. 231).

During the early period of state formation, modernity became defined as a cultural, sociopolitical, and economic condition achieved first in Europe and then further extended to North America and other white settler countries. Western modernity gained its global currency as Western imperial powers expanded their overseas colonial territories through military aggression and conquests. Subsequent economic exploitation and cultural genocide were rationalized through the imperial language of “benevolence,” imparting the virtues of Western civilization to the backward people. Social science, institutionalized at universities at the time, played a key role in the moral justification of Western imperialism by providing intellectual resources for the colonial classification of difference (Mignolo, 2000; Turner, 1994). The classification construed Asian societies, for instance, as a land devoid of things that supposedly characterize the modern nation-state and capitalism (Turner, 1994). In the works of European writers such as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Hegel, and Marx, the notion of Asia was produced through a set of dichotomies; Asian multinational empires versus modern European or monarchical states, Asian political despotism versus modern European legal and political systems, and Asian nomadic and agrarian modes of production versus European urban and commercial life (Hui, 2011, p. 15). Asia was situated at the prehistoric stage on the continuum of the Eurocentric teleology of modern historicity. As Chatterjee (quoted in Chen, 2010, p. 243) maintains, “the normative models of Western political theory have, more often than not, only served to show the non-Western practices as backward or deviant.” Henceforth, Western civilization was the only universalizable civilization. It set the standards for cultural, social, and political changes to be implemented in the rest of the world, while producing non-Western states’ desire for anything Western, including its educational knowledge.

This Eurocentric diffusion thesis has long patterned the direction of educational knowledge flows on a global scale. “Advanced” countries in Europe first and then North America became the source of new educational thoughts and policy technologies, and modernizers of the rest of the world were keen to travel there and learn how to organize education systems to achieve social and economic progress and political unity or to be recognized as a legitimate member of the emerging “world polity” (Meyer & Ramirez, 2000). Knowledge from the modern West was highly sought after as it was conceived that masses must be educated with modern (Western) ways of thinking and being in order for the nations to progress through the stages of civilization popularized by Social Darwinism of the late 19th century. The same Eurocentric historical teleology was later inherited by modernization theory and neoliberalism of the 20th century, both of which guided the international development work of Cold War superpowers and international aid agencies (Klees, 2008; Nordtveit, 2010; Tabulawa, 2003).

Today, the allure of the West as the source of modernity is so powerful that, for instance, “many people in Asian societies still have the deep-rooted mind-set of looking to the West and the often unconscious desire to emulate the West in all pursuits including knowledge production and the seeking of ‘modernity’” (Lin, 2012, p. 158). Indeed, the desire to embrace Western modernity is so strong in oil-rich, aid-free Gulf States (UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) that these countries have focused disproportionately on gender equity, in particular girls’ education, one of the globally accepted indicators of modernity. This is despite the fact that these countries have already achieved higher enrollment and academic achievement for girls relative to other advanced Western countries. Hence, the desire to embrace and embody modernity has diverted these countries “away from those areas that are in greatest need,” that is, boys’ underperformance and poor retention and poor education quality in general (Ridge, 2012, pp. 302–303).

The same desire to be modern underpins the flows of educational knowledge and research and those individuals who “carry” them transnationally. They include transnational policy actors, the most notable of whom is Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills, and special adviser on education policy to the secretary-general at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). He draws extensively on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data to preach around the world how best to prepare education systems for the knowledge-intense economy. He finishes his presentations everywhere with the dictum, “Remember, without data you are just another person with an opinion” (quoted in Waldow, 2012, p. 423). PISA has played a critical role in the global proliferation of high modernist conviction in numbers as a means of perfecting society (Gorur, 2016; Lingard, Sellar, & Baroutsis, 2015). “Advanced” economies are relying increasingly on PISA for system appraisal and looking to PISA top performing countries for “solutions.” The transnational “carriers” of modernity also include international aid agencies such as the World Bank, which play a decisive role in imposing a set of reform measures to modernize education systems in aid-dependent countries. Government-sponsored higher degree research students from “developing” countries are another, who are to act as “change agents,” bringing back the “scientific” research knowledge and skills to “lead their states on the path to modernity” (Tabulawa, 2003, p. 14). Driving all this transnational traveling of educational knowledge and research is the commitment to the Western Enlightenment paradigm where social progress is to be achieved through the application of scientific, technical rationality, despite its possible disastrous long-term consequences (Gorur, 2016).

Coloniality and Education

Often forgotten in much of the literature about state formation, modernity, and education is the constitutive role of its underside, coloniality. As historical research has shown, education was central to colonial administration in the British and French control of Africa and South Asia (Altbach & Kelly, 1978; Kelly, 1979, 1984). From the late 19th century onward, education scholars with expertise in foreign education and education policy transfers played an important role in establishing education systems in the colonized world. Colonial powers instituted education systems to position themselves as the “benevolent brothers” who were there to assist the natives to achieve self-governance while at the same time facilitating the incorporation of colonial peripheries into the global capitalist system. In the process, various technologies of social control through education were field-tested in colonial peripheries and then brought back to imperial centers, or vice versa (Coloma, 2004; del Moral, 2013). In the case of the United States at the turn of the 20th century, “lessons learned in earlier colonial territories, like the Hawaii Americanization projects, informed national school projects for African American and Native American communities” (del Moral, 2013, p. 45). The historical experience of educational administration in colonial dependencies hence was a constitutive part of development of modern education systems in the “advanced” West.

Furthermore, Western modernity is fundamentally linked to coloniality of the rest of the world in another sense; the very thesis of “diffusion” of Western modernity has instituted the Eurocentric classification of difference, where the rest of the world is deemed “backward” and hence in need of “catching up.” Research and academic knowledge was complicit in the historical development of the colonial classification of difference. Indeed, political philosophy and social theory have long accounted for modernity through the frameworks that explain the rise of modernity and capitalism in Europe as induced exclusively by “unique” historical, socioeconomic, and cultural factors that are specific to Europe (Bhambra, 2007; de Sousa Santos, 1995; Go, 2013). Contemporary social theorizing of modernity builds on the idea of European “specialness” and subscribes to the “diffusion” thesis; modernity supposedly originating in Europe has diffused to the rest of the world (see Takayama, 2015 for a critique of this thesis in education scholarship).

As a result, the degree to which a given nation-state has embraced the cultural and political principles of Western modernity (e.g., instrumental rationality and atomistic individualism) becomes the criteria against which its “civility” and modernity are measured, generating powerful normative and coercive pressure for the “rest of the world” to embrace the pseudo-universality of Western modernity (de Sousa Santos, 1995). As Bhambra (2014) rightly maintains: “With modernity and modernization … as the only possibility, the rest of the world was to be drawn into the worlds created by Europe and Europeans and was to be understood in those terms” (p. 9). As a corollary to this, child-centered and progressive pedagogic approaches, as well as the liberal-humanistic notion of childhood that underpins them, have been construed as a symbol of modernity and progress. Different pedagogic traditions (e.g., didactic teaching and rote-learning) are dismissed as authoritarian, oppressive, and hence “backward” (Nguyen, Elliott, Terlouw, & Pilot, 2009).

This colonial legacy in political, economic, and educational terms seems somehow forgotten in the current hype around late-modernity wherein the “flow,” “fluidity,” “mobility,” and “interconnectivity” of people, capital, and knowledge are exalted as universal phenomena. The outcome of this wishful historical forgetting is the perpetuation of theories of globalization and education that extrapolate from the particular historical experiences of a handful of advanced countries and regions in the world, while ignoring the historical and contemporary experience of the rest of the world in the conceptualization of “the global” (see Connell, 2007). Certainly the global flows of ideas, people, and capital are occurring in a much more uncoordinated and unpredictable fashion than before, but this recognition of fluidity and interconnectivity should not lead to the historical amnesia. The global flows of education research and knowledge, or “education policy scape” (Carney, 2009), remain shaped, if not determined, by the legacy of colonialism, sustained by various mechanisms instituted by transnational capital, powerful states, and supranational organizations. When seen from the vantage of point of those in global peripheries for whom the historical experience of colonialism and neo-colonialism is central, it becomes clear that the putative notion of the West remains a geographical and cultural space of “special characters” against which the rest of the world positions themselves and defines their own individual and society’s “progress” (Chen, 2010).

Hence, the question of “who learns from whom” in education research, knowledge, and policy is always implicated in this uneven relationship of power on a planetary scale. Cross-national learning in education has always taken place among privileged countries of the West both in the past and present (see Phillips & Ochs, 2003; Whitty, 2012). And yet it has been more frequently and extensively practiced by those who were in subordinate positions vis-à-vis powerful states. Learning from “advanced” countries was one of the surest and quickest ways to achieve modernity and by extension to maintain or gain political sovereignty and economic independence from the encroaching imperialist powers of the late 19th century, the colonizers of the early 20th century, and the predatory economic globalization of the late 20th and the 21st century. Indeed, in post-independent Africa, expansion of public schooling was driven by the belief that educational parity with former colonizers would end unequal international relationships (Kelly, 1979; Tikly, 2001). Importing educational ideas from former colonizers and “advanced” countries of the West was a matter of survival for newly liberated countries of Africa and Asia.

Hence, what Chen (2010) call “the West as method”—the use of Western experience as the single point of reference against which one’s self and context are made intelligible—remains largely intact, and many countries around the world continue to seek educational knowledge from a handful of “advanced” countries in North America and Europe. Even among highly developed non-Western countries such as Japan with a history of colonial expansion, policy learning among education researchers and policymakers takes place primarily in relation to select Western countries. Japanese education researchers continue to view these countries as the sole point of intellectual and policy reference against which their own educational thoughts and policies are debated (Takayama, 2016b). Many books published in these countries are quickly translated into Japanese, providing conceptual tools with which Japanese researchers make sense of issues in their own education system, though the process of translation does have generative potentials for re-contextualization and reinterpretation (Takayama, 2016b). Indeed, the imagery of the West as the source of modernity has been powerfully accepted in many parts of Asia, so much so that in China “the way social sciences are taught and researched has almost turned Chinese universities into becoming instruments for the creation of a westernized or semi-westernised elite” (Yang, 2005, p. 82). A very similar state of intellectual dependency in education policy and scholarship is also reported elsewhere in many Asian and African countries where international aid agencies dictate education policy development (Samoff, 1999; Nguyen et al., 2009; Nordtveit, 2010; Rappleye, 2011; Vavrus, 2004).

But intellectual dependency also creates resistance against the incursion of Western intellectual influence, as well. In some cases, intellectual tools generated out of Western scholarly contexts are cautiously treated for their relevance to the local contexts, while in other cases they are rejected purely on the basis of their Western “origins.” The call for the development of “indigenous” knowledge in education research and pedagogy is common among those who are concerned about the wholesale adoption of Western “scientific” knowledge for “development” and “progress” and the “epistemological genocide” it incurs (Tabulawa, 2003). Hence, the tension between desire and repulsion toward the putative notion of the West and the knowledge generated there continues to shape the transnational flows of Western education knowledge in many non-Western contexts, including East Asia (Chen, 2010; Takayama, 2007; Takayama & Apple, 2008). While some education researchers outside the West are eager to learn the language of the “global currency” in theoretical and empirical development to be part of the so-called global conversation, others partially appropriate the global language in a way that creates some epistemological distance from the West, while others call for the complete “delinking” from the Eurocentric knowledge structure in order to develop knowledge that is indigenous to their communities, countries, and territories (see Yang, 2005, 2011 for a case in China; see also Takayama, 2016a, 2015).

Global Structure of Educational Knowledge

What underpins the uneven planetary flows of education research and knowledge is a particular kind of knowledge practice and relationship. The global structure of scholarly knowledge defines who produces universal versus particular knowledge (Kuwayama, 2004). Universal models and theories are developed in select elite institutions of the West and then put on a global circuit of knowledge distribution, while the rest of the world serves as a “data mine” upon which the universality of those models and theories is tested for wider applicability (Alatas, 2006; Connell, 2007). But the universality of what we understand as theories are nothing but universal in that they are developed in particular regions of the world by intellectuals with concerns for a set of issues that are particular to their cultural and historical space. And yet such “ethno,” “local,” and “provincial” knowledge becomes universalized across the globe due to the intellectual hegemony it enjoys that is sustained by the current global structure of academic knowledge production (Connell, 2007; Sugimoto, 2014). While educational researchers in other parts of the world perceive U.K., U.S., and select European education as the standard and seek to borrow their techniques and ideas, the Western counterparts perceive other education as peculiar and specially suited to its cultural and social context, thus with little universal application to other contexts. Thus, for “advanced” Western educational researchers, educational research, theory, and practice in “other” countries are “a subject of anthropological interest … but not the substance from which lessons can be applied at home” (Cummings, 1986, p. 297), though some researchers claim that this trend has undergone some notable changes in the last few decades (see Forestier & Crossley, 2015; Sellar & Lingard, 2013).

This division of intellectual labor is further reinforced by the current university research environment radically reconfigured through the plethora of performance metrics for research outputs, including global university rankings and scholarly journal rankings. Universities in advanced industrial countries are under increasing pressure to improve their rankings on the widely publicized global university rankings, and publication in highly ranked journals is recognized as one of the key indicators of success. However, those international university rankings and journals are biased in favor of institutions and journals that are in particular linguistic and cultural regions of the world, with the large majority concentrated in the English-using, Anglo-Saxon countries (Lindblad & Lindblad, 2009). Highly ranked journals are based in a handful of Western countries, primarily the United Kingdom, the United States, and a few European countries and accept English as the only language of writing. Reviewers and editors for these journals are based largely in English-speaking countries and institutions, exercising control over what counts as legitimate research wherein non-Western, non-English-using scholars are expected to fit their findings within the theoretical paradigms and models circulated in the English-using academic communities (Lin, 2012; Takayama, 2011).

This uneven power relation in knowledge production crystalizes most clearly in the relationship between supranational organizations and developing countries, however. International agencies such as the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank powerfully shape the policy of many developing countries in Africa and Asia through their near monopoly over the production of development knowledge, assessment studies, and reports on these countries’ education systems. These publications set discursive limits on the definition of problems and policy solutions in heavily aid-dependent countries such as Tanzania, Bangladesh, and Nepal (Dhar, 2015; Rappleye, 2011; Vavrus, 2004). Civil society organizations such as domestic NGOs and local researchers play a vital role in “spinning the referential web” (Rappleye, 2011, p. 42) through extensive and repetitive inter-referencing among “research” reports prepared by various international aid agencies and between them and those prepared by domestic NGOs and government agencies.

In other cases such as in Mongolia, however, the foreign-aid dependent government is not as controlled by the aid agencies as in these other countries. By engaging in “policy bilingualism” the Mongolian government has managed to implement policies preferred by domestic constituencies while simultaneously appeasing international donors through the adoption of the “global policy talk” at the policy discourse level, leading to “discursive borrowing” only (Steiner-Khamsi & Stolpe, 2006). Though such studies identify the gap between policy discourse and actual implementation created through aid-dependent countries’ creative work, the adoption of language is in no way insignificant, as it can set discursive limits on how policy problems and solutions can be defined.

The extensive involvement of international aid agencies in the development of education policy in developing countries has had considerable implications for education research produced in these countries. According to Samoff (1999, pp. 80–81), education research in such economically vulnerable countries is dictated largely by the needs, interest, and preferences of external aid agencies. In many countries in Africa where virtually no public funding for education research is available, international aid agencies recruit domestic researchers to become the consultants for their commissioned research. In so doing, these agencies circumvent criticism for their overreliance on expatriate researchers that could potentially undermine the legitimacy of the knowledge they produce with which they justify their preferred policies in these countries. Samoff (1999) further points out that these research projects come with specifications of particular approaches, methods, and analytic frameworks that external agencies deem appropriate (e.g., human capital theory or rate-of-return analysis), as a result marginalizing local understanding and knowledge. The findings of these studies are sent to contracting agencies and the governments but rarely subjected to academic peer review, hence allowing for partial or seriously flawed studies to influence the development of education policy (see Edwards & Loucel, 2016). As more and more domestic researchers are lured by the lucrative money that international aid agencies offer, this practice of “research as consulting” (Samoff, 1999, p. 81) seriously undercuts the domestic research institutions; “unable to set their own agenda or to control the principal reward systems for their staff, research institutions are buffeted by the fickle winds of agency priorities and preferences” (Samoff, 1999, p. 81).

Globalized Education Policy Space

In recent decades, many scholars in English-language education scholarship have pointed to the rise of global networks of education policymakers and quantitatively oriented education researchers (e.g., Grek, 2012; Wiseman, 2010). International organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank, multinational think tanks, and edu-business play a significant role in providing opportunities whereby such policy actors drawn primarily from advanced economies interact with each other and form a shared epistemic community. Through various meetings organized by these international actors, national and sub-national policy actors and researchers engage in policy learning from meetings where consensus is generated about “what works” and what is to be measured (Grek, 2012). These transnational networks are also developed through many other channels, including academic conferences, bilateral exchange arrangements between Ministry of Education officials, the education ministers’ summits, and ministry officials’ internships to international organizations. Some of these policy actors constantly crisscross national/global and public/private boundaries, contributing to the constitution of the globalized education policy space (Lingard, Sellar, & Baroutsis, 2015), though it is important to acknowledge that such a transnational mobility of policy actors has not become a truly global phenomenon, as it is largely restricted to those in select European and Anglo-American countries.

The formation of transnational networks of educational researchers and policy actors is partly promoted by the rising significance of data in educational governance. New managerialism has dominated the public sector governance, resulting in the proliferation of an audit culture. Such private sector managerial practices as the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle and output management are commonly introduced in many education systems around the world, either through the influence of international donors in developing countries or through the implicit or explicit policy learning at the state bureaucrat level in developed countries. Central to the new governance regime is the use of quantitative data, or the “governance by numbers” (Ozga, 2009). As a wide range of systemic performance data are collected to govern increasingly decentralized education systems, researchers with quantitative research skills—including quantitative economists, psychometricians, and assessment experts—gain more prominence in educational bureaucracy and research institutions, particularly in Anglo-American countries (e.g., Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). These researchers or administrators have a similar epistemological and ontological basis for what counts as “data” and “evidence” and advocate for more data-driven policymaking (Lingard et al., 2015). OECD and international aid agencies have contributed to this growing use of data in policymaking and pressured developing countries to implement data-driven monitoring mechanisms.

The increasing “datafication” of education systems—the intensification of production of quantitative data about educational performance and its extensive use for administration and policymaking purposes—has two important, related implications for educational knowledge and research. First, it has promoted the increasing acceptance of the use of statistical techniques and modeling in analyses of education systems. Education scholarship, which used to be dominated by historical and qualitative research methodologies, no longer sees the increasing presence of quantitative research work as a form of Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism, and governments around the world, pressured to practice evidence-based policymaking, place increasing value on such research (Kamens, 2013; Trohler, 2013). The notion of evidence-based or evidence-informed policymaking dominates policy research literature, perpetuating “the assumption that as more evidence underpins policy, so it will become better and more rational” (Grek, 2012, p. 42). Or, as one of the education policymakers quoted in Lingard et al. (2015, p. 37) stresses, “we cannot improve what we cannot measure,” revealing that person’s absolute conviction in the value of “scientific methods” for educational improvement.

Second, the prevalence of “governance by numbers” goes hand in hand with “the ideology of a culturally indifferent world of education” (Trohler, 2013, p. 158). This premise underpins the current popularization of “best practices” as promoted by OECD and what Auld and Morris (2014, p. 132) call “intermediaries,” a network of academics, private consultancies, think tanks, and policy entrepreneurs who interpret Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and UNESCO test data to identify and advocate “best practices,” which supposedly work in any education system irrespective of historical, cultural, and institutional specificities. The wide acceptance of this ideology has significantly reduced concerns around the validity of decontextualized cross-national comparison of education systems. Those who endorse this ideology of education now define “the global as a commensurable space of measurement” (Lingard et al., 2015, p. 34) and education policymaking as a matter of “technicality” underpinned by the unquestioned confidence in quantitative data and its power for social progress (Gorur, 2016). To what extent the datafication of education takes place in countries outside select Anglo-American and European countries remains to be seen, however.

Despite this qualifying, there is no denying that large-scale international testing has changed the landscape of educational research in many—both developed and developing—countries, promoting the global proliferation of quantitative research on education. The rise of international testing coincides with the shift in the strategies of international development agencies such as the World Bank to “output-based aid” (Klees, 2008, p. 325). International donor agencies pressure “developing” countries to participate in large-scale international assessments such as PISA for Development for better monitoring of their education systems. As Marlaine Lockheed (2013) argues, “participating in international assessments was a quid pro quo for international donor support for a country’s education sector, driven by growing donor concerns for results and accountability” (p. 166). International donor agencies provide substantial financial and technical support for these countries to participate in international assessments; they cover the operational costs for data collection and data management as well as provide capacity building opportunities for domestic researchers and ministry officials to develop assessment and monitoring expertise and quantitative research skills. Even in developed countries, the push for systemic monitoring through performance data has had considerable influence on the nature of education research legitimated. The systemic monitoring as well as the preoccupation with “what works” has led to more preferential funding for research that is deemed “relevant” in a highly instrumental way to policymaking (Auld & Morris, 2014). As Daniel Trohler (2013) explains, “education, curriculum theory, and history and philosophy of education conducted at the universities” have been “successfully excluded from this agenda, whereas representatives of the subject disciplines (languages, mathematics, sciences)” now “formulate standards, and cognitive psychologists collect the data” (p. 156).

While the dominance of instrumental rationality is taking place in many parts of the world, it is also important to acknowledge that the world of policymaking is not as dictated by policy rationalism or empiricism as suggested by some researchers. This is particularly the case in developed countries where policymaking is much less susceptible to external pressures. Studies in Australia and the United Kingdom, for instance, point to the considerable disagreement between those who believe in “technicist utopia” (Whitty, 2012, p. 416)—the absolute power of numbers for social progress (statisticians and psychometricians)—on the one hand and those who operate within the politics of policymaking (educational bureaucrats and ministers) on the other. These two groups of policy actors—often housed within the same national or transnational organizations such as OECD or the national ministry of education—are in constant tension, as they subscribe to different worldviews and epistemological claims to truth (Lingard et al., 2015). Hence, the global proliferation of empiricism in education policymaking is far from automatic, nor is it uncontested; even within OECD, the beast of global empiricism, there exists considerable tension and contradiction between administrators and technical experts. The institutional isomorphism—the gradual institutional convergence of education systems toward a set of modernist scripts or models (Meyer & Ramirez, 2000)—is highly contingent upon the state of politics in different nations and sub-national jurisdictions (Rappleye, 2012; Silova, 2012).

PISA and Transnational Policy Learning

Arguably, the rise of large-scale testing, with Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) the most prominent of all, has complicated the flow of educational knowledge on a global scale. It has shifted in some countries the traditional patterns of policy reference that have long paralleled the century-old Eurocentric “diffusion” pattern. For instance, Finland, Singapore, and Shanghai—the three new high academic achievers identified by PISA—have become a point of policy reference in the Australian education debate, where the United States and United Kingdom had traditionally been the primary source of policy reference (Sellar & Lingard, 2013). Likewise, the English Conservative-led coalition government that came into power in 2010 extensively referenced Singapore and Hong Kong, the two education systems identified by PISA 2009 as representing “world-class” education (Forestier & Crossley, 2015). Hence there is some truth in the assertion that PISA has helped bring to international attention those education systems that were previously under-recognized in the world (Sahlberg & Hargreaves, 2015). Indeed, PISA has created a new market for educational research; the PISA success of the hitherto-unrecognized countries and economies has been quickly followed by successive publications of both popular and academic books and articles by education researchers and journalists purportedly explaining the “secrets” of their success (Takayama, 2017).

Certainly, a question remains whether such international attention to “PISA stars” actually promotes any genuine transnational policy learning. In countries such as Australia, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, the policy reference to PISA high performers such as Finland was driven primarily by the domestic political context, wherein the Finnish PISA success was variously represented to legitimate existing policy agendas and discourses (Takayama, 2010; Takayama, Waldow, & Sung, 2013). Similarly, the English Conservative government’s policy reference to Hong Kong and Singapore education was ideologically driven; the traditional values and practices in East Asia were symbolically mobilized to legitimize the reformers’ “own political beliefs and nostalgia for a more didactic approach to schooling” (Forestier & Crossley, 2015, p. 681). Nonetheless, it is also true that educational ideas and histories characterizing, say, Finnish education were extensively studied by researchers in other advanced economies, and were further popularized by global educational entrepreneur Pasi Sahlberg (2011) who traveled around the world to promote what he calls the Finnish Way as a counter reform movement against what he terms GERM (Global Education Reform Movement), the U.K. and U.S. neoliberal reform toolbox of choice, devolution, and market. The somehow romanticized image of Finnish education was a powerful source of inspiration for those who called for more democratic and egalitarian education reform in countries such as Australia, Germany, Japan, and Korea (Takayama, 2010; Takayama, Waldow, & Sung, 2013).

However, the discussion in the Anglo-American literature tends to exaggerate the discursive power of PISA in fundamentally changing the pattern of policy learning and knowledge flows in education. This problem becomes particularly visible when examined from the locations of global peripheries, including East Asia, where the pattern of education lesson drawing from the advanced West is historically and geopolitically grounded (Chen, 2010). For instance, Sung and Lee (2017) examine the impact of PISA on the pattern of education policy learning in Korea where the United States has long served as the single most important point of policy reference in education policymaking. They conclude that the powerful referential status of U.S. education in Korean education policymaking has been unaffected by the United States’ mediocre PISA rankings. This makes a clear contrast to the view expressed by a Canadian senior policy bureaucrat interviewed in Gorur’s study (2016, p. 605) and also endorsed by the researcher; given the mediocre U.S. performance in PISA, “no one thinks that the US is the international model for how to do schooling.” Conspicuously missing in this parochial view is an understanding of the persistent legacy of coloniality and the power of Eurocentric classification of difference in shaping who learns from whom on a global scale. The pattern of transnational policy learning at least in Korea and quite possibly in broader East Asia remains shaped by the historical, geopolitical conditions, or what Sung and Lee (2017) call after Raymond Williams “the structure of feeling” (p. 174) constituted through the powerful roles that the United States has historically played geopolitically, economically, and culturally in the region.

Furthermore, the attention that East Asian education systems attract in Anglo-American countries as a result of their top performance in PISA is not entirely free of the legacy of colonialism, either. This becomes most obvious when one compares the considerable international attention given to Finland on the one hand and equally high performing East Asian countries and economies on the other. While the former was celebrated across the political line in countries such as Australia, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, the appraisal of the latter was explicitly partisan; while East Asian PISA success was celebrated by those on the conservative side of politics, those on the left entirely dismiss it as a result of high testing pressure, rote learning, and excessive academic competition (Waldow, 2017; Waldow, Takayama, & Sung, 2014). Indeed, the “reverse borrowing from East to West” engaged in by the English Conservative government (Forestier & Crossley, 2015, p. 665) actually reinforced the stereotypical view of East Asian education—characterized by rote learning, academic rigor, discipline, and intense academic competition. It was this perceived view of the traditional, Confucian heritage features of East Asian societies that was mobilized to legitimize the English Conservative reformers’ nostalgia for the good old English education (Forestier & Crossley, 2015).

Such a stereotypical discussion of Asian education echoes the long-held perception of Asian societies as “totalitarian” and “despotic” accepted in much of the Western literature on Asian societies. As Turner (1994) argues, this despotic image of Asian societies has emerged as a result of Eurocentric theorizing of modernity being applied to an understanding of Asian societies, where they are characterized as “a land of void,” where things that characterize “normal” modern states do not exit. The notion of “civil society”—fundamental to Western political philosophy—is one such concept that has been used to demarcate the “difference” between the West and the Orient, with the latter described as “all state and no society” (Turner, 1994, p. 34). The East is construed as dominated by an arbitrary power of state where autonomous individuals do not exist, hence the absence of civil society. Parallel to this dismissive view, education in Asia is often characterized by excessive parental pressures, powerful state control, academic competition, and rote learning where children’s freedom, creativity, and individuality are subordinated to the state’s political and economic interests (see also Park, 2013 for an attempt to debunk such a stereotype). Asian education is discursively constructed as the “antithesis” to the values of Western liberal humanism, which supposedly underpin Western education. The much celebrated shift in education policy reference, enabled by PISA, has done little in challenging this Orientalist assumption about Asian societies and education, the cultural legacy of colonialism (see Takayama, 2017; Waldow, 2017).

In addition, while PISA might have contributed to some extent to the diversification of flows of education knowledge, it has paradoxically reinforced the nationalistic framing of educational knowledge and policy. As a result it has obscured the highly international and transnational nature of education policy learning that it supposedly promotes. OECD’s discussion of educational success in high-performing countries is always framed in terms of the factors that are specific to the respective countries’ education systems and cultural and historical contexts. Little acknowledged in OECD’s PISA related publications is the fact that these successful countries and economies have developed their education policies by drawing from each other and on ideas learned from elsewhere. They are also heavily informed by the internationally circulated “models” and “best practices” while also contributing to their constitutions. Policy ideas are, therefore, constantly drawn from elsewhere to such an extent that the line separating what is internal (domestic) from external (international) is so fundamentally blurred that there is nothing purely national and domestic about education policy and scholarship.

OECD’s tendency to frame education policy issues in explicitly national terms needs to be understood in the current context of globalization, where the sovereign rights of the state over education have become increasingly eroded. Though it is certainly an overstatement to say that “state sovereignty over educational matters is replaced by the influence of large-scale international organizations” (Meyer & Benavot, 2013, p. 10), there is no question that the national governments are drawing increasingly on the de-territorialized policy discourse generated via international organizations and circulated globally. But de-territorialization and re-territorialization (re-nationalization) are simultaneous processes; the intensification of the former gives rise to the re-nationalizing demands on education for producing citizens with distinct national consciousness and character (Takayama, 2014). Ranking countries in hierarchical order and producing national education reports, PISA capitalizes upon this re-nationalizing demand, thereby allowing national governments to position education as a “national” project that supposedly requires nationally coordinated actions. This helps boost their political legitimacy, which has been undermined by the increasing de-territorialization of education policymaking and fiscal and administrative devolution as particularly observed in the traditionally centralized education systems of East Asia.

But it is a mistake to understand the contemporary significance of large-scale international assessments without linking them to the global education policy context born out of the so called “knowledge economy” and the assumed significance of education in the new globalized economy. The idea of “human capital” has dominated much education policy debate in advanced economies since the late 20th century, with educational performance being defined as the surest indicator of countries’ future economic productivities. This has augmented the political legitimacy of transnational policy learning in a nation’s education policymaking; no country’s reform proposals can be legitimate without external references to “examples elsewhere,” “international consensus,” “best practices” promoted by international organizations, or cross-national comparative data. The so called “global policy talk”—including competencies, benchmarking, standards, constructivist pedagogy, decentralization, school choice, and school-based local management (e.g., community schools)—spreads across many parts of the world, resulting in what seems to be a convergence of educational policy on a global scale, though what these policy measures actually mean can differ considerably from context to context, as shown in studies in rural India (Sriprakash, 2010) and Latin America (Beech & Lista, 2012), for instance.

As these policy measures are taken up globally, the relevant research literature has also become traded transnationally. This is because learning from research literature about the newly proposed measures’ consequences—both intended and unintended—has become an integral part of domestic policy debate in countries where the introduction of similar policies is debated (Whitty, 2012). Reviewing existing research conducted overseas about the measures and programs under policy discussion has now become a legitimate form of education research, as it could serve the purpose of “policy inoculation” (Whitty, 2012, p. 367), a way to prevent unintelligent policy borrowing. As one researcher cited in Carney’s work (2009) states, “When the Minister uses global examples and arguments to force change, we can use global examples and arguments to question it” (p. 77). The “inoculation” work has become particularly important in Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, where media, governments, and think tanks selectively orchestrate and reductively synthesize overseas studies and PISA data, including non-peer-reviewed research, to justify preferred policy options (Lingard, 2015; Takayama, 2010; Whitty, 2012).

In many countries in East Asia, the global policy talk derives from recent education reform experiences in the United Kingdom and United States (see Sung, 2011; Sung & Lee, 2017; Takayama, 2007; Takayama & Apple, 2008). A range of neoliberal, quasi-market reform measures, including school choice, test-based accountability regimes, and new managerialism, were borrowed from U.K. and U.S. experiences. As these measures were proposed by the governments, they were intensely contested and recontexualized either to fit the existing configuration of the system or to achieve political compromise among competing interests. In the course of domestic political contestation, education researchers drew upon the relevant research work produced in the United Kingdom and the United States to either legitimize or delegitimize those proposed reform measures. Hence, in an ironic way, the East Asian government’s historic inclination to look to the United Kingdom and the United States for new reform ideas has forced education researchers, including those attempting to inoculate unthoughtful policy borrowing, to rely more heavily on the research work produced in these countries, thus reinforcing the existing uneven flow of intellectual influence.

Toward Globalization of Educational Knowledge and Research

The historically constituted relations of power continue to condition the transnational flow of educational knowledge and research today. Globalization of educational knowledge and research remains highly skewed toward privileging knowledge and research produced in select countries of the Global North. This uneven intellectual flow is maintained by a set of institutional mechanisms and structures. It is against this bleak picture, however, that the recent critique of social science knowledge from postcolonial, decolonial, and southern theory perspectives has emerged to open up space for serious questioning of the disciplinary knowledge in social science (Alatas, 2006; Bhambra, 2014; Chen, 2010; Connell, 2007; Go, 2013; Smith, 1999). It has promoted different flows of knowledge and research that challenge the Eurocentric “diffusion” of knowledge as well as different knowledge practices and relationships that problematize the division of intellectual labor. Building on such an intellectual turn in wider social science, many education scholars have started exploring alternative knowledge practices and relationships that take seriously intellectual work produced in the rest of the world as a source of theories and critical insights into the parochial nature of the Eurocentric educational knowledge (e.g., Tikly, 2004; Rappleye & Komatsu, 2015; Singh, 2010; Takayama, 2015; Takayama, Sriprakash, & Connell, 2017). Much more of this critical knowledge work is needed to create a dialogic space where educational knowledge and research premised upon different epistemological and ontological premises interface with each other on equal footing and where the West is decentered as just one of many points of reference upon which education researchers in different parts of the world draw (Chen, 2010). Globalization of educational knowledge and research in the truer sense of the term requires this thorough-going rethinking of the processes of knowledge production on a global scale.


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