Helen Seitzer
Helen Seitzer
Helen Seitzer, Dennis Niemann and Kerstin Martens have investigated what role the topic "PISA" plays in OECD education policy publications: not such a big one. Why PISA has become so successful nonetheless, Seitzer explains in an interview.

For their paper "Placing PISA in perspective: the OECD’s multi-centric view on education", Helen Seitzer, Dennis Niemann and Kerstin Martens have examined almost all documents published between 1961 and 2018 that are listed in the OECD online library marked by the keyword "education". What they found was that PISA by no means is that dominant a topic within these publications as we may suppose, given the popularity of PISA in mass media as well as in academic discussions. "The majority of the OECD’s output does not focus on PISA or secondary education at all. Most publications on education are discussing finance, management, or the labour market connection", the authors write. Lead author Helen Seitzer explains their results in the following interview.


If you had to put a number on the share of OECD publications discussing PISA in one way or the other – what would that be?

Helen Seitzer: Many OECD publications on education include references to PISA in some way or another, but the overall share of reports discussing PISA alone is around 10%-17% of all publications, depending on the time frame of analysis. There might be a few documents on PISA before PISA even started (the discussion on PISA started in 1995), but it was not called PISA back then and the publications were not specifically labelled as such.

Is that high or low if you compare that to other prominent education topics discussed in OECD publications (and what were these other prominent topics)?

Seitzer: In education research concerned with the OECD, it seems as if PISA is the only topic the OECD is focussing on. At times it seems as if discussions on the 'OECD' automatically refer to 'PISA'. From that perspective the percentage of documents only discussing PISA is really low. The research that analyses other work from the OECD is still very limited and often refers back to PISA or takes it as a starting point for their research (so do we). However, the OECD is focussing on a lot more topics than PISA, mainly on labour market-related issues, but also management and planning of higher education for example, are very often discussed.

Your analysis covered the period of 1961 to 2018. Is the share of PISA as a topic within OECD publications still low if you look at the more recent years, let’s say since 2000?

If only the documents since 2000 are included, PISA makes up around 17% of all documents. That is around 90 documents in 8 years on PISA alone. The OECD is incredibly productive in education policy.

What other topics are popular in OECD publications recently?

Seitzer: Over time, the volume of topics discussed increased, similarly rising with the number of publications per year. Recently, School funding, ICT Skills, Labour market Skills and Vocational Training, and Labour Market Regulations and Adult Education are more popular discussions just to name a few. There is an increase on the "Skills" label, but also an increase on topics discussing adult education specifically. In fact, it looks like the compulsory part of education (primary and secondary schooling) does not matter that much.

Does this tell you anything, e.g. is there a shift yet to see?

Seitzer: Since the OECD’s inauguration in 1961 the world has changed a lot, so has the organization. Of course, there is a change in what is discussed over time. In the beginning, the focus was more on assessing what is there in terms of education systems and what do countries need to support their economy after WW II. Then, there was another shift of focus around 1975 on towards higher education. More discussions were held on managing higher education and innovating higher education systems than before. Now, technology (ICT) and adult education are more prevalent. However, the labour market orientation was always present.

Let’s have a look at why PISA has received that much attention in the more recent past and, more importantly, had such an impact on policy making. What is your explanation?

Seitzer: In the paper we discuss that PISA owes its success partly to the type of organization the OECD is, the timing they introduced it in, and the strategy they employ. The OECD has found a policy window when PISA first started, and the appropriate person to "sell" it, Andreas Schleicher (a policy entrepreneur). They presented a solution to a problem (that they themselves defined as a problem in the first place) at the right time, to the right people. The OECD's authority coupled with the demand for evidence-based policy-making created the perfect opportunity for PISA to thrive.

Is it correct to say that the OECD itself did invest in creating this window of opportunity for itself in order to secure its own position of an establish player in global governance?

Seitzer: They definitely had a hand in creating a policy window through publishing reports and problematizing education system effectiveness. However, this cannot be the only issue. There were other IOs with other assessments active in the field at the time (and still are), who are not as successful. The OECD has established itself as a rational actor to provide a valuable assessment of student achievement that is necessary for countries to implement in order to be taken seriously. Their framing of PISA and the information it can provide, but also the network of experts and policymakers the IO has, are definitely partly responsible for the success of PISA. This observation, that the OECD was able to establish itself as industry leader and keep that position makes it even more interesting and important to investigate IO activities and influence.


Read the full paper (open access):
Helen Seitzer, Dennis Niemann & Kerstin Martens (2021): Placing PISA in perspective: the OECD’s multi-centric view on education. In: Globalisation, Societies and Education, DOI:10.1080/14767724.2021.1878017

Dr. Helen Seitzer
CRC 1342: Global Dynamics of Social Policy, Institute for Intercultural and International Studies
Mary-Somerville-Stra├če 7
28359 Bremen
Phone: +49 421 218-57065
E-Mail: seitzer@uni-bremen.de