Domestication of International Comparisons

The Role of the OECD Programme for International Student
Assessment (PISA) in Finnish Education Policy

Acta Universitatis Tamperensis No. 1876


By: Marjaana Rautalin
March 2014
Tampere University Press
Distributed by Coronet Books
ISBN: 9789514492778
127 Pages
$97.50 Paper original


This dissertation is concerned with the discussion in Finland on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) implemented by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and so on the role of PISA in Finnish education policy. Special attention is paid in the study to analysing the references made by the Finnish teachers as a professional body and the civil servants of central government in their deliberations on the strengths and weaknesses of the national education system and in their legitimisation of solutions in education policy both implemented and advocated. The study moreover scrutinises the effect of the media coverage of PISA on our conception of the state of Finnish school education and so also the decisions taken in Finnish education policy. By examining the use made of PISA locally I endeavour to examine the role played by the OECD in Finnish education policy. It is my assumption that if PISA can be seen to have been evoked in the defence of decisions already taken and in calling for reforms, then the OECD does indeed have a role in national education policy.

In examining the discussion on PISA at national level and its possible implications for Finnish education policy, my aim has been also to participate in the wider theoretical debate contemplating the dissemination of global policy models and the effects of such models on solutions adopted in national policy. In contrast to the approaches in the existing literature, the work at hand approaches the phenomena from the perspective of how local actors exploit their understanding of functioning and therefore desirable systems when considering the state of their own respective systems and how this then serves to propagate global policies. I contend that the evaluation information proffered by the OECD, such as what PISA conveys to us, is one of the main devices by means of which various actors in national contexts become aware of the state of the systems in their own respective countries and of how their own system is positioned in relation to other systems evaluated. Such rankings also serve to disseminate notions of desirable systems and are taken on board by national contexts, with the result that national policies are synchronised with global trends. However, this local adoption of global policy ideas is not about of ritual enactment. If anything, I claim, in these processes, where domestic actors make use of international comparative data to develop their own systems, actors’ own political desires are always also involved. Local actors do not just react to exogenous policy models in order to promote the best interests of their own country. If anything, they resort to international comparative data to further their own objectives in domestic politics. Through considered rhetoric local players direct their fellow citizens’ attention to policies in use in other countries or to practices already existing in their own country’s context, thus constructing distinct models or presenting evidence of their success. Through these local accounts, global policy ideas mesh with the interest and motives of the local actors whereby the exogenous origin of the idea originally put forward in the global context disappears and they become to be seen primarily as domestic. The new policy may even be considered a characteristic feature of the nation and promoted to other countries, hence reproducing the cycle of global social change.

The dissertation is presented in sections such that the introductory chapter presents a review of the existing literature on the subject, the main research objective of the work and the research question, the formation of the study and various case studies and the main findings of the dissertation, the second chapter is a case study of the aspirations of the Finnish teaching profession to use PISA and the Finnish rankings with a view to safeguarding their professional interests in the future national discussion on education. The third chapter enumerates how Finnish civil servants in central government have made reference to PISA when defending decisions already taken or foreshadowing new developmental directions. The concluding chapter considers the media coverage of the Finnish PISA rankings and the effects of this publicity on the news coverage of other (related) matters in Finland and so on education policy decisions taken in Finland.

The theoretical-methodological approach adopted in this work is marked constructionist. The empirical analyses rely specifically on the concept of discourse as in Foucault and the analysis of rhetoric as in Perelman. The theoretical frame of reference of the work relies heavily on policy diffusion theories, above all neo-institutionalist world polity -theory and studies making use of this. However, this theoretical frame of reference is complemented in this dissertation with the domestication frame of reference; framework that opens up the actual processes and practices through which international comparisons infiltrate national spheres thereby affecting domestic policies.

It emerged from my dissertation that the OECD is not a true actor in Finnish education policy. In light of the discoveries made in the case studies I claim that influence exerted by the OECD invariably takes place by way of the national arena, in other words, by way of those field battles to which PISA gave rise in Finland and in which each negotiating party has sought to safeguard its own interests in the national education debate in the future. For example, the case study elucidating the ways in which the teachers accounted for PISA showed that the teachers involved PISA primarily in order to emphasise the productivity of their own work and professional training, although this professional group also expressed development requirement vis-à-vis the central administration, the rationale being to ensure successful outcomes in future evaluations of learning. The Finnish civil servants for their part made the interpretation that PISA was proof positive of the excellence of the policy mounted by the central administration and in calling for changes they directed these mainly at actors outside the central administration, such as the Finnish schools and municipalities.

In addition to exerting influence on Finnish education by initiating debate in the national context, PISA, as the dissertation demonstrates, exerted influence further by also structuring those discussions in which it is possible to talk about Finnish education. In addition to this, PISA affects through the discourses it establishes and the terms it employs. The case studies showed among other things that when, through PISA, the conception of Finnish education and Finnish education policy as successful and consistent has taken firm root in society, the decisions on reforms of education policy taken by the central administration did not meet with any critical reception in the national public, as a result of which the civil servants were free to continue uninterrupted with the reform of the national curriculum which they deemed necessary. That is, as PISA did not constitute any serious cause for criticism, the media made no mention of the actions of governmental officials, thereby leaving the officials and decision-makers free to continue their reform work uninterrupted. This finding emerged especially in the analysis of the news coverage of PISA and its effects on Finnish education policy.

Having examined the local uses made of PISA in the Finnish context, and so also the role of PISA in Finnish education policy, I venture to claim something about the mechanisms through which international organisations like the OECD exert influence over national education policies. Rather than perceiving the OECD to be dictating national education policies and the future directions these should take, in light of the findings from my case studies, I would contend that the organisation exerts its influence on national education systems by shaping our conceptions of what is a desirable policy in the international perception and how this can be achieved. However, this is not the same as claiming that having been approved and so assimilated in the international context, the OECD through PISA is harmonising national policies. Rather it would appear that the OECD is synchronising these. As this and other research has demonstrated, nation-states would appear to have reacted to PISA and the results it provided simultaneously, albeit that in the respective countries the interpretations of PISA would appear to be highly diverse. Indeed, I would claim that due specifically to the national arm-wrestling arising from PISA, nation-states have decided to adopt very different policy solutions. In these processes, in which international evaluation information becomes a part of national policy discourses and practices, I suggest, that national policies become synchronised with each other, but still in such a way that the conception of the national systems as something authentic and catering to national needs survives unchanged.