On the supranational spell of PISA in policy

Jo-Anne Baird, Sandra Johnson, T.N Hopfenbeck, Talia Isaacs, Terra Sprague, Gordon Stobart, Guoxing Yu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

49 Citations (Scopus)
741 Downloads (Pure)


Background: PISA results appear to have a large impact upon government policy. The phenomenon is growing, with more countries taking part in PISA testing and politicians pointing to PISA results as reasons for their reforms.

Purpose: The aims of this research were to depict the policy reactions to PISA across a number of jurisdictions, to see whether they exhibited similar patterns and whether the same reforms were evident.

Sources of evidence: We investigated policy and media reactions to the 2009 and 2012 PISA results in six cases: Canada, China (Shanghai), England, France, Norway and Switzerland. Cases were selected to contrast high-performing jurisdictions (Canada, China) with average performers (England, France, Norway and Switzerland). Countries that had already been well reported on in the literature were excluded (Finland, Germany).

Design and methods: Policy documents, media reports and academic articles in English, French, Mandarin and Norwegian relating to each of the cases were critically evaluated.

Results: A policy reaction of ‘scandalisation’ was evident in four of the six cases; a technique used to motivate change. Five of the six cases showed ‘standards-based reforms’ and two had reforms in line with the ‘ideal-governance’ model. However, these are categorisations: the actual reforms had significant differences across countries. There are chronological problems with the notion that PISA results were causal with regard to policy in some instances. Countries with similar PISA results responded with different policies, reflecting their differing cultural and historical education system trajectories.

Conclusions: The connection between PISA results and policy is not always obvious. The supranational spell of PISA in policy is in the way that PISA results are used as a magic wand in political rhetoric, as though they conjure particular policy choices. This serves as a distraction from the ideological basis for reforms. The same PISA results could motivate a range of different policy solutions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)121-138
Number of pages18
JournalEducational Research
Issue number2
Early online date10 May 2016
Publication statusPublished - May 2016


  • PISA
  • policy
  • scandalisation
  • standards-based reform
  • ideal governance


Dive into the research topics of 'On the supranational spell of PISA in policy'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this