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Focusing on PISA jeopardises democratic mission of schools

Daniel Pettersson

“In short, it is about how we use numbers as measuring devices to tell us something about school quality,” says Daniel Petterson.

Imagining that everything can be ranked

Daniel Pettersson states that we currently believe that we can measure human characteristics by using IQ-testing etc. Such beliefs are then carried over into attempts to measure different types of student knowledge. In the process, a new way of thinking emerges, a way in which individuals, different schools and countries etcetera can all be ranked.

“In short, it is about if how we use numbers as measuring devices to tell us something about school quality and performance,” Daniel Petterson says.

Democratic mission forgotten

Comparisons and measuring are typical human activities we engage in all the time, like when we get on the bus, or when we talk about whiskey, food or music. However, Daniel points out, such comparisons and such measuring are becoming increasingly important in educational policies. Highly-ranked activities gain wide attention and have a high impact.

As a result, the broad democratic mission which schools also have tends to be forgotten, since it cannot be easily measured and compared.

Why not ask our pupils how they feel?

“We fail to explain our educational system, as we do not talk to our pupils about how they feel and how they are doing,” Daniel says. “Instead we carry out tests and assess their knowledge and skills.”

Knowledge test scores result in numbers, which are then used to inform us of the quality of the education in question and of school system performance.

“But this is just one aspect of how you can make sense of what an education is supposed to be. A main problem is that this way is so time-efficient that in fact it leaves us with no other options. For this reason, it is very interesting to study how legitimacy for such measuring is produced, because from the beginning there was no such legitimacy.

Education by the numbers

The large project financed by the Swedish Research Council, in which Daniel is project manager, now publishes the book Education by the Numbers and the Making of Society: The Expertise of International Assessments.

The book is an anthology compiled by three project participants and contains contributions from a number of internationally well-known researchers. Published by Routledge, one of the leading publishers in the world, it is planned to be the first in a series of five books.

“The book provides a number of examples of how such legitimacy is built and how the prevailing hegemony within educational policies is shaped and how it develops,”

Upcoming books:

  • Book 2: What activities in educational policies and educational sciences are created and grow strong based on such a predominant logic of numbers and statistics?
  • Book 3: A historical overview of how science, and, more specifically, educational sciences, after the second world war have been expected to provide solutions to social problems.
  • Book 4: How are relationships between society, politics and science shaped in relations to educational issues? What arenas are created to carry out conversations on educational policies and what do these conversations look like?
  • Book 5: An account of the entire project: how numbers and statistics transform the conceptualisation and formation of education in welfare states.

All books contain contributions from internationally renowned researches.



For more information, please contact:
Daniel Pettersson, reader in education at the University of Gävle
Phone: 026-64 89 58, 070-258 46 19
Email: Daniel.pettersson@hig.se


Text & photo: Douglas Öhrbom 

Published by: Douglas Öhrbom Page responsible: Anders Munck Updated: 2018-05-15
Högskolan i Gävle
Box 801 76 GÄVLE
026-64 85 00 (växel)