In the world of international education, what Andreas Schleicher thinks matters. As a special adviser to the secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, he has the attention of policymakers in the world’s wealthiest countries. As a leading figure behind the OECD’s annual review, “Education at a Glance,” and its Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which tests the literacy, mathematical competence and scientific knowledge of 15-year-olds around the world, he has changed the way countries think about what goes on in their classrooms.
How did you come to be a specialist in education?
My background is in physics. When I entered the OECD, it was still a foreign world to measure education. We put out “Education at a Glance” and then PISA in the year 2000 and that really received a strong recognition by governments—to look at the outcomes.
Presumably not everyone was pleased?
No. But I think everyone accepted it. Nobody’s pleased with every number. But PISA didn’t get contested in a way that people would have done with many other types of comparisons. That was the idea: to build a bulletproof instrument for evaluating education.
Which our work has done—it has limited the room for political arbitrariness. Education is a field which has been quite dominated by ideologies, from the classroom to public policy. And I think this work, first of all, it shows what’s possible. You can look at lots of countries who achieve what you don’t achieve. It has taken away excuses from those who are complacent.
So you can say: “We know this is possible.”
I think you can go one step further. You can ask yourself: “What is it that makes systems more successful than my own? What have they done differently?” You can use the world as a laboratory. If you think about free schools in England, well, look at what happened to free schools in Sweden.
Education is a very inward-looking business. Schools don’t have a natural tendency to look at other schools; teachers are in isolation in the classroom. And education systems have no tradition to learn from each other.
Did some countries refuse to engage with PISA at first?
Yeah. A lot. But within one year, everybody turned around. First the dynamic was: “It can’t be done.” Also, the project was eight times as expensive as our whole budget for education. But the moment people saw scientifically this can be done, the dynamics changed.