Baby PISA is Just Around the Corner. So Why is No One Talking about It?

As the standardization of early education proceeds apace, assessment of young children is a hot topic among those who nurture and educate them.  Inappropriate, high-stakes testing is moving down, inexorably, to the most tender stages of development, the latest front of the Global Education Reform Movement.

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Helge Wasmuth, an associate professor of early childhood and childhood education at New York’s Mercy College, has been following this trend.  Among his research interests are early education policy as well as the history of, and postmodern perspectives on, early childhood education.  He is a renowned expert on Friedrich Froebel.  In the piece below, he illuminates the work of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is leading the charge on a new assessment that will have serious repercussions for children’s well-being.

 

By Helge Wasmuth

Have you heard of Baby PISA? If not, you are in good company, as little information has been shared with the global early childhood community about the latest venture of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Unfortunately, it is a fait accompli.

You know, of course, the Program for International Student Assessment, of which OECD is also progenitor. Every three years, since 2000, we’ve been measuring the competence of 15-year-olds in math, reading, and science—an event that induces panic and drives policy in nations across the globe.

In 2012, the OECD moved down the education spectrum, proposing an assessment of early learning outcomes, which they dubbed the “International Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study.”  The reference to well-being, it’s important to note, is fleeting on the official website. The IELS is nothing more than a PISA for five-year-olds—an unwarranted addition to the plethora of cross-national tests of pupils’ academic achievement, an incursion of the Global Education Reform Movement into the precincts of childhood.

Key features of GERM, addressed in a double issue of the Global Education Review, which I edited with Elena Nitecki, include increased standardization, high-stakes accountability, predetermined learning outcomes, control over teachers, business-based management models, and privatization.

The goal of the study is to gather information on children’s cognitive and social-emotional skills as well as characteristics of their home and early education environments. Direct assessment, including actual samples of student work, will measure the domains of emerging literacy and numeracy, executive function, and empathy and trust. Children will be expected to do their work on a tablet, devoting approximately 15 minutes to each domain over a period of two days. Indirect assessment—parents’ and staff reports and administrator observations—will focus on cognitive and social-emotional skills. By participating in the study, OECD asserts, member nations will have access to the primary factors that drive or thwart early learning, developing a common framework and benchmarks.

The study is now underway.  A pilot that was originally planned, which would have provided a valuable opportunity for meaningful feedback and fine-tuning, has been scrapped.  The organization has moved forward with data collection,  to be conducted from the end of 2017 through 2019. This will be followed by so-called “quality control” and analysis, and the release of a report in 2020.

While the original plan called for participation by three to six countries in the northern and southern hemispheres, a number of early childhood communities have already successfully registered protest, urging their governments to abstain. (Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, and Denmark are among them.) The only outliers are England—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not taking part—and the United States.

America’s participation is more or less official, but meaningful information about the process has not yet been released—at least in places that the early childhood community is likely to look. On June 27, 2017, this announcement by the U.S. Department of Education appeared on the website FedBizOps.gov:

The U.S. Department of Education (Department) hereby provides notice that the Fiscal Year 2017 procurement entitled “International Early Learning Study (iELS)” on behalf of the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has been awarded to Westat, Inc.

According to the FBO Daily, a listing of federal contracting notices developed by Loren Data Corp, the awarded contract will be valued at $7 million. Although no figure has been confirmed, it’s safe to assume England is spending a large amount of money on IELS as well. Between the two countries, we are talking about a significant sum for a highly questionable study that has been allocated without accountability and a democratic process. In the end, the costs will probably be even higher than those that have emerged so far.

Critique of the IELS has been fierce, and numerous concerns have been raised.  Most egregious is the marginalization of the wider early childhood community. “The entire IELS project has been shrouded in secrecy from day one,” Mathias Urban, director of the Early Childhood Research Centre at the University of Roehampton in London, told me.  Respected researchers and scholars in the field were not consulted, their input unwelcome. As has long been the case with early education policy, decades of research have been ignored.

The OECD values objectivity, universality, predictability and that which can be measured.  The organization seems to be oblivious to alternative ideas about educating and caring for young children. Nor have local contexts and traditions for this process been part of the conversation.

Just look at OECD’s handling of legitimate critique: they simply ignore it.  A call to action, written by Peter Moss at the Institute of Education University of London and co-signed by eight colleagues, which was published in Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood in 2016, proposed that the organization provide a response to their concerns, calling for participating countries to consult with their respective early childhood communities.  They also suggested a presentation at an upcoming OECD meeting, and a web page devoted to the IELS. A later critical comment was published by Urban and Beth Blue Swadener, of Arizona State University, and signed by nearly 200 academics and professionals from more than 20 countries.

As of today, only the website has been created. A response has not been published, and in England, where the project is already in progress, no meaningful dialogue with the early childhood community has taken place. The same holds for the U.S., where, as far as I know, there has been no consultation.  None of the authors of the call to action have been invited to speak at an OECD meeting with member state representatives.

Peter Moss and Mathias Urban were invited to a meeting with the IELS project team at the OECD headquarters in Paris earlier this year. There was no substantive discussion, however, of the IELS; rather the project was “explained” to them. Upon inquiring, they were told that it was not OECD’s responsibility to engage with the public: this, the organization claimed, lay within the purview of member-state governments, whose representatives, interestingly, thought otherwise.

So, why is all of this shrouded in secrecy? Why are we kept in the dark? Why are the experts and the field’s knowledge marginalized? One needs to ask: Who really benefits from such a study? The children? Will it really inform policymaking and improve educational practices in a meaningful way? Or is it another piece to open up public education sectors to corporate interests?

The disregard of the early childhood community is concerning enough. Don’t even get me started on the collection of child-based data on a global scale without the consent of children, parents, or practitioners.  Or with assessing five-year-olds on a tablet. How flawed and meaningless are the results. How do you assess trust and empathy, or the complexities of learning and development?

The impact on our field will be disastrous—maybe not immediately, but soon enough. OECD is a powerful and influential institution. Everyone should be clear about their goals of creating a common framework with benchmarks and assessing learning outcomes.  Early childhood education will be reduced to what can be measured: literacy and numeracy.

Ultimately, the field will fall even deeper into the clutches of GERM.  Many countries will feel compelled to do well on the IELS, and the easiest way to do that is to align the curricula to what is measured. Pedagogical compliance will follow, along with teaching to the test—especially in countries, such as the U.S., with many private providers of early education, who will use their outcomes to win new customers. As in the case of the Common Core, a new market will be created, “Aligned to IELS” the new trademark.

The quest for predictable outcomes leaves no place for the hallmarks of early childhood—for uncertainty, experimentation,  surprise, amazement, context, subjective experiences.  OECD values and measures what can be measured, but not necessarily what is important.

Once again, we have opened Pandora’s box.   If more and more countries participate in this study—as  I expect will happen in the long term— we will see a further narrowing and standardization of early childhood education. There will be no room for culturally and contextually sensitive comparison and discourse. Following PISA’s precedent, IELS will force a universal framework on teaching and learning.

All of the above is inevitable if we do not resist. We must widely discuss the IELS and critically follow its implementation. We must protect childhood’s unpredictable, unique, and wondrous nature—before it’s too late.

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1 comment to Baby PISA is Just Around the Corner. So Why is No One Talking about It?

  • Ciaran Sugrue

    I’m not at all surprised by this stealth move by the OECD, but disappointed and angry that early childhood, already overly colonised by adults in the Northern hemisphere, is now going to be fenced in further– a travesty that I will be bringing to the attention of my colleagues and education students.

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