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.


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

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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New York’s Young Children are Thrown under the Bus

On September 11th, the education committee of the New York Board of Regents approved  the “Next Generation” standards for English Language Arts and mathematics.

Our youngest children have been thrown under the bus.

Bianca School Bus

We are violating everything that is known, which is considerable, about how children develop and learn best.  We are stealing their childhood, robbing them of play, the primary engine of human development.

We have empirical evidence that kindergarten has become the new first grade, and preschool the new kindergarten.  Across the country, and in New York, we have relegated play to an hour a day or less for five-year-olds, and a growing number of four-year-olds. One three-year-old  I know recently brought home work sheets from her early childhood program.

Children are being assessed at younger and younger ages. We’re condemning them to the tread mill before they can even lace up their running shoes.

This is decidedly not how young children thrive.  They learn through play, exploration, inquiry, and movement.  It’s absurd to expect them to sit quietly, to passively receive information and regurgitate it back.  We talk endlessly about producing critical thinkers, innovators, but we’re eliminating the kind of teaching and learning that nurtures them.

With New York’s Pre-K through 2nd grade standards, early childhood teachers are under massive pressure to get children to meet the benchmarks.  Growing numbers are convinced that they’re committing malpractice, that they’re actually doing harm.  Many have used the term child abuse.

In measuring young children by these standards, we deny their uniqueness, ignoring their strengths and vulnerabilities.  We deny their human right to a rich, joyful educational experience.

New York policymakers are deluded in thinking that their efforts can close achievement gaps.  Nor will they move us closer to eradicating inequity and inequality.  Socioeconomic status has been proven to be one of the most significant factors in academic achievement.  Of the 4.6 million children living in New York, a staggering 42 percent live in low-income families. Eleven percent of children under the age of six live in extreme poverty, where they’re severely deprived of basic human needs.

Toxic stress is rampant among these children, their cortisol levels soaring.  This powerful neurophysiological process, akin to  a 24/7 adrenaline rush, affects, among other things, the ability to focus and plan—executive functions that are critical to school readiness and academic performance.  By preserving the Common Core—the attempt to rebrand has not changed its essence—we are condemning children to failure at a very early age, and turning them off to school.

Chancellor Betty Rosa and her colleagues on the Board of Regents have been given an opportunity to act in the best interests of the child.  And they’ve squandered it.

Their moral compass is terribly out of whack.


Photo credit: Bianca Tanis


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When All Else Fails, We Must Protect Childhood: A Call to Action from Denisha Jones


Childhood is at risk in the United States. The Global Education Reform Movement, known by the apt acronym GERM, has infected our youngest and most vulnerable citizens, their needs shoved aside by those whose guiding light is profit.

Denisha Jones, an assistant professor of early childhood education at Trinity Washington University, has been active in the fight to stop the corporate takeover of public education since 2011. A board member of Defending the Early Years, the Badass Teachers Association, and United Opt Out National, she is also pursuing a law degree. This former kindergarten and preschool teacher, who . . . Read full article →


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Elusive Equity: Reeshemah Brightley’s Hard Questions for Bill de Blasio


We talk ad nauseam about quality and equity in early care and education. How do we get there? The answers elude us, in spite of our good intentions, leaving young children in a precarious state. The list of our sins is long—and dispiriting. Childrearing has now achieved the status of luxury item in the United States. Education is seen as expenditure not investment. We tolerate child-poverty rates that put us to shame on the world’s social-justice index. The hard, essential work of caregiving and nurturing appear nowhere on the ledger sheets for our GDP.

For Reeshemah Brightley, who . . . Read full article →


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