Comparative education studies involve comparing aspects of one nation’s education system with another and analysing the reasons for similarities and differences within those systems.
Typical motives for doing a cross national comparative studies of education systems would be to find out why some countries get better overall outcomes (in terms of qualifications) for their pupils, or why some countries have better outcomes for disadvantaged students, and thus better equality of educational opportunity.
Comparative education studies have become increasingly popular in recent years and are one response to the increasing interest in education globally, as evidenced by the PISA testing regime which publishes comparisons of student performance in standardised international tests.
Why compare education systems…?
Comparative education studies are themselves part of the globalisation of education and there are different reasons why actors may wish to compare education systems.
Probably the most obvious is the pragmatic aim to improve education policy – this is where policy makers in one country will employ researchers to study aspects of education systems in another country to see what works well with the intention of adapting or even just copying those aspects for use in their home country.
Such studies may be done by policy makers in post-industrial countries hoping to maintain their competitiveness in a fast changing global economy, or by developing countries hoping to use education to modernise quickly.
One specific phenomena which has led to recent increase in this kind of practical study is ‘PISA shock’ – where countries have found their positions in the PISA league tables to be lower than expected, which can spur them on to conduct research into the education systems of countries higher up the league tables looking for ways to improve their own systems.
Besides pragmatic reasons for comparative education studies some researchers also do purely academic studies, just to develop a deeper understanding of how education systems interact with other institutions within a society – purely focused on theory building and with no intention of applying findings at a policy level.
Bartram (2018) notes that international comparisons of education are increasingly motivated by economic and political reasons rather than purely theoretical motives.
Problems with comparing national education systems
Educational practices need to be considered in the context of the local culture.
It may not be possible to simply lift aspects of one education system and apply it to another and get improved results, because educational practices which ‘fit’ the culture in one country might not fit the national or local cultures of another.
For example, in Western countries educators have introduced more collaborative learning in recent decades (such as more group work) and this has led to improved performance for most students, but this may not work as well in some Asian cultures which are more sensitive to ‘public image’, and in such cultures more individualised ‘sit down and be quiet learning may get better outcomes for students.
You also have to think about WHO is doing the comparisons and applying the (potential) policy changes. Often such research studies are dominated by western experts who may well regard western models of education as superior to traditional indigenous, community based models which may be regarded as inferior.
There is actually a long history of this, stretching back to colonial times when Western powers used their education systems a means of subjugating indigenous people in their colonies, but even after independence new states were coerced into accepting Western education systems as a condition to receive international development aid (Nguyen-Phuong Mai, 2019).
It is simply not the case that Western practices can be transplanted and fitted into local indigenous cultures with easy success, and in many cases countries and local cultures simply don’t want this kind of education, as is the case in many Islamic countries for example.
There is also a problem with comparing results obtained from international tests such as the PISA tests: for those countries appearing near the bottom of the international league tables it is easy to blame their education systems for their poor performance, but this simply may not be the case – it could be a range of other factors such as the prevailing wider economic problems in those countries.
In fact, there is some research (Pasl Sahlberg, 2015) that shows that neoliberal marketised education systems which preference parental choice do not yield better educational performance, even though this has been the dominant educational ideology of the last 40 years.
Signposting and Relevance to A-Level Sociology
The material above is most relevant to the sociology of education module, developing the theme of the relationship between globalisation and education.
Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition