Transforming Comparative Education
Fifty Years of Theory Building at Stanford
Martin Carnoy



The Strands of Comparative and International Education

A Brief History

THIS IS A BOOK about fifty years of new theoretical approaches to comparative and international education and how those approaches transformed that academic field. There are already several excellent comparative and international education readers available (see, e.g., Altbach and Kelly, 1986; Arnove et al., 1992; Crossley et al., 2007; Arnove et al., 2013), as well as comparative education textbooks (Kubow and Fossum, 2007; Phillips and Schweisfurth, 2007). This book differs from those because it focuses on the ideas that have changed the way we conceptualize and do comparative and international education. It also differs in another way. It is partly an institutional memoir. Because comparative and international education research has been shaped by “collectives” of researchers and students coming together at various times, influencing one another in institutional settings, it is important to recognize these institutional histories. Every intellectual history refers to such collectives, and the field of comparative and international education is no different (see, e.g., Noah and Eckstein, 1969).

In the pages that follow, I take this institutional approach. Stanford is the “collective” where I have spent most of my academic career, and because it played such an important role in developing innovative theoretical approaches to comparative and international education over such a long period of time, I use the research done at Stanford to frame the discussion of what I consider the major theoretical contributions to comparative and international education of the past fifty years. I hope that you, the reader, can kindly forgive this institutional chauvinism.1

Consistent with this approach, I devote a chapter to how Stanford University’s international and comparative education program “survived” the ups and downs of comparative education in this period. After considerable reflection, I decided that the story of the comparative and international education program in the Stanford School of Education (now the Stanford Graduate School of Education) is an important one to tell. The institutional trajectories of comparative and international education research (and training), whether in universities or in international agencies such as the World Bank, have been fraught with difficulties. Comparative education faculties at different universities have tried different strategies to survive, and some did not survive. The Stanford program was in similarly hot water throughout its five decades, and its faculty had to scramble politically many times to make it to the next round. All that is an integral part of the theoretical contributions that form the core of this book. In some cases, the intellectual work contributed to the program’s difficulties, and in other cases, it gave the university reason to protect the program from its foes inside and outside the School of Education.

The book tries to provide the reader with each of the author’s intellectual history in his or her own voice, focusing on how they came to develop their theories and the research featured in each chapter, and why each one thinks her or his theoretical approach is important to the field of comparative and international education. The theoretical contribution chapters are placed in approximately chronological order. This is to reflect that each of the works emerged in the context of a specific period, and that comparative education as an intellectual activity is strongly influenced by the economic and political environment of the time.

Reading through the research as it moves from decade to decade gives us an important insight into this field. Comparative and international education, after all, studies the world. It compares how nations educate their populations, and it develops theories of education and educational change based on those comparisons. In the five decades covered by this book, the world has become increasingly “smaller,” increasingly interdependent, and increasingly networked and connected. With that process of globalization, not only has comparative and international education become much more important as a source of knowledge about education; globalization has itself become more central to the theories underlying the comparisons. Because education is so fundamental to the politics and economics of nation-states, the field of comparative education is a prism through which we can begin to understand how social science and epistemology confront economic and cultural globalization. In a sense, the story of this book is a chronicle of episodes in the dramatic globalization of the period—of how intellectuals interpreted the changing world as it was changing.


The roots of the ideas I present here can be found in the profound changes in comparative education ideas in the immediate post–World War II period. Reconstruction in Europe and Asia and the advent of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union contributed to a spike in foreign assistance and a growing interest in economic development. Influencing “hearts and minds” and a new focus on education as a potentially important factor for higher economic productivity and social mobility put comparative and international education research front and center in influencing the political and economic course of nations. In turn, as the role played by the field grew in ideological importance through the 1950s and 1960s, an intense discussion developed around comparative education methodology and the direction the field should take.

This discussion and the interaction of academic interests with government and foundation funding in comparative and international education produced three different yet overlapping strands of research and teaching. By the late 1960s, the three strands had been largely defined. Amazingly, all three continue to dominate the field to this day, in much the same structural forms as in the 1960s. The main challenge to these strands dominating international educational comparisons have come from the development of competing theories in the 1970s and early 1980s, mainly antifunctionalist institutionalist theories and “critical” economic-political theories.2 This is where Stanford made and continues to make its most important contribution to the field.

The first strand of the postwar period had already begun in the 1930s and 1940s with the work of I. L. Kandel at Teachers College, but it accelerated in the 1950s at meetings initiated by UNESCO. The strand was organized around introducing social scientific methods into comparative education. This was a major departure from the traditional version of comparative education, which was, according to Columbia’s Harold Noah (1973), essentially descriptive of different educational systems, usually as case studies.3

The second strand emerged from US government and United Nations efforts in the immediate postwar period to promote democracy, modernization, and economic growth in developing countries. Paul Hanna at Stanford, Adam Curle at Harvard, Freeman Butts at Teachers College, and Philip Coombs at UNESCO were major players in what became known as “international development education.” This strand focused on applying academic research to educational and development activism.

The third strand was motivated by the need for more data to compare educational systems and was the project mainly of educational psychometricians, particularly those with a strong policy focus, such as Sweden’s Torsten Husén, the University of Hamburg’s Welsh-born and Swedish-trained Neville Postlethwaite, and Columbia University’s Richard Wolfe. This strand focused on educational system comparison through measurement of student achievement and other “outcomes” of schooling. It gave birth to international testing and, in the early 1960s, to the formation of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).

Comparative Education and the Social Sciences

Much of the early work in comparative education was in comparing national systems of education

in terms of their potentialities either for countering parochialism or ethnocentrism, or for assisting in the improvement of education at home. Basically, researchers and writers were asking such questions as: What is characteristically French about the French secondary school curriculum? or, What is happening in German schools that we might profit from? (Noah, 1973, p. 109)

By the 1930s and 1940s, however, writers such as I. L. Kandel, Nicholas Hans, and Friedrich Schneider defined comparative education as the study of both the practices of education in various countries and the factors and forces that influenced national systems to take on their current characteristics. These comparativists’ attempts to analyze such factors and forces, based on rather limited data, laid the groundwork for the social science approach to comparative education that emerged two decades later (Noah and Eckstein, 1969, chap. 5).

It is notable that in the very first issue of the Comparative Education Review, in 1957, George Bereday, professor at Teachers College Columbia and one of the most influential writers in comparative education in the 1950s and 1960s, was already insisting that mere descriptions of single countries was insufficient to qualify as “comparative education”: “No method is comparative unless it is preceded by a formulation of an abstract theme which serves as a guiding hypothesis for the collection and presentation of comparative data” (Bereday, 1957, p. 13).

The main locus for the social science methods approach to comparative education in the late 1950s and early 1960s was the Comparative Education Center at the University of Chicago, headed by C. Arnold Anderson. The faculty at Chicago in those years was interdisciplinary (economics, sociology, history, and psychology) and focused on research and the training of PhD students (Anderson, 1966). Anderson and his colleagues promoted an empirical, social scientific approach to educational issues without rejecting the idea that researchers also had to know a lot about the educational systems they were analyzing. As important, Anderson argued for a research agenda that challenged existing ideas about the relation between education and society:

It is only candor to admit that one outcome of this particular academic climate—facilitated no doubt by the personalities of the Center’s staff—is a critical view on many of the most widely discussed topics in comparative education. We try to examine important topics, especially those that are used to undergird public policy, from a fresh point of view. . . . This has meant . . . that in taking up the questions of educational planning, we have been more impressed with the defects than with the positive features of that technique. Again, in looking at the recruitment function of schools, it has seemed to us that formal education does not itself play a major part in the restructuring of the social system. On the economics of education, it has seemed prudent to warn against premature or exaggerated conclusions from what is a quite new line of research. (Anderson, 1966, p. 83)

The faculty at Chicago’s Comparative Education Center produced several classic articles in the early 1960s that challenged traditional views in education using empirical social science and the comparative method. These ranged from Anderson’s (1961a) work on education’s role in social mobility, Philip Foster’s (1965) “vocational education fallacy,” Remi Clignet and Foster’s (1964) analyses of French and British colonial education in Africa, and Mary Jean Bowman’s (1964) review of the human capital contribution to economic growth.

The Ford Foundation was an important source of funding for the center at Chicago, as part of the foundation’s commitment after World War II to bring social scientific methods to studying social problems (Gordon, 2015). Ford also funded other programs in international and comparative education, including the one at Stanford, where it provided significant seed money for faculty billets in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Three of those were in Stanford’s international education program. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ford also funded many fellowships for students from Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. These major resources from the foundation not only helped international education gain a foothold in elite US universities but also transformed their training and research toward the social sciences. The interest in this period of private foundations, such as Ford and Rockefeller, in social science approaches to education and health, and their special interest in international comparative work in both fields, obviously had an important impact on research, as did funding from the US Agency for International Development and, after it was founded in 1965, the US Department of Education.

By the mid-1960s, other researchers joined this push for the new approach. Harold Noah, who was initially trained in economics, and Max Eckstein, a sociologist, became major advocates for the social scientific method in comparative education. The two had met as graduate students at Teachers College, and both took teaching jobs in New York in the mid-1960s, Noah at Teachers College and Eckstein, at Queens College, City University of New York. The Teachers College program was permeated with progressive education and a reaction to the economic depression exemplified in George Counts’s (1932) Dare the School Build a New Social Order?, as well as John Dewey’s writings in the 1930s. Noah and Eckstein inherited that “progressive view” of using the school to change society, but they wanted to use social science methods and data to estimate how to do that. In reflecting on his and Eckstein’s contribution to comparative education in this period, Noah stated: “We wanted to draw on methods used in political science, economics, sociology. Not that we wanted to throw out history or philosophy—by no means. We were accused of that, however. We never persuaded our colleagues that we were not hostile to the humanistic approach” (Teachers College, n.d.).

In his contribution to a 1971 new comparative methods conference organized by the UNESCO Institute of Education in Hamburg, Noah wrote: “The theme of recent work may perhaps be seen as a progressive transfer of attention from country characteristics to problems, and from problems to the specification of relationships and the formulation and testing of theories” (Noah, 1973, p. 109). In 1969, Noah and Eckstein published their challenge to the comparative education field to use social science quantitative methods to test hypotheses about (differing) relations in educational systems rather than simply identifying and describing differences. Their book, Toward a Science of Comparative Education, while hailed as a “shot across the bow” of more traditional approaches in the field, was largely a repetition of the much earlier insights developed by Anderson in 1961:

One of the foremost tasks of comparative education is to identify what education contributes, after partialing out other factors, to various traits of societies. Before imputing to schools an effect on economic productivity we must disentangle education from physical capital investment or extra school socialization. We find it difficult to estimate the income yield from different amounts of schooling since much of the income education correlation reflects the association of both with parental status or native ability. . . . Indispensable in any attack on problems of this kind are data with regard to critical elements in the cause-effect interaction patterns, and use of techniques of analysis of co-variation. But problems of measurement and statistical techniques aside, the first and most basic element in analysis is necessarily the formulation of the hypotheses to be tested. . . . Formulating of effective research plans therefore requires specification of models or typologies that include hypotheses concerning interaction processes and their causal web or nexus. (Anderson, 1961b, pp. 10–11)

This shift in comparative education came at a time when more data were becoming available, including from the national censuses (income, age, and education), from longitudinal surveys of individuals, such as the Malmö study in Sweden (Husén, 1968), and from the first data on student achievement related to student socio-economic background and school variables (Coleman, 1966). As I discuss here, the call for more data and a more “empirical” comparative education also led to large international student testing projects and attempts to relate student achievement comparatively to student and school characteristics (Husén, 1967).

Noah and Eckstein (1969, chap. 9) attempted to formulate the “fit” of comparative education in the social science framework, partly by laying out how comparative education analysis should test hypotheses that emerged from theoretical constructs, derived either deductively from larger theories of society or theories of learning or inductively by constructing “a ‘map’ of relations between education and society. Such maps, or theories, need not have any direct instrumental uses. However, empirical methods in comparative education can also be regarded as the equivalent of route-marking on maps, for they have very special practical uses . . . [such as] guiding change” (pp. 108–109). For Noah and Eckstein, it is the second, or inductive, construction of theory, which was clearly preferable. Much of the rest of their book focuses on using data to construct explanations in comparative education—to construct “maps” by using comparative data and then test hypotheses using those maps.

It is difficult to say how much Noah and Eckstein’s broader call for the formulation and testing of theories influenced comparative education in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There is no doubt that the early 1970s was a period of intense development of and debate over theories of the relation between education and society. Most of the discussion was indeed accompanied by empirical “testing” of hypotheses. Yet one reason Noah and Eckstein’s approach may not have been crucial to the 1970s debates was that it was less concerned with using comparative analysis to question the role of education in society or the shaping of education by society than to focus on bringing comparative education out of the “age of description” into the “age of social science methodology,” and perhaps, as important, from the “age of careful observation” into the “age of empirical testing of hypotheses.” Less central to their concerns was examining the validity of the theories that underlay the models that they were “testing” with empirical data.

These models were set in the context of highly functionalist theories, such as human capital and educational production functions, that were already flourishing as a method of comparative education analysis by the time Noah and Eckstein wrote their book. They seemed to accept such functionalist theories at face value. Human capital had introduced a controversial economic view of the relation between education and society (as an investment in higher income and better jobs and as a form of consumption) that was rooted in neoclassical economic theory. In comparative education analysis, the concept of human capital assumed that markets behaved similarly in capitalist economies worldwide and that human beings were similarly rational economic actors in every society, from developed to low income (Tax, 1953). The main argument of economists in this period, therefore, was that human capital theory was a valuable tool for explaining a similar relation between education and the economy in all countries, because humans behaved similarly as economic actors across societies, and the educational system was an institution that functioned to serve an important goal of society, namely to contribute to economic growth. The concept of human capital thus helped fill the gap in economists’ ability to account for economic growth when only traditional physical capital and labor measures were included as inputs (Schultz, 1961).

In addition, sociologists and economists had already borrowed the notion from the economic theory of the firm of a production function in education to describe the relation between school outputs and inputs, including students’ family characteristics and school resources, particularly teacher characteristics (Coleman, 1966). Production function analysis was partially rooted in a neoclassical economic theory of the firm and—for sociologists—rooted in a functionalist approach made popular by an influential economist turned sociologist, Talcott Parsons (Parsons and Shils, 1951). Parsons theorized that individual action was conditioned by cultural values and social structures that shaped their choices and determined their decisions. Thus, students’ outcomes in school were in part a function of their family’s socioeconomic background and the social structure of the community and the school as well as the cultural values of the society in which they were situated.

The underlying theoretical bases for these models, such as human capital theory and the educational production function (the functional role of schooling to improve student learning), were beginning to be questioned in the 1960s, but this questioning was not discussed in Hamburg or Chicago or New York’s Teachers College. It did not enter the comparative education debate until the early 1970s.

International Development Education

World War II, postwar German and Japanese reconstruction, the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the establishment of the United Nations and its educational organization, UNESCO, framed the role of many academics interested in comparative and international education after 1945. The US government had already set the stage for the role of education in the postwar period when it established Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of International Affairs during the war. That office used education to counter fascism and to promote US-style democracy in the Western Hemisphere by bringing individuals from Latin America to US universities and developing pro-US materials for local schools and the local media in Latin American countries. After the war, many US education experts participated in reconstructing the German and Japanese education systems with new social studies and history curricula and teacher training—all focused on replacing prewar ideology.

The Cold War brought this same emphasis on education as a mechanism to promote Western-style democracy and free-market capitalism to low-income countries. Educational expansion and reform policies were particularly applicable in countries considered susceptible to communist ideology. The educational issue in low-income countries, however, extended beyond shaping social studies curricula and teacher training. Many of these countries lacked the capacity to provide basic education, and by the 1950s, education was considered an important factor in economic development and social and political modernization.

Both the US Agency for International Development and the United Nations, through its education agency, UNESCO, began to expand their efforts in the 1950s to influence developing countries’ educational systems. US universities’ education and social science faculties were prime recipients of research and consulting contracts from USAID and UNESCO aimed specifically to promote educational expansion in developing countries and to shape the curriculum and other aspects of their educational systems.

Just as one strand of comparative education was gaining traction academically by testing interesting hypotheses about the relation between education and society and between social class, educational resources, and student academic performance, a new strand emerged called international development education. This strand focused on applying educational and social science methods to shape educational systems into the service of a specific economic and social development model.

Given the historical context and the deeply held view among educators (e.g., John Dewey, George Counts, I. L. Kandel) that schooling could play a significant role in influencing children’s attitudes, it was logical that the World War II generation of educators—flush from a near-apocalyptical struggle against fascism—should want to be involved in promoting democratic ideals worldwide. The concept emerging in the 1950s of education as important to economic development also made the international development education project attractive to the new group of social science–based comparative educators. For both groups, large amounts of government funding available for studies in developing countries stimulated the expansion of international comparative education research in this direction.

Teachers College’s George Bereday, writing in the mid-1960s, saw this as reflecting a methodological direction of the field, even though it had much less to do with methodology than with the close relationship that had developed between government and universities during and after World War II and with the political struggles of the Cold War:

In answer to the interest of economists and manpower studies and hence in education there has arisen a field concerned with the dynamics of modernization, particularly in the newer nations. Economists, planners, and politicians have come to regard expenditure on education not as a service and consequently a marginal budget expenditure, but as an investment and hence the primary budget item. . . . This new interest coincided with the renaming of the UNESCO-sponsored fundamental education movement as development education. Henceforth, the concerns with the manpower flow through schools, with planning for and financing of educational expansion, and with the relationship of education to the political power structure and political decision-making, have among others, become part of development education. (Bereday, 1967, pp. 180–181)

It was in this historical context that Paul Hanna founded the Stanford International Development Education Center (SIDEC) in 1964. Hanna had come to Stanford from Teachers College in the mid-1930s and had established himself as a major figure in social studies curriculum. He was not, by training, a comparativist, but he realized through his experiences in the early 1940s, that the social studies curriculum and the textbooks he wrote for US students were also fundamental to infusing democratic citizenship values in young people through education outside the United States. As an educator, he also reached the conclusion, on trips to South and Central America in 1940–1941, that expanding access to education was crucial to fighting authoritarian ideologies in poor countries (Stallones, 2002, chap. 4). Once the US entered the war in December of that year, Hanna’s interest and work shifted increasingly to international education, mainly in terms of combatting Fascism and spreading US democratic values to other countries through curricular reforms:

Hanna’s approach to development education was far-reaching. It encompassed the development in students of habits and attitudes of democratic participation as a national and international basis, as well as the specific skills needed to create modern economies and social systems. Many reasons account for that expansion of his interests. . . . First, Hanna realized the potential for development education during and immediately after the war. . . . He recognized that study of the school’s role in political social and economic development held great potential both in terms of its immediate application on behalf of American foreign policy and in the abstract is a subject of scholarship. (Stallones, 2002, pp. 249–250)

As Hanna wrote in 1945, the main purpose of international education in his view was the “dissemination of information . . . and promotion of international cultural relations” (Stallones, 2002, p. 113). He thought that “American educational ideals and methods with their emphasis on democracy and quality of opportunity” could be important in reshaping citizenship values in the Pacific region in the post-war period (Stallones, 2002, p. 113). He viewed his role as spreading those ideals though his ideas on education for democratic citizenship.

International development education was largely a phenomenon of the post–World War II US effort to combat totalitarian ideologies worldwide—to eliminate the vestiges of fascism in Germany and militaristic authoritarianism in Japan, and to build stable, democratic capitalist societies in the Third World after the war, especially in the Pacific and Latin America. The idea was to combine research and technical expertise in US universities with government funding. Yet this was not just a US concept. UNESCO, the education wing of the newly founded United Nations, played a leading role in defining and leading international development education. The preamble to the constitution of UNESCO declares, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

International development education programs also provided a good academic structure for bringing government funding for international education projects into schools of education. In Stanford’s case, well before creating SIDEC, Hanna used his government contacts from his time raising money for Stanford during the war and his work for the government in the immediate postwar period as an educational consultant to the US Office of the Military Government in Germany and to the US Army in the Panama Canal Zone to help establish UNESCO, to get a series of contracts to rebuild and reform the Philippine educational system, and to promote international education more generally:

Under the aegis of the Agency for International Development [USAID], Hanna administered multimillion-dollar contracts spanning the years 1951 through 1966. . . . Stanford resources were devoted to helping the Philippine government rebuild the University of the Philippines’ Colleges of Engineering, Business Administration, Education, and other institutions. Hanna made frequent trips to the Philippines and other regions of East Asia during this period, often staying for weeks or months. The overhead payments alone from these contracts amounted to more than two million dollars for Stanford. (Stallones, 2002, p. 114)

He also raised additional money from the Ford Foundation, which was promoting the study of education as early as the 1950s, to help fund student fellowships for a comparative education program at Stanford (based largely on his curriculum work) that he had started in 1954. Because of all his experiences in Asia, however, by the early 1960s, Hanna’s thinking had evolved. He realized that the role of education in development required studying the “complex relationship between education and economic development and social and political change” (Stallones, 2002, p. 114). Therefore, the SIDEC program needed to be built on the University of Chicago–style model of bringing together social scientists from different disciplines and training students with a specialty in one discipline but ensuring they had the knowledge to approach problems with an interdisciplinary perspective. The program at Stanford also focused on combining academic research with “development practice,” using education as a tool for improving peoples’ economic lives and building a stronger civil society. These hands-on objectives were consistent with the traditional role of education faculties in developing curriculum, administrative plans, and teaching methods working with states and school districts in the US context.

In the activist culture of the 1960s, which included the Peace Corps, SIDEC quickly attracted many idealistic students who had worked in low-income countries or were from low-income countries and wanted to contribute to this process—indeed, this was a prerequisite for admission into the program. In the mid- and late 1960s, there were more than twenty PhD students in the SIDEC program. Hanna succeeded in obtaining faculty billets to hire an anthropologist, then a political scientist, and, by the end of the decade, an economist. He was also able to use his fund-raising skills with the Office of Education and foundations, such as Ford, to finance this large group of students, including their doctoral research.

Given the large financial incentives available through US government research funding, other universities also established international development education programs, including Harvard, which, according to George Bereday, “abandoned courses in comparative education after the retirement of Robert Ulich [in 1960] . . . and established instead a Center for the Study of Education and Development” (Bereday, 1967, p. 181), founded by Adam Curle, a British social psychologist, and staffed by Russell Davis, a specialist in educational planning, and Noel McGinn, concerned with the politics of educational planning. The latter two were heavily involved in development work with USAID, and they produced many studies on the practice of implementing education in developing countries. Even Bereday’s own institution, Teachers College, had its own important international development education figure in R. Freeman Butts, who wrote many years later, in 1999: “We used to joke that Paul [Hanna] at Stanford was reeducating the new nations of Pacific East Asia and I at Teachers College was trying to do the same for Africa and South Asia. Between us, the world” (Butts, qtd. in Stallones, 2002, p. 273).

The Comparative Education Center at the University of Chicago and the Bereday/Noah part of the Comparative Education Program at Teachers College did not move in this direction. Anderson insisted that although individual faculty members did engage in international consulting and that this was useful in gathering data and studying education in other countries, the center at Chicago consciously did not take on international education development projects at an institutional level (Anderson, 1966). Indeed, in the mid-1960s, in a letter to Philip Coombs, then director of UNESCO’s International Institute of Educational Planning in Paris, Hanna listed comparative education programs at twelve universities other than Stanford, and only Harvard and the program headed by Butts at Columbia were considered international development education programs.

Yet it could be argued that the dissertation research produced by Stanford’s international development education students in this period was not significantly less “academic” than the research being done at Chicago and Teachers College.

“Comparative and international education” and “international development education” programs have continued until the present, with differences in their missions narrowing. The transformation of the Stanford program occurred quickly without a change in name, whereas programs such as Harvard’s continued to maintain their “development” mission much longer, and new programs, such as those at UC Berkeley, Vanderbilt, and Florida State University (not included on Hanna’s list for Coombs) moved actively into development education through government contracts.

The most important change in this direction occurred outside of universities: the role of the World Bank in international development education research increased rapidly in the 1970s, 1980s, and well into the 1990s, when the bank became the largest funder of such research. The number of bank personnel who were directly involved in education data collection and analysis increased markedly. By the 1980s and 1990s, it could be said that Bank researchers dominated the empirical discussion about education and development.

International Testing

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the UNESCO Institute of Education, established as part of the United Nations and UNESCO’s commitment of postwar Germany, held the first of its annual conferences (1955), bringing together the directors of a dozen research institutes from a corresponding number of countries. Although the topic of the 1955 conference was adult education, probably the most important discussion at the conference was about the lack of student educational outcome data and the difficulties this caused in comparing national school systems. It took several years to launch a project to measure student outcomes, but by the end of the decade, a group was able to pilot a test, and by the middle of the 1960s, the first international achievement study:

To pursue such studies, we needed to produce internationally acceptable and applicable tools, such as standardized achievement tests and interest in attitude tests. We decided in 1958 to carry out a pilot study, in which 12 countries participated. The sampling was done on the basis of judgment rather than strict representativity. . . . The aim of this exploratory study was to ascertain whether it was possible to test the level of knowledge of pupils in a number of countries on a uniform basis and to perform computerized data processing and statistical analysis in one place in accordance with uniform standards. This study was carried out in 1959–61 and published the following year. We found that it was possible to evaluate the results of education in various subjects within institutions which have the resources and the staff qualified to gather data in accordance with agreed procedures. (Husén, 1983, pp. 83–84)

On the basis of the success of the pilot, the group decided to do a full-scale field study, focusing on mathematics, and got funding from the US Office of Education. The twelve country participants also reconstituted themselves in 1961 as the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement (IEA). Thorsten Husén, a Swedish academic who had had experience developing and analyzing the Swedish armed services test and survey of prospective soldiers and had long been involved analyzing Swedish education, became its chair. The results of the First International Mathematics Survey (FIMS) were published in 1967. The IEA was then formally incorporated in Belgium in 1967, and it has been regularly carrying out large-scale international tests and accompanying surveys ever since, mostly in mathematics and science, yet also in reading, with its PIRLS test.

The early effort to test students internationally was consistent with the social science approach to comparative education being promoted at the University of Chicago and others, such as Noah and Eckstein. All were interested in the use of data to analyze the relation between education and society and, in the case of student achievement data, to test hypotheses about the relation between education policies and educational outcomes. All thought that comparisons between countries would provide a particularly interesting and useful prism through which to analyze this relationship:

The idea of a multinational questionnaire survey of education extends deep into the history of comparative education. . . . Today the motivation to carry out such multinational surveys is, in part, the same. Such surveys can enable educators and educational decision-makers “to benefit from the educational experiences of other countries” . . . , often with very different educational systems. Also, they can ‘help in the identification and assessment of the relative importance of such factors as school organization of curriculum . . .” on education. Thus, behind the IEA surveys lie the twin motivations—the utilitarian “educational borrowing” and the analytical “social science explanation”—which historically have had important influences on the development of comparative education. (Noonan, 1973, p. 199, citations omitted)


Comparative research on education . . . increases the range of experience necessary to improve the measurement of educational achievement; it enhances confidence in the generalizability of studies that explain the factors important in educational achievement; it increases the probability of dissemination of new ideas to improve the design or management of schools and classrooms; and it increases the research capacity of the United States as well as that of other countries. Finally, it provides an opportunity to chronicle practices and policies worthy of note in their own right. (Bradbum and Gilford, 1990, p. 4, qtd. in Medrich and Griffith, 1992, p. 2)

Thus, from their inception, the IEA evaluations were intended to “identify factors associated with differences in student achievement” (Medrich and Griffith, 1992, p. 12). Even the First International Mathematics Survey was large, applied in twelve countries to more than 130,000 students in two schooling levels (middle and high school) in each country, and to more than 18,000 teachers and 5,400 school directors. This made it possible to do comparative empirical analyses on a much greater scale and to try to gain insights into why students in some educational systems achieved at higher levels in mathematics and science than in others.

There is little doubt that the construction of the test instruments and their application to thousands of students across different countries taught test constructors and psychometricians a great deal about the prospects and problems of such undertakings. Given the many technical difficulties with test applications in each country, those closest to the testing, at least in the IEA’s first two decades, tried hard to dissuade policy makers from using them to rank the quality of educational systems (Medrich and Griffith, 1992). They have been largely unsuccessful in this effort—if anything, international test results have become even more viewed as a “horse race” among countries’ education systems than in the 1970s and 1980s.4

International testing has generated much more interest in comparative and international education. It has allowed educators and policy makers to benefit from the educational experiences of other countries with quite different educational systems, as Thorsten Husén had hoped. However, the social science movement in comparative education’s high expectations in the 1960s that the vast amounts of data generated by the IEA would provide startling new insights into why some educational systems are more “effective” than others was largely unrealized:

Although a number of hypotheses have been offered, international surveys have been far less successful at explaining why particular groups of students achieve as they do in comparison with students of the same age or comparable grade level from other countries. These studies have not led to consistent conclusions as to why students from other countries perform better academically than their American counterparts, and there are few powerful correlates associated with the overall pattern of achievement across the populations participating in the international surveys. (Medrich and Griffith, 1992, p. 29)

Even so, there were a few important findings to come out of the first five IEA studies in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. One was that “the more content students are taught, the more they learn, and the better they perform on the achievement tests” (Medrich and Griffith, 1992, p. 30). This was confirmed in a series of analyses of the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) in 1995 (Schmidt et al., 2001). To the outsider, it may seem that “discovering” this link between content and outcome should not have required millions of dollars and some of the best testing and statistical minds in the world. Further, when the US had tried to change the mathematics curriculum (the “new math”) in the 1960s to a more European-style curriculum, it was a spectacular failure.

A second finding was that across the developed countries participating in the study, students’ family background variables were important explainers of student achievement, and it was very difficult to untangle students’ home background and school input effects, as brought out by James Coleman’s 1966 study of racial segregation in US schools. Other findings on the effects of tracking and higher rates of inclusion in a specific level of schooling on academic achievement were even more ambiguous (Postlethwaite, 1967)

Thus, although disappointing in a number of ways, the analyses of the data generated by the IEA studies were sufficient not only to expand the IEA’s testing program to a degree unimagined by even the most optimistic of its founders but also to produce competitors such as the OECD and its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and additional UNESCO-associated evaluation efforts in Latin America—the Laboratorio Latinoamericano de la Calidad de la Educación (LLECE)—and Africa (Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality, or SACMEQ, and Programme d’Analyse des Systèmes Éducatifs de la Confemen, or PASEC). Together, these have provided many different measures for ranking educational systems and for rating their progress over time. They have also provided masses of data for comparative education analyses, and many across-country analyses that give some insights into how various factors influence student achievement and attitudes about schooling. Nonetheless, beyond the earlier finding on content differences, all the data collected by these large-scale surveys still fail to explain much about why students with similar social background perform better in some educational systems than in others (e.g., Carnoy et al., 2015).

One reason for the modest contribution of the IEA and subsequent projects may be that the implicit theory of learning or of the relation between education and society underlying such international tests was “incorrect” or inadequate for understanding differences in how much students learn in different educational systems. There was an attempt in the IEA surveys to define learning as both cognitive and affective, in keeping with Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of learning (Bloom, 1956), but the results involving affective outcomes were not particularly illuminating (e.g., students who like math more do better on math tests; boys like math better than girls). Further, because theories of education and society were never at the center of the early UNESCO meetings, it is not surprising that the IEA surveys focused largely on individual student and teacher characteristics and students’ and teachers’ reported attitudes and reported teacher practices, not on where or how different societies derive their allocation of resources to education or form their educational practices.

And despite its modest contribution to “mapping” relations (in Noah and Eckstein’s words) within the educational systems or relations in education and society, this well-intentioned effort in the 1960s by a group of academics to gather data across countries on student performance and teacher and school inputs turned instead into a major international testing industry that mainly lives off ranking nations’ educational systems by their students’ average scores. How and why the tail came to wag the dog is now as important a question for comparative educators as the original issues addressed in those early meetings in Hamburg.


1. I hope that the reader will also be tolerant of my conflating the term “comparative and international education” with the shorter “comparative education.” It is possible to think of comparative education studies that are not international and of many studies of international education that are not comparative. When I use the term “comparative education,” it should be taken to mean comparative education studies that are done in the broader international context, outside one’s home country—thus, comparative and international education. Then the question is, what do we do about research on “other” countries that is not comparative? Historically, the comparative and international education field, which includes the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), has been welcoming to such research, and so am I in this book. When researchers use international sites outside their home societies for studies of educational systems or processes, I like to view this as “implicit comparison.” For a much more complete discussion of the issue of the “conflation of names,” please read the excellent recent article by Erwin Epstein (2016).

2. The term “functionalism” will appear throughout the book. Functionalism is one sociological theory of society originating with Herbert Spencer and Émile Durkheim and, in much later writings, further developed by Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. Functionalism considers society as a system of interconnected parts working harmoniously to maintain a state of balance and social equilibrium for society as a whole. Thus, according to functionalism, society is composed of institutions, including schools, business organizations, and governmental structures (including legal systems) that function to produce a set of outcomes that are consistent with the reproduction of relations in that society—that are “good” for its functioning in certain ways. There are many versions of functionalism, and there are other theories of society—some based on conflict and others on a strong ideological framework. I discuss these differences when they are relevant to understanding how some of the theories discussed take on functionalism as an underlying framework for understanding the nature of the educational system and of educational change.

3. There is not universal agreement that pre-war comparative education was entirely descriptive. For example, Epstein (2008) argues that as early as the nineteenth century, at least some comparative education studies focused on sociocultural context and the role of “national character” in shaping education and educational systems. According to Epstein, this gave early comparative education much more of an analytical bent than it gets credit for.

4. This recalls Campbell’s law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subjective it will be to corruption pressures, and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”