Guest Post: Is it fair to Compare?

by Anna Blanch on July 29, 2009

Today I bring you a Guest Post from Sarah Czarnota. Not only is Sarah a good friend of mine who I’m really looking forward to seeing more regularly once we are living on the same continent again but she’s also just finished a Masters in Comparative Education at the University of London. This is the first in a series of posts about her experiences in this discipline.

You can read more about Sarah in her Contributor Profile.

Is it fair to Compare?
Sarah Czarnota
Over the last year I have undertaken an MA in Comparative Education, a comparative approach to the sociology of Education. A comparative approach, I have found, is a useful and insightful tool for understanding different educational questions. For example, what is the driving force behind international school performance measures such as PISA? How should we interpret these results? What causes one area of the world to dominate high scores in maths and science? Why are some education systems more egalitarian than others? The area of education I have tended to focus on remains at the primary and secondary levels because analysis at these levels will for a long time to come reveal a lot about the context in which they form.

So what can we learn from comparing the formation and development of primary and secondary education systems? A historical inquiry into education systems teaches us about the imbedded class structures, priorities and values of the dominant middle classes and the overarching goals and priorities of the countries in question to name just a few. Understanding the context of the past in a variety of countries and cultures, then enables us to examine the current and future trends in education and hopefully lead to a more informed direction for future education policy, and policy ‘borrowing’ in particular.

The dark side of a comparative approach is the many risks it entails. When any discipline is working with large units of analysis such as countries, there is always a great risk in misrepresenting the context of countries less familiar to our own. A question I am frequently faced with is ‘do I know enough about this education system to comment on its likeness (or difference) to education system of my own experience?’ Other problems I have encountered involve the gross generalisations large scale comparisons create, which will inevitably exclude many important variables within the larger context. This last problem has significantly shaped my dissertation research by enlightening the larger context with the analysis of the previously ignored variables. So how do we reconcile the dark side to a comparative approach? Like in any good research, approach each question with a clear reality of the potential shortcomings and presents claims within the boundaries of evidence to justify a more informed context.

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