Comparative And International Education Essay

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The field of comparative and international education has a long history, although some argue that it is still in search of a distinct identity. This entry describes the individuals, organizations, and issues that have shaped the field, creating the problem or advantage of its multiple identities.

Historical Roots

In most North American and European literature, the field of comparative and international education is traced to the work of Parisian Marc-Antoine Jullien (1775– 1848). Sometimes referred to as the “father of comparative education,” he compiled data about education across Europe and developed a plan to promote international data collection and analysis to guide educational reform, that is, to address the problem that the physical, moral, and intellectual dimensions of schooling do not meet the needs of young people or their nations. Jullien developed a method of collecting statistics through distribution of a questionnaire to government ministries that became the compiling descriptive statistics by contemporary international agencies, such as UNESCO and OECD.

In Asia, however, the field is said to have emerged during the Han Dynasty (2006 BCE to 220 CE) and the Tang Dynasty (618–906 CE) in China, given that educational ideas and practices were borrowed and lent across nations in the region. Moreover, the scholarly study of education in other countries was initiated in 1849 by Xue Funcheng, who delineated the educational system in four countries to inform Chinese educational policy in line with broader moves to reestablish economic prosperity and political stability in the wake of China’s defeat by Western forces in the first opium war in 1840.

The distinction in origins of the field is not only one of geography but also one of definition and identity—that is, what constitutes activity in and who should be considered a member of comparative and international education.

Traditions And Identity Sources

One source of identity for the field involves “travelers,” who wrote up more or less systematic and in-depth “tales” of their visits to one or more countries with the intent to encourage compatriots to “borrow” the good ideas and practices they observed. An American, Horace Mann, would be a good example of this type of effort, focusing on European societies during the first half of the nineteenth century. Similarly, Englishmen Matthew Arnold and Michael Sadler and Russian Leo Tolstoy traveled abroad to observe educational systems in other countries and document their findings at home. Sadler’s writing was distinct, in that he advocated against borrowing organizational and methodological educational elements from other country systems, arguing that such elements could not be divorced from their local context for use in another country context.

A second identity source for the field is associated with scholars based in Europe and North America during the first half of the twentieth century—Nicholas Hans, Isaac Kandel, Friedrich Schneider, and Robert Ulrich. They—as well as Ruth Hayhoe and Edmund King in the second half of the twentieth century— employed an idealist, humanist approach to investigate ideas and forms of education across countries in an attempt to illuminate historical trends in school systems within societal contexts. Their concern was less with borrowing educational ideas than with understanding how over time education systems are connected to societies in which they are located.

A third identity source is that associated with C. Arnold Anderson, Mary Jean Bowman, George Bereday, William Cummings, Max Eckstein, Erwin Epstein, and Harold Noah, who styled themselves as practitioners of the (social) science of comparative education. For them, the purpose of comparative education is to develop lawlike, quantitative generalizations about the relationships among different input and output variables related to education. Their perspective is often described as structural functionalism, with its faith in the application of empirical research and scientific methods to the study of education and the social sciences in general. Often such research has sought to illuminate how older and newer societies develop and modernize along a single continuum of stages.

In contrast to the structural functionalist perspectives of the “scientists,” another identity source is associated with those who investigate education and society relations from a conflict perspective, a trend that developed within comparative education initially in the late 1960s. Robert Arnove, Martin Carnoy, A. H. Halsey, Gail Kelly, Vandra Masemann, John Ogbu, Nelly Stromquist, and Mathew Zachariah sought to document—and critique—how educational organizations, content, and processes functioned to preserve unequal power and wealth relations across ethnic, gender, and social class lines within countries and between core and periphery countries internationally. In addition to the kinds of inequality research undertaken within the United States by social foundations scholars, scholarship within comparative and international education has sought to counter the thesis that all nation states “develop” or “modernize’ along the lines of Western states. Moreover, these scholars argue and seek to document how the implementation of “Western” educational systems may contribute to reproducing economic and political underdevelopment and dependence on (Western) industrialized states. Finally, some of these scholars, notably Masemann, argued for the use of more qualitative methods of research, in order to examine school processes within the school and classroom, which could not be generated through large-scale, quantitative studies.

Postmodernism and poststructuralist have also informed the work and identity of comparative educationists. For instance, Rolland Paulston’s “social cartography” project during the latter part of his career serves to illustrate this strand of the field. Paulston, along with Esther Gottlieb and other colleagues, sought to “map” the range of ideas and authors in the field. They and others reflecting a postmodernist or poststructuralist (e.g., Anthony Welch and Thomas Popkewitz) identity have sought to avoid privileging any particular theoretical or methodological metanarratives or the realities purported to describe and analyze through these narratives.

Another identity source for comparative and international educators is associated with the “problems” approach to comparative education and, at least in theory, what some would term international education activities. Brian Holmes draws on John Dewey and Karl Popper in articulating his approach to comparative education work: problem analysis; policy formulation; identification, description, and weighting of relevant factors in a given context; and anticipation, prediction, and monitoring the outcomes of policies.

While international education practitioners are also often informed by one or more of the other perspectives in comparative education, their activity appears to resonate best with Holmes’s problem approach. These practitioners are those that work for bilateral or multilateral assistance organizations (the United States Agency for International Development, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, UNESCO, World Bank, etc.) or as consultants to such organizations, either individually or through a variety or “firms” which bid on contracts and grants from the international agencies. They do not mainly engage in scholarship to illuminate or critique educational phenomena, but rather seek to adapt (with greater or lesser degrees of caution) lessons learned in other countries to the contextual reality of another country. The more applied nature of their work does not prevent us from recognizing comparative education and international education as closely connected, “fraternal or Siamese twins,” as David Wilson has characterized the two subfields.

Organizational Structures

The World Council of Comparative Education Societies (WCCES), which was established in 1970, has operational relations as an NGO with UNESCO, and (in 2007) included thirty-five constituent national, regional, and language-based comparative education societies as constituent members. National organizational members of the WCCES are from Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, Cuba, Czech Republic, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Spain, and the United States. A major vehicle for promoting research and policy dialogue internationally is the WCCES’ triennial World Congress, which has been held in Africa (South Africa), Asia (Australia, Japan, and Korea), Europe (e.g., Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, France, Switzerland, United Kingdom), Latin America (Brazil and Cuba), and North America (Canada) since 1970.

One of its constituent organizations of the WCCES is the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), a U.S.-based organization with a very international membership. Founded as the Comparative Education Society in 1956 and renamed in 1969, CIES grew out of efforts to organize international study tours for U.S. educators and to improve and expand academic programs and scholarship in the field. Its journal, the Comparative Education Review, and its annual conference attract considerable attention, participation, and recognition among comparative education scholars, education policy makers, and international education practitioners, many of whom are also members of other national, regional, and language-based comparative and international education societies.

As is the case in any field, comparative and international educators publish their work in a variety of books and journals. And while their work appears in more general social science and educational research journals, some of the most important work is made available through the following specialized journals (with the organizational base noted): Asia Pacific Education Review; Canadian and International Education; Comparative Education; Comparative Education Review (U.S. CIES); Compare: A Journal of Comparative Education (British Association of Comparative and International Education); Current Issues in Comparative Education; Globalization, Societies and Education; International Journal of Educational Development; International Review of Education (UNESCO International Bureau of Education); Korean Comparative Education Society Journal; Prospects: Quarterly Review of Education (UNESCO Institute of Education); Research in Comparative and International Education; and World Studies in Education. These tend to attract authors and readers with overlapping, though somewhat different, identities in the field of comparative and international education.

The following universities in the United States are among the most recognized for offering doctoral programs that prepare comparative and international educators, although not all of them have specialized programs with either comparative or international in their names: Chicago; Florida State; Harvard; Indiana; Maryland; Massachusetts-Amherst; Michigan; Michigan State; Pennsylvania State; Stanford; State University of New York at Albany and at Buffalo; Teachers College, Columbia; and University of California at Los Angeles. And a small sampling of institutions offering similar programs in other countries includes: Ain Shams University (Cairo, Egypt); Beijing Normal University; German Institute for International Educational Research (Frankfurt); Comparative Education Research Center, Hong Kong University; Institute of Education, University of London; International Institute of Education, University of Stockholm; Ontario Institute for the Study of Education, University of Toronto; Seoul National University; University of Havana; University of Paris; and University of Tokyo.

Comparative and international educators are employed in various national government agencies, including units of ministries or departments of education. In addition, they work within—or serve as consultants to—a variety of bilateral “international development” agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Japanese Agency for International Cooperation and Assistance, and the Swedish International Development Agency. Other contexts for activities that contribute to and draw on knowledge in the field are multilateral organizations, for example those associated with the UN system (UNESCO; UNICEF; UNDP; Institute of Education, Hamburg; International Bureau of Education, Geneva; International Institute of Educational Planning, Paris) as well as regionally framed organizations (European Commission, Organization of African Unity, Organization of American States, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). In addition, an increasing role in shaping educational policy and in funding international education projects is played by (regional/ global) financial institutions (African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the World Trade Organization).

Major Topics

Besides a focus on education and national economic development and the status and work of teachers, comparative and international educators have developed scholarship in relation to the following topics: factors affecting achievement, inequalities in access and attainment in education, educational reform, democratizing education and educating for democratic citizenship, and world systems/globalization. Each of these is discussed briefly in turn.

A variety of individuals, organizations, and projects have focused on documenting and seeking to explain differences in academic achievement within and across countries, using large-scale, quantitative studies. Perhaps the most important contribution to this literature is the work organized through the International

Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement (IEA) initiative. Having maintained a strong focus on mathematics and science, these studies involving teams of researchers from some “developing” and more “developed” countries have also examined the issues in literacy and civic education. The objective has been to provide cross-national data that enable scholars to better understand how social and educational variables (e.g., curriculum content, teacher qualifications, teacher behavior, and student characteristics) are related and inform policy debates in individual countries and internationally on how to enhance the achievement of various groups of students.

Related to the issues addressed by IEA, but usually pursued more by researchers espousing conflict perspectives, are empirical studies and policy and curriculum analyses that seek to investigate the degree to which and why various groups (females, ethnic minorities, and lower social classes) are less “successful” in gaining access to and attaining credentials from public and private schools and universities. The theoretical perspectives and the quantitative and qualitative methodological traditions that inform this work would be familiar to those who do such work in the social and cultural foundations of education focused on the United States, but an important difference— and potentially a real advantage—is that the findings are compared across societal contexts. This allows sometimes for firmer generalizations but also requires more complex and qualified accounts, such as when measures of socioeconomic status used in industrialized countries are not related to attainment in less industrialized societies. When done well such work considers carefully the local, national, and global contexts in which the quantitative and qualitative data are collected and analyzed.

Both comparative education researchers and international education practitioners are interested in the conditions and processes that constrain or enable various kinds of “reform” in education. Such reforms might concern how the system is organized (e.g., decentralization or privatization), how teachers and administrators are prepared and help to develop their capacities, the degree and forms of community participation, the nature of curriculum and examination systems, and how teachers and students interact in classrooms. Analyses of education reform tend to be framed from functionalist or conflict perspectives, with the respective approach tending to highlight the evolutionary/consensual or the conflict-laden and dialectical nature of the reform process.

Thus, the work is not unlike historical and sociological analyses of education reform in the United States, although a range of societies are included in the analysis of national case studies. What is quite different, however, is the focus on international relations in the reform of education, again differentiated by functionalist and conflict perspectives. Here the question is how more “developed” or “powerful” countries “lend” or “impose” reforms on less-“developed” or “powerful countries. These issues are also of great interest to international education practitioners. Not only do they have to determine what policies and practices should be recommended or mandated as “conditionalities” as part of loans as well as technical assistance, or training projects. They also have to deal with the politics within international organizations and societies regarding the appropriateness of such transnational activities.

In recent years comparative and international educators have given more attention to what has been labeled as the “democratization” of education. Partly, this reflects scholars, policy makers, and practitioners appropriating “democratic” terminology to refer to long-standing concerns. For instance, equalizing access to and achievement through schooling are now sometimes referenced as democratization. Increasing participation in school affairs by students, parents, business owners, and other community members (both in terms of the number and variety of people involved and in the degree of decision-making authority) is also discussed under the rubric of democratization of education. A focus related to democratization concerns how education contributes to socializing students to become effective citizens within democratic societies. In this regard, the studies and projects broaden the conception of the purpose of education beyond producing human capital (economic roles) to include constructing citizens (political roles). For instance, the 2002 IEA study of civic education across sixteen countries examined the relationship between the curriculum, the teaching methods, and what students learn that informs their potential to participate in society as citizens. More focused studies of civic and citizenship education across and within cultures have sought to determine how political and social forces may influence what and how citizens are taught and the nature of relevant extracurricular, but school-based, activities. Such work has been undertaken both in long-standing “democracies” and in nations (including many former Soviet republics and Central and Eastern European societies) that have more recently moved toward Western democratic structures and procedures.

Finally, comparative and international educators (e.g., Robert Arnove, Nicholas Burbules and Carlos Torres, Mark Ginsburg, John Meyer and Michael Hannan, and Nelly Stromquist and Karen Monkman) have focused their attention on the world system and globalization. They have addressed economic, political, technological, and cultural forms of globalization, raising questions as to whether local and national education systems are responding effectively (whether proactively or reactively) to these dynamics as well as how education promotes understanding and actions that shape the nature of globalization and its impact on different societies. In addition, comparative and international educators have focused on whether the globalization of education policies and practices represents a convergent and/or divergent process as well as whether such developments are viewed positively and/or negatively by international agency representatives, government officials, and citizens in different regions and nations. Increasingly, “globalization” has found its way into official documents of national governments and international (bilateral and multilateral) organizations, and thus has become part of the landscape in which international education practitioners work.

It should be clear that there are multiple identities possible within the field of comparative and international education. While some might view this as a weakness of an academic or professional field, we view this as a sign of strength, enabling scholars, policy makers, and practitioners to find space and contribute based on their own multiple roles and identities.


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