Legitimacy of Public Education: Recent Shifts in Comparative Perspective
Departement of Research and Development University of Applied Sciences, School of Education Zürich, Switzerland
In 17th and 18th century Europe education was firmly based on religious beliefs. In the 19th and early 20th century it became closely related with nation-building and anchored in the nation-state. With comparative educational achievement studies (TIMSS, PISA), the development of quality indicators for national school systems by international organizations (OECD, UNESCO) and an increasing emphasis on feedback-on-results management of national education systems legitimacy of public education systems has become, since the late 20th century, a core issue of current debates on public education worldwide. The question arises to what extent 'rationalized' evaluation systems will replace nation-specific criteria and procedures of assessing education systems, making cross-national comparison, besides comparison of students' achievements and comparative research on the determinants of varying efficiency, obsolete.
Drawing from a comparative study on curriculum development in four European countries and one U.S. state in the 1990s the paper starts with a re-analysis of survey data relating to criteria for legitimacy of content standards, i.e. curricular norms. It is argued (1) that three general referents for the assignment of legitimacy ? scientific rationality, societal functions of education, and the self-referential character of education ? may be distinguished and (2) that variation in national patterns can convincingly be interpreted in terms of specific national conditions and situations at the time when the curricula were developed. In subsequent sections the paper discusses consequences of the shift from legitimacy of school systems based on particular national criteria to norms set by international organizations for both modes of regulation of public education and comparative sociology of education.