The editors invited Antoni Verger and me to reflect on this book’s contributions by identifying its connections with existing research, pointing out novel ideas, and proposing topics that deserve further scrutiny. I was greatly honored to accept this invitation, as it enabled me to participate in and contribute to this endeavor on evidence and expertise in the Nordic countries. I, therefore, see the purpose of my commentary not as summarizing the findings or providing feedback on the chapters contained within but, rather, as an exercise in examining cross-cutting themes and future avenues for research resulting from this book. Hence, my comments reflect on the empirics of the chapters in conjunction with the guiding theoretical and methodological chapters. A commentary also leaves room for one to argue more freely, to point out the societal contexts of an academic work, and to include “unusual” references, as opposed to being limited to referencing only academic work. Therefore, some parts of this chapter may seem to stray slightly off the typical academic path but do so in the interest of provoking future discussion.

Overall, from my reflections, three substantial themes emerged that I address in this chapter: (1) the conjunction between evidence and politics, (2) the conjunction between referencing and impact, and (3) the conjunction between empirics and theory in global education research. These three linkages seem to be part of a broader connection referenced in the book, namely, the connection between science and politics. Science has become a point of reference for politicians due to increased awareness about the challenges our world faces with respect to climate change; moreover, science has become more visible and more clearly defined in political processes in recent years. This was particularly apparent during the 2020 Democratic National Convention, at which Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were formally nominated as the Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates, respectively. In their remarks at the convention, many speakers (including, among others, Michelle Obama) frequently used the term “science” to make political statements, such as noting that Joe Biden would listen to “science,” or would follow “science,” or would consider “scientific reasoning,” and so forth. Obviously, these comments were meant to sharply contrast with former president Donald Trump’s “alternative facts.”

However, we must also remember that science is not static; it is subject to change when new findings disprove previous knowledge or question conventional knowledge, or when new problems occur that old solutions cannot resolve.Footnote 1 The coronavirus pandemic is teaching us to question ourselves on an almost daily basis. Is the Swedish way of believing in herd immunity the better long-term strategy, despite higher casualties in the short run? Was the worldwide lockdown sufficient for keeping the number of infections under control? Are the economic and psychological consequences of that lockdown more disastrous for democracies than we anticipated? Are locally defined solutions the better way to balance restrictions and daily work life (masks for school children, limitations on how many people are allowed to meet, and so on), despite the wide-ranging mobility of people commuting long distances and across borders?

Perhaps we also need to ask ourselves what is special about the social sciences. Without going into the philosophy of science, social science knowledge often seems rather cumulative regarding theoretical approaches, in that theories that have proven (partly) unhelpful in a particular context are not easily discarded. We have not discovered many “black swans,” as Popper would claim, but as social scientists we tend to acknowledge that different theories may be equally valid, though in different contexts and at different times. In addition, the social sciences have a particular “problem”: We deal intensively with humans and human behavior. Humans can be highly complex, changing their minds, opinions, attitudes, and actions at any given time. They also react to their environment in a variety of ways. To quote a classic political science journal title by Steven Bernstein and colleagues (2000): God Gave Physics the Easy Problems.

As much as we believe in science and research, scientification and academization have their limits in the social sciences and in education studies, respectively. As my colleague Laura Engel (2016) from George Washington University once argued during a workshop in Hanover, sabermetrics—understood as a method used in baseball for collecting and summarizing all relevant (but also seemingly irrelevant) data, as explained in the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis (2003)—cannot easily be applied to education. If it were that simple, all we would have to do is gather sufficient appropriate data and let statisticians run a couple of regressions in order to describe the perfect education system. However, that is not the case, so we need to find other and better ways to research education policy. This volume can guide future work on global education governance due to its empirical findings, its theoretical approach, and its methodological finesse.

Conjunction Between Evidence and Politics

This book provides a valuable analytic snapshot of knowledge production processes, of the scientification of education (policy), and of the path through which academic knowledge flows into politics. Referencing and analyzing the networks of actors behind these activities provide a deep view into legitimization processes in current politics. The Nordic countries are characterized as a comparatively homogenous group of states that, despite some differences, take a similar approach to political decision-making and have a shared history of evidence-based policymaking. Therefore, these countries make ideal examples for this investigation for clarifying and illuminating significant aspects of referencing.

From a political science perspective, the dataset of documents on which many of the analyses in this book are based not only produces valuable results, as demonstrated in the different empirical chapters, but also provides a fascinating sample that can be used for additional follow-up analyses. All recent school reform acts that are examined in this volume were introduced in each of the Nordic countries at roughly, and sometimes exactly, the same time: 2014 seems to be the watershed year in education politics in this region (with Norway lagging two years behind). Thus, from a methodological perspective, the Nordic context comes close to what comparativists (in political science) would call an “experimental setting,” which includes the factors that best support measuring the impact of the reforms in each country, as some variables are more or less controlled for, including time, institutional background, and regional diffusion. Such a setting is not only highly valued methodologically but also rarely possible to establish or to find in comparative analyses.

The existing dataset has provided scholars and researchers with interesting findings as presented in the different chapters of this volume. However, the dataset can also be used to dig deeper into the processes of knowledge production and legitimization in political spheres and identify cross-cutting themes. The dataset also provides a valuable example of how education research can be systematized more rigorously and under one common research umbrella that guides multiple analyses. As a next step, maintenance of this dataset of documents will preferably be transformed into a standing project involving the continuous collection of documents on school reforms in the respective countries. Such a project would enable future generations of scholars to conduct numerous comparative studies or, at some point, studies about individual countries over a longer period of time.

A comparable dataset with which comparative analyses could be envisioned is, for example, the collection by Marc Helbig and Rita Nikolai (2015a) on the seemingly “incomparable” German Bundesländer (states) with regard to their school politics [Die Unvergleichbaren—Der Wandel der Schulsysteme in den deutschen Bundesländern seit 1949]. In that work, the authors rely on their analysis of around 8000 legal texts from the last six decades. The collection of documents is made publicly available for future work.Footnote 2 Thus, this project’s approach could serve as a blueprint for multiple initiatives: (1) to make the Finnut project (Chap. 1 in this volume) public, (2) to simplify the process of finding a possible partner for comparative work between the Nordic countries and the German Bundesländer, and (3) to develop similar reform datasets for other countries or regions of the world.

However, considering only the dataset on the Nordic states that already exists, a vast array of possible new research areas comes to mind. For example, the existing databases can be examined for topics and themes that regularly appear in the documents. To identify those topics, the data can be analyzed quantitatively, for example, using topic modeling, a statistical model of machine learning for discovering topics that occur multiple times in a collection of documents. In a recent contribution, Helen Seitzer et al. (2021) applied topic modeling to examine the OECD’s PISA project in relation to its other activities and publications on education to discover if and how things change over time. Surprisingly, they find that although the OECD is predominantly renowned for the PISA, the themes it deals with are much broader than this, with PISA accounting for only a small part of the OECD’s overall output. In fact, the organization addresses higher education policy more intensely than secondary school data, even though the OECD and PISA have become almost synonymous for the international organization’s work in education. This raises the question as to whether PISA is predominant or perhaps even overrated.

As regards qualitative methodological means, I can also imagine that a rather detailed hermeneutic work on the existing dataset, perhaps even in cooperation with linguists, would be worthwhile. Single passages, where the context in which something is referenced (or not referenced) is evaluated, could be hermeneutically examined. Something else worth considering is the application of a scoring system for statements and references, where each could be assessed in its respective context. Furthermore, digging deeper into the context of these statements could provide insight into connections between themes and produce interesting questions (e.g., does think tank referencing occur more often in the context of equity and human capital in relation to the OECD?). Further network analyses could also be applied to link topics to references.

Conjunction Between Referencing and Impact

With this document dataset, the editors and contributors of this text apply a highly sophisticated analysis to the network of referencing in Nordic education policy processes. Network analysis is especially suited for figurative visualizations of relations, which are often more impressive and expressive than those produced by many other analyses. Network analysis is also en vogue and innovative in education studies from a methodological perspective, despite having been established in the fields of sociology and political science for some time. Particularly when the network of actors in global education governance is to be analyzed, a network approach can make connections or nodes and major actors visible. The findings would make interesting contributions to SUNBELT, the signature conference of the International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA).

However, although network analysis can do more than visualize relations between references and point to significant nodes within the network, centered nodes do not necessarily have the greatest impact. Referencing and visualizing relations between references cannot answer some of the questions that arise from this research endeavor, such as in the context of governmental documents, particularly, the internal importance of green and white books, or how much party ideology comes into play and how this is pictured or becomes pictured in the references. Follow-up questions like those that follow may also emanate from this research: Which document(s) were the most influential? Which reference(s) have had the most impact? And were these the most cited references?

Possibly even more important for future studies are answers to questions about what we do not see in the documents and, accordingly, what we do not see in the network analyses: What is the intention behind some references being selected and others being (perhaps deliberately) neglected? Considering the somewhat paradigmatic shift brought on by PISA toward perceiving educational outcomes as able to be measured against globally standardized indicators, the references that were omitted and why they were omitted seem to be of even more interest. Where have the boundaries of knowledge been set, and what references have been hidden? With this in mind, a variety of future studies, both across and within countries, is conceivable.

Nevertheless, one must be aware of the limits of our research endeavors. Indeed, measuring “impact” is probably one of the most difficult tasks we encounter in our work. To specifically pinpoint what factors had an impact as well as when, where, and why those impacts were experienced can usually only be approximated by detailed research. Methodologically, and not without advanced reflections on one’s own biases, approaches such as process tracing (probably in combination with interviews) may prove effective for investigating the steps through which as well as the substantial or decisive intention with which these government documents were created. Research questions may include inquiries like the following: What were important watershed decisions in the process? How were such decisions made? What were key moments in the process?

Another follow-up step to consider is to examine how these reforms were implemented in practice on the ground, for example, in education districts, in single schools, and so on, or following the thinking of Gita Steiner-Khamsi: How were these reforms translated into the local context? The written process for implementing the reform does not necessarily describe the same measures as they were implemented in real life. A good example of how differently an international impetus can be translated into national and local contexts is “inclusive education.” While the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities counts as the most quickly ratified UN convention, the implementation of Article 24 on inclusive education not only varies from country to country but—as evident in the example of Germany—also from state to state and school to school. Hartong and Nikolai (2017) described this as the “local globalness” of policy transfer.

However, to examine international influences, especially the PISA study, the setting applied in this volume provides a sufficient time frame. Around 15 years passed since the first PISA study was published and the reform acts of 2014 took place. Thus, considering that political processes take time, especially when international influences need to be “translated” via national legislation by way of regional administrative bodies before even potentially reaching the classroom, the effects of the international impetus may have reached the local realm. All in all, we can assume that a PISA-affected generation of students has left school with certificates by now.

Conjunction Between Empirics, Theory, and Methods

Although this book is considered an edited volume, it better resembles a monograph in its set-up. As the result of a longer-lasting research project (the Finnut Project, Chap. 1), one common theoretical frame is applied, including the use of common terminology within the individual chapters and an encompassing research design in which each chapter has its distinct place. Therefore, the book is not only a rich collection of contributions in which each chapter can stand for itself, but the book itself is more than the sum of its parts.

This highly sophisticated approach becomes particularly apparent in the systematic and—what I would call—layered approach. While Part 1 of the book provides an overview of the study, key concepts, and the methodology applied in the book, Parts 2 and 3 address the empirical findings for different country and cross-country comparisons. In doing so, different policy layers are explored—the international or transnational layer (particularly the OECD in this context as the policy source), the national layer (where governments as executors of policies are involved), and the layer of societal actors of different kinds (such as trade unions, think tanks, and the like)—all of which are part of the discursive policy practice.

This kind of approach within a defined region of the world, such as the Nordic countries, enables us to detect not only patterns and outliers across countries (horizontal approach) but also configurations and alignments across layers (vertical approach). In my view, this is a highly systematic approach that can serve as a methodological tool or as an element of a research design in many other contexts and for other comparisons. Such an approach could also be extended to analyze the activities of additional global actors, for example, international organizations, such as the World Bank or the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), or more regional organizations active in education, such as the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) for the Southeast Asian region or the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) for the Arab and Middle East region (see Niemann & Martens, 2021).

Moreover, an additional layer should be considered and can be added to future analyses, namely, individuals. Within the chapters, individuals and their particular impact are sporadically mentioned (particularly in Chap. 10, and even more so in Chap. 11); sometimes a commission is named after them, and sometimes their influence is hinted at within a particular context. In general, I believe that we underestimate how influential some individuals may be when we discuss the “Ministry of Education,” the “lobby group,” or the “education commission.” We may only know anecdotally that a particular person shaped the context of a policy document or the direction of a policy. Various studies in the context of the OECD and education policy, however, have shown just how influential certain individuals have been at key moments (e.g., in Henry et al. 2001; Martens, 2007). As an example, one can imagine how PISA would look or be perceived without its front man, Andreas Schleicher. Thus, more systematic research on the influential role of individuals in policy processes should be conducted.

In addition to this supplementary layer to be applied to future scholarly work in the field of education policy, another source of inspiration may be found in the deeper systematic linking of these layers with one another and with theory-driven approaches. What the editors produced with this volume is what comparativists, especially from political science, call a Most Similar Systems Design (MSSD). Comparing a group of similar countries, here the Nordic countries, in a small-N analysis allows for factors that are historically or institutionally similar in the defined sample to be excluded from the analysis in order to concentrate on differences between cases.

Concentrating on such differences between otherwise similar systems also allows for contextualizing them in existing approaches that have proven suitable in other studies. Moreover, connecting a MSSD systematically with theoretical approaches that emphasize differences can allow us to trace mechanisms and detect causations. They may also deliver theoretically guided hypotheses, which incorporate the different layers and their impact on education policy processes. Depending on the particular research question, a variety of approaches can provide insightful interlinkages and explanations for phenomena of interest, such as the following: approaches to delta-convergence (for linking the international and the national level); welfare state theories and education (for linking the type of system to policy outputs and outcomes); and interest group involvement, such as in the form of corporations or social movements (for linking the national level to internal actors).


This volume provides, without question, a particularly rich collection of evidence and expertise on Nordic education policy processes. It includes representation by a pronounced community of scholars from the region who contributed their knowledge to this common endeavor. With this volume, the editors and contributors deliver a systematic and well-written work of research that stands for itself but will also inspire future studies. My commentary focused on three conjunctions that I detected within and across the chapters: the conjunction between evidence and politics, between referencing and impact, and between theory and empirics. By summarizing some of the approaches and findings of the work in this way, my aim was also to identify and inspire possible projects for the future.