“Creativity and innovation” are the new buzz words in education. Leading proponents of “21st Century Schools” such as Tony Wagner and John D. Kershaw have appropriated those two words and incorporated them into the latest “vision” aimed at transforming North American public education. The “21st Century Schools” mantra has captured the British Columbia Ministry of Education and been re-branded as “Personalized Learning.” In other provinces and states, the movement is embedded in what Boston education professor Andy Hargreaves now calls “The Global Fourth Way.” The hidden agenda of public-private ventures like 21C Canada , strangely enough, is to roll back standardized testing and to replace it with a “culture of trust” rather than accountability.
Closing the global learning gap is critical to the future of American public education. and the recent PISA 2012 student results were a also wake up call for Canada. Judging from the PISA 2012 results, Asian 15-year-old students are leaving ours behind, particularly in mathematics. Espousing “creativity and innovation” is no substitute for demonstrating academic rigour, hard work, and resilience on international tests of actual achievement. The North American ‘systematizers’ seem to have mastered the faddish “21c” language, but what good is “creativity and innovation” without the grit and determination to make it happen?
Now that the smoke has cleared after the release of the PISA 2012 student rankings, a clearer picture is emerging to help explain why North American students —with the exception of those in Quebec — are losing ground in math and to a lesser extent in science. Pursuing excellence through equity is producing a few surprises. Many socio-economically disadvantaged students, schools, and systems are now beating the odds and achieving reasonably high performance levels by international standards. “Grit and determination” rather than “creativity and innovation” are what is making the difference.
The OECD has identified high performing students from disadvantaged backgrounds as “resilient” because they manage to overcome difficult socioeconomic circumstances to achieve in school. A resilient student, according to the OECD, is one who performs and behaves the same as an “advantaged high achiever.” Only 6 per cent of students in the 65 countries participating in the PISA are classified as “resilient.” Some 8% of Canadian students are “resilient” and resilience is highest in Quebec and lowest, as expected, in PEI.
The PISA 2012 resilience rankings, in Excellence Through Equity, Vol II, 95-97, are truly startling. When the PISA 2012 results are analyzed based upon the “resilience” criteria, Asian students come out even farther ahead. The top eight national groups are all Asian, with between 15 and 19 % of their students classifiable as “resilient.” Canada and Finland rank 14th and 15th with 8% and 7.5% respectively and the United Sates lags behind in 37th place with 5% of their students demonstrating resilience.
Canada has done better than most countries in narrowing the achievement gap between affluent and poor students. Having recognized that, it’s worrisome that half of our “disadvantaged low achievers” report being late or skipping school, while only a third of “resilient” students do so. The resilient among Canadian students are reported to be 1 per cent more conscientious than their more advantaged classmates. It is clear, as Simona Chiose recently claimed, that — as Asian countries like Vietnam, Korea and Japan show, targeting energies and resources on students of little means will ultimately pay dividends.
Boring down into the PISA results shatters a few other oft-repeated myths. Students who perform poorly on the triennial PISA test tend to have a “double liability” of coming from a “disadvantaged background” and “attending a school with lower quality teaching resources.” Yet more is not always better. The pupil teacher ratio is generally higher in advantaged schools than in disadvantaged schools. In Canada, it is 16.9 STR vs. 14.7; in the United States STR 18.5 vs. 16.8; and in Finland STR 11.4 vs. 9.2. World leading Shanghai/China is demonstrably more elitist with smaller classes for advantaged students, STR 10.5, vs. 14.7 for disadvantaged students.
Defenders of fuzzy standards like American education gadfly Alfie Kohn will receive cold comfort from the results. Socio-economically advantaged students not only perform well but also spend “more time on homework,” especially in Shanghai, Japan, Taipei, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, and the U.K. World beaters in Korea and Japan, to no one’s surprise, spend more time attending after school tutoring programs. Across all OECD countries, in advantaged schools, parents are reported to “set very high academic standards” and “expect children to achieve them.”
Crusaders for “21st Century Schools” are in another orbit when it comes to raising educational standards and better preparing students for a changing world. “Creativity and innovation” are important, but “grit and determination” can make or break you in your life and career. Visionaries drawn to “21c” like bugs to a light should take the time to read Paul Tough’s insightful 2012 book, How Children Succeed. Why do some kids succeed while others fall short of potential? Grit, curiosity, and character matter more today than ever before.
What are PISA 2012’s real lessons? International assessments are a valuable reality check in comparative education. Sticking educational pitchforks into the BC Personalized Learning initiative, as proposed by Globe and Mail columnist Jeff Simpson, might be a way to prevent an Alberta-like slide in our Pacific province. It’s time we started challenging children to really think and to fully apply themselves instead of developing magic potions and aiding students in looking for short-cuts to better marks. Educating for resilience has given Asian nations an edge and it’s getting harder to evade the issue.
Will the global learning gap be overcome through a “21C Vision” (i.e., a supersonic wing and a prayer) or through educating for resilience? To what extent is advancing learning technology and ‘connectivity’ the answer to the slide in standards? Can “creativity and innovation” succeed in turning the system around without more grit and determination from our students?