Today the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) has succeeded in establishing the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) test and national rankings as the “gold standard” in international education. Once every three years since 2000, PISA provides us with a global benchmark of where students 15 years of age rank in three core competencies — reading, mathematics, and science. Since its inception, United States educators have never been enamoured with international testing, in large part because American students rarely fare very well.
So, when the infamous OECD PISA Letter was published in early May 2014 in The Guardian and later The Washington Post, the academics and activists listed among the initial signatory list contained the names of some familiar American anti-testing crusaders, such as Heintz-Deiter Meyer (SUNY, Albany), David Berliner (Arizona State University), Mark Naison (BAT, Fordham University), Noam Chomsky (MIT) and Alfie Kohn, the irrepressible education gadfly. That letter, addressed to Andreas Schleicher, OECD, Paris, registered serious concerns about “the negative consequences of the PISA rankings” and appealed for a one cycle (three-year) delay in the further implementation of the tests.
The global campaign to discredit PISA earned a stiff rebuke in Canada. On June 11 and June 18, 2014, the C.D. Howe Institute released two short commentaries demonstrating the significant value of PISA test results and effectively countering the appeal of the anti-PISA Letter. Written by Education Fellow John Richards the two-part report highlighted the “Bad News” in Canada’s PISA Results and then proceeded to identify What Works (specific lessons to be learned) based upon an in-depth analysis of the once every three-year tests. In clear, understandable language, Richards identified four key findings to guide policies formulated to “put Canadian students back on track.”
The call for a pause in the PISA tests was clearly an attempt to derail the whole international movement to establish benchmarks of student performance and some standard of accountability for student achievement levels in over 60 countries around the world. It was mainly driven by American anti-testers, but the two Canadian-based signatories were radical, anti-colonialist academics, Henry Giroux (English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University) and Arlo Kempf ( Visiting Professor, Program Coordinator, School and Society, OISE).
Leading Canadian educationists like Dr. Paul Cappon (former CEO, Council on Learning) and even School Change guru Michael Fullan remain supporters of comparative international student assessments. That explains why no one of any real standing or clout from Canada was among the initial group, and, by late June, only 32 Canadian educationists could be found among the 1988 signatories from all over the globe. Most of the home-grown signatories were well known educators in what might be termed the “accountability-free” camp, many like E. Wayne Ross (UBC) and Marc Spooner (U Regina), fierce opponents of “neo-liberalism” and its supposed handmaiden, student testing.
John Richards’ recent C.D.Howe commentaries should, at least temporarily, silence the vocal band of Canadian anti-testers. His first commentary made very effective use of PISA student results to bore deeply into our key strengths and issues of concern, province-by-province, focusing particularly on student competencies in mathematics. That comparative analysis is fair, judicious, and research-based in sharp contrast to the honey-coated PISA studies regularly offered up by the Council of Ministers of Education (Canada).
The PISA results tell the story. While he finds Canadian students overall “doing reasonably well,” the main concern is statistical declines in all provinces in at least one subject, usually either mathematics or reading. Quebec leads in Mathematics, but in no other subject. Two provinces (PEI and Manitoba) experienced significant declines in all three subject areas. Performance levels have sharply declined ) over 30 points) in mathematics in both Manitoba and Canada’s former leader, Alberta. Such results are not a ringing endorsement of the Mathematics curriculum based upon the Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCP).
The warning signs are, by now, well known, but the real value in Richards’ PISA Results analysis lies in his very precise explanation of the actual lessons to be learned by educators. What really matters, based upon PISA results, are public access to early learning programs, posting of school-level student achievement results, paying professional level teacher salaries, and the competition provided by achievement-oriented private and independent (not for profit) schools. Most significantly, his analysis confirms that smaller class sizes (below 20 pupils per class) and increasing mathematics teaching time have a negligible effect on student performance results.
The C.D. Howe PISA Results analysis hit home with The Globe and Mail, drawing a favourable editorial, but was predictably ignored by the established gatekeepers of Canada’s provincial education systems. Why the reluctance to confront such research-based, common sense findings? “Outing” the chronic under-performance of students from certain provinces ( PEI, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) is taboo, particularly inside the tight CMEC community and within the self-referenced Canadian Education Association (CEA) circles. For the current Chair of CMEC, Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson any public talk of Alberta’s precipitous decline in Mathematics is an anathema.
Stung by the PISA warning shots, Canada’s provincial education gatekeepers tend to be less receptive to sound, research-based, practical policy correctives. That is a shame because the John Richards reports demonstrate that both “sides” in the ongoing Education War are half-right and by mixing and matching we could fashion a much more viable, sustainable, effective policy agenda. Let’s tear up the existing and tiresome Neo-Con vs. Anti-Testing formulas — and re-frame education reform around what works – broader access to early learning, open accountability for student performance levels, paying respectable, professional-level teacher salaries, and welcoming useful competition from performance-driven private and independent schools.
What’s the recent American Public Noise over “PISAfication” all about anyway? Why do so many North American educators still tend to dismiss the PISA Test and the sound, research-based studies stemming from the international testing movement? To what extent do John Richards’ recent C.D. Howe Institute studies suggest the need for a total realignment of provincial education reform initiatives?