A lively national conversation is underway in the United States over stalled upward mobility and stark income inequality and it has a more genteel echo in Canada. Many North American educators point to poverty as the explanation for American students’ mediocre test scores and it also serves as a favoured rationale for explaining away the wide variations in achievement levels among and within Canadian provinces. Only recently have policy analysts, boring down into the PISA 2012 Mathematics data, begun to look at the alarming achievement gap between states and provinces, the relationship between education expenditures and performance levels, and the bunching of students in the mid-range of achievement.
The socio-economic determinists offer a simple-minded, mono-causal explanation for chronic student under-performance. American education policy analyst Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently recapped the standard lines: If teachers in struggling U.S. schools taught in Finland, says Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, they would flourish—in part because of “support from homes unchallenged by poverty.” Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff at Columbia University’s Teachers College argue that middling test scores reflect a “poverty crisis” in the United States, not an “education crisis.” Adding union muscle to the argument, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten calls poverty “the elephant in the room” that accounts for poor student performance.
The best data we have to tackle the critical questions comes from the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which just released its annual Education at a Glance 2015 report. For its own analyses, PISA uses an index of economic, social, and cultural status (ESCS) that considers parental occupation and education, family wealth, home educational resources, and family possessions related to “classical” culture. PISA analysts use the index to stratify each country’s student population into quartiles. That broadens the focus so it’s not just about addressing the under-performance of disadvantaged children.
The PISA socio-economic analysis identifies the key variations among international educational jurisdictions. Countries like Belgium and France are relatively better at teaching their higher-status students, while other countries like Canada and Finland do relatively better at instructing students from lower-status families. Contrary to past assumptions, the United States falls almost exactly on the regression line. It does equally well (or equally poorly, if you prefer) at teaching the least well-off as those coming from families in the top quartile of the ESCS index.
A Fall 2014 Education Next report by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann pointed out the wide variations, country-to-country, in overall Mathematics proficiency. Some 35 percent of the members of the U.S. class of 2015 (NAEP) reach or exceed the proficiency level in math. Based on their calculations, this percentage places the United States at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries. That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th).
Overall assessments of Mathematics proficiency on PISA offer no real surprises. Compared to the U.S., the percentage of students who are math proficient is nearly twice as large in Korea (65%), Japan (59%), and Switzerland (57%). The United States also lags behind Finland (52%), Canada (51%), Germany (50%), Australia (45%), France (42%), and the United Kingdom (41%). Within the U.S., the range is phenomenal – from a high of 51% in Massachusetts to a low of 19 % in Mississippi.
Cross-national comparisons are misleading, because Canadian students have plateaued on the PISA tests over the past decade. While Canada was still among the high-level achievers, performance of the country’s 15-year-olds in mathematics has declined, with a 14-point dip in the past nine years. While performance in reading has remained relatively stable, the decline in science performance was “statistically significant,” dipping from an average of 534 in 2006 and 529 in 2009.
Much like the United States, Canada exhibits significant variations from one provincial school system to another. A 2013 Canadian Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC) review of the OECD PISA 2012 Mathematics performance levels revealed the stark achievement inequalities. Four Canadian provinces set the pace – Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario – and the remaining six are a drag on our average scores. Fully 25% of Prince Edward Island students score Below Level 2, below the OECD average (23%), in Mathematics proficiency. The other provinces with the next highest levels of under-performers were: Manitoba (21%), Newfoundland/Labrador(21%), Nova Scotia (18%), and New Brunswick (16%).
There is no case for complacency in Canada, as pointed out, repeatedly, by Dr. Paul Cappon, former CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning (2005-2011) and our leading expert on comparative international standards. For a “high-achieving” country, Canada has a lower proportion of students who perform at the highest levels of Mathematics on recent PISA tests (CMEC 2013, Figure 1.3, p. 25). Canada’s 15-year-olds are increasingly bunched in the mid-range and, when it comes to scoring Level 4 and above on Mathematics, most score at or below the OECD average of 31 %. The proportion of high-achievers (Level 4 and above in 2012) was, as follows: PEI (22%); Newfoundland/Labrador (27%); Nova Scotia (28%); Manitoba (28%); Saskatchewan (33%); and Ontario (36%). Mathematics students from Quebec continue to be an exception because 48% of students continue to score Level 4 and above, 17 points above the OECD average score.
Students coming from families with high education levels also tend to do well on the PISA Mathematics tests. The top five OECD countries in this category are Korea (73%), Poland (71%), Japan (68%), Germany (64%) and Switzerland (65%), marginally ahead of the state of Massachusetts at 62%. Five other American states have high-achievement level proficiency rates of 58% or 59%, comparable to Czech Republic (58%) and higher than Canada (57%) and Finland (56%). Canada ranked 12th on this measure, well behind Korea, Poland, Japan, Switzerland and Germany.
Educators professing to be “progressive” in outlook tend to insist that we must cure poverty before we can raise the standards of student performance. More pragmatic educators tend to claim that Canadian schools are doing fine, except for the schools serving our disadvantaged populations, particularly Indigenous and Black children. Taking a broad, international perspective, it appears that both assumptions are questionable. There are really two achievement gaps to be bridged – one between the affluent/advantaged and the poor/disadvantaged and the other one between Canadian high achievers and their counterparts in the top PISA performing countries.
Does low Socio-Economic Status (SES) marked by child and family poverty set the pattern for student achievement in a deterministic fashion? To what extent can and do students break out of that mold? How critical are other factors such as better teacher quality, higher curriculum standards, and ingrained ethno-cultural attitudes? Do school systems like Canada and Finland tend to focus on reducing educational inequalities at the expense of challenging their high achievers? Is this the real reason that many leading western G21 countries continue to lag behind those in Asia?