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Archive for the ‘PISA Test Rankings’ Category

A funny thing has happened to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Education Office on its way to the fifth annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP 2015). An ambitious international movement, initiated in March 2011 in New York City and dedicated to “Improving Teacher Quality Around the World” now sounds ‘warm and fuzzy’ on those professional issues that really matter – building better teachers, improving classroom instruction, and ensuring teaching effectiveness.

ISTP2015LogoWhen the world’s Education Ministers and over 400 invited delegates from 17 countries arrive at the Banff Springs Hotel on March 29 and 30, the word “test” and the acronym “PISA” will scarcely be heard. Instead of focusing on raising student achievement levels, the OECD Education Bureau has “gone soft” with an ISTP theme and policy paper that soft-pedals raising standards in favour of supporting teachers and building their confidence to prepare students for a rather nebulous “rapidly changing world.”

Mounting criticism of International Test Mania, dubbed “PISAfication,” the rise of a vocal American-led anti-standardized testing movement, and a partnership with Big Teacher, the Education International union federation, have all caused the mastermind of the International Teaching Summits, Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, OECD, to change his tune. In place of weighty policy briefs stuffed with OECD student and teacher performance data, we now have a mighty thin 59-page brief spouting rather mundane banalities about supporting teachers in producing “21st-century learners.”

The ISTP 2015 agenda is clearly the work of three influential education experts, the formidable Schleicher, Ontario’s ageless education change wizard Michael Fullan, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, passed over in 2008 by President Barack Obama in his choice for U.S. Secretary of Education. Two of the three in that troika have spent their careers urging governments to invest in teachers and enhance professional support programs rather than to focus on student and teacher accountability.

Since Canada has no federal Department of Education, alone among the leading OECD countries, the titular head of our national delegation and host of ISTP 2015 will be Alberta Education Minister Gordon Dirks, currently serving as Chair of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (CMEC). Dianne Woloschuk, President, Canadian Teachers’ Federation, will be at his side, modelling the collegial partnership model so common in the higher echelons of Canada’s provincial and territorial school systems.

The Alberta Teacher Summit is particularly focused on promoting the so-called “learning partnership” between “education ministers and teacher’s union leaders” and that is obvious from the media releases and invitation lists. While Mike Cooper of the Toronto-based Learning Partnership is on the planning team, the only visible partnerships with business are with the leading “learning corporations” like Pearson International and SMART Technologies who tend to underwrite most of the sessions promoting their systems, products, and curricula.

The Great Powers will be represented by Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education, and Hao Ping, Vice Minister of Education, Peoples’ Republic of China, although much of the agenda runs counter to their current ‘higher standards’ educational reform priorities.

Judging from the laudatory treatment of Finland in the ISTP 2015 policy brief, Krista Kiuru, Minister of Education and Science, will be there to provide fresh evidence of the superiority of Finnish teachers and their extraordinary professionalism. Even though Finnish students have slipped on recent PISA tests, that system continues to be the “holy grail” for teachers opposed to regular student testing and school choice of any kind.

Anyone looking for specific policy measures to improve the quality of teaching will be disappointed with the official menu. The ISTP2015 brief and the results of TALIS 2013, the 2013 OECD study of teacher competencies and perspectives, which included 20 teachers in each of 200 schools in Canada, focuses on ways of strengthening teachers’ confidence levels and helping them to overcome “risk-aversion” to innovation.

After five consecutive years of Summitry, it is high time to get into the real nitty-gritty and build actual classroom teachers into the process. From the outside looking in, the Summit resembles a gathering of education ministers and system insiders who purport to know what’s best for teachers as well as students in today’s classrooms. In other words, a high altitude “risk-free” summit.

Two fundamental questions arise: Whatever happened to all the recent independent research calling for major reforms to teacher education, professional standards, and classroom accountability? And most importantly, where are the exemplary classroom teachers on that star-studded international guest list?

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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.

PISATestVisualSo, 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?

 

 

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Measuring what matters in education is a vitally important public policy issue fraught with controversy. Since 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has succeeded through the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) in establishing the global benchmark for student achievement in the fundamentals of reading, mathematics and science. Over sixty countries have come together to support student achievement testing and most participating nations have developed comparable national and state/provincial cyclical assessment programs. That global consensus is now under fire by a revivified movement of  North American educators purporting to be ‘education progressives.’

OntarioStudentVision2014“Measuring What Matters” movement has arisen attempting to “broaden the measures of success,” but essentially committed to either “soften” the standards or banish standardized testing all together.  The Ontario Broader Success project, initiated by Annie Kidder and People for Education, is in the vanguard of the attempt to water down student testing by incorporating “softer” competencies and socially progressive attitudes.  A growing band of North American education progressives, endorsed by education gadfly Alfie Kohn, issued a May 6, 2014 OECD PISA Letter objecting to ” the negative consequences of the PISA rankings” and claiming that “measuring a great diversity of educational traditions and cultures using a single, narrow, biased yardstick could, in the end, do irreparable harm to our schools and our students.”

The real agenda of the Canadian insurgency is to broaden the definition of student success and chip away at the foundation of student testing and public accountability.   In June 2013, People for Education released a Broader Measures of Success report which gave a clearer picture of the end game.  Building upon its long-held skepticism about testing, Kidder and P4E announced a five-year project to “broaden the definition of school success” to encompass more than “literacy and numeracy.”  The report, produced by researcher Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, proposed a new framework of six domains, only one of which was related to “academic achievement.”  Indeed, the P4E model attempted to sublimate academic achievement in the pursuit of five other goals:  physical and mental health, social-emotional development, creativity and innovation, and school climate.

One of the most credible proponents of the Broader Success agenda is Dr. Charles Ungerleider, a UBC professor and former BC Minister of Education.  Much of the substance of the critique comes from Dr. Ungerleider, a well compensated educational consultant committed to empowering teachers and thereby improving instruction.  In a very revealing BC Public Affairs show, Your Education Matters with Dr. Paul Shaffer, Ungerleider laid bare the goals of the  movement. “We should broaden the definition of success on a system-wide basis,” he stated. ” We can assess a student’s moral framework…evaluate the level of social responsibility…and evaluate compassion for fellow human beings.”

Ungerleider claims to support student testing, but he is adamantly opposed to “the misuse of (student performance) information.”  Ranking schools based upon student results qualifies as “a misuse of information”  perpetrated by think tanks like the Fraser Institute and AIMS. Promoting a broader concept of school success is, he advises Shaffer, the best way to “educate the public about what’s wrong with school rankings.”

The Broader Success movement is going all out to win the support of Canadian teachers unions like the Alberta Teachers Association.  On March 27, 2014, the ATA Magazine virtually endorsed their approach by publishing a short column written by Kidder, Gallagher-Mackay and Ungerleider. It appealed to teachers who are generally allergic to student testing and accountability. “By changing what is measured, ” the trio wrote, ” the initiative will support positive change in schools and make more room for the curriculum, programs and resources that support health, creativity, citizenship, social-emotional skills and positive school climate.”   All three of them repeated that message in a May 26, 2013 presentation at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education Conference at Brock University.

The Ontario Government appears to be listening to the Broader Success advocates, judging from the April 2014 policy statement Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario Consistent with the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne policy orientation, the new direction document attempts to move beyond instilling the fundamentals and embraces the pursuit of “soft” competencies and skills. Achieving excellence as measured in PISA  reading and mathematics scores remains first in priority, but the Ministry of Education is now tilting in the direction of “ensuring equity” and “promoting well-being.”

Where is Ontario public education heading?  The Achieving Excellence policy statement provides a few clues. It appears that Ontario, trading in on its claim to be one of “the world’s highest performing school systems,” is now flirting with the Broader Success policy panacea. Annie Kidder and People for Education no longer qualify as “outsiders” and have succeeded in burrowing into the Ontario education establishment.   With Dr. Ben Levin out-of-commission and Dr. Michael Fullan in a 21st Century Learning orbit, the system has lost its moorings and pinning down its future direction is purely a matter of speculation.

Focusing on student educational deficits can become the system-wide raison d’etre in the absence of clear aspirational standards.  That is the focus of  Ungerleider and People for Education. The highly successful Educational Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is no longer in the forefront, and that is a bad omen.  Recent research by Australian John Guenther pointing out the value of assessing the social capital of school-community partnerships and the effectiveness of alternative special education programs for at-risk children are lost on the Ontario educational insiders. So are legitimate concerns raised about the costs of rebuilding a complete battery of system-wide “soft” measures. Where student assessment standards whither and public accountability falters, mediocrity is not far behind.

Why are North American ‘neo-progressive’ educators abandoning academic standards and looking to broaden or kill the PISA assessments?  What is the real purpose of Ontario’s People for Education initiative promoting Broader Success measures for students and schools?  To what extent is that initiative motivated by the desire to return to an “accountability-free ” school system?  Can moral standards and social responsibility be quantified, and — if so- for what purpose?  Finally, will any of these changes produce students who are better educated, productive, resilient, and prepared to thrive in the 21st century?

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“What’s Standing in the Way of Educational Change?” is a fundamental question that deserves an answer.  On October 21, 2013, it was also the theme of a Canadian Education Association (CEA) Symposium held in Calgary and attended by some 300 educators, including delegates from seven ministries of education, 12 faculties of education, and chief superintendents from 15 different cities.  After all the edu-chatter, a clear, unqualified answer still eludes us.

CEAStandininWayofChangeHolding that Symposium was still one of the year’s bright spots.  The Canadian student results on the Big Test, the 2012 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) mathematics supremacy test,  proved to be the biggest downer.  Surveying Canada’s provincial K-12 education systems brings into sharper relief the most notable ups and downs on the learning curve.

The Best – Hopeful Signs
. Teen Mental Health Initiative
With the Rehtaeh Parsons case capturing the headlines, a Mental Health Pathway to Care program championed by Dalhousie University psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher was implemented in Nova Scotia and other provinces without much fanfare. Adopting an integrated model, training teachers and focusing on Grade 9 students will pay longer-term social dividends. Most of the credit belongs to two Nova Scotia regional school boards, the South Shore and Halifax, for taking it on before “Rehtaeh” became a household word across North America.
•    Adoption of Cyberbullying Laws
The continuing controversy swirling around Rehtaeh Parsons teen suicide finally bore fruit in the form of a series of new statutes known as Cyberbullying Acts. In the wake of Rehtaeh’s death, Nova Scotia moved quickly to pass a Cyber-Safety Act, establishing a Cyber Scan police unit to clamp down on cyberbullies. In November 2013, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay followed-up with legislation aimed at cyberbullying, including a prohibition of the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. Distributing “cyber-porn” was now deemed a criminal offense in Canada.
•    Resurgence of C21 School Reform
The resurrection of former New Brunswick deputy education minister John D. Kershaw as CEO of C21 Canada signaled a resurgence in the technology-driven “21st Century Schools” movement. Inspired by American Tony Wagner’s “creativity and innovation” crusade, Kershaw and his hi-tech partner William Kierstead held a February 2013 “Shifting Minds” Summit Conference and then developed an expanding ITC partnership with the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC).  A well-publicized 2013 research report, entitled Future Tense and produced by the Action Canada program scholars, helped to advance a closely related assault on provincial student testing.
•    Community Hub School Revival
A February 2013 policy proposal, presented by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative and based upon Toronto educator Dr. David Clandfield’s international research, succeeded in changing the adversarial, divisive public dialogue around school closures in Maritime rural communities.  Community hub school ‘talk’  became de rigeur and then even Nova Scotia Education Minister Ramona Jennex began voicing her support. When the N.S. School Review Process was suspended, in early April 2013, small school advocates celebrated the temporary halt of school consolidation.
•    Quebec Math Student Prowess
In the wake of the 2012 PISA student results, Canadian education policy analysts were stunned, once again, by the stellar performance of Quebec students in mathematics. With Quebec ranking first in Canada, among the world’s top ten and far ahead of the English-speaking provinces, experts were at a loss to explain why.  Setting higher standards, provincial testing, and more rigorous math curricula are the most plausible explanation, but not what the dominant ‘progressive education’ thinkers like to hear.
The Worst – Troubling Signs
•    The 2012 PISA Results Slide
On December 3, 2013, the 2012 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) student rankings hit Canada with the force of an Asian tsunami.  Our 15-year-old students, competing against those of 64 other OECD countries, slid down to 13th place, dropping out of the top ten, and falling further behind students from Shanghai/China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Macau, and Japan. Canada’s former educational leader, Alberta, continued to slide, as did all provinces following the Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCP) ‘discovery math’ curriculum. For Prince Edward Island, the dismal PISA student results continued to be nothing short of an educational disaster.
•    Tarnishing of the TDSB’s Reputation
The Director of the Toronto District School Board, Chris Spence, abruptly resigned on January 10, 2013, amid a cascade of plagiarism allegations. Parts of Dr. Spence’s dissertation, submitted in 1996 for his Ph.D. from OISE were also copied from unattributed sources. That thesis on “Black Male Student Athletes in Toronto High Schools” had also formed the basis for his black student leadership programs. A year later an Ontario audit of TDSB books during his administration turned up financial irregularities, including evidence that senior administration collected hefty increases during a staff salary freeze.
•    Fumbling of the “Rehtaeh File”
With the eyes of the world on Nova Scotia, the Government hired Torontonians Penny Milton and Debra Pepler to conduct a limited, ‘no fault’ review of the Halifax RSB’s policy and procedures in relation to the handling of the case. When Parsons’ mother Leah dismissed the slim 25-page June 2013 report as “fluffy,” the credibility of the exercise was completely shot.  Two more external reviews later, the essential questions remain unanswered.
•    Bungled Student Testing Initiative
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s government attempted to introduce provincial student testing in an effort to improve that province’s student performance levels. The Saskatchewan standardized testing initiative was rushed and ran into fierce opposition mounted by Dr. Marc Spooner and his supporters at the University of Regina.  In August 2013, the province announced a tactical delay in the implementation of testing and a month later Education Minister Russ Marchuk was replaced in the cabinet by a more conciliatory figure, Don Morgan.
•    Lightening Up of Standards
British Columbia’s 21st Century Learning project, promoting a student-centred focus and known as “Personalized Learning,” was cruising along until it hit a significant knot in the educational road – the 2012 PISA results. That province’s steady improvement in mathematics (under its old, test-driven curriculum) left many wondering why a “revolutionary change in learning” was being implemented. The Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson joined the chorus urging British Columbians to “pitchfork” the lightweight “21st century schools” education reform.

Predictions can be risky in the world of K-12 Canadian education. A prophecy made by Canadian international standards expert Dr. Paul Cappon in December 2010 was actually borne out over the past year.  Compared to the world’s leading education states, Canada was “sliding down the learning curve.”

What kind of year was 2013 in the world of Canadian P-12 education? Did we get an answer to the CEA Conference question – What’s Standing in the Way of Educational Change?  Is it possible to answer that question given that Canadian educators continue to inhabit 10 little educational silos?

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“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.

GritSignClosing 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?

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The ‘Big Test’ has hit us and rocked our education world. The sliding math scores of Canadian 15 year-olds outside Quebec have just captured all the headlines and a series of PISA news stories and commentaries identified the “discovery learning” approach to teaching mathematics as the source of the recent, and continuing decline. Columnist Konrad Yakabuski , a close observer of the American education wars, saw the declining math scores as a “damaging legacy” of discovery learning. We are falling backward, he claimed, in both excellence and equity raising the fundamental question – “Has the education elite learned its lesson?”

PISAMathKidsIn the OECD’s 2012 Programme for International Assessment (PISA) rankings released December 3, 2013, , Canada  dropped out of the top 10 in student mathematics scores, a decline that raised alarms about the country’s future prosperity. Canadian students placed 13th overall in mathematics, down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006, in the highly anticipated test conducted every three years and which measures how 15-year-olds around the world are doing in math, reading and science. Canada ranked behind many Asian economies, including Shanghai (China), Singapore, Korea and Japan, while the United States lagged far behind and 36th out of 65 participating countries.

PISA12RankingsThe PISA test jolt comes on the heels of declining math scores nationally and a surprisingly poor showing from youth on a recent OECD literacy and numeracy test. The Canadian math curriculum, ushered in over the past decade, catching the blame for lower scores for good reason.  Curricula like the Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCP) is out-of-sync with high performing Asian countries because it  places far more emphasis on real-world concepts  than on abstract thinking, standard algorithms, and practice. The accompanying OECD report, in fact,  noted that the top performers had more exposure to formal mathematics than word problems. That may explain why Shanghai students topped the rankings and performed three grade levels above those of most other nations.

Topping the PISA student performance rankings attracts international acclaim, school system imitators, and increasingly scarce public education dollars. Once reviled by Canadian anti-testing advocates, the PISA test results are –oddly enough –what provides the ammunition for much of what now passes for informed debate over quality, equity, and accountability in Canada’s provincial school systems. They also bred a certain Canadian complacency until the recent release of the 2012 student results.

National and provincial reputations now ride on the PISA results. From 2000 to 2006, the PISA test results catapulted Finland’s education system to star status, and that ‘Finnish infatuation,’ essentially swept the Canadian educational establishment off its feet, blinding us to the Quebec’s success in mathematics and Ontario’s progress in improving reading and closing the socio-economic education gap.

Between 2000 and 2009, Canada plateaued in overall student performance and Canadian students posted a 10 per cent decline in reading scores. This week’s PISA results confirm that 15-year-old Canadian students, with the execution of those in Quebec, are losing ground, particularly in mathematics.

The rise and fall of Alberta, Canada’s former top performing province, contains a few valuable lessons. Two decades ago, Alberta was the first province to really confront the global learning gap, forecasting that, if trends continued, Albertan and Canadian students were going to be left behind.  

Dr. Joe Freedman, a Red Deer radiologist, and Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgary-based Globe and Mail columnist, raised the first alarm bells and founded Albertans for Quality Education.  In 1991, they convinced the Alberta Chamber of Resources (ACR) and the Conference Board of Canada to produce a truly ground-breaking study,  International Comparisons in Education, comparing Alberta math and science curriculum with that in Japan, Germany and Hungary.

Alberta’s mathematics and science curriculum was then virtually re-written and bench-marked against that of the top performing nations. Under Education Minister Jim Dinning, the province built its rock solid reputation on raising standards, student testing, school choice and charter schools.

While Alberta ranked first on the PISA tests and topped the Pan-Canadian Assessment Programme (PCAP) tests in literacy and science for most of two decades, it has slipped precipitously since 2006. Adopting the WNCP math curriculum with its “discovery learning” focus and the Finnish infatuation have been key factors in the decline.

The ‘Finnish solution’ began to lose its lustre after the 2009 PISA test when Finland saw its reading scores drop by 11 per cent. Outside of Canada, education policy analysts have now become far more enamoured with Asian school systems like Shanghai and Korea.

None of this seems to matter to Canadian ‘progressives,’ sponsoring a Canadian tour for Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg, promoting Finland as the “Global Fourth Way,” and seeking to curtail standardized testing. They are bent on turning back the dreaded “GERM,” the Global Education Reform Movement, supposedly carrying the plague of “neo-liberalism” and its principal strains — higher standards, school choice, and competition in public education.

The Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), armed with a 2012 report written by Sahlberg’s North American ally, Andy Hargreaves, now talks of “transforming Alberta education” with “The Fourth Way, “ and is out to dismantle provincial testing, curtail expanded classroom learning time, and block teacher assessment tied to student performance. More recently, the Finnish wave of “personalized learning” has reached British Columbia.

Finland, like Canada, got a jolt from the 2012 PISA test results. That will finally prompt education observers to acknowledge that Finnish education is fuzzy on standards.  It is, after all,  light on standardized testing, soft on homework, and promotes a “culture of trust” instead of accountability.

Looking deeper, Finland is also a “one provider” system with little or no choice for parents, delays the start of school until age 7, and streams students after Grade 9  into two tracks, academic and vocational, based upon arbitrary average-mark cut-offs.

The Canadian attraction to “discovery learning” and the rush to abandon standardized testing have both hit a significant bump in the road. In the wake of the 2012 PISA results, Canadians are awakening to the dangers of turning back the clock to the days of ‘accountability-free’ public education. Without PISA and the OECD follow-up research studies we are left almost completely in the dark on critical educational quality issues that matter for students and our public schools.

What are the powerful lessons of Canada’s recent decline in PISA test scores?  When will Canadian mathematics educators face reality and come to accept the need to develop a more rigorous, soundly-based curriculum providing a solid grounding in the fundamental skills?  Will Canada come to accept the need to stop being what Paul Cappon aptly termed “a school that never issues report cards”?  And finally, is the real message sinking in?

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