Biotech, financial services, industrial design, modern medicine—the leading sectors of the global economy are driven increasingly by knowledge. Participating in this economy depends on mastering that knowledge, which in turn depends on mastering certain core skills such as literacy and numeracy. We all know it, but it bears repeating: a country’s future rests on the ability of its citizens and labour force to command these basic skills – skills that open the door to acquiring the more complex forms of knowledge and know-how that we need to compete.
Fortunately for Canada’s future, our youth do command these skills. The most recent results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an initiative of the OECD, show that Canada’s 15-year-olds are very competitive in mathematics, reading, and science. In mathematics, for example, out of 65 participating countries or economies, only three OECD countries and six non-OECD countries or economies achieved higher results than Canada; in reading we do even better. When looking at all three domains combined, only a handful of countries equal or surpass Canada, which has retained its standing in the top tier of countries first achieved when PISA was initiated in 2000.
Our students, parents, teachers, school principals, administrators, and education partners should all take pride in these results. Together, they have ensured that Canada’s schoolchildren continue to attain high levels of achievement, and they have done so by addressing the needs of both our strongest and our most challenged performers. Canada stands out as one of a small number of countries that combines higher than average results with a higher than average degree of equity among its students. We are among the best in the world in ensuring that students from all backgrounds receive a high-quality education.
For Canada’s ministers of education, however, satisfaction with our performance to date simply is not in order. While Canada maintains its position as a high-performing country, the latest study also shows that we have slipped—and not simply in relative terms. A small drop in our country’s international ranking has been accompanied by a downward drift in performance in most provinces. In science and mathematics, Canada’s 15-year-olds are scoring lower today than they did a decade ago.
Some might see these results as a wake-up call. But tackling the need to improve our performance is already a top priority for ministers of education across the country. Even before these latest PISA results were known, ministers had identified improving mathematics skills as a major focus for our education systems. Today’s results simply provide more evidence to support our decision to look for any and all ways to make improvements.
Across the country, my colleagues and I are working together to identify and share best practices on innovative teaching and learning strategies to raise student achievement in numeracy. Working with education partners, a range of activities are already underway in each province and territory to improve the quality of education outcomes. Efforts vary from enhanced mathematics curricula and a focus on effective instructional practice that support numeracy, to resources for teachers and parents on how best to support students in learning math.
Simple solutions, of course, remain elusive. Canada is not the only high achiever whose numbers have slipped downward, and the factors that affect the performance of education systems are complex.
This imposes responsibilities on more than just our education systems in preparing our children for the future. It underscores the need for collaboration and action across society to raise awareness and understanding of the importance and value of mathematics and other foundational skills. Recognizing that we face this challenge together is a good start.
To be clear, on the global stage we do extremely well and our kids are competitive, but doing well is no longer enough. We need to do better, and we can.
Jeff Johnson is Chair of the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) and Alberta’s Minister for Education.