Canada's education system remains one of the best in the world, and our students perform well regardless of socioeconomic background, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's most recent international assessment of reading, math and science. But Canada's results have stagnated and we face the possibility of falling behind while countries including Korea surge ahead.
Dr. Andrew Parkin, director general of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada, helped us pick apart the data.
Globe and Mail education reporter Kate Hammer and Dr. Parkin led an online discussion about Canada's performance in the most recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development assessment.
Below is a transcript of the live discussion, which aired at 2 p.m. on Tuesday Dec. 7.
Kate Hammer: Welcome to today's chat, we're going to be getting under way shortly. In the meantime, feel free to start sending questions for Andrew Parkin, Director General of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada.
Andrew Parkin: Hello everyone. My name is Andrew Parkin and I am director general of CMEC - the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. CMEC is formed by all provincial and territorial ministers of education and helps them carry out certain projects together, including the one we are talking about today -- PISA.
Kate Hammer: Thanks Andrew. The PISA data released today paints a mixed picture. Can you tell us about some of the encouraging aspects of Canada's performance and some of the concerns?
Andrew Parkin: The encouraging facts are clear: we are part of the group of countires that perform best in reading, math and science. Only four countries/economies do better than we do in reading, only six in science and only seven in math. That's out of 65 countries/economies.
Comment From Peter GB: How can Canada awaken our high school students to the competitiveness of those in other countries, especially in the sciences?
Andrew Parkin: The main concern is that our overall performance is more or less stable over time. This would be pure good news if it wasn't for the fact that the world around us is not standing still. The bar is being raised by some countries that are doing better. We have also seen some high-performing countries join the study for the first time. So when we look around us, we find we have more company at the top.
Andrew Parkin: The benefit of a study such as PISA is that it raises the awareness of everyone of where the competition is at. I don't know if anyone needs to be woken up. But knowing how we are doing compared to others is crucial.
Andrew Parkin: The high-level of performance of a region like Shanghai (China) in math, for instance, is striking. This is the first time they have been included in the study, and they are far ahead of everyone else. We can be pleased about our performance, yet curious as to what is going on elsewhere, at the same time.
Comment From JT: How important is this statistic, really? Is there a direct correlation between our ranking -- among top performers -- and a failure to compete in markets, or enjoy the standard of living and success that many Canadians enjoy?
Andrew Parkin: First, I would express it the other way around: the correlation is between our good performance and our ability to compete. How important is the statistic? The statistic refers to the ability of 15 year olds. We are going to have to rely on their abilities to create, to innovate, and to lead in the coming decades if we are going to continue to compete. So, the statistic is an important indication of how prepared we are for that.
Kate Hammer: The PISA report also looked at equity. Andrew, can you tell us what that means, how Canada fared, and what we know about why?
Andrew Parkin: Here is what distinguishes education systems in Canada: we are one of the few countries that is able to combine high performance with high equity (which means a smaller gap between the highest and lowest performing students).
Comment From BSG: One of the major differences between the Asian school systems and the ones in North America is critical thinking and innovation - In Asia (China, South Korea, Japan to an extent) the focus is primarily on rote memorization of facts, figures and formulas in order to do well on their university entrance exams, where they will then cruise through 4 very easy years of university to a BA - This is in stark contrast to the provincial examinations here in Canada with essay questions and the level of education rising significantly when advancing to University
Andrew Parkin: Equity shows up in a number of ways. For instance, it matters less in Canada than elsewhere where a child goes to school -- there is less difference between schools in advantaged and disadvantaged areas. Also, the gap between the scores of immigrant and non-immigrant children is smaller in Canada that elsewhere, which is remarkable when you think of the relatively large proportion of immigrants in the Canadian population.
Comment From os: Andrew with the strong demand in the future for technological advancement in all field's how is the council going to change or implement the importance of math, sciences and design into the currcuiculm so that Canada will advance and not lag in these future fields
Andrew Parkin: Let me try to answer the question about technological advancement. This is something that is on everyone's minds. The issue is not only science education, but ensuring students are able to cope in a world that demands the ability to access, analyze and communicate information quickly. The provincial ministries of education are already thinking about how schools need to adapt to that. This is part of an international trend toward thinking about what skills students need in the 21st century.
Comment From J: That's all well and good but high marks in math like from China doesn't necessarily equate to new innovations or entrepreneurial success. Add to the fact that China's numbers in a city like Shanghai is skewed because of who is accepted into such schools (i.e. no immigrants from poorer provinces)
Andrew Parkin: I can't comment too much on the issue of approaches to learning in Asian as opposed to Canadian systems, except to say that I wouldn't underestimate the degree of modernization that is going on around the world, and the appetite of each country to learn from the best approaches of others.
Andrew Parkin: Marks in math may not translated automatically into success. But I think we can be confident that achieving and maintaining success is much harder if you are starting from a situation where students are not able to perform advanced taks in core subject areas.
Comment From os: When can we see or expect to see these changes for the benefit of the students that are needed in the 21st century
Comment From Guest: I have a BSc and like most of my friends, I am working in a field unrelated or only minimally related to science. How do you encourage young students to study the sciences when their job prospects in Canada are highly regionalized (eg, the biotech sector) or are poor without getting advanced (PhD, MD) or specialized training (college diploma)?
Andrew Parkin: Some of these changes are underway and have been for some time -- although the precise nature of what is implemented and when is determined by each province. And it is a continuing process; there will always be more to do.
Comment From mollieon: Primary and elementary teachers are often weak in math but must teach every subject. Many do not want to teach math; would prefer specialists teach it. Teachers don't understand the theory themselves and are frustrated. We could do better if we provided specialized resources for the primary and elementary teachers.
Andrew Parkin: There is always a difference between the experience of individuals and overall trends. In general, students will BAs or BScs do much better than those who do not complete a university degree. That doesn't mean that all graudates find the match they are looking for. But it does mean that overall the benefits of obtaining degrees are clear.
Comment From J: Modernization doesn't equal an appetite to learn. I used to think the same way as you did till I actually traveled to China. There is a very big disconnect between learning something in a book and actually applying it. Even simple instructions as "Don't push into a crowded train when the barriers are closing" are lost in China, imagine pushing an old lady into closing suicide barriers only to have it clamp on her painfully for 5 minutes. I'm not disparaging the need for better math/science/writing but if you concentrate too much on those only without regard to liberal/social arts (which makes a person contemplate their actions) you run the risk of creating mindless drones. In any case another big problem in the fact that kids from China/Asia do better in math than we do comes in the quality of our Profs. During U, I had no way of understanding the profs as they could barely speak English. In this way, students from Asia who don't have to listen to the prof and have already covered the material are at a distinct advantage.
Andrew Parkin: I think there are other points we could reflect on. Are Canadians surprised, for instance, that our students do better in reading, math and science than those of most other western countries, including the US? I am not sure that this is a message we are used to hearing.
Comment From J: I don't think that's a surprise due to us being "socialists". It's obvious that when you raise the floor, the average comes up. Raising the ceiling doesn't really help averages.
Andrew Parkin: In fact, Canada has both a greater proportion of high achievers than the OECD average, and a smaller proportion of low achievers. We have raised both the floor and the ceiling. Excellence and equity can go together.
Kate Hammer: But the proportion of high achievers has declined over the years. Shouldn't this be a major concern for educators?
Comment From J: Of course the downside of it is that we become comfortable (too comfortable) and that change that may be needed comes slowly and with little fanfare.
Andrew Parkin: Yes, it has declined somewhat -- noticeably but not dramatically. It should be a concern. We would not want it to continue.
Andrew Parkin: Also, to link the last two comments, PISA helps us to ensure we don't become too comfortable. By noticing that our proportion of high achievers has fallen -- even if we continue to do well -- we ensure that we are prompted to examine how to keep doing better.
Kate Hammer: We've run out of time, but I'd like to thank everyone for their comments and thank Andrew for joining us.
Andrew Parkin: Thank you everyone. Enjoy reading the reports!