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The Globe and Mail

How to reform education? Start with school choice

The 'Big Test' has hit us and rocked our educational world. National and provincial bragging rights now ride on the student results and success in the rankings produces a new mass psychological condition, aptly diagnosed by Australian educator Dr. Stephen Dinham as "PISA Envy."

Topping the Programme of International Student Assessment (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.

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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. It also blinded us to the Quebec's success in mathematics, Ontario's progress in closing the socio-economic education gap, and Alberta's precipitous slide down the rankings.

Any sense of Canadian complacency has now been shattered. Between 2000 and 2009, Canada plateaued in overall student performance and Canadian students posted a 10 per cent decline in reading scores. Last week's 2012 PISA results confirm that 15-year-old Canadian students, with the exception 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 benchmarked against that of the top performing nations. 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 Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCP) math curriculum with its "discovery learning" focus, scaling back on testing, 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, Singapore, and Korea.

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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 any teacher assessment tied to student performance. More recently, a new "Fourth Way" concoction known as "personalized learning" has reached British Columbia.

Finland, like Canada, got a jolt from the latest results and that has already prompted 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 rush to abandon standardized testing has hit a significant bump in the road. Turning back the clock to the dark days of 'accountability-free' public education is losing its appeal. It's time to establish national standards and to focus on critical educational quality issues that matter for students and our public schools.

Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., is Director of Schoolhouse Consulting, and Adjunct Professor of Education at Saint Mary's University, Halifax, N.S.

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