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Students work on math problems on Aug 27, 2012. Canada placed 13th overall in mathematics, down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006, in the latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment.

MOE DOIRON/The Globe and Mail

So the OECD's PISA rankings are now out and this year with a focus on mathematics. A crucial subject and one with huge implications for the future high tech and high-wage social systems we all aspire to. Forget the rankings for a moment, however, and focus instead on the race imagery used by many commentators – around a normal running track. That way you can be lapped by Singapore but still feel you are winning a bit – you can run just a little bit faster as they overtake you again and then look good for the cameras. Also it means even Singapore has to re-cross the start line a few times.

We now know that the Far Eastern city states are still winning the "race." Singapore, South Korea and China – not all of China yet, but the city states that entered. There are winners and losers, of course, and some countries will be bitterly disappointed in their rankings while others delighted (well done, Chile!). Interestingly, however, many countries now put their ranking in a special sort of context ("we are on a journey," "we have started our reforms," etc.) – and there is a growing recognition that some aspects of cultural difference don't make for easy comparison. For example, a one child per family policy makes a difference to how many family resources you can give to your only child compared to nations where a larger family is the norm. Does OECD give weighting to these factors?

So does it all matter, given that the way these things work is a snapshot of change, like the photo finish in a race? Well, yes, it does, I think – not so much the rankings, but the fact (or not) about whether you have improved (or not) since last time. A nation that is "treading water" on their scores but hasn't actually declined in rankings terms ought to be concerned and likewise a nation that has improved in scores but not moved up the rankings can be pleased. That way it has contextual value. Interestingly, some of the more successful Far Eastern city states are now looking westward for a broader, more problem-based mathematics curriculum; European nations look enviously to the east for better number skills. Given the importance and frequency of international study visits, surely this means there is a wonderful mathematics curriculum somewhere in the sky above the Middle East where the delegates pass each other.

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Ceri Morgan is one of Her Majesty's school inspectors at Ofsted, the U.K's Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills.

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