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Jeffrey Simpson

Canada is not becoming outclassed Add to ...

“Bad news sells” is a very depressing truism of our business, even when the bad news doesn’t remotely convey what’s happening.

This week, we had news from a massive and ongoing international student testing project that involves hundreds of thousands of 15-year-old students in 65 countries, including 23,000 in Canada. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) isn’t the end word on countries’ comparative performance, but it’s a good measuring stick for an element of society that, more than most, will determine a country’s future well-being and competitiveness.

By that measuring stick, Canada continues to do damn well, headlines and bad news angles notwithstanding.

Only one advanced industrial country’s students bested Canada’s 15-year-olds. They came from Finland, one of the world’s most admirable countries. But Canada’s students, tested in reading, mathematics and science, clobbered those in Sweden, Britain, Norway, Germany and all the other European countries.

The competition with U.S. students wasn’t even close. Here are the rankings (remember, out of 65 countries): Canada seventh in science, U.S. 21st; Canada fifth in reading, U.S. 16th; Canada ninth in math; U.S. 29th. As for results from the so-called developing country powerhouses Brazil and Russia, they were awful.

Alberta students were fourth best in the world in reading, Ontario’s fifth and British Columbia’s seventh. Quebec students ranked fifth in math, and Alberta’s ninth. Alberta’s students were third best in science, B.C.’s seventh and Ontario’s ninth.

Last time anyone checked, the four most populous Canadian provinces were Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta. In other words, where most Canadians live, students are in the top 10 in almost every category.

But since bad news sells, we fret about the poor rankings of Prince Edward Island. They are indeed bad – below the average results for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development students. Clearly, there’s work to be done there, but get a grip. PEI is the smallest province in Canada by far, and always will be.

Some commentators tore at their hair because China did so well. But “China” didn’t actually enter the competition. Shanghai did. And Shanghai isn’t China. It’s the country’s most dynamic city, the place where people with “get up and go” live. It’s the country’s business capital and its most internationally minded city. If Chinese students as a whole had been tested, the country might have scored well, but it wouldn’t have stood first, as Shanghai did.

What the PISA tests did confirm is the importance that some Asian countries place on education, or rather a certain kind of pedagogy. Of the top 10 countries on the PISA list, Asian countries (or political entities such as Hong Kong) dominated: China (Shanghai), Singapore, Japan and South Korea.

Hats off to them. But let’s remember that their systems are based largely on rote learning to prepare for national standardized tests that lead the best to elite universities. Their societies, to their credit, place a very high value on education – which explains in part why North American students with family backgrounds in these ethnicities tend to do extremely well in school.

The lamentations that accompanied the PISA results (remember, bad news sells) underscored Canada’s slipping scores. But they only slipped because Shanghai’s results were counted, and a few other countries that had done less well than Canada in past PISA exams improved.

Should Canada be complacent? Of course not. The PISA results showed that Canadian results had levelled off. As other countries try harder to improve, Canada will seriously slip if it doesn’t continue to improve. We spent plenty on education – more than almost any country per capita – so more money is not the answer to continuous improvement.

Happily, however, many of the country’s school systems awoke in the 1990s to the weaknesses of the child-centred philosophies epitomized by the disastrous Hall-Dennis experiment in Ontario, and returned to more basic teaching, with report cards that could be understood. Higher standards were demanded, and they helped improve systems. The PISA results are one indication of the improvements.

Without dangerous back-patting, Canada should be pleased with the PISA results, little PEI notwithstanding.

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