Andreas Schleicher is arguably the most influential person in global education policy today. The German statistician has never presided over a classroom or served as a minister of education. But as the man who designed and oversees the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), he holds sway over the direction of education reform around the world.
PISA ranks the academic performance of half a million 15-year-olds, across 65 countries, in math, reading and science. When a country's standing soars – as Finland's did in the early years of the triennial survey – education policy-makers flock there to see what lessons can be learned. And when a country's ranking collapses, it is rightly treated as a national disaster.
Last fall's PISA results were not a disaster for Canada. But they were a giant, flashing amber light. Canada's student performance, formerly well above the OECD average, is now considerably less so. Canadian students are getting weaker, not better, particularly in math. With the exception of Quebec's strong and rising performance, the bottom line is this: our students are doing decidedly worse in math than they did a decade ago.
The news triggered an avalanche of concern: Parents petitioned for curriculum reform; business leaders sounded the alarm about the danger that poor math knowledge poses for economic growth; even math teachers are agitating for change.
PISA isn't just a set of test results. It also offers hard policy evidence on the best ways to boost student outcomes: More instruction in formal math, an emphasis on rigorous teacher selection and training; support for educators who make innovations in pedagogy, such as better using technology in the classroom.
Unfortunately, the education minster of Canada's largest province appears to have skipped over those pages in the report. On Wednesday, Liz Sandals offered her government's answer to students' falling grades: $4 million of new funding to help teachers upgrade their math skills. And no planned change to the way math is actually taught.
When other countries have been faced with poor or falling PISA scores, they've taken bold steps to reverse the trend, even if it meant overhauling an entire education system. Why can't Canada?
Poland, for instance, has been singled out by PISA as a turnaround story. It boosted lackluster reading results by delaying the streaming of students into vocational programs, and increasing the number of hours spent on language instruction. In 2000, only 1 per cent of Polish students received more than four hours of language class. In 2006, the figure had risen to 76 per cent. The result? Nearly a 50 per cent improvement in test scores.
It was the same story in Germany. When the first PISA tests showed students were below average in reading and literacy, the country was stunned. Political parties, unions and parent groups worked together on reforms: A common curriculum, expanded pre-school, a longer school day and teacher mentoring. Those efforts lifted Germany from 21st place in 2000 to 15th place in 2009.
South Korea has also made huge strides in education, by incorporating technology into classrooms. In the 1990s, the country launched a master plan to provide every teacher with a computer and every classroom with internet access. In 2005 it launched a "Cyber Home Learning System" that gives students home access to digital tutoring. Then in 2011, it plowed $2.4 billion dollars into digitizing the country's entire school curriculum by 2015. By then, South Korean students won't be using traditional textbooks, they'll have interactive ones with content that can be continually updated. In the 2012 PISA rankings, Korean students ranked 5th in math and reading and 7th in science. Not bad for a country that, not long ago, was considered a developing one.
Canada has a lot to learn from these success stories. The common thread running through them are policy makers who weren't afraid of going back to the drawing board when the existing system wasn't working.
Back to Mr. Schleicher. At the age of ten, he was doing so poorly in German public school that his teacher found him 'unfit' to move onto an academic secondary school. Furious at the prospect his son would be streamed into vocational training, his father pulled him out and enrolled him in a private Waldorf academy, where he thrived. He earned top marks on his entrance exams to college, and went on to study physics and mathematics.
The moral of the story? To change the facts, you have to face them. The status quo is one of worsening Canadian student performance. It's not a disaster, not yet, but the needle is moving in the wrong direction. We need a plan to change that story. Writing a $4-million dollar cheque to subsidize remedial teacher math education just isn't enough. If our students' success in math really matters – and it does – it's time to a have national policy discussion on how to move forward. Everything should be on the table, including curriculum reform. Let's think big.