Skip to main content

Take a bow, Canadian teachers, then take a deep breath.

You deserve a bow because on the major global comparative education test - the so-called PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) that examines half a million students from 65 countries - Canadian students said they very much liked what you're doing.

Now take a deep breath because, although Canadian students' results were reassuringly good in comparison with those of most countries, there's been a little slippage. You, and the school systems, need to pull your socks up a bit.

The PISA results got reported as a one-day wonder, then elicited some subsequent commentary. Digging deeper into the results reveals more fascinating stuff about our education system, comparatively speaking.

For example, Canadian students showed the third-highest level of agreement with the statement, "If I need extra help, I will receive it from my teachers." They were ninth most positive when asked, "Will most of my teachers really listen to what I have to say?"

Maybe they weren't telling the truth, but 70 per cent of them said it hardly or never happens that "students don't listen to what the teacher says." In general, the PISA test suggests that, in comparison with other countries, teachers and students in Canada seem to get along, and teachers get high marks from their students.

In another nugget of good news, Canada (with Australia) leads the world for rough equality of test results for those with or without an immigrant background. Put another way, immigrants' scores are not a drag on overall educational outcomes, as their scores are in Europe.

The PISA survey confirms other research, including by the University of Ottawa's Ross Finnie, that socio-economic conditions are not the most important determinant of educational results. What matters more are the parents' attitude toward formal learning, the family structure (kids from single-parent families do less well), and whether kids read outside school. Attitudes to learning, rather than income per se, provide a better indication of how a student is likely to do.

What makes a school successful? In Canada, the provinces have poured money into schools to reduce class sizes. The PISA results - like those of other studies - suggest governments should save their money. Paying teachers better (Canadian teachers are already well-paid, comparatively speaking) surpasses class size as a spur to better results. "Smaller classes are not necessarily associated with better reading performance," the PISA report said.

Canadian boys perform slightly better than girls at math and science, but girls perform significantly better in reading. Putting all the results together, however, shows that the overall gender gap favouring girls in Canada is among the lowest in the world.

Something's off with these numbers. If 15-year-old girls and boys' results are similar on standardized international tests, why are girls' grades so much higher in high school, leading to much higher rates of entry into university?

Canada as a whole, and provinces such as B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, did very well in the PISA test. The bulk of Canadian results ranked in the top 10 in every category, beating every Western industrialized country except Finland. But Canadian scores dropped in reading, science and math since the last PISA test in 2000.

That trend ought to concern education ministries, school boards and teachers. Another decade of decline would spell long-term trouble, since one of the surest signs of a nation's ability to compete in the world is the effectiveness of the education system. Just look at the PISA results for northern Asian countries (high) compared with Latin American countries (low).

Canada spends more on health care than on all levels of education combined. And it's education, not health care, that will light a path to a more productive future. As Canada ages, however, the public pressure to spend even more on health and less on education will intensify. The consequences of that shift for a more productive future are bad, and will get worse.

Interact with The Globe