And that’s Canada in a nutshell. How do you get 100 Canadians out of the pool? You say, “Please, would you get out of the pool!” Prosperous, inclusive, diverse - this Northern nation of 34 million people scores quite well (but not stunningly so) on a range of international indicators. It is 8th on the UN Human Development index, the 25th most equal of 130 nations on the GINI index of economic inequality, the 14th least corrupt according to Transparency International, and exactly half way on UNICEF’s index of child wellbeing in developed nations. Where Canada does excel is in courtesy and quality of service. It is top of the 2010 international customer service rankings and the most welcoming to visitors according to the Nation Brands Index. Canadians, it seems, may only be somewhat successful, but they are politely content to be so.
There are exceptions: hockey, the Winter Olympics and now, perhaps, education. In December 2010, the global media had a feeding frenzy over the release by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of the results on their Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Among other things, every few years, PISA ranks the 34 OECD member countries and 41 partner countries and economies according to their performance in tested student achievement at age 15 in reading, mathematics and science. The big issue for the Western media was that five of the top ten performing economies were Asian. “Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators”, “OECD Warns West of Losing Global Edge in Education” and “A Sputnik Moment for US Education”, the headlines blared. Asians are now regarded as the new Russians – educationally poised to take over the world. What the media overlooked, though, was the strong performance of Canada.
Canada ranks 6th overall on PISA 2010. If the media have overlooked this, OECD hasn’t. A high-end video produced by Pearson Foundation picks out Canada as one of four “strong performers” and “successful reformers”. How is this strong performance explained? Strictly speaking, OECD concentrates not on the whole of Canada but on its most populous province: Ontario. OECD’s change guru Andres Schleicher, begins the video by praising Canada for how it encourages high expectations among families and teachers and how its positive approach to immigration is evident in narrow achievement gaps between students from different social backgrounds. But a minute or so into the video, without explanation, Schleicher suddenly switches to Ontario. The province is praised for its urgent focus on measurable improvement in literacy and numeracy (or math); its ability to set a clear plan and sign up key stakeholders to commit to it, including teachers; its sophisticated use of achievement data to pinpoint problems in underperformance among certain categories of students or particular schools; and then its response of “flooding” these schools with resources, technical assistance and support rather than inflicting blame, punishment and the threat of termination on them.
So is Ontario the answer to system-wide improvement, then? Well here’s the puzzle. Ontario isn’t the only high performing province on PISA. On reading, Alberta leads, followed by Ontario and British Columbia. On math, Quebec leads, followed by Alberta and Ontario. On science, Alberta leads, followed by BC and Ontario. Some of these differences between provinces are also very tiny – barely a percentage point or so. Yet the policies and strategies are often quite different.
Take Alberta. Just over a year ago, I led an international research team in a study of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement. Here, the four-decade old Conservative Government has supported an $80m per year program spanning more than a decade to support school-designed innovations in over 90% of the province’s schools. Alberta’s political control is different from Ontario’s. Its broad approach to innovation from the bottom up is at variance with Ontario’s that is focused more precisely on literacy and math driven more persistently from the top, and Alberta’s teacher’s union does not merely cooperate with the government’s strategy but has been an equal partner in its design and development from the outset. Equally striking policy differences can be found in British Columbia where the government-union relationship is distinctly adversarial, and Quebec, which has shown that linguistic minorities in a nation can be high achievers when the conditions are right.
As far as PISA performance is concerned, then, we can’t really point to differences in provincial policy or political control as being the key factors. The policies and the politics vary, but the results are broadly the same. PISA success is not about the superior strategy of Alberta or Ontario or any other province. Superior PISA performance has something to do with Canada as a whole. So what is it?
Canada has some striking commonalities with Finland, the only non-Asian performer above it in the OECD rankings. Both countries value teachers and teaching and insist on a professional program of university-based training for all public school teachers. This is followed by an inspiring and supportive environment for teachers to do their work in schools - with good facilities, acceptable pay, wide availability of professional development, and a good degree of discretion to make their own professional judgments. Both countries have a strong commitment to public schools and only a very modest or non-existent private sector in education. Both countries have strong social welfare and public health systems with broad safety nets to protect the youngest and most vulnerable members of the population. Last, both nations are characterized by deeper cultures of cooperation and inclusiveness that actually makes them more competitive internationally.
Being Canadian is not just about being understated and polite. It’s also about being cooperative and inclusive and about valuing shared community and public life. It’s not this or that province’s policy that seems to make Canada such a strong educational performer, but a social fabric that values education and teachers, prizes the public good, and doesn’t abandon the weak in its efforts to become economically stronger. These are the things that make Canada educationally successful, and that it should cherish and protect. They are also the things that might lead lower performing nations like the US and UK to organize study visits to the world’s most successful multicultural and multilingual democracy on the PISA tests.
Hargreaves, A., Crocker, R., Davis, B., McEwen, L., Shirley, D. & Sumara, D. (2009) The Learning Mosaic: a multiple perspectives review of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement, Edmonton, AB, Ministry of Education.
Hargreaves, A., Halasz, G & Pont, B., “The Finnish Approach to System Leadership,” In Pont, B., Nusche, D., & Hopkins, D.(eds), (2008), Improving School Leadership, Volume 2, Case Studies on System Leadership ,Paris , OECD , pp. 69-109 .
Knighton, T., Brochu, P., & Gluszynski, T. (2010) Measuring Up: Canadian results of the OECD PISA study, Ottawa, Human Resources and Skill Development Canada, Council of Ministers of Education, Canada and Statistics Canada
OECD (2010) PISA 2009 Results, Paris, OECD
Pearson Foundation (2010), Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Ontario, Canada, Pearson Foundation and OECD, http://www.pearsonfoundation.org/oecd/canada.html, last accessed 1/12/2011
Sahlberg, P (2010). Learning from Finland: How one of the world’s top educational performers turnedaround,Boston Globe, 27 December 2010