Editorial: We need better education data

Canada’s school-age children learn fewer basic skills each year, and our country’s education ministers don’t know why. The declining skill levels are laid bare in a new report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Every three years since 2000, the OECD has carried out an international survey of teenage performance in three core subjects: math, science and reading. Half a million 15-year-olds in 65 countries write identical tests. (Google OECD.PISA and try the test yourself.)

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The most recent results, published last week, show that in all three subjects, pupils in Canadian schools are steadily losing ground. The top score in each test is 800. Over the last decade, our average scores have fallen from about 540 to 520.

That’s not a huge drop, but the downward trend becomes more troubling when compared with experience elsewhere. The majority of countries in the survey have seen their scores improve.

Asked for an explanation, the chairman of Canada’s Council of Education Ministers waffled. “There are several schools of thought,” he offered, and no “single bullet.” Hardly a convincing response.

Relatively speaking, Canada still looks pretty good. Averaging the subject areas, we’re in 11th place overall.

And among the provinces, B.C. did very well. We ranked first in Canada for reading, second for science, and third in math.

Nevertheless, it’s clear our school grades are headed in the wrong direction. And this isn’t some quirk of the OECD survey.

In the B.C. Education Ministry’s provincial exams, attainment levels in math, English and science all show similar declines.

In passing, credit is due to those teachers who grade provincial exams. They haven’t inflated their marking as some countries have done. In England, pupils have seen their school grades rise, even as their OECD scores plummeted.

Yet the question remains, why are our kids struggling? It’s not a question of funding.

Several countries that performed better than Canada have leaner education budgets. Finland, ranked seventh, spends 15 per cent less per capita on primary-school education than Canada. Korea, in sixth place, spends 26 per cent less.

And it seems unlikely economic conditions played a role. Canada got through the 2008 recession in better shape than most countries.

It’s well-known that family income is linked to school performance. Kids from wealthy backgrounds tend to do better than those from poorer neighbourhoods.

Yet when the OECD scores are broken down by income group, Canada shows remarkable equity. Family status matters less in our schools than in most other countries.

That’s a testament to the value we place on fairness, and also to the strength of our safety-net programs. In the U.S., kids from poor families are clearly disadvantaged. (America ranked 30th overall in the survey.)

But while that brings us no nearer an answer, there is perhaps a clue. Although most of the countries with declining scores have little in common, one group stands out.

The major English-speaking countries — Canada, the U.S., England, Australia and New Zealand — are all in negative territory.

Is it possible a common approach to curriculum and teaching methods is to blame? Recent years have seen traditional learning systems de-emphasized in Canadian schools. There is less focus on teaching kids a body of facts, and more on letting them find answers by themselves. Critical thinking is a valuable asset, but perhaps a common knowledge base is still required.

However, the most important lesson is that we need a much better understanding of what works in the classroom. Standardized tests like the OECD survey and B.C.’s provincial exams are disliked by many educators.

But without the detailed information they provide, progress can’t be made.

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