Geoff Johnson: Teacher support key to higher student scores

The latest results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment are here, and Canadian educators face a winter of political discontent.

Pisa tests more than 500,000 15-year-old pupils in 66 countries in math, reading and science, and also looks at factors that might influence the scores, such as education spending and school and teacher autonomy.

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The program tested 21,000 Canadian students from 900 schools from all the provinces for 2012.

Canada has dropped out of the top 10 in international math education standings, a decline raising alarms about the country’s future prosperity.

Given investments in our public-education system, Canadians should demand better results, said John Manley, Canadian lawyer, businessman and ex-politician who is now CEO and president of the Council of Canadian Chief Executives. “This is on the scale of a national emergency.” He spoke at the Canadian Club recently in Toronto.

The Canadian Club and the Council of Chief Executives inhabit a world far removed from a classroom with a teacher and 30 kids, inadequate support and buildings needing to be brought up to 2013 standards.

In fact, Canada placed 13th overall in mathematics, down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006, not good and not something that brings comfort and joy to provincial ministers of education, either.

The only people who really revel in where Canada sits in the world rankings are politicians, business leaders and university academics well positioned to take credit for successes in public education and blame those lazy overpaid teachers for any drop in the PISA rankings.

The whole event is a convenient opportunity to drive policy changes and make announcements about funding adjustments and the need for more testing while forgetting, as any dairy farmer will tell you, that just weighing the animal does not improve its productivity.

Improving its diet and circumstances might.

Nevertheless, the survey has become a key comparative measure of education achievement internationally. When scores drop, some governments pour billions into controversial and sweeping education reforms. When they rise — as with South Korea or Hong Kong — researchers check their grants and plan overseas junkets to learn from higher scoring systems and enjoy a change of scene.

The whole thing has a kind of Yuletide inevitability about it and teachers, the only group that can really make a difference, patiently hope that Rob Ford will do something else outrageous to bump PISA off the front page.

Rarely mentioned at those chief executive get-togethers or by other highly placed persons is the PISA finding that students themselves, when surveyed about results, consistently say that achievement by most high-performing education systems results directly not from interminable curriculum revisions and systemic reorganizations, but from the quality of teachers and excellence in teaching.

Finland, a consistent high performer, has the least selective, most comprehensive system in the world. It has no inspectors, no exams before 18 and a national curriculum that is confined to broad outlines interpreted by highly trained teachers at the master’s-degree level whose professional standing equates with doctors and lawyers.

This includes providing teachers with frequent high-quality professional development as a part of the job, and making available differentiated pathways that encourage teachers to grow in their careers.

Other higher scoring systems, while they may have quite large classes, are found in cultures where success is deemed a product of hard work rather than inherited intelligence or social and economic standing, cultures where education is neither politicized nor taken for granted.

This suggests that excellent teaching and the aspirations held by a culture for its children combine to produce what really make a difference in instilling values that foster success in education — and higher scores on PISA.

Countries that have opted for “top down” improvements — including Canada — have allocated significant resources into simply revising and reorganizing curriculum without attending to teacher training and genuine long-term teacher growth. That may be missing the mark.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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