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As I read the media reports of the 2015 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results I could almost feel the media’s disappointment.  Of the 72 countries and jurisdictions around the world participating, students in British Columbia were the highest performing in reading, 2nd highest in science and 6th in math.  The results are outstanding.  And this is no small test – over 500,000 15-year-old students participated around the world including more than 20,000 in Canada.  Of course, good news just doesn’t make “news” like bad news.  There are far more people who seem to enjoy a “Students Struggle with Reading” headline, rather than a “Local Students Top Readers in the World” headline. (See full Canadian results here).

I dedicate dozens of posts each year on this blog to talking about the need to do things differently.  And results like those from PISA do not change the need or urgency.  They do remind us in British Columbia (and all across Canada) we are improving from a place of strength.  We have an exemplary education system that is not satisfied with the status quo and we want to be sure that as the world continues to change, our curriculum, assessment and programs continue to adapt to ensure our relevance.

I have written about PISA two times before (when both the 2009 and 2012 results were released – and I still hold to these commentaries).  Beyond the high-level numbers the power of PISA is that there is a lot of data that helps tell a more complete story.  I find the most useful information are deeper in the report below the silly “who won” conversation.  From first look, one sees that there is a very small gender gap in science in Canada, for example, and overall the level of equity (the difference between the highest and lowest scores) is better (more equitable) in Canada than elsewhere.  As I said in my comments three years ago, when asked about PISA – “It is what it is”.  It is one part of the education story, but when governments invest billions of dollars into education, it is a powerful tool to help see we are doing some things right.

I am also left thinking about Finland today.  Like many others, I have visited Finland to learn about what they have done to develop such a strong education system.  And just what first attracted me to Finland?  Well, it was their PISA scores.  The same PISA scores that today indicate the world has a lot to learn from Canada and British Columbia. The same PISA scores that remind me that we can learn a lot in British Columbia from colleagues in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and truly across the country.  The same PISA scores that remind me as Superintendent in West Vancouver, there is a lot we can learn from Surrey, Victoria and Bulkley Valley.

Of course we have many areas in British Columbia we can improve – it is forever the nature of education.  We need to continue to work to improve our Aboriginal graduation rates, and support all learners in our classrooms.  There is a danger that a report like this can suggest we tick the education box in our society and stop investing – we need to do the opposite and continue to invest in public education in British Columbia so we grow from this position of strength.  And yes, PISA is just one measure – we know there are so many factors beyond tests like these that we need to track to ensure our students are strong academic performers and capable citizens (and yes, there are many thoughtful critics of PISA).

But let’s leave the other conversations for another day – today is a day to recognize the system we have – and it is damn good!  All of us who have children in BC’s schools, and all of us who work in BC schools should be very proud.

OK, that is more self-congratulating than most of us Canadians are used to – let’s get back to work!

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dotsIf education in British Columbia made news over the last few years, it was almost exclusively around the ongoing labour issues.  With new contracts in place now for teachers and support staff, there is more of an opportunity for other education stories to hit the mainstream news – whether that is television, radio or newspapers.  There have been quite a few recent stories, that might at first glance appear to be unrelated, but are all very much connected and part of a larger story – one of quite a shift happening in education, both in BC and around the world.  For regular readers of this and other educator’s blogs, this might almost seem passé, the shifts happening have been well covered inside the profession, but now, in between stories of hospital wait-times and transit plans, there is some space for some important education issues to be part of a larger public dialogue.

My broad sweeping generalization about the current changes in education around curriculum, reporting, innovation, and related topics is that students and families who are engaged and part of the change are excited, and as one moves out from them to the broader community, there is increased concern, skepticism and distrust.  While families in a class that has moved away from using letter grades in elementary school to more descriptive feedback may appreciate the way the reporting support improved learning, those at a distance may see this a edu mumble-jumble and a lowering of standards in the system.

I want to take three recent stories – read in isolation they are interesting – but collectively tell a larger story, and open up a large, rich and important conversation.

From January 29th, Tamsyn Burgmann of The Globe and Mail, wrote a story on a forum hosted by the BC Ministry of Education  and included all key educational partners and a number of International experts, including internationally known scholar, author, and speaker Yong Zhao, who is extensively referenced in the quote below:

The province should revolutionize the system by shifting the teaching emphasis to nurture every child’s individual passion and talents. The concept is called personalized learning, and gives both students and teachers more space to explore their diverse abilities.

“To be creative, to be entrepreneurial, you cannot skip the basics,” Dr. Zhou told the room. “But the basics should come after we have a passion. Sometimes we do the basics and we have killed people’s interest.”

His call for innovation comes at the same time B.C. teachers are administering the standardized Foundation Skills Assessment tests to children in Grades 4 and 7, and as the province’s education minister announced a new education strategy.

Minister Peter Fassbender told the forum the government is partnering with educators to identify several schools throughout the province to pilot programs that swap the focus to individualized learning. 

Work around personalized learning is well underway in West Vancouver, with teachers and schools focusing in inquiry, student passion projects, unique community partnerships and other initiatives give students real world learning experiences.

A week later, Tracy Sherlock of the Vancouver Sun wrote about reporting in the age of social media:

Report cards are entering the social media age as new software called FreshGrade allows real-time sharing and reporting on student progress.

Tracy Cramer, a kindergarten teacher at Richard Bullpit Elementary School in Langley, has been using FreshGrade  since the beginning of this school year and says she loves it because it makes communicating with parents so easy and it makes doing her students’ report cards relatively painless.

“Teachers get anxious around this time because of report cards. But I have all my evidence there … so I just have to go in and add a few comments and my report cards are done,” Cramer said.

She says the program gives the kids — even in kindergarten — ownership of their work.

“They will do something that they’re so proud of and they will say to me, ‘Can you put this on my portfolio so mommy and daddy can see it?’” Cramer said. “I can do it instantaneously — I push ‘share’ and the parents get it right away. The communication with the parents is amazing — they understand because they can see it.”

And at the same time, a number of local news outlets picked up on a petition started by a parent in North Saanich to take a look at the state of math instruction – calling for a back-to-basics approach.  The CBC was one of those outlets to pick up the story:

A North Saanich parent has started a petition against new math learning methods currently being adopted as part of the province’s revamped curricula for students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Tara Houle launched the petition, which calls for the return of traditional learning like rote memorization of multiplication tables. So far the petition has gathered more than 500 signatures.

“What I find is the biggest challenge is at the elementary level where we have a lot of math concepts being introduced to kids at a very young age,” said Houle. “It completely overwhelms their minds.”

Houle wants kids to develop a strong foundation of math skills before trying to learn “higher-order concepts.”

She believes new learning methods don’t stand up to research that supports explicit, direct instruction and memorization, adding that the U.K. and Australia had abandoned the new methods since adopting them.

Three different stories yet all linked. Part of the challenge with change in education is that one cannot change one part, without changing other parts as well.  If you alter the curriculum, you need to change assessment.  And if you modify assessment in K-12, you need to be sure it aligns with post-secondary admissions.  And if you are moving individual parts, you need to develop new models to lead the way on what the future of learning can look like.  And while you are doing all of this, you have to continue to ensure you have some social licence – some acceptance and approval from stakeholders and the broader community.

And on these three  items – what do I think?  I think encouraging innovation is a good thing and networking teachers and schools together is the right way to do it – so much better than a top-down approach.  I think assessment is changing and has been changing for many years.  My crystal ball says that we will be less reliant on letter grades in five years and that is a good thing.  And I think the math conversation is not a black / white dialouge.  There are fundamentals that all students absolutely need and they must be able to apply these concepts.  A return to the math teaching of a generation ago is not the answer – just ask how many parents had a good experience with math growing up but math teaching is a healthy discussion as it helps parents better understand what they can do to support their children at home.

But, as I said, the shifts are not just about these three issues – they are broader and it is heartening to see the media bringing these issues forward so we can have the rich discussions about teaching and learning for now and into the future.

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We have spent a lot of time in our district considering what digital literacy should look like at the primary level.  To its credit, DreamBox Learning has received strong reviews and many awards.  It is also one of the first digital tools, I have seen, which introduces students to learning in a digital environment, while offering ongoing and constructive feedback; it also includes a school-home connection — a key focus in our use of technology in the younger grades. Currently, 10 of our elementary schools are piloting the program.

We have had some success with a home-reading program that I wrote about earlier here, and DreamBox has similar potential with its school and home licensing components.

What I like about it so far:

  • the program adapts to the student’s abilities — so students can be working in the same classroom, but at their own level
  • it allows students to work through and solve problems — offering them assistance as they need it
  • real-time assessment for teachers (and for parents — if enabled for home use) is included; a recent addition of a program component allows for school-wide overviews — a great way to identify areas of focus in a school
  • students report the learning is fun — it is not about just taking math equations and putting them online; it is all built around digital manipulatives
  • students can spend 30 minutes working with the program in school, and then supplement this at home (or not)

What it doesn’t do:

  • DreamBox does not “replace” math and numeracy instruction
  • it is linked, but is not an exact match to curriculum

I have worked with it at home with my three oldest children, and the results have been impressive — it has given learning focus to some of their screen time, and they have become more confident in numeracy and solving problems in multiple ways.  In addition, as a parent, I have received feedback in ways I have never before with my kids’ learning, and this feedback has given me ideas for extension activities I can do with my kids.

As we make decisions for the fall, it will be interesting to hear the reactions of students, teachers and parents on the program’s value and the role they see DreamBox Learning playing.  In the marriage of personalized learning and technology, I think adaptive learning platforms — like that on display with DreamBox Learning — will become increasingly important.

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Today marks the release of the PISA 2009 assessment results.  And just what is PISA:

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an internationally standardised assessment that was jointly developed by participating economies and administered to 15-year-olds in schools.

Tests are typically administered to between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each country.

And just what does PISA look at?

PISA assesses how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in society. In all cycles, the domains of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy are covered not merely in terms of mastery of the school curriculum, but in terms of important knowledge and skills needed in adult life.

PISA, has absolutely become the World Cup of education excellence.  Over the last three years I have spoken to, hosted, and toured groups from around the world who specifically came to British Columbia to understand our high results.  Of course, the interest in Finland can also be traced directly to these assessments.  Finland has become education’s equivalent of soccer’s Brazil.

On the previously released results, Canada, and in particular Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, have performed among the very top performing jurisdictions in the world alongside Finland, Hong Kong and Korea (here is a summary of 2006 results).  Since education is under provincial jurisdiction in Canada, our results are further  broken out by province, while other jurisdictions are typically by country.  The PISA results are the often used antidote against those who question the quality of education in British Columbia and Canada.  We have a system looking to improve, but we are improving from a place of strength, and envy from around the world.

Today is announcement day.  There is a lot to dig into beyond the headlines, but my quick read indicates:

  • Korea and Finland are the top performing OECD countries, but Shanghai-China (a first time participant) outperforms them by a significant margin
  • Girls outperform boys in reading in every participating country
  • Canadian students continue to be near the top of OECD countries
  • British Columbia students perform above Canadian averages
  • Since 2000, British Columbia results have improved in science and declined in math and reading

From the OECD Press Release this morning, here are a few more key items they highlight:

• The best school systems were the most equitable — students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. However, schools that select students based on ability, show the greatest differences in performance by socio-economic background.
• High-performing school systems tend to prioritize teacher pay over smaller class sizes.
• Countries where students repeat grades more often tend to have worse results overall, with the widest gaps between children from poor and better-off families. Making students repeat years is most common in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain.
• High-performing systems allow schools to design curricula and establish assessment policies, but don’t necessarily allow competition for students.
• Schools with good discipline and better student-teacher relations, achieve better reading results.
• Public and private schools achieve similar results, after taking account of their home backgrounds.
• Combining local autonomy and effective accountability seems to produce the best results.
• The percentage of students who said they read for pleasure dropped from 69% in 2000, to 64% in 2009.

There is much more to dissect, and there is a lot of excellent data produced going deeper into the rankings, which will garner much of the attention.  PISA 2009 results are available here and the Executive Summary (a very good read) is available here.  Ontario has also released a summary of its results including a series of tables listing all Canadian provinces available here.

As the results are further examined, there is a lot to consider when looking at jurisdictions that have undergone major reform initiatives, and how this has translated into results.  A quick read indicates Ontario will likely be getting a lot of attention for its efforts in coming days.

Update: This link (here) is a summary of the results from Stats Canada.

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