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Posts Tagged ‘PISA’

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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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Photo Credit:  Prasan Naik

Photo Credit: Prasan Naik

The first wave of national rankings from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)  are receiving a lot of attention, but there is some very interesting data which tends to emerge from these results over time, often informative and often challenging our assumptions.  This graph from the Key Findings document did just that (you may have to click on the image to enlarge it):

motivate

According to the PISA Reports, “Stratification in school systems, which is the result of policies like grade repetition and selecting students at a young age for different “tracks” or types of schools, is negatively related to equity; and students in highly stratified systems tend to be less motivated than those in less-stratified systems.”

This is the latest contribution in the forever-long debate about the streaming of students. It is interesting to see the negative relationship regarding motivation. The equity issue could be understood — as students are streamed, those requiring more assistance tend to not get it, and lower level classes may receive less experienced teachers and fewer resources. But, it is the findings around motivation I find very interesting. I have often heard (and have likely repeated) that enriched/advanced classes allow high achievers to work with similar learners, allowing another group of students to be the high flyers in the ‘regular’ classes — opportunities they may not have had without the streaming.  The PISA results tend to counter this. It is interesting to see that Canada is low in streaming internationally, but high in equity and motivation.  The current push in British Columbia and Canada, around personalization and differentiation, embraces the idea that there are different levels of learners learning together in a classroom.

I also recently read an article from author, commentator and sports contributor, John O’Sullivan, Our Biggest Mistake:  Talent selection instead of talent identification which Alison McNeil shared on Twitter. This article takes on a similar topic, in the sports arena.  In it, O’Sullivan describes the differences between those who select talent and those who identify talent:

Talent selection is the culling of players with the current ability to participate and be successful in events taking place in the near future. Talent identification, on the other hand, is the prediction of future performance based upon an evaluation of current physical, technical, tactical and psychological qualities. Talent selection is pretty simple; talent identification is an art. One yields great results today; the other builds elite athletes and winning teams for the future. Our current “win at all costs” youth sports culture promotes talent selection. When a coach is pressured to win by parents or a club, or when he or she feels the need to win to serve their own ego, that coach becomes a talent selector. When you are focused on talent selection, you are picking athletes to help you win now, and cutting ones that will not. You are looking at current athleticism, technical ability and traits to help achieve short-term success.

O’Sullivan concludes “the emphasis on winning prior to high school is destroying youth sports.” And while he is making his argument to a United States audience the same debate occurs in Canada. While the Long Term Athletic Development Stages are being adopted by many sports organizations, it is also being scoffed at by others who see the de-emphasis on competition at young ages as a terrible sign of the times. It is interesting to take O’Sullivan’s writings, and substitute “learner” for “athlete” and “student selection” for “talent selection”. Enriched classes are very much like our private, tiered sports programs.  I have heard similar arguments for streaming young people in sports as young as five, as I have with enriched classes — they allow the high flyers to play with others like them, and allow others to excel at a lower level without the high flyers present.

O’Sullivan makes the argument that U.S. (and I would say Canadian) sports programs are in deep trouble unless there is a radical shift away from talent selection and toward talent identification. I see this as a similar argument that the PISA results are making with learning around the world — those who select and stream talented students instead of identifying and personalizing learning are bound to have less equity and lower levels of motivation.

This is another example of how efforts in our schools like removing letter grades at younger ages, and focusing on learning, are similar to efforts in our community sports to remove the keeping score and tallying of winners at young ages. While some argue these efforts are reducing standards and rigor, research is showing we need to look at youth development differently.

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“It is what it is.” That was my first reaction to the PISA 2012 results released last week (Full Canadian Results).  PISA (The Programme for International Student Assessment) is designed to provide indicators of the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students across the world (please see here for more backgrounder information on PISA).  While the assessment tool does measure a limited set of skills, there is much PISA doesn’t measure. And, true, PISA continues to tilt toward 20th century over 21st century skills, but it is still  the world’s best, widely used assessment tool on how we are doing in education and on providing guidance for education improvement.

Although much attention is given to the ranking part of the tests, as Yong Zhao points out, even those at the top are wondering about their success:

While the East Asian systems may enjoy being at the top of international tests, they are not happy at all with the outcomes of their education. They have recognized the damages of their education for a long time and have taken actions to reform their systems. Recently, the Chinese government again issued orders to lessen student academic burden by reducing standardized tests and written homework in primary schools. The Singaporeans have been working on reforming its curriculum and examination systems. The Koreans are working on implementing a “free semester” for the secondary students. Eastern Asian parents are willing and working hard to spend their life’s savings finding spots outside these “best” education systems. Thus international schools, schools that follow the less successful Western education model, have been in high demand and continue to grow in East Asia. Tens of thousands of Chinese and Korean parents send their children to study in Australia, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of the parents in China would send their children to an American school instead of keeping them in the “best performing” Chinese system, if they had the choice.

But, if one does want to buy into the assessment, we need to do more than use the results to search for our flaws or accentuate our ideologies.  It has been disappointing and discouraging to see some of the commentary in British Columbia, and across the country in response to the results.  I suspect most who have commented (for example) on the need to “focus on the basics” to raise scores haven’t looked at the problem-solving questions that PISA asks (not very back-to-basics questions).

So, while acknowledging the limits of using the nation “rankings”,  let me share some of the insights I have gleaned from my first look at the results and some stories you may have not seen:

1)  British Columbia was the highest performing English-speaking jurisdiction in the world

British Columbia is not only the highest performing province in Canada, but ahead of all other English-speaking participating nations including Australia, United States, United Kingdom, and New Zealand (to name a few).  If you look at countries in general, Canada would be first in this category.

2)  British Columbia was the highest performing multicultural jurisdiction in the world

One characteristic that other countries at the top of the charts do not share with British Columbia and Canada is its diversity.  In language and cultural diversity, BC and Canada stand out as the highest performing on the assessments.

3)  British Columbia was the highest-performing province in Canada in science and reading and second to Quebec in Math

British Columbia has typically been among the strongest performing provinces in each area (typically with Alberta, Ontario and Quebec).  The most recent results show BC was first in science, ahead of Alberta and Ontario.  Reading on, the same three provinces performed at the top level in Canada, and again, all near the top of the International charts. In math, Quebec led the way with BC, Alberta and Ontario following.  It is worth noting, of those who completed the digital math assessment, BC was the highest performing province (more on digital below).

4)  There was both excellence and equity in British Columbia’s results

The difference between the high and low achievers in BC (those between the 90th and 10th percentile) is lower than in all of Canada, and the OECD, in all three disciplines. The gap is also lower than that in Finland (often cited for its high level of achievement and equity) in both Reading and Science.

5)  British Columbia’s results have been steady for the last decade

In absolute terms, since 2006, British Columbia’s results have been fairly steady. It is true that in Mathematics in particular, in relative terms BC (and all of Canada) has declined — in part due to more countries participating, and also because of the improvements in several Asian countries.

And then beyond these headlines, there is other interesting data:

There is a lot to analyze and much more that will come out from the OECD over the next year.  One piece of information that was particularly interesting in the first report was how much less the gender gap was in reading when the test was completed on a computer.  For those using print reading, the BC gap in scores (in favour of girls) was 26 points, but when completed digitally, the gap was only 14 points.  Across Canada there was similar data indicating a shrinking of the gender gap when the reading was digital.  This is incredibly interesting given the increase in digital print we currently encounter — and just one of the many pieces of data that is worth taking the time to better understand.

It is also a given that there are many ways in which our system can improve, and those who make the case for more services, new programs and innovative approaches are right. And, yes, socio-economics and issues like poverty matter. It is also true that BC has an amazing education system.  It is interesting to see what a more positive view the British seem to have of our results in Canada — having such a quality teaching force in BC is our huge advantage.

Now, let’s get past the rankings part and focus on the learning part — what we can learn from others about how we can improve the experiences for our students both locally and globally.  And, let’s not spend our time thinking about how we can get better at the tests, but instead focus our attention and system on how it can help our kids for their world today and for tomorrow.

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I didn’t know what to expect once I arrived in Finland. I did know that over the last couple of years they had become the ‘rock stars’ of education.  And, there is still a lot we can learn, but the big lesson? There is nothing magical going on in education in Finland.

Just like a child’s game on the telephone, over the last few years, a narrative has been told and retold — pulling out parts of the Finnish experience in creating a utopian view of learning for all to aspire to.  We have heard about how teachers in Finland are valued and respected like in no other profession; how all teachers have Master’s degrees, and how all students attend their local schools with a relentless commitment to high levels of trust and equity.

There IS a lot to like and some qualities are:

  • Their teacher-education programs are consistent and research-based
  • They take a longterm view of education, educational policy and election cycles seem unrelated
  • Teachers are well-trained prior to and during their careers
  • A high level of trust throughout the sector and within all groups involved
  • The ability of students to move between academic and technical streams
  • Deep connections between different levels of schooling including K-12 and post-secondary
  • Lack of hierarchy (students address teachers by their first name) and there are strong student parliaments – an emphasis on democracy
  • Strong cultural paradigms that permeate society and influence education

They also have many of our same challenges:

  • Roles of parents – how to become involved, but how to properly define what that looks like
  • Concerns over teacher compensation and workload
  • An ageing society with growing expenditures/stresses on health care
  • A growing migration and multicultural school setting
  • Student safety and bullying
  • Appropriate class sizes
  • Usage of digital learning resources in schools
  • The role of non-formal and informal learning
  • Differences in learning results between girls and boys, and between schools
  • Implementing the national development plan at the local level
  • Evidence-based leadership

I leave Finland even more convinced we shouldn’t try to model our system after theirs.  Jorma Kauppinen, Director of General Education at the National Board of Finnish Education agrees, arguing “you can’t copy or follow [Finnish education] it is part of our history and values.” It is not every country that proudly declares its commitment to a welfare state, and so deeply holds values like the best school is the closest school because every school is a good school.  Admirable – but so deep in their culture that it is not easily transferable.

I was also struck by one particular line, on one of the slides from the Director of Education – that the Finnish curriculum (and system) was aligned to PISA.  So, that clearly begs the question, if measures change on what we value over the next decade, and we further embrace a different set of competencies, will Finland still be the perfect education model?  Finland also realizes this possibility, as their efforts to transform their system are at least as strong as those in British Columbia.

We should learn from Finland’s experiences and continue to chart a journey to where Finland is going next.  What was particularly exhilarating about the work in Finland, was their generosity towards learning together and commitment to learning side-by-side British Columbia, and other jurisdictions around the world.  I think we definitely can take lessons in their civility and alignment in the education sector.

In looking ahead, I am inclined to paraphrase Bruce Beairsto (from BCSSA Conference — spring 2012) we should not try to be Finland, we should work to be a better version of ourselves.

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Why make the case for change in a system with an outstanding track record of education outcomes? Because there are potential pitfalls and challenges ahead:

  • A skills shortage
  • Difficulty integrating 21st century skills into curriculum
  • Too strong a content orientation
  • Inadequate and ineffective use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) in Education
  • A growth of differing and conflicting learning outcomes
  • Low satisfaction levels in schools

And there are more on the list.  Now, before you begin typing your response that I have unfairly vilified our outstanding education system in British Columbia, I am not describing British Columbia, but rather Finland. And these are not my thoughts, but those of Timo Lankinen, Director General at the Finnish National Board of Education, as recently expressed in his presentation, Making a case for change in a successful system (Finnish basic education).  The list is from a more complete slide in his presentation:

Finland has been setting the world benchmark, so many of us are chasing.  However, while they are widely seen as the strongest in the world, they have embarked on a change agenda.

These are the questions being asked (from Lankinen’s presentation):

  • Are we picking up on the warning signals about the growing differences between schools and learning outcomes, and provision of education?
  • Do we highlight higher-order skills, citizen skills needed for future lives in a systematic way?
  • Do we enable teachers and students to flourish? Do we notice and care about non-conforming students?
  • And what about . . .
  • Individual aspirations?
  • Engaging students (book learning versus experiential learning)?
  • Technology use?
  • Integration of the Arts and PE?
What does their agenda look like for change?
  • More individual freedom to choose between subjects
  • Multidisciplinary subject groups
  • Increase of minimum instruction time
  • A more diversified language program
  • Increase of the Arts and PE
  • Highlight 21st century skills – citizen skills
  • Educational use of ICT
There is more depth to their work than what can be summarized in a post, but the Finns are asking, “Can we effectively lead a systemic change for better learning in the future?”
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It was quite a remarkable presentation, because the content was familiar; it is very similar to the conversations we are having in British Columbia, another one of the very highest performing education systems in the world.  It is also a narrative I hadn’t previously heard, as so many have told the Finnish story.  There are differences in direction and our systems, but the overarching themes envisioned for both of these systems are quite similar.
        .    
So, it is not only the under-performing systems that are looking to innovate, but the very best in the world as well.  I have said several times in West Vancouver, and borrowing a line from a former colleague in Coquitlam, “you don’t have to be sick to get better.”

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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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