Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Canada’s culture of excellence in education

CLRV #4059 travels along the Main Street bridg...Image via Wikipedia
Andy Hargreaves
Last year, I was driving through Toronto when I spied a bumper sticker ahead. It didn’t proclaim “God Bless Canada” or even “Proud to be Canadian.” It simply said “Content to be Canadian!” That’s Canada in a nutshell. Canada scores quite well (but not spectacularly) on a range of international indicators: 8th in human development, 25th most equal, 14th least corrupt, and characteristically half way on UNICEF’s index of child well-being.
Canada ranks in the middle of lots of things, except perhaps hockey, the Winter Olympics and now, education. Last month, the media had a feeding frenzy over the release by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of the results of their Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The big story was the prominence of Asian countries on the top-10 list. What the media elsewhere overlooked was the strong performance of Canada.
Canada ranked 6th overall, and the OECD picked out Canada as one of four “strong performers” and “successful reformers.”
Strictly speaking, though, the OECD concentrated not on the whole of Canada but on just one province: Ontario. In a video promotion of PISA’s policy implications, the OECD’s change guru, Andres Schleicher, praises Canada for its positive approach to immigration that is evident in narrow achievement gaps between students from different social backgrounds. Then, without explanation, he switches to Ontario. It’s as if Ontario stands for all of Canada.
The province is praised for its urgent focus on measurable improvement in literacy and numeracy; 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 students or schools; and then its response: to “flood” these schools with resources, technical assistance and support. Bravo, Ontario!
But here’s the puzzle. Ontario isn’t the only high-performing province on PISA. On reading literacy, Alberta leads, followed by Ontario and British Columbia. On math, Quebec leads, followed by Alberta and Ontario. On science, Alberta leads, followed by B.C. and Ontario. Some of these differences are tiny — barely a percentage point or so. Yet the policies and strategies are often quite different.
Take Alberta. There, the Conservative government has supported an $80-million-per-year program spanning more than a decade to support school-designed innovations in more than 90 per cent of the province’s schools. It doesn’t have government targets and it doesn’t concentrate so tightly on literacy and numeracy. In many ways, it’s the opposite of Ontario. So perhaps we should give bigger applause to Alberta for its bottom-up approach? Or to B.C.! Or Quebec! The provinces have different policies, different relationships between government and teachers’ unions, and different parties in power — but the PISA results are pretty much the same. What’s going on?
There’s obviously something about Canada, or at least the more prosperous parts of it. Canada has some striking commonalities with Finland, the only non-Asian performer above it in the OECD ranking. Both countries value teachers and insist on a professional program of university-based training for all public-school teachers. Working conditions are favourable with good facilities, acceptable pay, wide availability of professional development, and discretion for teachers to make their own professional judgments. Both countries have a strong commitment to public schools and only a very modest 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 make them more competitive internationally.
Being Canadian is not about occupying the middle ground in everything. 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 makes 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 compared to poorer PISA performers, like the U.S. (17th) and U.K. (24th). Let’s be content to be Canadian in most things if we must, but Canadians in general — Ontarians, Albertans, British Columbians and Québécois alike — should feel proud to be among the world’s very best in education.
Andy Hargreaves is the Brennan Chair in Education at Boston College. Although he lives in the U.S., he is content to be Canadian.
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