The above quote, easily one of my favourites this year, comes from one Daniel Koretz, an education professor out of Harvard University. The topic? Educational reform in the United States.
Just last week, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, (OECD) released the results of their flag ship educational assessment test, the PISA. (Program for International Student Assessment). The results showed that when it comes to reading, American kids have not seen much improvement over the past two decades. According to the New York Times, the reading level of American teens has been “stagnant” since 2000, despite the efforts of governments on both sides of the political spectrum. Whether it was Bush and his No Child Left Behind or Obama with his Race to the Top, America’s efforts to improve test scores have seemingly failed.
Now, I want to be very clear on something. PISA results mean absolutely nothing. The tests do not predict a country’s future economic growth. They do not predict a country’s ability to compete globally. They do not predict future career success, nor are they in any way, shape or form of any value educationally. There is absolutely no connection between PISA scores and anything else. Period.
However, since about 2000, the assault on teachers in the United States because of middle-of-the-pack PISA scores has been as relentless as it has been devastating. American policy makers have developed a hyper-focus on standardized test scores, mostly driven by the folks who make money producing standardized tests. Schools have closed, teachers have been fired, and an entire generation of American school children have suffered because reformists have sold the idea that adopting a business based approach will improve education. They have created such a state of affairs that the number of people choosing to pursue teacher training in the US has plummeted by one third since 2010. And if PISA scores are the judge, all that pain and angst has been for nothing.
Here in Canada, we are not immune to the sky-is-falling rhetoric created by test scores. For example, when the PISA results were released on Tuesday, Manitoba’s low standing received a fair amount of media attention in that province. Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen characterized the results as “not acceptable”, and grudgingly agreed he bore some responsibility. He was also quick to point out, however, that it was the NDP, not his government, who were in power during the years this test covered.
As far as Nova Scotia is concerned, commentary on this round of testing has been relatively quiet. That may be due to the fact that Nova Scotia did relatively well. When it came to reading, we were 4th in the country with an overall score of 516, behind Alberta (532), Ontario (524), Quebec (519) and BC (519). Considering that we are the only province with a growing child poverty rate, missing being 3rd in the country by 4 points is pretty impressive. Yet, surprisingly, our success has received little positive media attention.
I say surprisingly, but I am really not that surprised. That is because these results fly directly in the face of so much of the commentary lobbed at our education system over the past few years, most of it negative. If you remember in 2014, the Liberals assembled a panel to embark upon a once in two decades review our education system. That was the beginning of a veritable maelstrom of unrest which included march-in-the-streets protests, a work-to-rule campaign, and our province’s first ever teacher’s strike.
At issue was the notion that our education system was broken. If we did not move quickly, our students were in danger of “falling behind” globally, or so we were told. It was unclear who our students would fall behind, or in what context, but suffice it to say that ridiculously subjective declaration was taken as a call to action. As evidence that our students were being left in a cloud of global-competition dust, the government pointed to our test scores. The minister’s panel stated that “The assessment results of Nova Scotian students reveal that our students are not performing well in comparison to other provinces.” In 2015, then education minister Karen Casey expressed that “Time and again, test results show our students are falling behind in math and literacy, nationally and internationally.” Finally, in 2018, the same year that the PISA was written, Avis Glaze wrote, “The results in these tests are simply not good enough. Nova Scotian students, parents and communities deserve better outcomes.”
In an effort to improve these test scores, the Liberal government took steps. They tore up the teachers contract in an effort to improve teaching, pulled principals out of their union in an effort to make them more effective managers, and abolished democratically elected school boards for reasons that no one quite seems to understand. All in the name of improving test scores.
PISA results mean absolutely nothing. The tests do not predict a country’s future economic growth. They do not predict a country’s ability to compete globally. They do not predict future career success, nor are they in any way, shape or form of any value educationally. Yet time and again, they are used to justify everything from increasing teacher accountability to stripping away of collective bargaining rights.
Just once I would like to see them used to point out how scores like 516 see Nova Scotia missing being among the top 10 educational systems in the world, tied with educational icon, Finland, by less than one percent.
The 15 year old’s who wrote PISA in 2018 were in junior high during some of this province’s most educationally tumultuous years. Yet somehow, the teachers of this province, our teachers, managed to give our kids a world class education. I must agree with Professor Koretz. Something in our education system just isn’t working.
But that something sure as heck is not our teachers.