I have returned from hiatus. It was supposed to last a summer. Instead it lasted a year. I was busy with other projects that seemed important at the time. But I have returned, alas, because I need a place where I can rant about ed policy to my heart's content. Friends, loved ones, and my faithful dog are sick of hearing about it.
My latest rant is not actually about U.S. ed policy, but rather, about the world of U.S. ed policy scholarship and journalism. Those of you who have read this blog before know that while I am bitterly opposed to high stakes testing, I believe that low or no-stakes testing is informative (i.e., exhibits high levels of psychometric validity) and necessary. Therefore, I respect and pay attention to the NAEP (administered to 4th, 8th, and 12th graders within the U.S., measuring a variety of subject areas), TIMSS (administered internationally to 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, measuring math and science), PIRLS (sister test to the TIMSS in reading), and PISA (focusing chiefly on industrialized countries, administered to 11th graders, measuring reading, math, and science).
Today, I was perusing recent PISA and TIMSS results, looking to retroactively settle a debate that my boyfriend and I recently had about the international rank of France's public education system. (It went on a little bit longer than it should have because neither of us had access to a smart phone.) I noticed something that I've noticed before, but have never spent much time thinking about: Canadian high school students do a damn good job on international tests.
Consider the performance of Canadian 15-year-olds on the PISA:
Canada is not, I should point out, as good on the TIMSS as it is on the PISA, with the exception of the 12th grade TIMSS. This makes perfect sense, since the PISA (again) measures 11th graders, and the TIMMS measures 4th, 8th, and 12th graders. So, there is something about Canadian high schools that is to be envied, admired, and quite possibly, imitated by we Americans.
But what? In general, the performance of Canadian 4th and 8th graders is fairly comparable to American 4th and 8th graders. But the performance of Canadian high schoolers ranks up there with Asia (China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan all do famously well on international tests) and Finland. So what happens in Canadian high schools that rockets its students to the region occupied by the world's best and brightest?
In case you read this far expecting an answer, I must confess that I don't have one. The purpose of today's post is instead to point out the lack of dialogue in the United States surrounding the high achievement of Canadian high schoolers. Newsweek, Time, and/or U.S. News & World Report runs a feature article every five minutes about cultural differences between the U.S. and [insert Asian country X with high international test scores here], and how this translates into the achievement of X's students, leaving many open questions about the social health of individuals living in X, and also, whether the U.S. would want to sacrifice its ability to foster creative, business-minded individuals who can Work in Teams and Network Like Nobody's Business for higher test scores. It seems, moreover, that a bazillion American researchers go to Finland each year on Fulbrights to find out exactly what Finnish public schools are doing. (And we know the answer: high levels of resources poured into the education system, teaching is considered a prestigious occupation and pays accordingly, but Finland is a small socialist democracy with overall low levels of poverty and a highly homogeneous sociopolitical culture, and can't really be compared to the United States in the first place. Etc.)
Why is nobody talking about Canada? From the world's most prolific ed blogger, Eduwonk, a mere ten posts mentioning the word "Canada" since 2004. Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier are always talking about Finland on Bridging Differences, but never their neighbor to the north. I tried to find a book by an American education researcher about why Canada's public high schools are so great, but I'm fairly certain that it doesn't exist.
So what is it? Percentage-wise, Canada spends less of its GDP on education than the U.S., and has a lower GDP (both per capita and overall) than the U.S., so it can't be spending. Is it simply that Canada has lower poverty/inequality than the U.S.? Or is it something structural: better school leadership, more teacher autonomy, less teacher autonomy, smaller class sizes, bigger class sizes, more differentiation/tracking, less differentiation/tracking, some combination of the aforementioned, something not aforementioned? Or is it something in the water? Readers (do you exist, still?), send me articles, studies, personal anecdotes. Send me a library record to a book about why Canada is so awesome, and I'll read it. (The book, not just the library record. I desperately want to know.)