What can we learn from Ontario?

Since the advent of PISA, Canada and the Canadian province of Ontario in particular have been held up as something of an exemplary education system. This is reasonable enough because Ontario has consistently performed above the average for OECD countries. On the PISA standardised scale that is intended to represent equivalent levels of performance over time, the OECD average hovers at or just below 500. The following chart maps Ontario’s performance since the first PISA assessments in 2000:

It would be easy to conclude that states that are not performing as well as Ontario should try to copy what Ontario is doing. There have certainly been efforts to study the Ontario system and disseminate the knowledge gained through this process. However, I think we need to be careful in making inferences in this way.

Firstly, mean PISA score differences between countries and states do not simply depend upon the quality of the education system. Demographics and levels of wealth will play a large part. So will cultural effects such as the value placed upon certain subjects and the amount of out-of-school tuition that takes place. These vary widely between different states.

Perhaps of more interest than a direct comparison between countries and states is the trend in any one country or state. Although demographics and cultures may change over time, they are likely to be far more static within one region than is the variation between regions. If a state is improving or declining then that might tell us something.

If we look at the Ontario data then it would be hard to conclude that it is improving. Performance seems to have peaked at around 2006. Since 2003 there has been a significant decline in maths performance. There has been a debate in Ontario about its maths curriculum and some have linked its embrace of constructivist teaching approaches to this decline. You cannot prove a cause with a correlation but in this case it strikes me as highly suggestive.

It is also worth noting the long lag between policy changes and an effect on PISA scores. PISA items are highly reading intensive and yet reading is taught in the early years of school whereas PISA assessments take place at age 15. So if we are keen to look at which policies might be most associated with Ontario’s peak year of 2006 then we would certainly need to include an examination of policies enacted in the late 1990s. In contrast, current initiatives and trends would tell us little.

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12 Comments on “What can we learn from Ontario?”

  1. Tempe says:

    Is there any information that tells us what Ontario was doing in the 1990’s? It would very interesting to compare.

    I believe something similar has happened in Alberta, Canada which was once one of the highest performing ed. systems in the world.

    • Robert Craigen says:

      In the 90s Ontario was still using curricula similar to that from the 70s and 80s. But even then there were signs of movement toward what Greg calls constructivism here (aside from the fact that this word is abused in Education circles, it does not adequately encompass the various “child-centered” ideas that took over the ed schools and, eventually, manifested rather broadly during the oughts).

      I agree with Greg that if americans are to emulate any Canadian province, Quebec’s performance makes it a more likely model. But state systems will find themselves unwilling to adopt the strong standards for teacher training in La Belle Provence. I do think their curriculum — insofar as its structure — which they call the “Progression of Learning”, has much to be admired. Its brevity and its relative lack of pedagogical doctrine mark it as more of a “pure” curriculum. I will warn that there are some absurdly weak placements for a few topics, but overall its elementary school learning outcomes compare well to Common Core. Warning: do not emulate Quebec’s fractions sequence!

      PISA is only one part of the story with Ontario. Their PCAP performance (PCAP being the cross-Canada equivalent of PISA) is also flat, though relatively high. Ontario’s performance on TIMSS math is statistically identical to that of the US at the Grade 8 level but significantly lower (by a large margin) at the Grade 4 level.

      Further, Ontario’s own provincial assessments are showing student achievement in Science and reading are steadily improving while that in math is declining.

      Taken together there is no evidence suggesting Ontario presents any kind of model for the US to emulate.

  2. David says:

    Re teacher training in the US: I’ve never had a student teacher (now called “pre-service educator,” whilst I was formerly a “master teacher,” and am now a “cooperating teacher”) who can dedicate him/herself to learning in my classroom. They are burdened with daily written self-realization reflections and other university imposed projects aiming at charging more tuition and submitted to supervisors who either couldn’t take the heat of the daily grind, or have retired. Although we have a math adoption that would satisfy Greg’s focus on explicit instruction and more, materials matter less than teacher training. Some study of teacher training might help this discussion. What happens in Ontario or Québec?

  3. tara houle says:

    British Columbia’s performance can also be examined and led to similar conclusions that Greg has alluded to. According to the PISA renkings, BC performed very well. But take a closer look: our performance has been stagnant since 2006 and also declined 16 points since 2003. Add to that a multi million dollar curriculum overhaul mandating 21st century learning in the classroom…is it any wonder our tutoring rates are so high, as parents scramble more than ever to ensure their kids get a chance at learning their times tables? Even if it’s outside the classroom?

    And yes…that niggling tutoring phenomenon. Educrats fail to acknowledge any link between high tutoring rates and student performance. Even so, THE BEST British Columbia students can do, is the same in Maths and Science over 11 years, while tutoring rates skyrocket.

    But you won’t see any official data reported on that, which is a real shame. Because that’s where the real story lies.

  4. bcphysics says:

    I’ve been scratching my head a bit at the PISA results, coming from BC. There’s lots of things to consider. Overall BC does excellent along with Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. I wonder why. I looked at the science test questions from 2012 and they have very little to do with the content covered in BC. I am very familiar with the BC curriculum, teaching science in high school as well as having kids go through the elementary system where science is typically not given much attention. The science portion of PISA was primarily a test on formal reasoning, imo. Therefore I think in general the PISA is measuring the health of the educational system. There is simply nothing remarkable to say about science education from K-10 in BC, other than the students are in a good system. My second hypothesis is that BC does well because of the amount of autonomy the teachers have.

    BC also does very well in math. I’ve read many op-eds over the years where people are spelling the doom of math in BC, partly because of the WNCP. That doesn’t appear to be happening. Can BC keep improving? Of course.

    BC had the top score in reading, and maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. BC has put a lot of attention on early reading. Perhaps this has been at the expense of mathematics.

    If PISA tells us anything about how to improve, a cynic would say the obvious focus would be to instill a more authoritarian culture.

    In terms of tutoring. Asian countries that look to be doing the best in PISA have extreme amounts (my opinion) of school hours and tutoring. If PISA results are the goal, and I’m not saying that they are, then reducing tutoring doesn’t seem like the best path forward. I do recognize that tutoring is on the rise in BC and I assume elsewhere in Canada. Surely this is partially due to the competitiveness to get in university. Taking it easy and getting a 78% average doesn’t cut it anymore. Kids start talking about university as early as grade 6 and there is a lot of anxiety. For me, anxiety in schools is THE issue we should be focusing on right now.

    I’m not saying that places like BC should not strive to improve. Improvement is the heart of professional development and something that I take very seriously. Greg’s blog is one piece that helps play a role in improvement.

  5. Nick says:

    Yes, people like Fullan and Sahlberg have all sorts of buzzword riddled opinions about why a jurisdiction they were lucky enough to be vaguely involved with was a success at a point in the past… and have the wherewithal to moniterise that proximity.

    Read this blog from an Ontario teacher and decide for yourself if the past success was because of the vacuous rantings of Fullan or the veteran teachers who chose to ignore him at the detriment to their career… then read the rest of his blogs (highly recommended. And I’ve read Ashman.) As a parent I would feel honoured if he was my child’s teacher. And talk about teaching critical thinking!

    https://poeticdevicesx.wordpress.com/2014/09/09/to-the-stratosphere-and-beyond/

  6. Stan says:

    You can get some insight into the direction of education in Ontario by checking out what they offer as good research for teachers to use under the banner “Inspire, What Works? Research Into Practice”.

    This is one on project based learning:.

    http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/WW_BestPractices.pdf

    Apparently “The strengths of PBL are well documented online” if you give the Buck institute carte blanche as the final authority on it.

    A key problem with PBL is identified- “At its worst, PBL can be perceived by both teachers and students as an inefficient use of time14 that does not sufficiently address the
    depth of subject knowledge needed by students. By effectively employing
    the same techniques that professional project managers use, teachers
    can circumvent the risks to PBL and help young people acquire the
    21st century habits of mind that will be indispensable to them in
    their lives.”

    Notice the problem is described as a perception not the actual opportunity cost in time and effort compared to alternatives. The solution given just do what professional project managers do ignores that professional project managers have spent on specialized training from experts in order to become a novice project manager. Normally you wouldn’t put someone who just finished their training in charge of teaching everyone else.

    This completely uncritical promotion of PBL fails to address the problems of social loafing and the opportunity cost of spending everyone’s time on it.


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