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.