Education: the Canadian advantage

It came as something of a shock when the latest international school performance tests showed that 15-year-olds in Shanghai did better than anyone else in the world in reading, math and science exams. Welcome to the new China.

It came as something of a shock when the latest international school performance tests showed that 15-year-olds in Shanghai did better than anyone else in the world in reading, math and science exams. Welcome to the new China.

The tests, conducted under the Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA, are managed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and measure student performance around the world. What last year’s test showed was that Asia is rapidly raising the educational attainment of its young people, which will provided a significant economic advantage in the years ahead — especially since Asian countries are also promoting university attendance.

In an increasingly competitive global economy, education, or what we call human capital, is the most important factor in determining which societies do best in achieving jobs and prosperity.

People are the basic foundation for a successful society though, of course, other factors are also important, particularly a culture that embraces creativity, risk-taking and entrepreneurship.

Not only did Shanghai — admittedly the most advanced city-region in a country of 1.3 billion people — come first in all three subjects but in reading Korea came second, Hong Kong fourth, Singapore sixth and Japan eighth. In science, Singapore came second, Hong Kong third, Korea fourth and Japan sixth. In math, Singapore came second, Hong Kong third, Korea fourth, Taiwan sixth and Japan ninth.

Canada, to be sure, did reasonably well. It ranked sixth in reading, eighth in science and tenth in math. This is much better than the U.S. — and a Canadian advantage — which ranked 17th in reading, 14th in science and 26th in math.

Digging down into the numbers reinforces the Canadian advantage, compared to the U.S. In Canada, 39.6 per cent of 15-year-olds were at levels 5 and 6, the top levels, in reading. This is not as good as Korea, where 45.8 of students are at that level, or Finland, where 45.1 per cent are. But it is much better than the U.S., where only 30.5 per cent of 15-year-olds are at the top two levels, or Britain, where only 27.8 per cent are.

Unfortunately, some 10.3 per cent of Canadians are at the lowest level of achievement, level 1. This compares with 5.8 per cent in Korea and 8.1 per cent in Finland. But in the U.S. it is 17.6 per cent and in Britain 18.4 per cent.

Canada does reasonably well into two other areas. For instance, it achieves a reasonably high level of performance throughout its school system, which means that almost all schools do a comparable job of achieving a reasonably high level of performance.

The difference between the achievement of young people from families in the lowest socio-economic grouping and those in the highest is much less in Canada than in the United States.

Likewise, despite a high proportion of immigrant students, Canada does an effective job — better than other countries — of integrating newcomers into its school system, so that immigrant children achieve roughly the same performance as native-born Canadians.

So in many respects, Canada meets the OECD definition of a successful school system.

According to the OECD, successful school systems, meaning those that have above-average performance with relatively small gaps between those from wealthy families and those from disadvantaged families, are those that “provide all students, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, with similar opportunities to learn.”

In this sense, public investment in good education creates not only a fairer society with greater opportunity for all but also generates greater economic success by enabling many more young people to move to their potential.

But despite the accomplishments of our school system, there remains room for improvement. For example, too many students are stuck in lower levels of performance. Boys are having an array of problems and Canada’s scores since 2000 have slipped slightly. Canada can also do much more in early childhood development.

As the OECD report pointed out, “students who had attended pre-primary school tend to perform better than students who have not.” To move to the next level, we should focus now on the earliest years of life — this will yield the greatest benefits.

Canada’s goal should be to create the best educated, including the most creative and entrepreneurial, society in the world. As the PISA tests show, we are partway there already, which means we are well-positioned to do even better if we choose. To succeed in the coming decades, that will be essential.

David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at