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International Standards: Why Has Canada Plateaued and the United States Slipped?

Canadian 15-year-olds achieved respectable results while their American counterparts plummeted on the latest international rankings of mathematics, science and reading skills. On the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests released December 7, 2010, Canada finished 8th among 65 OECD countries in mathematics, 7th in science, and 5th in reading. Americans were stunned by the latest results, placing their students 31st in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. Of greatest concern to North Americans was the fact that five of the top ten countries were Asian, led by Shanghai-China, Singapore, and Korea.

The abysmal American PISA rankings sparked sheer panic, prominently featured in the New York Times.  Harking back to the Soviet Sputnik scare of the mid-1950s, Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, described it as “a Sputnik moment” for Americans.  “Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik,” he said. “I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 50 cities in 2019, and in 100 cities by 2029.”


For the full story see:


International tests provide one of the few reliable yardsticks in trying to assess the quality of education and
levels of student performance.

The 2009 PISA results and rankings will be debated for years, dominated by a few key questions: 

Why have China, Singapore and Korea surged ahead, leaving the United States
behind in the “Race to the Top”?
Where do Canada and the U.S. really rank in terms of student performance levels? And will the PISA results produce a seismic shift in North America comparable to the Sputnik scare of fifty years ago?

Views: 20

Comment by Fred Bartels on December 31, 2010 at 1:05pm



Some other takes on this issue.


And as regards Chester Finn. He represents one end of the political spectrum regarding public schools. Diane Ravitch has another take on school.





Comment by Paul W. Bennett on December 31, 2010 at 2:37pm

Yes, the American School Wars appear to have become the new Cold War in terms of ideological conflict. Living as we do in the GReat White North (in the shadow of the continental elephant), we tend to have different points of reference.


It's possible up here to see the value in both Checker Finn's pronouncements and Diane Ravitch's iconoclastic book. Don't you think that Alexander Russo is a better guide in sorting out the contradictions?


Since the publication of Ravitch's The Death and Life  ( on March 10, 2010). I have come to view her more as an iconoclast that a late "convert" to "educational progressivism." LIke Russo, I worry that she has become a "rock star" for teacher unionism. If Albert Shanker was around, he might have  had  the courage to express similar reservations about the recent "love-ins."

Comment by Fred Bartels on January 1, 2011 at 2:22pm



We are going to have to agree to disagree about Diane Ravitch. I agree that she is not a convert to progressive education, she in fact closes Death and Life asserting that she is a traditionalist who now views the public schools that she grew up with as being very important to American society. She, like many of us, is quite worried that public schools are threatened by policies being advocated by neocon educational "reformers." Ravitch believes that there are no easy solutions for creating good schools. My 28 years in education, working in schools with tremendous resources and highly-motivated students, confirms that belief. The simplistic market-based solutions being pushed by conservatives are not the answer.


Regarding the great PISA scare which Finn calls another Sputnik moment. According to this article in the Wall Street Journel, we can calm down just a bit.



Comment by Paul W. Bennett on January 2, 2011 at 2:34pm

Touche, Fred!

Jiang Xueqin’s opinion piece from The Wall Street Journal (December 8, 2010) does raise a critical question, Fred.  In spite of those extraordinary Chinese test results and much like us, educators there bemoan
the lack of critical and creative thinking among their students:

Generalizing about the state of national education systems comes easily in the immediate wake of the PISA results. Several contributors to Educhatter's Blog have have warned us of this tendency and of the need to look deeper. Whether you agree with Jiang Xueqin or not, it might well
suggest that no one, so far, has gotten it right when it comes to
producing high performing, critically aware student graduates.

Comment by Bill Ivey on January 2, 2011 at 10:44pm

I read Anthony Cody's "Living in Dialogue" blog regularly, and always find it informative. Yong Zhao has another great blog article on this specific topic (an ongoing area of focus for him), "A True Wake-Up Call for Arne Duncan: The Real Reason Behind Chinese...." As I understand it, the Chinese indeed  want to increase creative and critical thinking skills in their students, and in fact they are among the many foreign nations successfully applying what can be learned from American pedagogical research. Meanwhile, our own government and prominent "reformers" ignore the implications of our own research and have us running headlong in the exact opposite direction. Irony intended.

Fred, I know you follow @DianeRavitch on Twitter. Paul, if you are on Twitter, I would highly recommend following her for at least a period of time. It will give you a good sense of where her current thinking is.

Comment by Paul W. Bennett on January 3, 2011 at 8:40am

The Net Generation’s pied piper Don Tapscott has teamed up with Anthony D. Williams to rattle a few cages in education. Their recent article, “Logged on to Learn” (The Toronto Globe and Mail, Dec. 31, 2010) offers
a truly unique perspective on educatiing students for the current

Of all the futurists, Tapscott has the best track record for seeing what’s coming. When he speaks, I pay attention.

My friend Michael Bowen of Mount SAint Vincent University's  Faculty of Education alerted me to this key passage in the article:


“We’re slipping in international standings because almost every school in the country employs an outmoded model of pedagogy. Right now we have “broadcast learning,” with the teacher as expert at the front of
the class, and the students as novices in a universal,
one-size-fits-all model. “Chalk and talk” classrooms are a jarring
disconnect to media-savvy, plugged-in students. In contrast to their
life out of school, in the classroom they have no control, no
connectivity, no media, no action, no immersion and no networks.

To connect with today’s youth, we need to move to a customized and collaborative model of education that embraces 21st-century technology and techniques. This isn’t a case of pandering to today’s youth; it’s
making sure our kids are the best they can be. ”


Competing globally means embracing technology and turning it to our purposes in education. Those of us who believe in raising standards need to pay more attention to incorporating learning techologies into the

Comment by Sarah Hanawald on January 3, 2011 at 9:38am

Larry Ferlazzo (of Website of the Day fame) wrote a blog post listing several sites discussing test scores.  His post is titled: The Best Sites for Getting Some Perspective on International Test Comparison Demagoguery.  Among the articles listed is another by Yong Zhao in the NY Times, this one titled High Test Scores, Low Ability.  The gist is that success in getting into college in China does not correlate to success after college.



Comment by Paul W. Bennett on January 3, 2011 at 10:42am

Growing social inequalities are seriously damaging the American educational system. We Canadians  are far better off than Americans when it comes to providing a basic, solid level of education across class
lines. The Canadian provincial systems, whatever their other failings,
are working to mediate( to some degree) the SES factors affecting the
quality of education.


One of the OECD sub-reports, assesses Education Reform efforts in various countries outside the United States.  Finland, as usual, gets the lion's share of attention, even though their scores have dropped by 11% since 2000. In the case of Canada, Ontario is cited as the exemplary model for teacher-driven education reform.  While I have serious concerns about the veracity of those claims, the Ontario system does perform well when it comes to mediating the effects of SES factors in education. It's no accident because Dr. Ben Levin and Charles Pascal have made this their priority in retrofitting the school system. Early Learning Programs open to all children form the core of their reform strategy. 

Going forward, the Canadian challenge is radically different than that of American education reform. We have to find some way to raise standards without aggravating class differences and creating a total
mess. Promoting school choice is one tool, but it cannot be the only
strategy, or we will go down the American road to "classroom warfare."

Comment by Paul W. Bennett on January 16, 2011 at 9:33am

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claims that the Chinese educational miracle should not be lightly dismissed by North Americans.  What's behind China's winning schools? In a word: confucianism!


Confucian philosophy, Kristof contends, puts a high priority on education. That explains the tremendous recent advances in rural education throughout China.

It begs the question - what can we learn without sacrificing creativity and independent thought?


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