Education in Canada: Drastically Deteriorating or World Leading?

On November 3rd and November 10th, 2017, the Baron Black of Crossharbour, better known as Conrad Black, dedicated the focus of his weekly opinion column in the National Post to launching a scathing critique of the Canadian educational system from primary school all the way to the postsecondary level (university education).[1] [2] Black’s criticism comes in the wake of the release of the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) assessment of the mathematics, reading, and writing skills possessed by Grade 6 students within the Province of Ontario which conveys a seven percent decline in students’ standards of mathematics when compared to the results from 2012/2013. In his two-part analysis, Black lambasts the Ontario teachers’ unions (such as the OSSTF) for contributing to declining standardized testing scores in the midst of increasing levels of funding earmarked for education; he calls for the dissolution of school boards on the grounds that they are “useless and redundant” and claims that problems within the education system are leading to a precipitous decline in the intelligence quotient of the population; moreover, he blasts Canadian universities for their role in the “endlessly proliferating numbers of degree-bearing authorities on esoteric subjects” and the perceived silencing of free speech on university campuses.

Though Black paints a very dark and bleak picture of the current status of the primary/secondary school system in the Province of Ontario and in Canada as a whole, it is helpful to put standardized test results and assessments of the education system in context. In addition to depicting a decline in students achieving the standard for mathematics, the EQAO assessment showed modest increases in the percentage of students meeting the standard for reading and writing skills increasing from 77% in 2012/2013 to 81% in 2016/2017 and 76% in 2012/2013 to 79% in 2016/2017, respectively.[3]  The most eye catching contrast contained within the report is the sharp divergence in student progress exhibited between the reading and mathematics subjects (See Figure 1 Below).

Butler Education1.jpg
Butler Education2.jpg

  As shown by the data in the charts, 21% of mathematics students within a cohort (sample size) of 120,464 achieved the standard in Grade 3 but dropped from the standard by Grade 6; half of students in the mathematics portion of the study did not achieve the standard level at Grade 6 (either meeting the standard in Grade 3 and then missing the cutoff in Grade 6 or never meeting the standard at all).  Though the results in the mathematics segment should be considered a cause for great concern, the results in the reading assessment convey a much different message; of the 115,330 students in the cohort, 16% of students rose to meet the standard in Grade 6 after missing the standard in Grade 3 with only 4% of students dropping from the standard over the same period of observation.  The EQAO attributed this strong increase in students meeting the standards for reading evaluation to improved techniques for the early identification of students with literacy difficulties so that they can receive sufficient support.[4] In spite of the poor performance of students in the mathematics segement, the strong improvement exhibited by students in the reading segment show that ameliorating teaching strategies through targeted resources can make a difference and that the learning shortfalls encountered by Ontario primary and junior level students are not necessarily systemic.

Furthermore, to get a better grasp of the state of education in Canada, it is helpful to analyze the issue in a global context.  On December 6th, 2016, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), an international economic organization composed of 35 nations with fully developed, industrialized economies, released the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a global examination of the scholastic skills of 15-year-old students in OECD member and non-member nations on the subjects of reading, science, and mathematics, for the year 2015.  Though the OECD study focused on students in secondary school (older than the students undergoing EQAO testing) and characterized results on a national basis, the average Canadian 15 year-old outperformed the OECD average scores in each of the major areas of analysis.[5]  The PISA 2015 study also found that though the mathematics score of the average Canadian student had declined since 2006, this decline was largely mirrored by decreases in mathematics scores in other OECD member nations (signaling that struggling with math is an increasingly common issue for students across the industrialized world).[6]

Overall, though the findings of the EQAO 2017 assessment were troubling in the area of mathematics, the assessment conveyed strong improvement in the area of reading which came as a result of educators using new techniques to identify and provide struggling students with the assistance they need. Notwithstanding issues on a provincial level, the Canadian primary and secondary education system ranks among the best in the world in numerous subject areas, and many of the troubling trends in Canada’s education system can also be found in other countries of comparable economic status. Though there may be performance shortfalls and difficulties in the short term, Canadian educators should look to past successes for guidance in addressing current issues and reject overreactive measures.

By,

John Butler

Works Cited

Pictured titled, "Education", taken by Matt Harasymczuk on April 4, 2017, obtained through Creative Commons (https://flic.kr/p/TNFrFZ).

[1] National Post “Conrad Black: In response to falling test results, teachers' federation proposes ending testing” November 3rd 2017 (http://nationalpost.com/opinion/conrad-black-in-response-to-falling-test-results-teachers-federation-proposes-ending-testing)

[2] National Post “Conrad Black: Canada must address our bad education system and overreaching courts” November 10th 2017 (http://nationalpost.com/opinion/conrad-black-canada-must-address-our-bad-education-system-and-overreaching-courts)

[3] Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) “Highlights of the Provincial Results for the Primary (Grades 1-3) and the Junior (Grades 4-6) Divisions” (http://www.eqao.com/en/assessments/results/communication-docs/provincial-report-highlights-elementary-2017.pdf)

[4] Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) “Highlights of the Provincial Results for the Primary (Grades 1-3) and the Junior (Grades 4-6) Divisions” p. 3 (http://www.eqao.com/en/assessments/results/communication-docs/provincial-report-highlights-elementary-2017.pdf)

[5] PISA 2015 Compare Your Country “Average Performance” Section (http://www.compareyourcountry.org/pisa/country/CAN?lg=en)

[6] PISA 2015 Compare Your Country “Performance” Section (http://www.compareyourcountry.org/pisa/country/CAN?lg=en)