Canada outranks US in PISA for reading,science, math and educational equity

4377920595_6005c4b2a6The biggest headline from the recently released results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international assessment of 15-year-old students in reading, math and science, was the stunning performance of Shanghai.

In a relatively short time, Shanghai, a city of 20.7 million, has shot ahead of even perennial superstars like Singapore, Finland and Korea to rank first in all 3 subjects.  By contrast, the United States ranks 17th, 25th and 24th in reading, math and science, respectively.

Overlooked in many of the news reports about PISA, however, was the quieter one- upmanship of Canada over the U.S.  Not only does Canada outrank the United States in the 3 subjects,  but it also has managed to close the education gap for children from immigrant families and from socio-economically disadvantaged households.

Canadian 15-year-olds, on average, are over one school year ahead of 15-year-olds in the U.S. in math and more than half a school year ahead in reading and science.  Socio-economically disadvantaged Canadians are much less at risk of poor educational performance than their counterparts in the U.S.,” says a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

PISA testing is conducted every 3 years by; the OECD, an organization of 34 countries that work together to foster economic growth and financial stability.  One of the many reports the OECD produces from the data to help countries improve their systems is a report targeted to the United States, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education Lessons from PISA for the United States. In the report, Canada, Finland and Shanghai are profiled as setting examples for U.S. education.

Among the ways that OECD ranks nations is on educational equity, specifically on the variation in student performance that can be attributed to students’ socioeconomic background. In the U.S., the percentage variation that can be attributed to students’ socioeconomic status is 17%, while in Canada it is only 9%.

Equity rankings based on variance

With one of the highest rates of immigration per capita in the world, Canada is one of the very few countries where there is no gap between its immigrant and native students on the PISA, according to the report.  In the United States, by contrast, the gap in reading is 22 points and in France and Germany it is around 60 points.
“Within three years of arrival in Canada, immigrants score an average of 500 on the PISA exam, which is remarkably strong by international standards,” the report says.

Many Americans think of the United States as having one the largest immigrant populations in the world.  In fact, among the 34 OECD countries, the United States ranks 6th in the proportion of students (19.5%)  who have immigrated to the country, behind Canada. Eight of the 34 OECD countries have between 15% and 30% of students with an immigrant background.  These countries are Canada, New Zealand, Australia, United States, Switzerland, Germany, Israel and Austria.

The U.S. has a larger performance gap for immigrants than 3 of the countries (Switzerland, Canada and New Zealand) and a smaller performance gap for immigrants than 4 of them.

PISA measures students’ reading proficiency across 6 levels, with Level 1 being the ability to locate single pieces of explicitly stated information and Level 6, the ability to make multiple inferences, comparisons and contrasts that are detailed and precise.  In the United States, 18% of 15-year-olds do not reach the PISA baseline Level 2 of reading proficiency. Excluding students with an immigrant background reduces the percentage of poorly performing students slightly to 16%.   By contrast in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Canada, Finland and Korea, the proportion of poor performers is 10% or less.

About 470,000 students from the 65 participating countries completed the PISA assessment in 2009, representing about 26 million 15-year-old students. Some additional 50,000 students took the assessment in 2010, representing about 2 million 15-year-olds from 10 other countries.  (The other major international assessment, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, does not measure reading.) The 2009 assessment focused on reading; 2012 will return to math as the major assessment area and in 2015, PISA will focus on science.

Canada’s top equity ranking

Why has Canada done so well at educating its immigrant students?
There are 3 factors, with one having to do with Canada’s immigration policies, according to the report.  Immigration in Canada is organized into three classes – refugee populations (22,000 in 2008), family class sponsorships (65,000), and workers imported to fill a gap in the Canadian economy (150,000).  The fact that 60% of immigrants are selected on the basis of their ability to make an economic contribution creates a highly educated immigrant class, according to the report.

Because the majority of immigrants are selected on the basis of their ability to contribute economically, many immigrant children have highly-educated parents. A 2006 OECD report found that first-generation Canadian students had parents with as many or more years of education as native-born parents.

Second, Canadian multiculturalism traditions have created a distinct philosophy of both respecting native and existing cultures while also incorporating immigrants into the Canadian identity. In practice, this has meant that immigrant students are, for the most part, placed into classes with native students in English and French. Native language instruction primarily takes place in non-profit organizations and in work outside of schools.

Third, in some of the provinces that have had the largest influx of immigrants, there is an explicit policy to support the success of these students. In British Columbia, for example, students participate in the regular curriculum, but the ministry provides funds for additional language support if certain criteria are met (e.g. failure to reach proficiency, creation of an instruction plan).

The Canadian system is a decentralized system where authority over education is at the province and territory level. Responsibility is divided between the central provincial government and locally elected school boards. The provincial government is responsible for setting the curriculum, determining many major policies and providing the majority, if not all, of the funding for schools   The OECD highlights 3 policies that contribute to Canada’s performance:

  • Province-wide curricula. While there is wide variation in penetration of classroom practices, the provincial curricula provide guidance as to what should be learned by which students at what ages
  • High degree of selectivity in choosing teachers. Canadian applicants to teachers’ colleges are in the top 30% of their college cohorts
  • Equalized funding for education. Because funding is at the province rather than at the local level, provinces are able to offset the greater neediness of some of their students with more resources

While the OECD found many lessons for the United States in the educational systems of Canada, Finland and Shanghai, it also highlights the strengths of the U.S. system.  One of the greatest assets is the amount of money American citizens are willing to invest in public education, according to the report–more per student than any other country save Luxembourg. Other assets include the United States’ history of reform, in education and its status as an engine of innovation.

“The whole system of public education in its current form was established in the first two decades of the 20th century in one great wave of reform. The schools of the United States were racially desegregated in a comparable period of time.” The United States also has the largest concentration of education researchers and analysts and is constantly creating innovative models in education, the report says.

Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education Lessons from PISA for the United States, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2010.  To access document, go to:

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