2009 PISA: Why Did Alberta Stand Out?

by Mari Sasano

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15 year-olds from 65 countries on mathematics, reading, and science. Administered every 3 years, the 2009 results echo the scores that Canada has received in the past. On each of those three scales, Canada appears near the top. However, Alberta students often better their counterparts nationally, and appear to be giving some of the highest performers- China (Hong Kong, Shanghai), Japan, Finland, Korea, Singapore- a run for their money, particularly in science.

The question is: how do Albertan students achieve such high results? "We need to know what it means to say high results, if there are high results," says Dr. Stephen Norris, Canada Research Chair in Educational Policy Studies.

Stephen Norris"Alberta is at the top of Canada, but you have to understand how the data is portrayed. The little line in the middle represents Alberta's average. You need to look at the whole thing, the range that represents the error in measurement. You'll never get it exactly right; there's always error."

When we look at the standings with that in mind, generally Alberta's results are more or less statistically indistinguishable from that of the other high-scoring provinces (Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec). However, Alberta results tend to be above the Canadian average, and in science, Alberta students are on par with Singapore and Hong Kong, and they outperform Japan and Korea. Only students from Shanghai and Finland do better.

What we share with places like China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Finland are strong values towards education. However, what’s interesting to note is that, among the top countries, Canada stands as an anomaly: more openly multicultural, multilingual, and built upon an immigrant population. These are qualities that might make it more difficult to educate a population, yet Canada seems to easily meet this challenge.

Part of the answer might lie in how we spread our resources: a country like Finland has standardized its schools so that a child would have the same quality of education across jurisdictions. A country like the United States, however, distributes its resources unevenly, leading to large inequalities in school quality. That seems to affect achievement results, according to Dr. Norris.

"A colleague of mine at the University of Victoria, John Anderson, has used the PISA data to look at what we might call education inequality across the world. He found out that Canada has one of the most egalitarian systems in the world."

One of the strongest resources that teachers have in this province is their training. Alberta is home to at least four degree-granting institutions. The University of Alberta graduates more than 3500 young teachers per year, 800 graduate students are conducting research here, and 60% of teachers working in Alberta are U of A grads. According to Dr. Fern Snart, dean of the Faculty of Education:

"One of the strengths of having teacher education within a research intensive university setting such as that at the University of Alberta is that students are immersed in opportunities to become critical thinkers, engaged citizens, and creative problem solvers."Fern Snart

Education students at the U of A have access to top scholars across campus, as well as training in pedagogy and assessment.

"They are often taught by professors who literally 'wrote the texts' that are used internationally in particular areas, and they can attend seminars and talks given by global experts and opinion leaders," says Dr. Snart.

Indeed, it's that level of knowledge that allows a high degree of teacher involvement in what goes on in the classroom, which Dr. Elaine Simmt, professor of mathematics education has found is a hallmark of an effective classroom.

"In the previous work that I did looking at provincial achievement tests, those classrooms where the teachers make the curriculum their own, where they are able to take some ownership–where there is a culture of teachers writing textbooks, for example–those tend to do better," she says.

"In those classrooms, there is demanding instruction, where they ask children to work hard on ideas and to express their understanding. There is a demand for explanations. The teachers teach beyond the curriculum, with math contests or anticipating content in later grades, for example."

"We've had guests in Alberta classrooms from places like Norway, and they are very impressed by the amount of student activities, problem-solving and inquiry. Our programs of study emphasize hands-on, minds-on learning, and teachers do a lot of professional development to learn how to do that."

In fact, teachers in Alberta are required to continually upgrade their knowledge and skills.

"Every teacher remains in the process of continuous learning; every teacher must create a professional growth plan to set out timelines and learning goals each year," says Jonathan Teghtmeyer, Spokesperson for the Alberta Teachers Association and U of A alumnus. Teachers in Alberta are given tremendous resources to continually improve through research and connecting with experts around the world, for example, with a research partnership with teachers in Finland.

"We're continuing to innovate. It's a continual process of research-based knowledge to improve education in this province, with an emphasis on transformation: we need to ensure that education meets the needs of 21st century learners. And though we do well on tests, we should be doing as much as we can for student learning. If they are doing well in the classroom, then the tests results will follow."

2009 PISA SCORES - Courtesy of Statistics Canada and Council of Ministers of Education Canada. Full report can be found at http://www.cmec.ca/Publications/Lists/Publ ications/Attachments/254/PISA2009-ca n-report.pdf