Tag Archives: PISA

The time is for taking more responsibility



When did everyone suddenly become so accountable?

Clearly, it happened on one of those occasions when we had our backs turned against the zeitgeist, when the arbiters of les mots du jour were feeling particularly shame-faced over some likely inconsequential misdemeanor. Now we’re stuck with one of the least inspiring measurements of virtue ever invented.

Politicians must be accountable, so must the governments they lead: To whom, exactly, is still a matter of some conjecture.

Corporate directors are nothing if not accountable to their shareholders whose interests they protect with quantities of vigor in direct proportion to the size of voting-class stock in play. 

Doctors are accountable to their patients, and patients are accountable to their insurers. Meanwhile, insurers are accountable to their (you guessed it) shareholders.

Teachers are accountable to their students. Students are accountable to their parents. Parents are accountable to their credit card companies, which, in turn, pay junior’s tuition and away-from-home living expenses.

To be accountable is to be answerable, subject, liable amenable, obligated, chargeable.

On the other hand, to be accountable is not necessarily to be responsible. There’s an important distinction between the two. 

Just ask Pasi Sahlberg, the Director General of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility – the centerpiece of its teacher education system. In an interview last year with American documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, the administrator was unequivocal:

“The Finnish language doesn’t have  word for ‘accountability’, particularly in education. Accountability is something this is left when responsibility is subtracted. In many places, people are getting education completely wrong when they think that stronger accountability – more testing, more evaluation, more penalties against teachers and principals – works.”

His bragging rights appear to be genuine. According to a piece in the Smithsonian magazine not long ago, “In 2000. . .the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.”

None of which explains why Finland dropped from first to twelfth in the world in last year’s PISA assessments, of course. But does that make Finnish educators accountable to a system that’s creaking or responsible for getting everybody, including themselves, back on track?

Personally, I prefer door number two in this and just about every other human game show in which people rely on one another’s good graces to get ahead.

In the latter part of the 20th Century, notions of accountability emerged in the sometimes indistinguishable fields of government, business, sports and entertainment when, it became appallingly clear, leaders and celebrities oftentimes shared the moral compass of an amoeba. 

Oh look, there’s Billy-Bod Clinton playing “chase the nubile political intern” in the Oval Office. What a dirtbag! Oh well, if we can’t make him more responsible, we can certainly hold him accountable. How do you spell impeachment, again? 

The current Canadian government adores the concept of accountability and all it implies. It even maintains something called a Management Accountability Framework that purportedly, “support(s) the management accountability of deputy heads” and 

“improve(s) management practices across departments and agencies,” though it’s not immediately clear how any of that works.

The problem with emphasizing accountability over good old fashioned responsibility is that, in a funny way, we let out ourselves off the hook. We imagine that as flawed, weak mortals, we will transgress in, as yet, uncountable ways, so we’d better have the woodshed site-ready for the inevitable floggings we’ll take. Once properly flogged, we’re again free to offend if, that is, we’re again prepared to face the consequences.  

Accountability assumes that punishment is the inevitable denouement of every story. Responsibility resides in the spiritual fortification where trust, faith, honor, duty, and charity still thrive.

There, with only the best of all possible luck, we may find the next generation of political leaders. 


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Stupid is what stupid does


John Manley, the former federal cabinet minister and current president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, does not overstate the problem of falling math scores in this country by likening it to a national emergency.

In fact, he’s utterly correct when he tells The Globe and Mail, “we need skills, we need knowledge-workers to really improve our prosperity and build our society (because) having the skills becomes a very important element to attracting investment and creating jobs.”

But apart from sounding the alarm bell (again), there’s not much he or anyone else is doing about what is clearly becoming a structurally deficient system of public education – one that routinely emphasizes social integration over actual learning.

These days, schools are virtual trauma centers. Teachers are overwhelmed patching up kids who are injured by exposure to all the rank perfidies this linked-in, hooked-up, texting, sexting world has to offer, 24 hours a day, every day. They’re too busy wondering whether little Johnny had a bagel or bupkis for breakfast.

The stark fact is that, relative to their peers in other developed countries, Canadian children are falling behind in every subject that matters to a so-called knowledge-loving global marketplace, especially math.

The most recent results are in and they are not encouraging. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Canadian 15-year-olds plunged to 13th place, overall, in the global rankings of math proficiency. That was down from 10th in 2009 and seventh in 2006. If this trend holds up, three years from now, Vanuatu will be wiping the floor with us.

Why is this troubling?

“Nearly all adults, not just those with technical or scientific careers, now need to have adequate proficiency in mathematics – as well as reading and science – for personal fulfillment, employment and full participation in society,” the PISA executive summary states. “Literacy in mathematics . . .is not an attribute that an individual has or does not have; rather, it is a skill that can be acquired and used, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout a lifetime.”

Despite these rather obvious facts, however, we continue to enlist teachers with liberal arts backgrounds to instruct their charges on functions, fractions and decimals, because, we have been told, actual expertise scares kids silly. Indeed, the problem, many experts say, is cultural.

“Parents with school-aged children will be familiar with the rhetoric surrounding math education today,” observed Anna Stokke, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Winnipeg, in a piece she penned for The Globe in October. (The good professor is also co-founder of the non-profit organization Archimedes Math Schools and of WISE Math).

“Children are to discover their own techniques, pencil and paper math and extended practice are kept at a minimum and conventional math techniques are discouraged in favour of using objects like blocks and fraction strips. Teachers are told to encourage children to create their own math questions instead of assigning prescribed problems. It is argued that children will then feel successful even if their math skills are lacking. Much time is devoted to projects intended to keep children engaged in math, such as building gardens or creating posters that list examples of uses of math. Parents are told that these teaching methods have been well researched and will benefit their children in the long run.”

That’s the theory, at any rate. But if this approach works, then why, asks Prof. Stokke “are parents across Canada concerned about their children being unable to carry out the simplest mathematical calculations? Why are business owners, tradespeople, university and college professors and scientists concerned about the lack of skills in high school graduates? Why could only 28 per cent of eighth graders in one of our highest performing province – Alberta – correctly subtract two simple fractions on the 2011 international TIMSS exam, compared with 86 per cent in Korea?”

John Manley shrewdly alludes to Canada’s natural resource sector as key to the country’s competitiveness. It “pays the rent,” he says, “but that just keeps us in the house.”

What will keep us in the global game of productivity and innovation are strategic investments in that other, far more necessary, natural resource: the human intellect.

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