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Math, Science and Reading in British Columbia

By Denise Mullen

What were you doing at 15? Thinking about what career you were going to pursue as an adult? Probably not, and for most kids school is a bit of daily torture.  Adults on the other hand are busy and constantly evaluating our children and teenagers on their reading, math and science skills, and often wringing our hands about test scores.  For good reason.  There is a strong correlation between how well educated we are and how well our economy performs[1] both now and in the future.

To the point, the C.D. Howe Institute recently published a two-part series summarizing the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). So, let’s begin with What is PISA? It is an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] triennial survey that began in in the year 2000.  It “aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. To date, students representing more than 70 economies have participated in the assessment.” The test is administered to randomly selected student in schools around the world in reading, math and science with different focus areas each time the survey is conducted.  In 2012, mathematics was in the spotlight.

The results are both okay and raise some concerns.  On the one hand, Canada is above average in overall results.  However, we seem to be going backwards in math, in particular, and reading.  Given that our future prosperity is linked the academic abilities of the next generation, this is worrisome -- so much so that the Council of Canadian Academies is currently in the middle of an assessment of how well Canada is prepared to meet future skills requirements in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)[2].

Now for some positives from the PISA for Canada and British Columbia. 

  • Overall British Columbia is a top performer both within Canada and also compared to most OECD countries.
  • Spending on education in Canada is roughly twice the OECD average and appears to be adequate relative to results. 
  • Teachers are well paid relative to our US counterparts and many other countries, which presumably contributes to good performance. 
  • Canada is offsetting social disadvantage more effectively than the typical OECD country.

What are the things we should consider addressing?

  • Improve the teacher evaluation system.  Teacher knowledge, what is taught and how it is taught (i.e., teaching ability), is more important than the number of minutes of instruction. We can only know this and make change if there is a robust and regular assessment of performance.
  • Pay attention to the curriculum.  Quality is more important than quantity.  Basics by rote rather than through “discovery”.
  • Student teacher ratios are important but only up to a point.  Fewer students per teacher don’t appear to improve test scores significantly.  BC is currently at 16.8 (Canada is at 15.6) students per teacher, which is consistent with private school ratios.
  • Pre-kindergarten education pays substantial dividends in the long-run.  BC now has full-day kindergarten but there are good reasons to consider expanded and accessible pre-age five learning opportunities.
  • Getting and keeping more girls in STEM fields but more generally stopping the decline among girls in math, science and reading skills is important, as is continuing to work on hidden biases in the education and work environments that disadvantage girls in subtle ways but have long-term consequences.[3]

Overall let’s acknowledge that we have done a good job in our primary and secondary education system but let’s not become complacent.  Scores are sliding and in a small open economy our people are a key strategic resource.

[1] Education and Economic Growth, E.A. Hanushek, Stanford University and L Woessmann, University of Munich, International Encyclopedia of Education (2010), vol. 2, pp. 245-252


[3] Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students, Corinne A Moss-Racusin et al, Yale University, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, October 9, 2012, vol. 109, no.41