“PISA as a primary metric of excellence is a dangerous call to action”

To the Editor:


Re “More money won’t fix need for change in education” (Globe and Mail, 25th June 2014)



I commend Lynch’s aversion to complacency in Canadian education. Systemic reflection on educational goals, data-informed decision making, and a constant drive for improvement is vital in today’s global world – but I wouldn’t be so quick to infer that Canada is a “middle of the pack” performer. If PISA is his indicator of choice, let’s consider the most recent (2012) results. Out of 65 participating countries, Canada ranked 6th in reading, 7th in science and 13th in mathematics.  I’m not suggesting there is no room for improvement – and it is important to keep pace with global progress – but I am wary of his insistence on a quest to the top of the charts. To suggest using PISA as a primary metric of excellence is a dangerous call to action.

We would not want to follow the erroneous path of our neighbours to the south. America’s recent focus on standardized testing has many stakeholders criticizing a ‘teach to the test’ culture in schools, where instructional hours in the classroom naturally prioritize tested subject areas. This avenue is particularly worrisome given the importance of enhancing ‘21st century skills’ such as creativity, adaptability, and critical thinking in our youth – a concept which Lynch promoted and I advocate.

Is a focus on global standardized assessments and STEM subjects truly the best approach to cultivating these progressive skills? Canada recently ranked ‘top ten’ in Critical Problem Solving in the oh-so venerable PISA results. The real question is: why? We should not limit the impact of the results by treating Canada’s global ranking as a goal in and of itself. We should use such assessments to generate valuable insights, enable evaluation of best practices and promote learning from other high-performing systems.

Lynch purports, “we cannot sustain a one-size-fits-all education” and yet he looks to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ standardized global assessment as the benchmark for excellence. Let’s focus on what we can learn from an international comparative perspective – instead of recklessly insisting on podium standing.