Shocking news: Canada does something important well

From a McKinsey & Company study designed mostly to demonstrate that the U.S. school system is letting the American people, and the American economy, down, let us snatch a few charts that allow us to compare Canada’s education performance against the world’s.

McKinsey’s source is the OECD’s Pisa study, a large international survey of 15-year-olds’ performance on standard math, science and reading tests. Pisa’s handy: you get large samples, lots of buy-in, a time series that results from administering the tests repeatedly, and other good stuff. And here’s what it shows about how Canadian 15-year-olds do compared to their peers in dozens of other countries.

1. Canadian students perform near the top of the world.


2. Being rich or poor is a worse predictor of test outcomes in Canada than in almost any other country. Typically, poorer students do worse on tests. But that effect is greater in some countries and smaller in others. In Canada it’s quite small, compared to other countries.


3. Put those two together and you get a very cool scatter chart. You want to be in the upper-left corner: students score high, and economic inequality is a poor predictor of score inequality. The lower right-hand corner is the dunce-cap corner: students score low, and the poor ones are screwed for good. Guess where Canada lands. (I admit that, given a recent foreign posting, I remain fascinated that the French school system is actually worse at correcting for socio-economic status than the U.S. school system.)


4. How much are we paying for this sort of success? About in the midrange, as these things go. This next chart shows spending divided by attainment — how much a country spends on its school system per point on the PISA outcomes. It’s a rough measure of the efficiency of a school system. Again, bad news for the United States, which spends profligate sums for very modest results. Canada is not shockingly efficient, but its results are solidly in the middle of the countries on this chart.


5. So, we send out 15-year-olds into international tests quite close to the top of the league tables, and the poorer ones are less disadvantaged than their poorer peers around the world. We achieve these results at a very ordinary cost. Is everything coming up roses? Not entirely. First, while our students do very well, our best students don’t fare quite as well against the best in other countries. These two charts show that the top tier of Canadian students ranks a little lower against the top tier of students from other countries; and that Canada places fewer students among the top sixth of all PISA test-takers.

3-top-percentiles 4-proportion-in-top-tier

6. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Canadian students didn’t fare quite as well in the 2006 PISA test as in the 2003 test. That’s not worth panicking about; tests aren’t flawless indicators, and results should be expected to bounce around a bit between iterations. But if this trend continued through this year’s round of testing, we’d have more reason to worry. The McKinsey study, which you’ll recall is mostly about U.S. results, does some further analysis to conclude that the country’s less-prepared students are a huge drag on the country’s economic performance. (It’s still, in healthy times, a very dynamic economy but it could be even stronger if its participants were a bit quicker on the uptake.) We don’t want to handicap our own economy in the same way.


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