Canadians slipping in skills aptitudes

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Pontiac Perspective Peter J. Gauthier

Our mailboxes are filled with flyers promoting return-to-school specials; students are preparing for a new year of classes; teachers are preparing lesson materials. All is set for another school year. But, is it time to review and evaluate our educational system? Are our students getting the education they need and deserve?

Pontiac Perspective Peter J. Gauthier

Our mailboxes are filled with flyers promoting return-to-school specials; students are preparing for a new year of classes; teachers are preparing lesson materials. All is set for another school year. But, is it time to review and evaluate our educational system? Are our students getting the education they need and deserve?
One way to answer these questions are to compare Canadian schools with those of other nations. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was formed in the year 2000 to do just that. PISA tests 15-year old students from different countries and ranks the countries based on tests for mathematics, science and language skills. Since its first results, Finland has been at the top of the ranking. Initially, Canada placed fifth, but the latest ranking (for 2011) places Canada eleventh. The USA placed seventeenth. The high ranking of Finland surprised everyone, including the Finns. What makes Finnish education so successful and what might Canadian educators learn from the Finns?
Finland emerged from World War II a broken and impoverished country. In the 1960s, Finnish politicians and industrial leaders began a programme to improve Finland’s economy and quality of life. They identified education as a major component of this programme. They then gave the task to educators and students with the instruction “whatever it takes”. Interestingly, they also removed politicians and accountants from the decision-making.  
There are several essentials of Finland’s educational system that seem to be counter to accepted North American educational theories and practices of uniform curriculum and standardized testing. For the Finns, there are only broad, general guidelines at the national level. Each school board and teacher develops the curriculum, teaching materials and assessments to meet the needs of their students. The only nationally administered test is the final matriculation exam.
The aim is equality of education rather than individual excellence. Classes have a relaxed and informal structure. And class size is smaller than is common in Canada – usually less than twelve students per class. Every effort is made to support slower learners, including, if needed, one-on-one tutoring. And yet students spend the fewest number of classroom hours per year of any OECD country.
The results are shown not only in PISA statistics, but also in the percentage of students who go on to higher education – again, the highest in Europe. All of this is supported by a learning culture. The parents of every newborn receive a maternity package that includes three books – one for each parent and one for the child. (Finland publishes more children’s books than any other nation.)
The population of Finland is approximately 5.5 million, slightly less than the population of Quebec. Yet its educational system requires knowledge of three languages (Finnish, Swedish, and one other language chosen by the student and teacher). In recent years Quebec has faced a number of educational issues from funding to languages to student completion of high school. Could Quebec improve its educational system by looking at what the Finns have accomplished?