The secret to success seems to lie beyond the classroom

CHRIS WOOD March 14 1994


The secret to success seems to lie beyond the classroom

CHRIS WOOD March 14 1994


The secret to success seems to lie beyond the classroom

The Japanese system is superior; the math standard is much higher.

—Mutsuko Sasaki, a Tokyo mother who has hired a tutor twice a week to prepare her 13-yearold son for high-school entrance exams

It’s a more funner environment to learn here compared to other countries.

—Rick Paradis, 13, a Grade 8 student in South Surrey, B.C.

They hardly constitute a scientific sample. But those observations, collected by Maclean’s reporters who visited schools in Canada and Japan, do underscore what for many is a deepening suspicion: that Canadian schools may well be “funner” places than those in other countries, but that they deserve an F on the more critical test of preparing today’s children to compete in tomorrow’s global economy. And many fear that Asia is at the head of the international class. In one major 1992

study—the most authoritative to date—researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor compared the math skills of 756 Grade 11 students in Alberta with 4,000 of their peers in the United States,

Japan and Taiwan. The Canadian scores were only half those achieved by the Japanese; the highest-scoring Canadian school, moreover, failed to do as well as even the worst-scoring school in Japan. “If that becomes common knowledge in the parent community,” believes Joseph Freedman, a Red Deer physician and school critic, “there is going to be a rebellion.”

A rebellion may be premature. According to the Canadian who has studied the subject in greatest depth, this country’s schools are far from failures. “All the evidence I have,” University of British Columbia (UBC) education professor David Robitaille observes, “says that the school system in Canada ranges from very

good to excellent.” Robitaille’s judgment is rooted in a quartercentury of study. Measured against their counterparts in most other countries, he concludes, Canadian children “compare favorably.” Still, there is a significant postscript to Robitaille’s report card: “Kids from Asia do better.” Whether that reflects any kind of mysterious secret weapon of Asian education, however, is another question. Much of the difference, in fact, appears to have far less to do with what happens inside Asian classrooms than outside them—especially at home. Psychologist Harold Stevenson, the American author of the 1992 study, reached the conclusion that “different cultural expectations,” ranging from teenage dating in Alberta to fewer divorces in Asian societies, were as much to blame for the results. Stevenson now argues that North American schools will not equal those in Asia until par-

ents and students, as well as teachers, re-examine their attitudes to learning.

Frustration awaits them, however, if they begin by looking for a firm reference point in the gap between North American education and what is achieved elsewhere. Comprehensive comparisons of different educational systems are expensive, difficult and far from consistent. Surveys by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) illustrate that Canada spends more than most of its industrial trading partners on all levels of education ($8,359 per student in 1991, compared with $5,675 in Japan and $7,504 in Germany; only the United States spent more than Canada, $8,902). But the OECD’s surveys offer no assessment of how much Canadian students learn as a result of the generous tax support. Only one international agency routinely attempts to mount multinational surveys that measure what children actually learn: the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), a network of academics based in The Hague in the Netherlands. But the ex¡2 ercise is fraught with intrinsic difficul0 ties: language barriers are compounded by differences in educational =¡ philosophy and the order in o which curricula are covzered. IEA surveys, more#”^3 over, are irregular and rely on voluntary participation; its reports are directed at academic readers with little attempt to make their findings generally accessible.

The result is fragmentary information that is often more suggestive than conclusive. One 1991 survey of science knowledge included Japan—but not the United States.

Four IEA surveys in which Canadian students did take part between 1982 and 1991, however, had Canadians performing at roughly the same level as American, Australian and British youngsters. But on the two math and science tests in which Canadian children were pitted against the Japanese, the Canadians scored significantly lower on the academic scale.

The 1992 comparison that savaged Alberta students’ math accomplishments, meanwhile, introduced Canadians into a wide-ranging series of studies that Stevenson has directed. In five major studies conducted during the 1980s, he and his colleagues carefully matched groups of firstand fifth-grade students in schools in Minneapolis and Chicago to socioeconomically comparable groups in three Asian centres: Sendai, Japan; Taipei, Taiwan; and Beijing, China. The researchers tested the youngsters’ grasp of math and reading. But they also surveyed Asian and American teachers, and interviewed thousands of parents. Their findings: Asian students outperform their

North American counterparts, at least in math and reading. In a damning conclusion, Stevenson added: “The deficiencies appear to build throughout the school years.”

After comparing Edmonton and Calgary students with their peers in Minneapolis and Fairfax,

Va., as well as with Asian youngsters, Stevenson has extended his indictment to schools in this country as well. “You get modest differences among North American cities,” Stevenson told Maclean’s, “and modest differences among Asian cities. But there are huge differences between North America and Asia.”

Those differences frankly alarm Red Deer’s Freedman. He and others contend that Canada is falling behind Asia in the race to produce the best educated—and hence, they argue, the most economically competitive—citizens for the future. “Their fourth graders are comparable to our ninth graders,” Freedman asserts. “And what is being taught is stunningly far more advanced.” In Freedman’s view, only a radical overhaul of


In the 1992 University of Michigan study, students were given 40 minutes to answer 46 math problems. The results, out of a possible score of 46:

Hours of Mean High study On score score per week math Alberta 11 29 9.3 25 Minneapolis/Fairfax 14 40 12.4 3.5 Sendai 22 41 11.4 3.2 Taipei 23 44 16.6 5.1 Beijing n/a n/a n/a 6.7

North American schooling holds the promise of narrowing the gap. “Yes, I do think something is wrong,” he declares. “I do think we should do something about it and I think there are consequences if we don’t.”

Much of what goes on in Asian classrooms is very different from North American practice. Canadian elementary teachers typically spend most of their workday in class; planning the next day’sesson is often done alone in the evening. Asian teachers, by contrast, work only about half as many hours in the classroom; away from it, they consult with each other over lesson plans and teaching techniques. The Asian school day, meanwhile, provides for more frequent short recesses. “Asian schools are wild, rowdy places,” Stevenson notes, “except when the kids are in class. Then, they’re very attentive.”

Canadian students might find other aspects

of Asian school life less enviable than frequent recesses. Japanese schools are far less likely than Canadian ones to provide swimming pools, ready access to computers or even guidance counsellors. Meanwhile, students ^ themselves are expected I to perform many of the ^maintenance tasks— $ cleaning hallways and I washrooms among them, z Still more significant Q differences may mark Asian students for success from the start. Asian parents, Stevenson found, emphasize effort and diligence in education to a sharply higher extent than North Americans. “This attitude stems from Confucian beliefs about the role of effort in achievement,” the psychologist theorizes. “Americans are much more likely to point to the limitations of innate ability.” Stevenson calls the consequences of that difference “potentially devastating” for North America’s children. While a majority of Japanese students attend afterhours “cram” schools or have private tutors to polish their skills, Stevenson accuses many North American parents of dismissing academic effort as either unnecessary (for a bright child) or futile (for a less bright one).

It is a further troubling fact that significantly more Asian homes than North American ones still include both parents—and often a stay-at-home mother. While many of those Asian mothers have ample time to supervise their children’s studies, Canadian children are more than twice as likely to live in a household headed by single parents. Noted Sherri Mohoruk, principal of H. T. Thrift Elementary School in Surrey, B.C.: “Kids are coming to school requiring a lot more emotional support. We have many working single parents; they have limited time to help with homework.”

Still, there are those who insist that Canadian schools excel at certain goals that elude Asian educators. One of those is instilling a broad set of civic virtues in students. By way of grim contrast, John Wiens, a Winnipeg-area school superintendent and PhD candidate in education at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., points to the once-proud school system in the former Yugoslavia. “The best mathematicians in the world are still from Yugoslavia,” he says with heavy irony. “But they messed up democracy.” Adds Wiens: “One of the things we emphasize is the notion of skepticism and critique.”

Rick Paradis and other 13-year-olds at Semiahmoo Secondary School in South Surrey, B.C., have clearly learned to question authority. “If a teacher doesn’t have respect for a stu-

dent,” asserts Colleen Berg, “a student has no need to respect a teacher.” For her part, Shelley Kim approves of the “less strict rules” in Canada compared with Asia, where her mother attended school. “My mom was bom in Korea,” Kim told Maclean’s. “People there all have to wear uniforms, you’re not allowed tQ wear makeup until you’re out of school, you’re not allowed to pierce your ears. They’re not lenient about guys and girls doing stuff together.”

Whatever Japanese parents may think about pierced ears, many of them plainly find flaws in their own widely studied schools. Kazuko Mita, a 40-year-old Tokyo housewife, is one. “I am not satisfied, especially with the public schools,” the mother of five-year-old Hiro says. “The teachers have no personality. Children are not encouraged to develop their talents. They are all the same.”

From the UBC campus a dozen miles north of Semiahmoo school, Robitaille is preparing to toss fresh fuel onto the debate. On behalf of the Dutch-based IEA, Robitaille is coordinating research under way in more than 50 countries (including Japan and the United States) to prepare for the most ambitious international comparison of educational achievement yet attempted. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) will survey more than 15,000 nine-year-olds, 13-yearolds and students in their last year of high school in 1995, seeking to assess their understanding of math and science. Last week, draft questions were being tested in several Canadian schools as researchers worked to assemble a global, 120-minute test that will, as Robitaille puts it, be “equally unfair” to all cultures.

Many in Canada’s educational system will reject whatever that survey concludes as being not just unfair, but close to useless. Geraldine Gilliss, director of research for the Ottawa-based Canadian Teachers’ Federation, flatly rejects the sort of comparisons that Robitaille and Stevenson make as “scientifically suspect.” Declared Gilliss of Stevenson’s dramatic findings: “It just cannot be so.” Gilliss acknowledged, however, that she had reached this judgment without actually reading the study. For his part, Robitaille says that such disdain is widespread. “There are probably more people opposed to these comparisons than are in favor of them,” he says, adding, “I think it’s probably a 4to-1 split.”

Robitaille expects to post Canada’s marks from the TIMSS study in 1996. If they confirm that Canada’s scholastic achievement continues to trail that of key Asian rivals, parents are almost certain to renew their criticism of Canadian schools. On the evidence to date, however, much of that response will be misdirected. If North American kids continue to fall behind their Asian contemporaries, parents may need to look to themselves for the key to change.