Many Canadians were surprised a decade ago when an international study found that Canadian students ranked among the best in the world in academic performance at age 15. Since then, three further rounds of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have produced the same finding.
Canadian students perform about as well as the best in the world. Moreover, Canada has one of the smaller gaps between best and worst achieving students, though the gap is still considerable.
In the 65 countries reporting PISA results in 2010, only four had higher levels of achievement, and only two high achieving countries had less inequity in student outcomes.
Canada is also one of only a few countries where the achievement of immigrant young people is equal to that of those born here; in most countries, immigrant students do less well.
In comparison with the United States, Canadian 15-year-olds are more than a year ahead, with most of that difference because our lower performing students are better than American low performing students.
Not only is it good for our young people’s education, it is a contribution to social cohesion in the country. We know that good educational outcomes are associated with good life outcomes – longevity, health, income, social participation, and so on. So less inequality in education will support better national outcomes in all these vital areas.
The picture is not all positive, though. Our education system is not perfect. As has been much reported recently, Aboriginal young people lag behind their peers, and so do some other groups, such as Afro-Canadian students and young people with disabilities. Canada has too many students who do not complete high school in a timely way. So there is much work to do even though the overall picture is good.
What has Canada done to produce these good results? And what could we do to maintain them, or even, to improve? In a system like education one cannot be definitive about what causes what, but there are good reasons to think that there are two main reasons for our outstanding performance.
The first lies within schools. We have skilled and motivated teachers. We do not force students to pick a destination at an early age. We have funding systems that provide more resources to needier schools and modest levels of private schooling, meaning there is public support for public schools. Our two level governance system for education works in our favour, with districts and provinces balancing each other, but with an emphasis on quality of the whole system, and not just a few schools.
The result is a system much more focused on all schools being good and less tolerant of extremes, and that focus, more than choice or competition, is what leads, internationally, to high performance.
However, education achievement is not a matter only of what schools do. Schools are affected by wider social forces.
When jobs are scarce, or pay badly, or have no benefits, or housing is poor, or health care is not accessible, school outcomes are affected. It is difficult for a country to have a high level of economic inequality and also have an effective and equitable school system.
What does this mean for Canada and our efforts to continue to have a strong and more equal school system?
First, we need to focus on building a system that pays attention to quality and equity in every school, not just in some. We should avoid divisive ideas such as charter schools or more competition among schools, since around the world these have not led to better performance.
Some of the ideas getting the most attention today in education policy, such as charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and ‘turning around’ failing schools cannot by themselves produce system improvement because they are not a system strategy. The task is to commit to making every school a good one, and having every school improving, so that children have a real chance for a good education.
Ben Levin is an expert advisor at EvidenceNetwork.ca, and a Professor and Canada Research Chair in Education Leadership. His column is distributed through Troy Media – www.troymedia.com.