Prime Minister Stephen Harper REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Education: Bridging the classroom divide

Canadian education enjoys an excellent reputation at home and abroad, thanks to strong performances in such renowned surveys as OECD PISA, which focuses on 15-year-olds. There are several reasons for this success, and as experts from the OECD and Canada explain, reforms that focus on equity and integration all help. But there are challenges too.

Social policymakers worry about gaps. Gaps in income distribution, job opportunities and education are warning signs of a fissure opening up in society. One would think that with one of the highest immigrant populations in OECD countries Canadians would be worried about such gaps, especially in education, where immigrant children in many countries struggle, often in vain, to get a foothold. Not a bit.

In the 2009 OECD Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), an evaluation of 15-year-old pupils in 65 countries, including the OECD countries, Canada ranked among the top ten performers in reading, mathematics and science. If such results could be attributed to a high number of academic overachievers, they would still be remarkable, but the fact that all pupils–from the highest to the lowest scorers–contributed to the results highlights the equity of the Canadian educational system, where the gap between the highest and lowest scores was one of the narrowest in any OECD country.

Andreas Schleicher, who is special advisor on education policy to the OECD Secretary General and one of the driving forces behind PISA, attributes part of this success to the way Canada handled educational reforms. “The interesting story is how the successful provinces were able to get the main stakeholders on board, teachers and their unions included, and how they got professionals, not bureaucrats, to implement the reforms on the frontline. Significant efforts were devoted to winning over teachers, schools and unions to its vision of reform.”

Canada got top marks not only in equity, but integration as well. Immigrant children in Canada, as elsewhere, tend to struggle during the first five years of their arrival. This is unsurprising, as children have to adapt to a new environment and master new languages. But in Canada, after five years, they shed their chrysalis. Results from the first PISA survey, administered in 2000, show that children who had lived in Canada for less than five years scored 20 points below the OECD average of 478, whereas those who had lived there for more than five years, scored 521. In light of PISA 2000, it was found that a gain or loss of 34 reading points by Canadian pupils was the equivalent of a gain or loss of one year of education.

Why the top marks? According to Andrew Parkin, Director General of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), the Canadian educational system (or rather, systems) “makes it easier for immigrants to find their place” in society. Many schools offer adaptation classes, where immigrant children are introduced to French and English, and provinces and territories vigorously encourage immigration.

In 2010, Canada welcomed the highest number of immigrants since it became a founding member of the OECD 50 years ago: over 280,000. It also threw open the gates to temporary residents, including some 182,000 foreign students, 28,000 more than five years ago. They now make up 8% of the student body, compared to 4% in 1992. This is no accident. Unlike some countries, Canada is unabashedly wooing foreign students, to stimulate innovation and bolster the economy. According to a government-commissioned study, foreign students enrich the Canadian economy by CAN$6.5 billion. The government is keen to make the prospect of studying in Canada inviting, and so has created the Canadian Experience Class, in which eligible foreign students can apply for permanent residence. Mr Parkin also notes that, in 2010, premiers from all of Canada’s provinces and territories called for renewed action to attract greater numbers of international students.

Immigration can be a prickly subject for politicians in some countries, who either offer a blustery populist rhetoric, blaming high unemployment on immigrants, or, more reasonably, invoke the opportunities for growth its provides. Immigrants may indeed be seeking jobs, or fleeing political instability, or simply trying to rejoin their families. Mr Parkin notes that the profiles of immigrants in Canada differ from those in the US, for example. Whereas most immigrants to the US are economic immigrants from Latin America, immigrants to Canada are generally well-educated and skilled. The majority (52.7% in 2010) come from Asian countries such as China and Korea, where hard work and academic excellence are strongly encouraged by parents and educators: pupils from both countries topped the OECD PISA poll, for instance.

Socio-economic background can be a major determinant to academic success. Pupils from poor families or single-parent households tend to perform less well in school. The ability of a child to overcome these barriers is known as “resilience.” Canadian children are particularly tough, ranking 9th with 40% of pupils considered “resilient” compared to the OECD average of 31%.

Success is not due solely to pupils’ determination or parental support. Mr Parkin credits Canada’s success in part to the professionalism of Canadian teachers. And government works to be sure that teachers can fulfill their vocation. The freedom granted to teachers extends to pupils. Unlike some OECD countries, Canada has no policy of “streaming,” by which a child is shepherded down a particular academic track early on, sometimes as early as the age of 11.

Academic flexibility continues into tertiary education, what Mr Parkin calls Canada’s “second chance” system. Unlike countries such as the UK, where pupils who drop out of school may languish in unemployment for years, many Canadian drop-outs find jobs. After a few years of working, they decide to study again. Many opt for a local college, which does not require relocating to a big city, and where they can learn a particular skill in a shorter period of time. This brief pause between secondary and post-secondary education may be one reason why foreign undergraduates are generally younger than their Canadian cohorts.

The 2009 OECD PISA survey was administered to between 5,000 and 10,000 pupils aged 15, from an average of 150 schools from each country. Wanting a more precise assessment of pupils in each of its ten provinces, Canada extended the PISA study to 23,000 students from 1,000 schools.*

“If you take Ontario,” says Mr Schleicher, “the province that advanced most, you see how they pursued strategies directly focused on improving the act of teaching. They paid careful and detailed attention to implementation, and gave teachers the opportunity to practice new ideas and learn from their colleagues.”

But the findings were not all good news. According to Mr. Parkin, one out of ten Canadian pupils falls below the acceptable reading standard, and girls do significantly better than boys in reading (though the gap is narrowing).

Canadian pupils taught in settings where English or French predominated as a minority language fared less well than those where English or French was the dominant language, the PISA surveys showed. Aboriginal Canadians, who Mr Parkin says account for up to 15% of the population in some provinces such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan, lag behind and are more likely to quit school before graduating. This wide-ranging PISA assessment will help the government to target policies aimed at improving the performance of these pupils.

Even in those areas where Canada tops the class, Mr Parkin warns against complacency. “While Canada continues to demonstrate strong performance in PISA, many other countries have made significant gains. Canada’s education ministers know that we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure that our students remain in the top tier.”

Immigrant students may give Canada that edge. It is a truly multicultural country, with one of the highest foreign-born populations in the OECD area. There is less a sense of being an outsider when close to 20% of Canadians are foreign born. “Canadian identity,” says Mr Parkin, “is an identity built on diversity.”


References

Visit www.oecd.org/edu

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA): www.pisa.oecd.org

OECD (2010), Pathways to Success: How knowledge and skills at age 15 help shape future lives in Canada, in collaboration with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

See news releases at www.cic.gc.ca

See Statistics Canada at www.statcan.gc.ca

*Correction 19 November 2011: 1,000 schools, not 10,000 schools, as reported in the original print edition. We apologise for this error.


©OECD Observer No 284, Q1 2011




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