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EdTech & Design, Equity, Policy, Promising Practices

Implementation and Innovation: The Route to Equity

This edition of Education Canada developed from a project between the Canadian Education Association (CEA) and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) to foster dialogue about equity and educational improvement in Canada and the U.S. Although the two countries have many distinctive features, as discussions progressed we realized that we had less to learn from comparing each other in isolation than from developing our understandings of concepts, evidence, and issues relating to educational equity and improvement and – importantly – from exploring implementation strategies and innovations that may make a difference. The framing question became, “If we are really serious about equity in education, what will it take to achieve improvements?”

Considerations of equity need to be grounded in an understanding of the wider demographic, social, economic, and political contexts in which inequities are being created, sustained, magnified, reduced, or addressed. A daunting reminder about the equity challenge is the current scale and spread of inequities. Both Canada and the U.S. witnessed a growing gap between rich and poor during the 2000s; however, the size, depth, and impact of such income inequality are larger in the U.S., with significant consequences. The latest U.S. census figures indicate that 46.2 million Americans are now living in poverty – the largest number on record and equivalent to almost one and half times the entire population of Canada. Around 16.4 million of those Americans in poverty are children – indeed, now 22 percent of American children overall live in poverty, a statistic that masks different experiences by race; 35 percent of Hispanic and 38 percent of Black children live in poverty. The scale of inequality is staggering. 

The situation in Canada is less extreme but there is no ground for complacency. The most recent (2006) census statistics indicate that 13 percent of Canadian children were living below the low-income cut off (after tax), generally taken as a proxy for low socio-economic status. The interrelationship with race is more complex in Canada, as the visible minority population is growing and very diverse with over 200 ethnic origin groups reporting in the census. Recent immigrants to Canada are two to three times more likely to experience low income than non-immigrants, although as their time in Canada lengthens, their prospects improve. However, the probability of low-income status is greater for visible minority immigrants than for either other immigrants or non-immigrants. Interestingly, Canadian-born visible minorities are actually slightly less likely to experience low income than other Canadian-born citizens, although the difference is small.[1]

Poverty need not be destiny. But overcoming the impact of poverty on educational outcomes requires sustained attention and systemic responses. It cannot be left to individual effort or chance.

There is long-standing evidence of the effect of socio-economic status on educational performance, but there is also evidence that students and schools in all socio-economic contexts can perform at all achievement levels. Poverty need not be destiny. But overcoming the impact of poverty on educational outcomes requires sustained attention and systemic responses. It cannot be left to individual effort or chance.

At the national level, the interplay between socio-economic background and educational success differs between Canada and the U.S. Based on analyses from the Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA) by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), both the U.S. and Canada have income inequalities above the OECD average.[2] This inequality is larger in the U.S. and has a stronger relationship with educational outcomes. The U.S. is identified as having an above average relationship between academic achievement and socio-economic background, whereas Canada has a below average relationship. Among 34 OECD countries, Canada has the fourth lowest impact of socio-economic status on variance in student performance, whereas the U.S. is ranked 28th.

The OECD defines student resiliency – one measure of social and economic mobility – as the capacity of students with low socio-economic status and achievement results in the lowest performance range to move into the highest ranges. Students in both Canada and the U.S. are doing this; however, students in Canada are demonstrating above average resiliency, ranked ninth out of 65 participating countries, whereas the U.S. ranked 27th

Another measure of social and educational mobility is the success of immigrants. Among participating PISA countries, first generation immigrant students perform below average overall. Nevertheless, while almost one out of four students in Canadian schools has an immigrant background (compared to one out of 10 across OECD countries), there is little overall difference in the performance levels of these students when compared to Canadian students overall.

So we have an international picture in which social and economic inequality can and does interact with educational inequality, yet there are also examples of countries, including Canada, with both high performance and lower inequality. As the OECD concludes:

Korea, Finland, Canada and Japan, as well as the partner economies Hong Kong-China and Shanghai-China, show high mean performance and a low or, at most, moderate relationship between socio-economic background and student performance… These countries combine high average performance with equity and have a large proportion of top-performing students, which demonstrates that excellence and equity can go together.[3]

Such national data do not tell us about the diversity of experiences within and across Canada, although local evidence points to the need to attend to race, ethnicity, student mobility, poverty, and the long-standing issue of supporting Aboriginal students to succeed in school and beyond.

We know that success in education confers both individual and societal benefit: higher earnings, better social and health outcomes, and greater participation in the civic life. Societal benefits include reductions in the need for public services – reduced reliance on social welfare, lower health care costs, reduced demands on the justice and correctional systems – and lower unemployment rates. An OECD analysis of literacy levels found that a 1 percent increase in adult literacy produces a permanent 1.5 percent increase in gross domestic product. For Canada, that would result in a permanent increase of approximately 18 billion dollars per year.[4] Analyses of achievement gaps between the U.S. and other countries in PISA assessments concluded that:

…had the United States closed the education achievement gap to levels comparable to Finland and Korea, the impact on GDP would be 1.3 to 2.3 trillion higher (a 9% – 16% increase); if the gap between black and Latino student performance and white student performance was similarly narrowed, the GDP would have been 310 to 525 billion higher; if the gap between low-income and high-income students were narrowed, the contribution to the GDP would be 400 to 670 billion higher[5].

The recent work of Wilkinson and Pickett shows that, in countries where the income gap is high, health and social problems are worse, levels of mental illness are higher, and measures of child well-being are lower.[6] Countries with greater equity (e.g.: Canada and the Scandinavian countries) have also achieved higher levels of intergenerational mobility than have the U.S. and Europe.[7] 

Both Canada and the U.S. face tough social, cultural, political, and economic challenges that make the need to raise the educational attainment of those disadvantaged by current arrangements a public policy imperative. While public policies that reduce poverty among children would have important benefits (and certainly improve fairness), they are unlikely to deal with the interaction between schooling and socio-economic status that seems to influence educational outcomes more than the early ability of children.[8] Different approaches to closing achievement gaps reflect alternative understandings of this interaction between schooling and socio-economic status. 

Part of our response to the question of how to achieve both excellence and equity in and through education requires the identification of existing promising and/or effective policies and practices with accompanying attention to how to strengthen, spread, and sustain their implementation. Traditionally, a concern with equity has focused on access to public education. Over time, attention shifted to a focus on outcomes. National and local approaches to specifying achievement targets, gathering test data, and examining performance – and in particular No Child Left Behind in the U.S. – have drawn considerable attention to “achievement gaps” for different student groups. More recently, we have been examining issues of equity of processes within schools and beyond. The concept of “opportunity policies” is concerned with examining what resources, conditions, experiences, and supports are available to students, educators, schools, and communities.[9] Do disadvantaged students and schools have access to sufficient numbers of highly qualified teachers? Do they have learning resources available in classrooms? Do they experience engaging curriculum and teaching for higher-order skills? Are school facilities safe and do they provide adequate learning environments? Expanding educational equity and excellence requires attention to all these factors – access, outcomes, and opportunities.

We need implementation strategies that combine a universal commitment to educational improvement with targeted strategies to address existing inequities in educational performance and socio-economic status. The particular blend of universal and targeted strategies will vary, depending on the specific context and local needs.[10] Recent analyses of education systems that are moving toward greater equity suggest the importance of sequencing priorities, starting with the “basics of literacy and numeracy”, moving on to building the foundations of a solid education system – including appropriate human, capital, and material resources – to supporting excellence in teaching and learning through professional collaboration, capacity, and innovation.[11] While the specific scope and sequence of such strategies can be debated, consensus is growing about the vital importance of leadership and professional capacity to support student learning and equity with accompanying attention to necessary resources and supports. This is long-term work that requires sustained attention and capacity to identify and implement effective and promising practices with a commitment to continuous improvement and high expectations for all educators, students, and communities.

An important component of advancing excellence and equity is therefore balancing implementation and innovation. Innovation is not new to education. Many of the defining features of current schooling – for example, special education, language immersion programs, Kindergarten, second and third language learning programs, anti-racist education, inclusionary practices – began as local school or district level innovations that spread, garnered public and professional support, and were eventually adopted as policy. These innovations differ from the myriad of abandoned pilot projects in important ways. Most notably they had system level sponsorship that ensured the necessary financial, technical, human, and social resources.

The dual imperative of “raising the bar and closing the gap” requires strategies that improve the overall performance of all students and at the same time improve outcomes for the lowest achieving students at a much faster rate.

The dual imperative of “raising the bar and closing the gap” requires strategies that improve the overall performance of all students and at the same time improve outcomes for the lowest achieving students at a much faster rate; otherwise the “gap” will be maintained or even widen. This accelerated rate of improvement is particularly important because we have considerable evidence that the achievement gap for some groups widens as students progress through school.

Achieving equitable outcomes for children and youth from certain racial and lower socio-economic groups is a serious, complex, and persisting problem. Solving it may require more extensive solutions than we currently seem willing to envision. Existing policies and resource allocations constrain potential innovations so that most new ideas are “add-ons” to existing arrangements. More fundamental redesign of schooling sometimes occurs through the creation of new schools, some of which offer potential prototypes for system-wide transformation. However, reliance on policy models of charter or alternative schools runs counter to commitments to opportunity policy and universality, and to the need for systemic solutions focused on supporting all students rather than individualized successes and failures.

As Ben Levin (quoting James March) reminds us, all organizations require “‘exploration’ (another word for innovation) and ‘exploitation’ (another word for system-wide improvement based on known ways of getting results).”[12] The question therefore is not whether we need innovation or system-wide improvement. We need both. Identification of where innovation might generate more effective solutions and where focused implementation of what we already know gets results may not be straightforward, but it is an urgent and important agenda for educators, researchers, and policymakers. The importance of equity is clear: existing inequalities are unacceptable and have widespread negative consequences for collective society as well as for individuals. Evidence is also mounting about what is required to close the equity gap: building professional capacity and improving education overall, alongside targeted strategies and innovations for lower performing and disadvantaged groups. However, such calls for equity need to move beyond rhetoric and recipes; educators need to wrestle with the challenges of combining excellence and equity through policies, professional capacity, and practices that balance proven strategies with innovation. This will require a commitment to transparency of practice and results, drawing on evidence and experience to spread improvement. It is not about quick wins, naming and blaming those who are struggling (educators, students, schools, or communities), or imposing mandatory accountability measures or predetermined models to target failure. Those remedies have been tried and failed.

Are we really serious about equity in education? If so, it will take complex and challenging work, creativity and capacity, resolute focus, resilience to stay the course over the long haul, and our collective commitment – indeed demand – that we advance this goal together through educational practices, policies, and research.

Carol and Penny were co-moderators of the Canada-U.S. Colloquium held in 2010.

EN BREF – « Si nous prenons l’équité en éducation au sérieux, comment peut-on réaliser des améliorations? » Cette question a orienté un projet lancé par l’Association canadienne d’éducation et le Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education pour stimuler le dialogue sur l’équité et l’amélioration en éducation. Malgré leurs contextes sociaux et éducatifs différents, les deux pays tentent de réduire l’impact de la situation socioéconomique sur la réussite scolaire. Assurer des résultats équitables aux enfants et aux jeunes de certains groupes raciaux et socioéconomiques peu fortunés pose un problème complexe qui soulève des réactions. Les inégalités actuelles ont des conséquences défavorables étendues pour la société comme pour les particuliers et les mesures de responsabilisation instaurées pour résoudre ces problèmes ont échoué. Pourtant, pauvreté n’est pas nécessairement synonyme de destinée. Les preuves s’accumulent quant aux éléments requis pour combler l’écart d’équité. Nous devons rehausser la capacité professionnelle, améliorer la réussite scolaire de tous et instaurer des stratégies ciblées et des innovations à l’intention des groupes défavorisés et ayant de plus faibles résultats.


[1] Boris Palameta, “Low Income Amongst Immigrants and Visible Minorities,” in Perspectives on Labour and Income 5, no. 4 (Statistics Canada, 2004).

[2] OECD, PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background: Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes, vol. II (Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2010).

[3] Ibid, 101.

[4] The Promise and Problem of Literacy: An Agenda for Canada (Toronto: Canadian Education Association, 2004). www.cea-ace.ca/research-publications/policy-papers

[5] Analyses by McKinsey & Co. (2009) cited in Michael Fullan, All Systems Go: The Change Imperative for Whole System Reform (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010),16.

[6] Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009). Data slides available at www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/slides

[7] Jo Blanden and Stephen Machin, “Report for Sutton Trust Recent Changes in Intergenerational Mobility in Britain” (Economics Department, University of Surrey and Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, 2007).

www2.lse.ac.uk/intranet/LSEServices/ERD/pressAndInformationOffice/PDF/Recent%20Changes%20in%20Intergenerational%20Mobility%20in%20Britain.pdf

[8] Ibid.

[9] See Linda Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity will Determine our Future (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, 2010).

[10] See OECD.

[11] M. Mourshed, C. Chijioke, and M. Barber, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better (New York: McKinsey & Company, 2010).

[12] Ben Levin, “Do We Need More Innovation in Education?” (Seminar Series 199. Centre for Strategic Education, 2010).

Meet the Expert(s)

Penny Milton

Penny Milton

Penny Milton is former CEO of the Canadian Education Association and the initiator of What did you do in school today?

Penny Milton a été chef de la direction de l’Association canadienne d’éducation et a lancé l’initiative Qu’as-tu fait à l’école aujourd’hui?

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Carol Campbell

Dr. Carol Campbell is Associate Professor of Leadership and Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She is an appointed Education Advisor to the Premier and the Minister of Education in Ontario, and a member of the Education Canada Editorial Board.

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