A major ‘good news’ story behind the latest PISA results is that Canada continues to be marked by high achievement and high equity in education. This means that the impact of socio-economic status is relatively small, and the gap between the high achievers and low achievers is also small, compared to most other countries. This is the distinguishing feature of Canada’s education system and, arguably, more important to the social and economic future of young people and Canada as a whole than small changes in overall standing (i.e. whether we are 3rd, 4th or 5th).
Why is equity in education so important? First, because it means that, generally-speaking, all children in Canada benefit from good schools and good educations, regardless of their family’s socio-economic status or immigration status. Why this is important for children is obvious since it affects their current educational experiences and their future prospects.
Second, and perhaps less obvious, educational equity is important because it relates to the overall equality in a society. We now know that equality benefits everyone in a society, not just those at the bottom. In their book, “The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better For Everyone”, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate that health and social outcomes are considerably worse in more unequal countries. They found that this is true for physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being. They conclude that, the smaller the social and economic inequality between people, the better it is for everyone.
How do we explain Canada’s high level of educational equity? A common answer, particularly when contrasting Canada with the United States, is that it is a combination of factors, perhaps most importantly because we have better income programs, social safety net, and health care system. Last week UNICEF released a report that shed some new light on this explanation. “The Children Left Behind” looked at inequality in child well-being in three areas: material well being (includes family income and housing); educational achievement; and physical health. The results were mixed. In material well-being, Canada ranked 17th out of 24; in health, 9th out of 24; and in education, 3rd out of 24. The educational finding prompted the UNICEF spokesperson to observe ”we are doing something right”. Significantly, it is our education system and our schools that are doing something right, since Canada’s record when it comes to income, health and housing inequality, as well as child and family poverty rates, is considerably less stellar.
So, what ARE we doing right?