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Assessment, Equity, Opinion, Policy

The Children Left Behind

A first look at UNICEF's Innocenti Report Card #9

The research is fairly clear and consistent regarding the effect of socio-economic status (SES) on educational achievement, especially in the early years of a child’s life. In education circles, the generally accepted notion that SES is the strongest influence on a child’s academic achievement is usually followed by the reminder that schools play a vital role in helping to mitigate the inequity caused by poverty.

Unicef’s recently released Innocenti Report Card 9: The Children Left Behind asks a very critical question as it examines the inequalities and, indeed, inequities in the area of child well-being in 24 of the world’s richest countries: How far behind are children being allowed to fall? Admitting that when you set out to measure any demographic domain, there will always be groups that fall on either side of the normal range, Innocenti #9 probes the gap between the lower end of the distribution and the median.

And when that measurement approach is applied to the three major areas of child well-being examined in the report—material, educational and health—Canada lands pretty well in the middle of the pack.

There are two subdomains that are particularly disturbing, and ones that we need to take seriously when we’re talking about school performance, academic achievement and the idea of success for all.

When it comes to the indicators for material well-being, Canada scored 20 out of 24 countries when it came to the household income and overall living space in families living with children. In terms of household income, this means that families in the bottom 10th percentile had a household income that was 56% of the national median.

When you begin to look at the research on SES and student success in school more closely, it becomes apparent that there are many factors associated with lower SES that contribute to low school performance: amount of time working parent(s) have to spend with children, access to educational resources, parents’ own level of schooling, support networks, and home structure. So, the SES problem is really a complex set of problems that are intimately connected with each other.

Complexity aside (for a moment, at least), I think that there is a fairly straight line that can be drawn between what is revealed in the UNICEF report about the gap between our poorest families and what is considered to be normal in terms of the income necessary to raise and nurture children that are able to participate effectively in our society. If schools are one of the primary gatekeepers for that participation, and if equity is a real priority for us, then this gap needs to foster some serious questions on a number of different levels.

You know, we’ve spent a great deal of time talking about student achievement, mostly in terms of test scores and educational attainment statistics. But these are measures of output, aren’t they? For me, the UNICEF report forces us to ask questions about what we’re providing on the other end of the process that will ensure greater success for all participants. If we know that SES is a major factor in reaching our provincial and national goals around achievement, and if we know that this is a an area of equity in which Canada is falling behind, then we need to turn some of our energy away from the hand-wringing that we experience everytime a set of achievement data is released, and get down to the real work of closing the gaps that children in a country of our standing should not be experiencing.

One of the recommendations made by UNICEF Canada in response to the Innocenti Report Card #9 is the establishment of a Children’s Commissioner to ensure the best interests of children are considered in policy decisions that affect them, and services and policies affecting children are coordinated across government so all Canadian children have equitable access to and benefit from them.

In my mind, this would be a positive step in addressing the complexity aat the levels of both policy and practice.

UNICEF Canada has invited supporters to sign an electronic petition demanding that this recommendation becomes a reality.

I’ve just signed my name!