Good news about Canada’s education system

Canadian students have come a long way

Some good news at Christmas, and a bigger package to wrap up the year

Canadian students have come a long way | Tannis Toohey/Toronto Star

The end of the year is a hopeful and generous time for Canadians, a time when we indulge our better instincts and tend to look on the bright side of things. How strange then, that recent good news about Canada’s education system has prompted a sudden bout of pessimism.

Last week saw the release of a massive comparison of school systems around the world. The Programme for International School Assessment (PISA) is run every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and tests 470,000 15-year-old students across 65 countries and regions in reading, math and science. Canada, once again, found itself among the world’s leaders in educational performance.

Despite top 10 results in all categories, however, some commentators felt the need to lament the fact we were beaten by Shanghai, which made its first appearance in the PISA tests and stole the show with some very impressive scores. The Globe and Mail claimed the results showed other countries were “leaving us in the chalk dust.” A below-average performance by Prince Edward Island’s students was presented as something of a national disaster. It seems a rather Grinchy way of looking at things, particularly when Canada is doing so well in so many aspects of education.

Beyond our sixth-place finish in reading, seventh in math and eighth in science, the PISA results show that socio-economic status is much less a factor in Canadian test scores than most other countries, suggesting a strong commitment to equality of outcomes. Along with Korea and Finland, Canada was also praised for a low percentage of students failing the tests.

And in a special chapter within one volume, the OECD specifically recognizes Canada’s outstanding performance in the face of the challenges faced by our school system. While Canada’s large immigrant population is a significant strength for our economy and society, issues of language, culture and integration can make success more difficult for new Canadians. Less than one per cent of Shanghai’s student population comes from an immigrant background; for Canada, the figure is 24 per cent. Among countries that receive substantial levels of immigration, such as Australia, the United States, Germany or Switzerland, our test scores are at the top of the heap. And we are the only major country to show no significant difference in performance between immigrant and native-born students. “Canada could provide a model of how to achieve educational success in a large, geographically dispersed, and culturally heterogeneous country,” the report notes admiringly.

Diversity in governance is another area of strength for Canada. While conventional wisdom suggests strict centralization is the key to educational prowess, the OECD observes that “Canada has achieved success within a highly federated system.” We are in fact the only developed country without a national department of education. But this is not an obstacle, as our performance proves. Provincial control of education encourages experimentation and variety. If one province falls below the line, competitive national pressures inevitably motivate it to copy the best practices of other provinces, as is currently the case with P.E.I.

It’s also worth noting that Canada is a relative newcomer to such high expectations. Prior to 2000 we rarely appeared in the top 10 of any PISA category. Now it’s become something of a national obligation. This is certainly a good thing, but at the same time we should recognize how far we’ve come. In a few decades, Canada has built a unique education system recognized as one of the best and most equitable in the world. And that’s something to celebrate any time of year.

December is also a time for reflecting back on the year past. And Maclean’s is making this habit easier than ever with our double-issue Year in Pictures package.

It has certainly been a fascinating and intriguing year, as the photographic evidence attests. From the exhilaration of Canada’s triumph at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games to the pageantry of Queen Elizabeth II’s summer visit to the controversy of the G20 summit in Toronto. Disasters, both natural and man-made, left their mark in 2010, from the devastating earthquake in Haiti to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

To do justice to such an amazing year, Maclean’s decided to enlarge the size of our magazine for this issue only. A larger format allows for greater attention to layout and even more pictures than in previous years. We’ll be returning to our regular size with our next edition.

Best wishes and happy holidays to all, and we look forward to seeing you again in 2011.


Good news about Canada’s education system

  1. Motto for Canada: Between mediocrity and greatness.

  2. Education is the most important thing we can do to guarantee our future…

  3. "Along with Korea and Finland, Canada was also praised for a low percentage of students failing the tests."

    Not coincidentally, Korea, Finland, and Canada are among the highest IQ countries as listed by IQ And The Wealth Of Nations… . It is unscientific to suggest that intelligence and therefore scholastic performance is not genetically determined, with the consensus being that genetics account for at least half of intelligence.

    This article propagates the Trotskyist blank slate myth of human intelligence, that if we spend lots and lots of money on schools and try every education fad under the sun we can significantly increase a student's performance. This is bad science leading to bad public policy leading to tens of billions of wasted tax dollars.

  4. "While Canada's large immigrant population is a significant strength for our economy and society"

    ORLY? One recent estimate is that it costs the economy $18 billion a year; if it were such a strength then why the outrage over the feds cutting a few million from immigrant funding? Why the unceasing demands for more, more, more spending on immigrants, and why the "employment equity" race quotas?

    Socially it is more of a challenge than strength, with narrow ethnic silos fragmenting our nation and leading to less civil society, less trust, and less social capital, as per Putnam, Bowling Alone, and even Michael Adams concedes this to a point. Yes immigration has many benefits, and they'd be even greater if we had a more mature and courageous dialogue on immigration.

    • The sad thing is that Canada appeals to immigrants from Asia rather than the US. We share a common language with the US. It's just too bad that Americans can't think.

  5. Let us celebrate Canada. We are the leaders, and the world recognizes. We just have to travel and hear what others say about Canada. Its time to do our thing. We are the leaders. Let us boldly lead …. let us believe and celebrate in what we have already achieved! Cheers!! Macleans lead us to see the positives we already have. Show us how good we have! And how important it is that we lead, who else will? Let the make the world, by our example .. we are on our way create a new world … Tommy Douglas, Diefenbaker, Trudeau … and the Utopia. Yes! We can!!

    • It isn't that we are the leaders. In a world ruled by the US, Canadians could easily fill up the civil service, because many of us are bilingual. It's just that the US is cutting back on jobs in the civil service.

      • Si, Oui, Yes and Ya
        That would be German, Spanish,English and French.
        I can only speak French and English

  6. It's time for Canadians to rid ourselves of our inferiority complex. We are one of the greatest countries in the world. We care about our own and it shows.

    Stand Proud and be Loud about Canadian Pride!

    • What inferiority complex? I speak both languages and I am proud of it. I think the United States is the greatest country in the world, but we live in a good country. I would rather live in a good country.

    • We were never inferior to anyone at anytime. We are respected from Germany to Australia to Panama. Never put Canada and inthe same sentence

      • I meant to say never put Canada and inferior in the same sentence

  7. I love our country. Its not polite to brag but, we are so lucky to be Canadian. We are a country of good people, with good values. We respect each other and accommodate our differences. I feel so fortunate that my parents decided to move to Canada. I have raised two kids and have 4 grand children, I can't be thankful enough for my fellow Canadians. I love you all. We are very lucky – lets not forget it.

    • A mari ad marem ad marem. From sea to sea to sea. May the Dominion prevail!

    • Great place. I am Canadian too. Unfortunately people put up with a guy who gets 24% of popular vote and sends soldiers into Afghanistan to kill, and supports the US in its imperialist goals. Yeah, good place to be as we don't starve and are usually quite friendly to each other, and accept most differences, as long as the differences don't crimp our style somehow (by reminding us of our native genocide, by reminding us the fact we are benefactors in UK-US axis of evil imperialism, by reminding us that the gap between "haves" and "have-nots" is increasing…). But we can always say "don't think of those things, be positive, look at the bright side"! – yep, deny the reality around us, and enjoy life – forget just what I wrote, let's go to hockey game and go have a Tim Horton's coffee and donut afterwards, ok?

      • UK-US axis of evil imperialism?
        In that sentence it’s the US influencing Britain, not an agreement

  8. How what does Pisa really measure? Creativity? Innovativeness? Empowerment of youth to learn? Not likely. Just rote stuff, and basically measures how well these kids are programmed, yes programmed to learn certain tasks, as the system definitely does not stimulate any critically thinking ability in them – gotta have subservient workers, that can think, but only "so" much! Sheesh! Sorry I sound cynical, but I've seen this "education" up close for too long. I've been trying to work in higher education to help "de-program" these youth who really have never learned to think for themselves, and at the post-secondary level, the individual's own independent and critical thinking only advances slightly, and seldom moves "out of the box".