The Equalizer: How education creates fairness for children in Canada
“There is no systematic relationship between country wealth and the indicators of equality in education or of broader child well-being. The differences in children’s well-being are largely the result of differences in public policy – how societies use their resources to give children a great start in life.” p. 5
Since 2000, UNICEF has released a series of publications, known as the Innocenti Report Cards, focusing on the well-being of children in wealthy countries. Past report cards have focused on topics like child poverty, early childhood education, and progress towards sustainable development goals. This year’s report card looks at education, ranking 41 wealthy nations based on the equality of their children’s reading scores and other indicators.
Data for elementary school indicators came from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). PIRLS is a reading test conducted once every five years among international samples of grade 4 students. Secondary school indicators were based on reading scores from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is conducted every three years among samples of 15 year olds. UNICEF determined the equality of reading outcomes for each country by calculating the difference between the highest performing students (90th percentile scores) and lowest performing students (10th percentile scores).
Canada improves in rank as children get older
The results of the study find that Canada moves up in “equality” ranking as children age. For young children, Canada ranks 21st. We advance to 18th place in primary school. And in secondary school, we achieve 9th place. When comparing the percentage of immigrant and non-immigrant high school students who achieve a level 2 (pass) on the reading portion of PISA, Canada ranked #1 out of 41 countries, with hardly any inequality between groups.
While equality gaps persist throughout schooling, the change in Canada’s ranking as students get older indicates that gaps are widening at a slower rate than some other countries.
|Indicators||Stats||Ranking for equality of outcomes (out of 41 countries)|
|Participation in pre-primary education programs: the percentage of students enrolled in organized learning one year before the official age for entering primary school.||97% of children are enrolled in school in the year before primary education (this could be preschool or childcare in other countries; in Ontario, this is Kindergarten)
Kindergarten is available across Canada, but it is not mandatory in most provinces, including Ontario
|Equality of reading achievement in primary school: the gap in reading scores between the lowest and highest performing grade 4 students, based on 2016 PIRLS data.||190 point differential between the top and bottom 10% in reading score
83% of Canadian students reach basic reading ability on the test, above the average of 80%
|Equality of reading achievement in secondary school: the gap in reading scores between the lowest and highest performing students at age 15, based on 2015 PISA data.||238 point differential between 90th and 10th percentiles in reading score
89% of Canadian students reach basic reading ability, well above the average of 78%
The limits of large-scale international tests
Canadian students have strong outcomes in international assessments, both in terms of average student achievement and in equality of achievement among groups. However, international assessments have limits. These type of tests do not take stock of student competencies in vital areas of learning beyond the 3R’s, such as health, creativity, citizenship, and social-emotional skills.
Canada ranks 24th in terms of child poverty
Canada boasts relatively high equality in educational outcomes, but there is still room for improvement. For example, graduation rates for Indigenous students in Ontario are still lower than their peers, and Black children continue to be over-represented in applied programs and under-represented in post-secondary institutions in Toronto. Furthermore, in the UNICEF Report Card 14, released in 2017, Canada ranked in the bottom half of countries for children living in poverty, with food insecurity, experiencing bullying and childhood obesity.
|Canada’s indicators||Ranking among 41 countries||Percentage of children affected|
|Bullying (twice in the past month||27||15%|
“Setting bigger goals to cut child poverty and limit income inequality will reduce childhood inequalities, including the education gap in Canada – from the start. More than 1.2 million children live in poverty, and the rate of child poverty is highest among 0-5 year-olds, in the most formative years.” p. 38
When thinking about child well-being, whether it is through the lens of educational achievement, child poverty, or mental health, it is vital to understand the connections between all of the social policies that impact a child’s well-being. We cannot look at education or any other social policy in isolation. They must be seen as part of the larger web of a child’s experience.
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