According to data released last week, students in Shanghai are the best in the world when it comes to math, reading and science. This is no surprise. For years, Americans have conceded that Asian nations such as China, Japan and South Korea simply do a better job of educating their students. This concession is typically accompanied by references to the cultural differences that we feel result in an unhealthy dose of over-education. Otherwise stated, we are quick to dismiss applying the successful education strategies of many Asian nations on the grounds that they are simply too different from us.
On the other hand, injecting Finland into any conversation about fixing American education is now the trendy thing to do. Finland fascinates because it is more similar to the United States than the aforementioned Asian countries. Nonetheless, its lack of socio-economic and racial diversity makes Finland an easy target for naysayers who wish to explain away its success and avoid generalizing its strategies in a global context. But what about Canada?
As a nation, Canada spends less money on education than the United States (in terms of both portion of GDP and percentage of total government spending), yet it has managed to routinely place itself as the other top non-Asian country ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) through their Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) - the same organization that ranked students in Shanghai as first in the world. Furthermore, Canada is just as diverse as the United States, according to a study conducted by the Harvard Institute of Economic Research. So why isn’t anyone talking about the Canadian education system as we search for solutions to the flaws in our own?
To be clear, Canada is a relative newcomer to the top of the international rankings. It arrived only after taking two very specific steps to ensure that its populace is among the best educated in the world.
First, Canada has adopted a high degree of selectivity in choosing and credentialing teachers; becoming a teacher in Canada is relatively difficult. It is, therefore, no surprise that this selectivity has yielded a unique culture around the education field, wherein teaching is among the most desirable and revered of occupations. Widely cited scholarship on Canadian education notes that applicants to teachers colleges are usually in the top thirty-percent of their university cohorts. Ironically, those who are not granted admittance to a Canadian teachers college often seek their training in America, where seemingly anyone can get credentialed in an a field that is haunted by the philosophy, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”.
Second, Canadian success in education is very much a function of equalized and equitable funding. The OECD notes that Canadian provinces retain a certain amount of money to equalize funding in poorer districts with insufficient tax bases. Furthermore, equitable funding from provinces to districts also comes in the form of grants provided to meet district-specific challenges in special education. This is the opposite of many states in America, where unequal and inequitable funding schemes are the norm. For example, in the United States, the spending on students at predominantly white, wealthy schools is sometimes two times that of schools attended primarily by students of color from low income families.
So enough about Finland, why isn’t anyone talking about Canada? We are separated from Finland by a great expanse of water, and our socio-cultural differences seem to further divide us – both of which make it easy to explain-away their educational gains as inapplicable in the United States, just like many of the previously discussed Asian nations. Canada is much harder to explain away; America is arguably more similar to it than any other country in the world. Yet implementing the strategies utilized in Canada would require a cultural shift regarding the status of teaching as a profession in this country, as well as a significant reorganization of priorities. This is why no one seems to be talking about Canada. This is also why we should be.