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Comparing Canada and the U.S. on Education

By Ben Levin

Most Canadians were very surprised when the OECD PISA studies ranked us among the best performing education systems in the world - and many Canadian probably still do not believe these results. Yet for four rounds now, Canada has been among the top performing countries, and also one with smaller than average gaps between high and low performing students.

Canada has many similarities to the U.S. in education. We have virtually no federal government presence in schooling; the 10 provinces and three territories run the systems. We also have a system of local districts with elected boards, as in the U.S., that developed as the country was settled by European arrivals. Many Canadian schools, especially in our cities, are very diverse; in Toronto, where I live, about 50% of the population was born outside of Canada, from all parts of the world. In western Canada, more than 10% of students are Aboriginal. Yet, Canada has consistently been a high performing country on international assessments of student performance. Compared to the U.S., the main difference is that Canada has a much smaller proportion of low performing students; performance at the top end of the distribution is quite similar.

Of course, one can never be sure about the reasons for those differences. Each country has a unique combination of culture, history and institutional structures, both within and outside education, and one can never be sure which results arise from which differences. But some important differences in education between Canada and the U.S. include:

  • Better trained teachers, reasonably well paid, with good job security and unionization. It's hard to get into teaching in Canada, but our teachers are generally respected and treated well;
  • A strong commitment across the country to equity for all population groups (though there are still large achievement gaps in Canada, they are smaller than in most other countries);
  • Better basic services for all students and families, such as health care and social services generally;
  • Much smaller differences in funding levels from one district to another, and generally more spending in higher need communities;
  • Much consistency across schools and districts in curriculum and teaching methods.
It is this kind of examination that prompted the article with my colleagues Bob Schwartz and Adam Gamoran. We do not advocate the unilateral adoption of policies from one place into another, but we do advocate careful attention to what has worked in other places to see what can be learned. The United States has a great tradition of universal and effective public education. It is one of the institutions that made the country great and supported the social mobility that brought so many people to the U.S. from other parts of the world. In my view, those traditions and practices still have value and can still form the basis for a powerfully effective education system that serves all children and young people well.


What are some of the outstanding features of education in the United States that should be supported and made more common?


Ben Levin holds a Canada Research Chair in Education Policy and Leadership at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He is also a former deputy minister of education for the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario, Canada.

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