Canadians, particularly those of conservative persuasion, love to compare Canada with the United States, which has a lot to learn in the key area of K-12 education. As the United States struggles with mounting deficits and debt, Americans would be well served to look north if they want to raise student performance while saving money. Canadians would be equally well served to understand their own success and expand it.
Little known to most Canadians is how well the country’s students perform on international tests, particularly when compared to the United States. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an internationally standardized test administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Every three years PISA tests 15-year-olds in reading; mathematical and scientific literacy; and general competencies — that is, how well students apply the knowledge and skills they have learned at school to real-life problems.
The most recent PISA results (2006) show Canada consistently outperforming the United States. For example, Canada ranked fifth out of the 57 participating countries on mathematics while the United States ranked 32nd. Canada ranked third on the science component while the United States ranked 24th.
Canada also outpaces the United States on the Progress in International Reading Literacy exam (PIRLS), which provides international comparisons on reading achievement in primary school. In the most recent PIRLS (2006), four out of the five Canadian provinces tested — Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia — outperformed the United States.
Also, while U.S. fourth graders out-scored their Canadian peers on the Trends in International Math and Science Study exam, the longer U.S. students stayed in their country’s schools the worse they did. By the eighth grade, Canadian students in the provinces tested beat their U.S. counterparts.
Why are Canadian students outperforming U.S. kids on these international comparisons? Money certainly doesn’t explain the achievement gap. In fact, according to the OECD, Canada spends less than the United States on K-12 education.
In 2006, the same year as the tests cited above, the United States spent 3.9% of its economy (GDP) on K-12 education, or US$10,692 per student. In contrast, Canada spent only 3.4% of its GDP on K-12 education, or US$8,169 per student. In other words, the United States spent a greater share of its economy and about 31% more per student on K-12 education than Canada, but Canada got better results.
The Canadian lead can be explained in part by the different ways the two countries deliver education. While the United States has seen decades of increasing federal intervention and control of education policy, the federal government in Canada has essentially no role in K-12 education. Canada’s provinces have exclusive authority over the delivery and regulation of, and accountability for, K-12 education. Further, Canada’s provinces, much more than Washington or most U.S. states, have crafted competitive student-oriented education systems.
For example, British Columbia has a province-wide, partial voucher program for students attending private schools that follow, to some degree, the provincial curriculum. In provinces like Alberta, private independent and religious schools can receive per-student grants that are a percentage of the per-pupil funding for the public schools, and Alberta has experimented with charter schools.
The province of Ontario funds both the public K-12 system and the competing Catholic system. And Quebec has a well-developed and publicly supported private school system. It is important to note that achievement scores are not only higher generally in the provinces that fund independent schools, but are also higher among students from less advantaged backgrounds.
Canada has opted for decentralized education policymaking, competitive education delivery systems and wider and more innovative schooling options for parents and their children. These combine to create an environment in which higher student performance can take place while consuming less money and resources than the United States. The U.S. federal government, unfortunately, is going in the opposite direction by increasing federal control over education. So Canada is likely to widen its lead, while continuing to spend less.
U.S. students and parents would benefit greatly from a little Canadianization of their K-12 education system. Similarly, Canadian students and parents in provinces that have yet to enact key reforms would benefit enormously from such changes, while successful provinces need to keep their shoulders to the wheel.
– Lance Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies, Jason Clemens is director of research and Lingxiao Ou is a research intern at the Pacific Research Institute (pacificresearch. org) in San Francisco, Calif. Prior to joining PRI, Jason Clemens held a number of positions over ten-plus years with the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute and is a coauthor of the recently released Canadian Century: Moving Out of America’s Shadow (Key Porter Books).