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When is falling behind not inevitable, but unacceptable?

By Lisa Wolff
Director of Advocacy and Education, UNICEF Canada
This blog was originally published on the Canadian Education Association website.

Canada’s educators can be proud of the achievement of Canadian kids in international achievement assessments like the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA). Canadian students have consistently achieved top scores in reading, math and science literacy in PISA tests for a number of years. Such tests may not measure the different and important ways our kids are learning, such as how to be responsible citizens, talented artists and masters of dealing with life’s adversities. But tests like PISA capture some of the functional knowledge and skills that open, rather than limit, life opportunities. And when you think about the circumstances that support such strong academic achievement, tests like PISA, while seeming to capture only a limited picture of learning, also stand for much more.  To achieve high math, reading and science scores, kids need good teachers, well-conceived teaching and learning resources, secure homes, safe and supportive communities, encouragement, and the belief that education matters. Test scores that are internationally comparable, like PISA, tell us something about how well Canada is supporting its kids in these ways, relative to other countries; but not necessarily relative to what is possible.

International tests of educational achievement like PISA report results as averages. Averages hide a great deal of important information. That’s why UNICEF went a step further and calculated the equality gap in educational achievement using PISA test scores[i]. In our study, The Children Left Behind, we developed a new way to measure the gap between the average child and the children struggling at the bottom of their societies (we don’t compare children at the bottom with those at the top). We applied this equality gap measure to 24 industrialized nations in three aspects of children’s lives – material well-being, physical health and educational achievement. We used PISA test scores to measure the equality gap in education, and found that not only do Canadian kids achieve top scores on average, but the gap between Canadian kids’ scores is also very small. Canada placed 3rd among 24 countries in our measure of educational equality. Not only are our kids’ average scores in reading, math and science literacy comparatively very high; the degree of equality in academic achievement among students is also very high. The lower-achieving children in Canadian schools are less likely to fall a long way behind their peers than students in Austria, France or Belgium – where the educational equality gap is greatest. Our education system is doing relatively well for all kids, leaving fewer behind than in many other countries. It’s managing to do this without limiting the success of the highest achievers.

But, counterintuitively, Canada landed a worrisome rating of 17th out of 24 affluent countries in poverty or “material well-being” (using combined indicators of family income, housing living space and access to educational resources).  The equality gap in material well-being is very wide in Canada, far wider than average among industrialized nations. Whose company are we keeping at the bottom of the material equality scale? Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece. The incongruity of this, considering our relative affluence and stable economic situation relative to these debt-threatened nations, is disconcerting.

The strong link between a family’s socioeconomic circumstances and educational achievement is well established. That’s why it’s remarkable that Canada’s education system has produced relatively low educational inequality in contrast to other industrialized nations, where material equality is greater. Some of the dampening impacts of family poverty on a child’s educational achievement including living in insecure housing in unsafe neighbourhoods, frequent moves, poorer health and nutrition, lack of sleep and of parental time, and other disruptions and deprivations. Canada’s public education system does a comparatively good job at reducing the effects of poverty and disadvantage on academic performance.

The different levels of inequality in educational outcomes among the countries we studied are not the result of any natural distribution of abilities, but of differences in policies which limit the extent to which some students fall behind. In Canada, it appears that education related policies weaken the link between socio-economic disadvantage and school achievement. But other policy choices are doing little to close the gap in material well-being, and that is no help to the potential of our education system. The most potent fact about children who fall significantly behind their peers in education is that they, on the whole, are from families at the bottom end of the socio-economic scale. Further actions to prevent children from falling behind in education must at some point face the question of socio-economic gradient.

The growing income gap in Canada may soon begin to diminish the degree of equality our education system sustains. While children themselves pay the heaviest cost of inequality, society also pays through increased costs for remedial schooling, health services, welfare and the justice system, and the loss to economic competitiveness resulting from a large number of children failing to develop to their potential. How much better could our education system work for more kids if the resources spent on compensating for poverty were freed up? More children at the bottom of the test scores would achieve higher, fewer would drop out, and there would be more resources to invest in all children in the system. Research by UNICEF and others suggest that societies that manage to reduce the material disparity gap also tend to have higher overall well-being: everyone benefits when inequality is kept low.

Every level of government in Canada should establish a policy to ensure children have a first call on resources, to be prioritized when funds are invested and to be the last and least to face spending cuts. Broadly, maintaining Canada’s support for public education in an aging society where health costs are rising is necessary for the short- and long-term good of children and of our nation. In education policy, falling behind is significantly more likely when students from low socio-economic status attend schools in which the average socio-economic status is also low. Directing support and excellent teachers to these schools shows good results. Paying attention to the most vulnerable children with flexible approaches to education and additional supports is necessary. For example, a 2007 report by Toronto’s social planning council found a high and persistent level of homelessness among school children (3,000 per year live in homeless shelters in Toronto alone), but found that there are no government or school board policies to ensure the educational needs of these vulnerable children. The Government of Canada’s commitment to begin a new relationship with First Nations for children’s education is a welcome step.

Whether in education, in health or in the level of family resources, some children will always fall behind the average. Canada is rich with experts who have insight on the measures that are needed across Canada and in specific communities to reduce the equity gaps for children in all aspects of their lives. For the rest of society, we have yet to decide: how far behind? Is there a point beyond which falling behind is not inevitable but unacceptable?

UNICEF Reports

Innocenti Report Card 9: The Children Left Behind examines the inequalities in child well-being in the world’s richest countires. Learn more or download the report.

Blogs by Lisa Wolff

Children should come first in Attawapiskat

Right in Principle, Right in Practice - is Canada doing enough for our children?


[i] UNICEF’s Report Card 9: The children left behind, measures educational equity using the 2006 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reading, mathematics and science literacy scores. PISA administered reading, maths and science tests to representative samples of between 4,500 and 10,000 15-year-old students in each of 57 countries, including all of the countries featured in our report. The tests attempt to assess how well “education systems are preparing their students to become life-long learners and to play constructive roles as citizens in society.” More detailed information on the OECD 2006 PISA survey can be found at: and in OECD (2007) PISA 2006: Science Competencies for Tomorrow’s World, OECD, Paris.


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