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Editorial: Public education creates a fairer society

Canada ranks well in new UNICEF study

November 27, 2018 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

When I decided that my life’s work would be in education, I was seeing the effects of poverty on a daily basis. 

I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in northeast Edmonton and took the bus daily to school through some of the city’s most impoverished areas. 

While I am grateful my parents were able to keep me fed, clothed and sheltered, we definitely did not have the nicest things, and there was a time when my family required social assistance. 

It was from growing up in this environment that I looked to education as a beacon. Not only did I know that my own education would be responsible for ensuring a path away from poverty, but I knew that through advancing the cause of education, others in need would be better off and all of society would benefit.

Here’s the good news: a new report from UNICEF says Canada’s education system is among the best in the world for reducing inequality gaps. 

The Equalizer: How Education Creates Fairness for Children in Canada looks at a wide variety of data sets, including early childhood education participation rates, income inequality and international test results. This study digs deeper into the data to generate more meaningful analysis instead of focusing on the high-level league table rankings from instruments like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

Canada ranks 22nd in the report for equality of access at the preschool level and 18th for equality of achievement at the primary level. But Canada’s ranking rises to ninth for equality of achievement at the secondary level, based on international reading assessments. This closing of the achievement gap led to Canada’s overall ranking of nine. 

The study says that Canada’s relatively high level of equality in education is because family affluence has less of an impact on achievement and because there is less variation in achievement between different schools. According to the report, Canada distributes resources well across schools, and there is less stratification of students in schools based on socio-economic factors: students are not selected into schools as much as in other countries. This results in more student diversity in schools and a greater focus on inclusivity.

Closing the equality gap is also related to higher levels of achievement overall. 
“There is no trade-off between fairness and greatness,” writes the author. “A more equal system pulls all students up.”

But the report also highlights some threats and challenges. It notes that while Canada’s system is tops in the world at supporting migrant students, much more needs to be done to address the unique needs of our Indigenous students. And trends related to increased school stratification, income inequality and shadow education (such as private tutoring) threaten to increase educational inequality.

The report identifies a number of strategies for Canada to further reduce educational inequality: reduce income disparity and child poverty; increase access to early childhood education; close achievement gaps for Indigenous students and other underserved students; and make schools safer and healthier by combatting bullying, ensuring that students are well-fed and supporting student well-being.

Reading this study made me reflect on the Association’s current Pledge for Public Education campaign (sign on at Through that campaign, teachers and parents are calling for supports for special needs, enhanced kindergarten programs and better access to mental health supports — all things that fit well with the report’s recommendations. An added focus on small class sizes has proven benefits for the most vulnerable students, those affected by poverty in particular.

With this campaign, we often say: teachers want what students need.

And when students get what they need, then public education fulfils its promise of being society’s great equalizer. ❚

I welcome your comments—contact me at

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