Canada in 2020 (Education): The kids who fell between the cracks

Canada's education system gets top marks, but the system doesn't work for everyone.
By Bryan Borzykowski (Canadian Business Magazine, October 26, 2009)

Canadians are an educated lot. More of us have a university education than any other developed nation, and only five countries have a higher percentage of high-school grads than we do. But it's the masses that are enjoying the benefits of the system — many people who fall outside the norm are left behind. Two groups in particular are falling between the gaps: immigrants and gifted children.

Newcomers to Canada have it especially rough. Many aren't fluent in English or French and struggle to understand what is going on in the classroom. There can be curriculum gaps between their old and new schools, and integrating with other kids is often a challenge. For a few groups, high-school dropout rates are sky high: 42.5% of Portuguese-speaking students don't finish Grade 12, while 39.1% of Spanish speakers and 36.7% of Somali youth fail to complete secondary school. Compare that to the national dropout rate, which is less than 10%, and it's clear there's a problem.

Many of the issues immigrants face centre around language and literacy. Canadian education is heavily text-based — we read books and write tests — and that doesn't work well for second-language students. According to Jennifer Katz, a professor in the University of Manitoba's department of educational administration, students spend 70% of their time on literate tasks. Young children do catch up, says Michael Bloom, vice-president of organizational effectiveness and learning at the Conference Board of Canada, but it can take high-school students years to develop the same language skills as their peers. The result is lower literacy levels, more time spent in secondary school and a harder time finding a job.

Immigrants also tend to shy away from certain subject areas that can lead to lucrative careers in science and technology. In Toronto, where 47% of the city's population are considered immigrants, only 19.4% of Portuguese-speaking and 22% of Spanish-speaking students took a university math course, compared to 39.8% of native English speakers. The same groups stay away from science classes in university, too.

Part of the problem stems from the curriculum itself. George Dei, chair of the department of sociology and equity studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says the material is still geared toward Caucasian Canadian-born children, and many immigrants can't relate. "It's a very important issue," he says.

One solution is adding non-text-based learning — field trips, discussions, pictures — into the curriculum. Katz points out that if a Canadian went to China and was given a text book to read, they'd be in trouble. But, incorporate videos, the Internet and a trip to a museum, and the student will likely learn something.

Many gifted children are also ill-suited to the standard classroom setup. According to Katz, "gifted" doesn't mean people with a high IQ. Rather, it refers to the 5% of the population that have a "divergent" brain. Unlike 95% of us, who have a "convergent" brain and use specialized parts of the mind depending on the task, advanced students use their entire brain on every problem. They're creative and can tackle situations from multiple perspectives — but they often have trouble staying focused. Because school is geared toward the majority, tests and classes are "inherently convergent," says Katz.

Gifted kids are often bored, but a far worse problem is how the system affects their self-esteem. According to Katz, gifted adolescents account for one-third of all suicides in Canada. "Gifted students are misunderstood as being lazy," she says. "If they're so bright, they should be able to do this task or that. But that requires them to think in very specific boxes."

Gifted kids tend to be more productive when they're taught multiple disciplines at once, using a variety of teaching methods. In a middle-school class that Katz taught, she created a project that combined geology, history and anthropology, and included museum visits and archeological digs. Not only did her advanced learners get more out of the project than they otherwise would have, she says, but immigrants in the class also benefited since they weren't forced to read in class.

Creating a more inclusive system can't happen overnight. That doesn't mean teachers can't try to help their struggling learners now. Following Katz's method of integrating subjects and using non-classroom learning is a good start. According to Bloom, work placements are another way to offer experiences teenagers may not get in a classroom. It also gives them the chance to talk to a company's employees, who may be immigrants or gifted learners themselves. That, he says, can "stimulate behaviours and choices and commit people to staying in school."

Unfortunately, changing the system won't be easy. That's partly due to the fact that teachers have no incentive to innovate. Claudia Hepburn, a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, says teachers aren't challenging students, since they have no reason to. They don't have autonomy, and they're not usually rewarded for thinking creatively. One way to rectify this, says Hepburn, is to allow underperforming schools to close, remove district barriers so anyone can go to any school, and fund private institutions across the country. If competition increases, she says, schools will be forced to innovate or see their students walk out the door.

Without changes, though, it's a real possibility that Canada's high education rankings could drop. We're already suffering in a couple areas. A 2008 Conference Board of Canada paper revealed that, out of 17 countries, Canada graduates the second-least number of Ph.D. students, while 12 countries graduate more people in science, math, computer science and engineering than we do. "Canada not only needs to produce more ‘smart people,' it needs to support them by encouraging appropriate innovation policies and strategies," says the report.

It will cost the government billions to alter the system, but it will be even more costly if they don't. "Unless you're planning to shoot kids, tax dollars will support them," says Katz. The choice the government needs to make is how they want to support those students. If they do it proactively, they'll wind up with more taxpayers; otherwise, more people end up on welfare and in prison.

It's unlikely the government will fix the system any time soon, though. With most parents pleased with the status quo, there's no real push for change. Some teachers, like Katz, are doing innovative work, but until everyone gets on board, things will stay more or less the same. It may take a bad report card — in the form of Canada's education scores dropping — to spur some real changes.