Special Report

Canada Musters Resources to Serve Diverse Student Needs

By Sean Cavanagh — January 09, 2012 15 min read
Sara Raudbari, 4, prepares to sing "O Canada" in kindergarten at Discovery Public School in Vaughan, Ontario.
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Every day in one of the 5th grade classrooms at Discovery Public School, just outside Toronto, a teacher works to raise her students’ academic skills—and a second adult works to lift their overall well-being.

As Fernanda Cassano stands at a projection screen, explaining a lesson on graphs and data, a child-behavioral specialist, Melissa McKenna, slips between students’ tables, helping those who face social or emotional challenges, which may stem from problems away from school.

On this day, McKenna spends most of her time with four students in particular. She soothes them when they get upset, prods them to continue when they get distracted. Sometimes, Cassano sees that a student is struggling, and asks for her colleague’s help. Sometimes McKenna jumps in on her own.

The specialist’s position, officially known as a child and youth worker, is funded through Performance Plus, a program created by the York Region District School Board to help economically disadvantaged students. The program is just one of many policy mechanisms in place in Canada at the local and provincial levels designed to channel resources to needy schools, like the Discovery school, a picture of ethnic and economic diversity.

At a time when American policymakers are worried about their nation’s mediocre showing on international tests and its implications, few countries offer as intriguing an alternative educational model as Canada, partly because of its social, economic, and cultural similarities to the United States. Not only does Canada outperform the United States on some international measures, such as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA; it also appears to have greater success than its southern neighbor in helping students from poor backgrounds prosper academically.

As is usually the case with international education comparisons, determining which factors contribute the most to Canada’s success is not easy.

A number of observers have suggested that Canada’s system of school finance, in which money flows largely from the provincial, rather than the local level—in contrast to the funding model in many American states—directs more resources to the neediest schools and students. Others point to benefits provided by specific services and programs, such as Performance Plus, in the 117,000-student York district, as creating the support for populations that face distinct academic or social challenges.

“It’s a huge help,” says Cassano of the program, and her in-class co-worker. “She gives them strategies on how to deal with their problems, deal with conflict, problems at home. Sometimes, they’re not as open with their teacher.”

Some educators and analysts, including many Canadians, believe the country’s relatively strong showing stems in part from factors that are hard to quantify, such as prevailing societal beliefs about the duty of government to help the country’s poorest citizens, as embodied by its system of national health care. Canada, which with 34 million residents is slightly less populated than California, provides a broader government social safety net than the United States does, and some of those government services are evident in schools.

“The key thing is the difference in political culture,” says Ben Levin, a professor of education at the University of Toronto and a former deputy minister of education in the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba. He argues that the decentralized U.S. approach to education policy and school funding contributes to inequities, particularly between wealthy and poor districts.

“There is a deep commitment in the U.S. to localism” and a resistance to state-by-state uniformity, Levin says. “We don’t have that.”

Classroom Support

While many Americans are likely to view Canada as an overwhelmingly white, homogeneous society, the reality is much different.

Twenty-four percent of its 15-year-old students who took part in the most recent PISA, for instance, have an immigrant background. That’s a higher proportion than in the United States, at 19 percent, and more than double the average of other participating industrialized nations, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the test. The portion of Canadian children living in relative poverty, 15 percent, is also much higher than those of some similar, developed countries, though it fares better than does the United States, where the rate is 22 percent, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

From left, 5th graders Tiffany Phongsy, Jabari Doman, and Fed Beloborodov wait for a video to display during Golriz Karoubi's class at E.J. Sand Public School in Thornhill, Ontario.

The diversity is evident at Discovery Public School, located in the suburbs north of Toronto. The school’s students hail from at least 30 different countries, including Afghanistan, China, Guyana, India, and Vietnam, and a third of them are English-language learners. Their parents make a living in many ways—as cab drivers, in food-service, construction, and factory work—and live in the surrounding neighborhood of solid, three-story brick houses, some of which are occupied by more than one family, or by extended families, notes Principal Ann Gnoinski.

The York regional district, which has a yearly budget of about $1.1 billion, Canadian, designated 20 schools to take part in Performance Plus. Those schools were selected based on having low socioeconomic status and low levels of parental education.

Performance Plus, which was launched in 1998 and costs about $2 million a year, pays for additional teachers and for child-behavioral workers at schools, as well as other extra resources that are shared across the program.

At the Discovery Public School, the program supports the work of McKenna, the child and youth worker, who spends the entire week at the school and is assigned to different classes at different times of day. Another specialist, who works with children who need help with the English language and other academic support, spends part of the week there. If the school was forced to meet its needs with only its regular teacher corps, the staff would be stretched, says Gnoinski. With the additional help, “the rubber band isn’t stretched so far,” she says.

In Cassano’s 5th grade class, located in a portable classroom outside the main school building, the teacher makes full use of the help McKenna offers. That was evident one recent day as Cassano led students through the lesson in which she asked them to interpret a table that spelled out which sports boys and girls preferred in a hypothetical school.

“This table has what? Two sets of—?” Cassano asks.

“Data,” the students respond.

McKenna is sitting next to one boy who she knows struggles to begin class assignments. A short time later, she moves to another table to help a girl who tends to get distracted during lessons; she helps the girl refocus. Not long afterward, she sidles up to another girl, who typically pays close attention but struggles to make a connection to the material, a common problem, the child-and youth-worker says.

From right, 4th graders Rachel Quansah, Erika Giang, Prashanthi Rajesan, and Winta Solomon try to predict what will happen in the next chapter of the novel Holes during class at Discovery Public School.

Near the end of class, one of the boys who McKenna works with becomes upset that the math notebook he’s brought to class doesn’t meet the needs of the day’s assignment. As the other students delve into their work, McKenna approaches Cassano and whispers: “It’s the math book. It’s got him all twisted up.”

After conferring with Cassano, the child and youth worker takes the boy outside the portable classroom, to walk and talk things through.

Provinces are Key

The support provided through Performance Plus, in the view of some researchers and advocates, is typical of the extra resources provided to Canadian students from needy backgrounds—a commitment they say is also evident in how the nation pays for its schools.

In the United States, state and local revenues are, on average, roughly evenly split, with each contributing 45 percent—though the breakdown varies greatly by state—and the federal government chipping in the rest. While many states direct additional money to needy districts, a common criticism of the U.S. system is that in many states, that money is not enough, and that local systems with little tax wealth are at a persistent disadvantage.

Beginning in the 1950s, Canada began to shift away from a locally based funding system to one that is mostly directed by provinces. That change was driven by several factors, including concerns about local inequities among districts, and the thought that a provincially directed system would help control rising education costs, several observers of the system explain.

Today, about 65 percent of overall school funding in Canada flows from the provincial level, and just 27 percent comes from local taxation sources, primarily local property taxes. The rest comes from private sources, fundraising, and donations. Education is largely a provincial responsibility, so provinces will often consolidate locally collected property tax revenues for education with provincial-level school funding, and set policy on local tax rates, according to the Centre for Education Statistics, a federal agency which provides school research and analysis.

Today, a majority of the nation’s 10 provinces, including its most populous one, Ontario, which has a population of 13 million, provide funding to schools directly from the provincial level, in a way that is equalized across wealthy and poor school districts. In Ontario, which has a total elementary and secondary education budget of about $21 billion, individual districts raise varying amounts of money through local property taxes, totaling about $6.6 billion. But the province then provides a much bigger pool of aid, $14.4 billion, to schools, providing more to the poorest districts, including those lacking local tax revenue.

Some inequities persist, observers say. Schools in wealthy areas have a much easier time raising money from their communities, and can pour that money into schools. And critics say Canada’s provinces have not done an adequate job serving some student populations, such as the country’s aboriginal learners.

Canadian students outperformed their U.S. counterparts on the most recent PISA test in reading, math, and science. On the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS, a number of individual Canadian provinces, including Ontario, beat the U.S. averages. On a third test, the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, the picture was more mixed: U.S. averages in 4th and 8th grade math and science were generally similar to those of individual provinces that took part.

Students play during recess outside the Crescent Town Public School in the Toronto school system. Designed to be a part of the Crescent Town community, the school offers programs for both parents and children.

Other data suggest that the neediest students in Canada may have an advantage over their U.S. counterparts. Seventeen percent of the variation in American students’ scores on PISA can be explained by their socioeconomic backgrounds—one of the largest factors of any participating developed country, and nearly twice as high as in Canada, at 9 percent, according to the OECD. The OECD estimate of the impact of socioeconomics on performance is based on statistical estimates of the variation in academic outcomes among students from different economic backgrounds.

The United States is also one of only a few countries in which disadvantaged students are more likely to attend schools with higher student-to-teacher ratios, which is not the case in Canada. In addition, students from Canada’s most disadvantaged backgrounds outscored the poorest American students on the PISA reading test. (The American students’ relative poverty level was considerably higher than Canada’s, however.)

Schools as Hubs

Officials in some Canadian school systems, like the Toronto District School Board, have taken aggressive steps to try to improve the lives of students in poverty.

In 2006, the district launched the Model Schools for Inner Cities program, which provides impoverished schools with additional teaching and other staffing, and access to an array of social services. The schools share those services with a cluster of other schools.

Model Schools started in just three schools; it serves more than 120 of them today, operating on a yearly budget of $8.5 million, though it also gets in-kind and financial support from numerous corporations, universities, and nonprofits.

A core goal of the program is to establish the school as the heart of its community. To that end, it supports aggressive outreach to parents to encourage them to become involved in their children’s academic development, and in the life of the school. It pays for a range of professional development and support for teachers, and arranges networks for principals, educators, and parents to share ideas. The district also provides schools with extensive data about academic performance, absenteeism, and other concerns, to help in shaping their policies.

Model Schools provides free vision and hearing screenings, subsidized meals, and other services; in many cases, the program’s partners follow up with glasses, hearing aids, and additional services at no cost.

While it’s not uncommon for U.S. public schools to offer those kinds of social services on their campuses, they are far more common in Canada, says Lisbeth Schorr, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a Washington organization that advocates for impoverished families. The main distinction between the approach used in Canadian and U.S. schools is that Canadian governmental and educational systems typically go much further in ensuring that needy children actually receive the help they need, Schorr says—in part, she believes, because Canada offers national health insurance and other guaranteed services.

In the United States, once a student is identified as having a need, “you’ve got a whole new series of questions” about who will pay for and provide those services, says Schorr, who has visited a number of Canadian school systems.

Fourth grader Waleed Malik works on a reading assignment at Discovery Public School in the York Region school district, outside Toronto.

Few Model Schools embody the idea of school-as-community-hub as fully as Crescent Town Public School, on the east side of Toronto.

The multistory building sits in the middle of a canyon of high-rise apartments, condominiums, and public housing, home to the families it serves—in all, an estimated 12,000 people live in the surrounding community.

They include natives of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and other places—50 different languages are represented. The school houses a day-care center, run by a nonprofit; and a “settlement” office, designed to help new immigrants adjust to Canada, also run by a nonprofit, which receives federal funding.

Crescent Town’s students and families face a host of challenges, including language barriers, unemployment, and, for many parents, the rough transition of having left high-skill professions in their home countries to work in low-paying jobs in Toronto.

Penny Stavropoulos, the school’s parent-team worker, is a liaison to those families. Mothers and fathers bring their preschoolers to her room, the parental and family literacy center, located near the school’s central office, where she leads them through reading, counting, and other basic activities, which she hopes the families will use at home.

She tries to gain the confidence of parents, so that they’ll learn to trust the learning activities she’s offering.

“It’s building a connection with the families,” Stavropoulos says. “We believe the parent is the primary teacher.”

At the David Lewis Public School, also located in the Toronto system, engaging parents is also crucial. Over the years, the school has become a magnet for Chinese immigrants, who make up 80 percent of its enrollment. Many of its students were born in Canada, yet the vast majority don’t speak English when they arrive at school, because they hear other languages, typically Cantonese or Mandarin, at home.

The high-performing school integrates literacy across the curriculum, and devotes extended blocks of time to building that skill, as well as numeracy. For most students, gaining literacy typically takes three to seven years, says Principal Karen Peach. She offers a demonstration of that progression by leading a visitor through the school’s hallways, which are papered with student writing samples that grow increasingly sophisticated by grade level.

“Language has to be modeled” for students, Peach says. “They have to hear it. They have to see it. We inundate them, totally, with literacy.”

That work has paid off for Shirley Ho, 13, who spoke only Cantonese when she began school at David Lewis as a kindergartner.

Shirley’s mother was pregnant with her daughter when the family arrived in Canada as immigrants. Her parents settled in Toronto’s Chinatown neighborhood, before moving closer to David Lewis school, in the eastern part of the city.

The teenager remembers feeling lost in English at first, then making gains with the help of such classroom strategies as singing English-language songs. She eagerly offers up one of those tunes—about a red, yellow, pink, and green rainbow—which is still etched in her memory. Soon she was moving to increasingly complicated assignments.

Second grade teacher Jen Hart reads to, from left, her son Noah, 4, daughter Maya, 17 months, and students Alisha Chowdhury, 6, and Sazia Afreen, 7, during "Snuggle Up and Read" after school at Crescent Town Public School in Toronto. Teachers read to students, with parents present, to encourage reading at home.

By 4th grade, “I looked at my report card, and I said, I’m progressing really well,” says Shirley, in flawless English.

Another highly diverse school, E.J. Sand, in the York regional school system, has benefited from academic supports from the province and Ontario’s provincial ministry, says Principal Lucy Giannotta. The school is trying to rebound from a dip in reading scores through a number of strategies. It participates in a network of schools that share ideas on academic improvement, has expanded its focus on literacy-building and critical thinking across subjects, and now devotes more time to professional development.

As is the case at the David Lewis school, many of the E.J. Sand Public School’s students arrive knowing little if any English; they’ve grown up speaking Farsi, Russian, Korean, and other languages. Giannotta understands those students’ challenges firsthand. She was born in Canada to Italian immigrant parents, and she didn’t speak English when she started school. As she made progress, she remembers having to help translate information at home for her parents, particularly her mother, who had spent less time in Canada than her father.

“Many of our kids are doing that, too,” the principal says. “They’ve got quite a load on their shoulders.”

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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