Jessica: Toronto, Ontario resembles many big cities in the U.S.; same stores, same language and just like the United States, Canada has a diverse population. Forty percent of students are not born in Canada. Like Betty Lu who was born in China. But unlike the U.S., immigrants like Betty score just as well as Canadian born students on the international assessment test PISA.
Do you remember when you first came over?
Betty Lu: I do.
Jessica: Tell me about it.
Betty: When I first came, I didn’t know a word of English, and I remember being in grade one and not understanding a word that was being spoken.
Jessica: Eleven years later, Betty is one of the top students in Toronto’s R.H. King Academy and president of student council.
Betty: Here I have some teachers who care about their students who want to push their students to be the best they can be and that has definitely helped a lot in myself receiving the best education i can get.
Jessica: Public schools that have high numbers of immigrant students receive additional support, resources and money from the government. But that wasn’t always the case. Education used to be paid for by taxes on people’s property in the schools area. Similar to how it works in the U.S. That meant schools in rich neighborhoods often got more money than schools in poor neighborhoods. Now, the amount of funding a school receives is based on its need. Schools that need more help, like those with high populations of non-English-speaking students, get more money.
Another change in Ontario: all schools must teach the same curriculum. That means all students must reach the same high standards.
“The mentality when they don’t understand something is not to lower the bar. The last thing we do is lower the bar.”
Jessica: Students who are in danger of failing get extra help and attention from teachers. The prinicpal compares this student success program to giving at-risk students a life jacket before they drown.
Principal: If they haven’t passed a course, we are finding out what part of the course haven’t you passed. Why do you have to repeat an entire course when you got most of it but you just didn’t get this one part? Why not reteach that one part, giving them money, teachers and training to the teachers?
Jessica: Experts say the program helped bump Ontario’s graduation rate from 68% to 81% in just seven years. Here, math, science and reading are not the required classes.
“All schools have arts programs and, even if the budget gets tight, schools are not allowed to cut classes like drama music or dance.”
Jessica: And here at R.H. King, another mandatory part of the day is reading for fun.
“Everyday in school, students pick up a book, newspaper or tablet, and for about twenty minutes they read.”
Jessica: These reforms didn’t happen overnight. In fact, in the 90′s, Canada made headlines around the world when 126,000 teachers went on strike.
“It was a hard time for teachers because if you’re not valued as a teacher then it’s hard to go into the classroom, and it filters down. If you’re not valued, the kids get it from home that you’re not valued. It has made a real turnaround here in Ontario with the fact that the government in power values education.”
Jessica: In 2003, Canada’s premier, Dalton McGuinty, made education his number one priority, earning him the nickname “Education Premier.”
So, it wasn’t too long ago that schools in Canada were not considered the best in the world. What changed?
“We’ve enjoyed some remarkable gains, I would argue, inside publically funded schools in the province of Ontario. And there’s one thing that doesn’t cost a penny, which is absolutely essential as a foundation for progress. You better bring respect. You better respect the professionalism, the dedication, the good will and the determination of teachers to make a difference. If you’re missing that ingredient, I don’t care where you are on the face of the earth, you’re not going to get where you want to go. So, we started not by bringing a new infusion of money but a general respect for our teachers. And that has served, I would argue, as the foundation of our progress.”
Jessica: Do you feel respected by your community?
Caitin Hussey: I do feel respected and in this community and school. I do feel a sense of thankfulness and gratitude.
“As a Canadian teacher, I think that there are a lot of opportunities that teachers are presented with. I think that we have a system in place that supports teachers”
“It’s an individualized opportunity based system that gives us that chance to really keep growing in our own work and to bounce ideas off other people. So, there’s this feeling about being valued, about what I have to say, about the way this worked for me in my classroom and how it did or did not work in someone else’s classroom — a collaborative approach.”
Jessica: This new attitude toward teachers has made the profession more popular and more competitive. In Canada the teaching profession attracts the best and brightest. Most of those who are applying to become a teacher are graduating from university in the top 30% of their class. The U.S. attracts just 23% of teachers from the top third of their class.
But we wanted to know what students thought of their teachers, so we sat down with these students from R.H. King Academy.
Do you feel like most of you have a good relationship with your teachers?
Student: Yeah. They connect with us and they care about how we’re doing and how we are feeling about the classroom. A lot of teachers ask for feedback.
Student: They’re always looking to improve to make the course they’re teaching better.
Student: Today, we started a history board game. Normally, I would not be the type to play a history board game but he manages to get everyone involved. We always have a good time.
Student: If I had a teacher who came and lectured all day or wrote notes for us to take all day, I don’t think I’d be in history class. I wouldn’t be motivate to memorize or do the work.
Jessica: Do you guys feel that you’re some of the smartest students in the world?
Student: I was surprised that we beat the U.S. in education because all the people you hear of — the richest people in the world — they all seem to be from the states.
Student: The U.S. has some of the best schools in the world. And when you think of that, it’s like, ‘Wow! How does Canada beat the students in the U.S. who can go to these schools?”
Jessica: Some critics worry Canada’s reforms focus too much on test results. Still most would agree Canada has made significant improvements to the overall system in a short amount of time.
So, you’ve been through this very successful reform process. So, if I can ask you if you have some advice to the president of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, because right now the U.S. is going through a reform process, what advice would you give them?
“I think as well, there needs to be a determination to move everyone forward. Government has to get better at what they do. Our schools have to get better at what they do, teachers have to get better at what they do, and kids have to get better at what they do. You have to infuse the whole system with a shared desire to improve, beginning with the foundation of respect for each other. It’s not an easy thing to do.”