Lessons from the North: A Conversation with Canadian Education Leader Raymond Théberge
As Americans swoon over Finland's celebrated education system, we often forget about another high achiever just to our North: Canada. Canada scores among the top three countries in PISA assessments of 15-year-olds' reading literacy and science.
What are the reasons for this success? Canadian education leader Dr. Raymond Théberge believes they include Canada's commitment to education equity and its strong support for struggling schools. He also credits the country's general dedication to the health and well-being of its children and families: "We cannot expect the schools to solve all of our society's problems."
We recently spoke with Dr. Théberge, who in 2005 became Director General of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC). (In Canada, responsibility for education rests entirely with the thirteen provinces and territories. The CMEC helps provincial education ministries collaborate with one another and the federal government on strategies for improving Canadian schools.)
You can download our entire 17-minute conversation here (a transcript of highlights appears below).
Alternatively, you can listen to any of the following excerpts from the interview:
Transcript of Interview Highlights
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Canada has been very justly celebrated for its high achievement in international assessments. Do you think you can name any major policies or practices that you would credit for this success?
THEBERGE: We always strive to include all students in all programs at all times, and we've worked a lot in the area of differentiated instruction to try to meet the needs of various learners where they're at. Canada is a very vast country, sparsely populated, and with regions that differ in terms of demographics, in terms of socioeconomic makeup, in terms of language, in terms of culture. So the fact that we have 13 different systems allows these systems to respond to the various learner characteristics within their jurisdictions.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you think it's possible to identify challenges that are common to all the provinces and territories?
THEBERGE: Definitely. Clearly, we have a certain percentage of our students--about 10 percent--who are functioning at the lowest level in terms of literacy, for example. [Also,] we have huge societal challenges in dealing with our aboriginal learners, who clearly do not have the same level of success as other learners in Canada.
When we speak about aboriginal education in Canada, there are a lot of jurisdictional issues. What we're trying to promote is a much better sense of collaboration between various levels of jurisdictions to ensure that, at the end of the day, those aboriginal students will get the kind of education which will reduce the [achievement] gap with their non-aboriginal counterparts. So every education system has some challenges, including Canada.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Has there been something like a common strategy that Canadian provinces have used to try to determine what school accountability for student performance should be?
THEBERGE: With respect to accountability, there are a number of evaluation or assessment programs that are in place. One is the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program. It is used to drive learning, to advance the learning agenda. [Its] not about comparing schools, it's about getting snapshots and how this information, often in the data, [can] drive the learning agenda forward.
Also, most provinces have their own provincial assessment programs. So I'll give you an example of what happens in a province. As opposed to sanctioning schools, we look at schools that are comparable in terms of socioeconomic background, for example. We look at achievement. And we say, "Why is School A performing and School B not performing?"
What we then do is we provide resources to the school that is underperforming, based on what the other schools are doing. So we use the data, but we don't use it in a punitive way. It's not a sanction, it's not tied to funding. So it's not used as a sledgehammer to beat up on people. It's to help them drive learning.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you think immigration has posed special challenges for Canadian schools, and that provinces have been able to respond effectively?
THEBERGE: According to the data that we have, the children of immigrants do quite well in school. And second generation immigrants actually sometimes [do] better than native-born Canadians.
One of the reasons that we are able to be successful in meeting the learning needs of immigrant children is that [Canada] also [has] in place, within the provinces, a number of settlement organizations which help the whole family. In other words, the school also becomes a center for English as second language instruction for parents. So they're welcomed into the community. There are [also] a number of supports provided by these settlement groups to ensure that there are provisions for housing, provisions for jobs...those kinds of things.
We also have an inclusive environment [in our schools], and we believe in differentiated teaching.
We recognize as a nation that our survival is strongly dependent on immigration, and all population growth [in Canada] in the next number of years will be solely due to immigration.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: To your knowledge, have Canadian provinces done anything to create multi-sector programs, such as health and other social service programs, to improve performance of vulnerable students?
THEBERGE: We do have in Canada the Joint Consortium for School Health--which is a cooperation between the Ministries of Education, Ministries of Health, and a lot of agencies and departments--to promote school health. This Joint Consortium develops knowledge, develops materials, and makes them available to the schools.
I'll give you another example. In the Province of Manitoba they have what we call the "Cabinet of the Cabinet." All the ministers that deal with youth have a special cabinet committee to address the whole question of youth.
We cannot expect the school to solve all of society's problems, and in order to address some of the issues that we expect schools to deal with, we have to bring a whole number of partners to the table. I think what we've realized now is that there's only so much a school can do by itself. Therefore, we need to bring in, like I said, these partners that address these wider issues.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- 2013 Digital Principal Ryan Imbriale
- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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