In Canada’s Public Schools, Immigrant Students Are Thriving

March 3, 2018

By Kavitha Cardoza, Education Week
When 13-year-old André Cordeiro moved from rural Portugal to Toronto, the only English words he knew were, “hi,” “bye,” and “hot dog.” Four years later, he speaks English “way better” and credits the English-learner class he attends every morning at Islington Junior Middle School.

With just six other students in that class, the teacher answers André’s questions right away, unlike in the larger, mainstream classes he attends every afternoon. He’s more at ease in his morning class because no one speaks English fluently. “I feel kind of equal,” said André, now in 8th grade. “There’s not as much pressure if I make a mistake.”

Three-fourths of the roughly 500 students at Islington, a K-8 school in Toronto, speak a language other than English at home, including Somali, Arabic, Korean, Bengali, and Russian. But far from being unusual, this diverse school mirrors Canada’s largest city, where almost half the 2.7 million population is foreign-born.

Overall, 30 percent of Canada’s schoolchildren are either immigrants themselves or have at least one parent born abroad. That’s compared with 23 percent of U.S. students who are immigrants or children of immigrants. Yet Canada has one of the highest performing education systems in the world as ranked by the Program for International Assessment, or PISA, test that 15-year-olds from more than 70 countries take. The United States’ rankings, by contrast, are mediocre.

Part of Canada’s success is connected to its strong track record on educating immigrants. Within three years of arriving in Canada’s public schools, PISA tests show that children of new migrants do as well as native-born children.

This is surprising because, generally, immigrant children face considerable obstacles in school and do “significantly worse” than their non-immigrant peers, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“These students are often labeled as having a double disadvantage,” said Louis Volante, an education professor at Brock University in Ontario. “They have to adjust to a different way of doing things and they also generally have a low socioeconomic status in their new host country.” And refugee children often have a “triple disadvantage,” Volante said, since many of them also have experienced trauma because of war or natural disasters.

So what’s behind Canada’s success in educating immigrants?

For one, Canada selects immigrants mainly based on their ability to settle in Canada and take part in its economy, unlike the U.S., which largely has a family reunification approach. Prospective newcomers to Canada receive points for job skills, education levels, as well as proficiency in English or French, the two national languages. Across most of Canadian society, immigration is largely seen as positive and necessary for the country’s economic success.

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Developments, or OECD, says those policy and cultural differences on immigration give Canadians an advantage over U.S. schools, where immigrant students and their families are more likely to come from impoverished circumstances and the political environment for immigrants is much more fraught. But he says that doesn’t fully account for the high performance of immigrant children.

“Take wealthy immigrant children in the United States, they will do a lot worse than the same kind of immigrant children in Canada,” he said. And the flip side is also true, Schleicher said, pointing out that low-income immigrant children do better in Canada.

“There’s a lot Canada does to allow immigrant kids to achieve these results,” he said.

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