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Education in U.S., Canada: Attitudes Improve With Latitude

by Steve Crabtree, Contributing Editor

The recent focus in America on "fixing" the U.S. education system with reforms such as President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative speaks to more a negative opinion climate than is present north of the border. Recent Gallup Poll findings* indicate that Canadians are currently significantly more likely to be happy with their country's education system than Americans are.

Sixty-two percent of Canadians say they are satisfied with the quality of public education in their country, with 15% "very satisfied" and almost half (47%) "somewhat satisfied." In the United States on the other hand, 42% are satisfied with public education, with 9% very satisfied and only a third (33%) somewhat satisfied.

Putting the ratings in context with ratings of other issues in each country further highlights the difference. Respondents in Canada and the United States were asked to rate their countries on a series of 21 social issues and aspects of life. Only four aspects satisfy Canadians more than education does: overall quality of life (90%), the position of women in the nation (76%), the opportunity for Canadians to get ahead by working hard (75%), and the role Canada plays in world affairs (67%).

In the United States, however, 14 other aspects satisfy Americans more than education does and they are less satisfied with only six other items: the moral and ethical climate (35%), taxes (31%), Social Security (31%), immigration levels (31%), poverty and homelessness (27%), and the availability of affordable of healthcare (27%).

Doug Hart, senior research officer at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, notes that Canadians' reported confidence in public schools has risen fairly steadily over the last decade, with satisfaction scores following suit. Says Hart, "This suggests that satisfaction is tied less to test outcomes than to perceptions about the capacity of the system to respond and meet challenges."

Nevertheless, multicountry tests administered in recent years provide evidence that Canadians' higher level of confidence in public education is justified. In 1999 (the most recent year for which results are available), Canadian students significantly outscored Americans on both math and science tests, and Canada was one of only two countries in which students had shown marked improvement since the test was administered in 1995. In 2000, Canadian 15-year-olds outscored their American counterparts in math and science on the Program for International Student Assessment; when it came to reading scores, Canadians were second only to Finnish students out of the 32 countries included. 

Bottom Line

Canadians tend to be somewhat more sanguine than Americans about the issues examined in this survey -- and across the board. Still, the relative placement of public education on the list suggests a perception of wellbeing in the nation's schools that is less prevalent among Americans.

What might this mean for policy-makers? Ironically, it may not be good news for education advocates. According to Hart, there appears to be a negative relationship between satisfaction levels and the public's support for education spending. As long as confidence levels are high, Hart says, "higher levels of dissatisfaction are associated with greater willingness to put resources into the system, because those managing are seen to have the capacity to use these effectively."

*Results in the United States are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 12-15, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup USA.

Results in Canada are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted April 28-May 4, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup Canada.



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