Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

Back to the Basics: Socio-Economic, Gender, and Regional Disparities in Canada's Educational System

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

Back to the Basics: Socio-Economic, Gender, and Regional Disparities in Canada's Educational System

Article excerpt

This study reassessed the extent to which socio-economic background, gender, and region endure as sources of educational inequality in Canada. The analysis utilized the 28,000 student Canadian sample from the data set of the OECD's 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Results, consistent with previous findings, highlight the uneven distribution of educational achievement in Canada along socioeconomic, gender, and regional lines, and point to the continued necessity of policy to mitigate the impact of gender, class, and regional inequalities on the educational outcomes and life chances of young Canadians.

Key words: social inequality, educational outcomes, educational aspirations, SES, cultural capital, PISA

Dans cet article, les auteurs se demandent dans quelle mesure le statut socio-economique, le sexe et la region demeurent des sources d'inegalite en matiere d'education au Canada. L'analyse repose sur l'echantillon des 28 000 eleves canadiens tire de l'ensemble de donnees du Programme international pour le suivi des acquis des eleves (PISA) de 2003 de l'OCDE. Les resultats, conformes aux conclusions anterieures, mettent en evidence la repartition inegale de la reussite scolaire au Canada selon le statut socioeconomique, le sexe et la region et indiquent la necessite d'attenuer l'impact du sexe, de la classe sociale et des inegalites regionales sur les resultats scolaires et les chances d'epanouissement des jeunes canadiens.

Mots cles: inegalite sociale, resultats scolaires, aspirations quant aux etudes, statut socioeconomique, capital culturel, PISA


A fundamental concern within sociology of education research is the extent to which formal education both fosters socio-economic opportunity and also reproduces social inequality (Wotherspoon, 2004). The notion of education as the great equalizer has a prominent place in the ideology of modern liberal democratic states such as Canada and the United States. This popular belief in meritocracy is also paralleled by more formal conceptualizations informing the social policy-making process. Prominent among these is human capital theory (McBride, 2000; Woodhall, 1997), which holds that investment in education brings both individual returns (such as increased social mobility) and societal returns (such as economic growth, decreased inequality, and enhanced social cohesion). Evidence of the return to individuals from education has generally been more forthcoming; in particular, the correlation between education and income is well-established (e.g., Krueger & Lindahl, 2001; Sweetman, 2002). However, consistent evidence of social returns such as rising prosperity and lower inequality has been much more problematic to measure (Levin & Kelley, 1997). Exemplary of the elusive social returns from education is the United States, the richest country in the world, with one of the most educated populaces, but which also happens to exhibit one of the greatest degrees of social inequality among advanced Western nations (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2003).

Although Canada compares favourably with other advanced Western nations in terms of educational equality (e.g., Marks, 2005; UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre [UNICEF], 2002), (1) the distribution of educational achievement in Canada has historically been subject to structural asymmetries related to socio-economic background, gender, and geography. (2) Given the spate of social trends that have in recent times significantly reshaped the Canadian social landscape (Roberts, Clifton, Ferguson, Kampen, & Langlois, 2005), it is important to reassess the extent to which these traditional dimensions of educational inequality continue to endure. The present availability of a world-class data set in the form of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study provides an excellent opportunity to undertake just such a reassessment. …

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