Top-performing countries strive for equity in opportunity for all children by providing strong supports for young children and their families before students arrive at school and then, once they are in school, ensuring that they have the resources that they need to succeed.
Countries in which young children who come to school healthy, eager to learn and ready to profit from the instruction tend to be countries in which those children do well in school. Some countries have extensive government supports for pre-natal care, mother and child nutrition, universal health care, high quality child care for working mothers, high quality preschools and family allowances for families with young children.
Top-performing countries have made explicit decisions to create systems in which all students are educated to standards formerly reserved only for their elites. Policymakers in these countries know that, if less advantaged students are going to achieve at league-leading levels, they will have to have access to more resources than students who come to
school with greater advantages. Most of these top-performing countries are providing more teachers to harder-to-educate students. Some are even providing strong incentives to their best teachers to work in classes and schools serving students from low-income and minority families.
Finland places a high priority on equity. It provides extensive health and social services to young children and their families including year-long paid parental leave, highly subsidized child care and universal preschool. Wealthier municipalities are required to share their revenue with less wealthy municipalities so that no district is funded at less than the average across the country. The ministry of education also provides additional teachers for schools and classrooms where students need extra help and additional funding is given directly to districts for students whose parents are unemployed or undereducated, students from low-income families, and students who are new immigrants.
Canada has also made equity central to its policies. Canada provides a universal child care benefit to all parents across the country. In addition, provinces like Ontario offers substantial subsidies for child care to low- and middle-income families and is heavily investing is expanding public child care slots. Ontario made full day kindergarten universal in 2014. Ontario distributes school funding at the provincial level, so that funding is equalized across the province. It also provides substantial additional per pupil funding for students considered “at risk” and defines this to include low-income, single parent households, and children whose parents have low education levels. Literacy and numeracy specialists are also assigned to secondary schools with students at-risk of not completing graduation requirements.
Shanghai has made equalizing staff resources a hallmark of its reform strategy. The teacher career ladder rewards teachers who spend time teaching in disadvantaged schools and requires successful school principals in urban schools to spend time in lower performing rural schools. Shanghai also pioneered the strategy of partnering high-performing schools with low-performing schools to help the lower performing schools improve. The principal and teachers coach the staff of the lower performing schools and share lessons and strategies. This Empowered Management Program has been adapted in many other countries.