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simona chiose

For Canadian journalists on education, the United States is a gift for all seasons. Student advocates point to astronomical debt levels among American students to warn against raising postsecondary tuition. Detractors of all-day kindergarten cite studies questioning the benefits of early learning. And both advocates and detractors of online learning treat U.S.-based MOOCs as if they were about to invade distance learning here.

Why the reliance on the U.S.? Geography and language are not the only answers, although they contribute. The experimentation and innovation in the United States are an irresistible pool from which to draw. Yet if we could resist the easy pickings – U.S. research studies are like cod off Newfoundland 300 years ago – America would be revealed in all its strange exceptionality. Here are three ways America is different from us and why it matters.

The impact of early learning: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio rode into office with a bold promise to expand pre-kindergarten learning and extracurriculars for grades 6 to 8 by hiking taxes on the rich. Why? Because copious amounts of research around the world have shown that early learning pays off with better outcomes later in school and life.

That research does not apply to the United States, however. One explanation that is sometimes advanced is that the disadvantages faced by too many American kids are so severe they cannot be overcome by a few extra hours in the classroom. But that's not true; high-risk students in the U.S. are similar to others in the OECD. Indeed, the only student group in America that does show some sustained gains from preschool are precisely those at highest risk of falling behind.

Early results from Ontario's full-day kindergarten model have not yet revealed if gains are evenly distributed among students from all backgrounds, as is the case outside America. If we are closer to American outcomes, it would raise some provocative questions about our society.

Student debt load: Are Canadian students facing rising debt loads? Of course they are. Sustained increases in tuition risk accessibility, even if only because of poorer students' outsize fear of taking on more debt. Yet the widely cited average of $25,000 debt on graduation hides that 40 per cent of students start out in their post-school careers with under $10,000 in debt. (The very top of student debt loads, above $30,000, did grow by 3 per cent between 2006 and 2011).

The $26,000 figure, however, is competitive with American numbers while actually gliding over some of their superior aid packages. For students at publicly-funded schools in the States, the percentage graduating in debt varies. Those attending private institutions like Harvard receive more money in grants than those at prestigious public schools like Berkeley or UMichigan at Ann Arbor and a higher percentage of their tuition is subsidized than at Canadian schools.

Student attitudes: American 15-year-olds fare worse in international test scores, particularly in math, than students in many other developed countries. The meagre reality of their achievement has no impact on their self-esteem; teens in the U.S. are some of the world's most confident. Only in one area do they betray uncertainty, their ability to read distances off a map.

Confidence in and of itself is not a handicap – in some top-scoring Asian countries, 95 per cent of students are certain they'll ace problems. Yet the more cautious Canadian approach is an accurate reflection of our reality. Showering students with praise for just being them, or showing up to class, does not improve their learning outcomes.

Does this list mean that education stories will look closer to home for comparisons this year? We can certainly try.

Simona Chiose is The Globe and Mail's Education Editor. Follow her on Twitter @srchiose

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