Center on International Education Benchmarking

Since the end of the Second World War, Canada has transformed itself from a rural economy to an urban, industrial economy, the tenth largest in the world. It comes in fifth in the Forbes survey of the countries that are home to the world’s largest companies. One of the largest exporters and importers on the globe, it is more reliant on exports of natural resources—forest products, metals, and oil and gas — or the energy derived from them than most advanced industrial powers. But it also has a vibrant manufacturing sector, with auto manufacturing a particularly important player.

Though not a strong performer in international comparisons of student achievement earlier, Canada turned in one of the strongest records of student achievement in the world when PISA was first administered in 2000. These results were further distinguished by the lack of large disparities in student scores across socioeconomic, ethnic and racial lines. In the more recent iterations of PISA, Canada has remained a top-performer, with Ontario, one of the country’s most populous provinces, demonstrating particularly strong results. In the 2012 PISA assessment, Canada was ranked sixth in reading, tenth in math and eighth in science. These numbers are even stronger for some of the provinces; Alberta ranked third in science, Ontario ranked fifth in reading and Quebec ranked fifth in math.

Canada has much in common with its larger neighbor to the south, but the performance of its students has recently significantly outpaced that of the U.S. Interestingly, the difference between Canada’s performance and that of the United States is not that it has fewer immigrants or because its education system is centrally directed. The proportion of immigrants in the population is higher than in the southern neighbor and its education system is even more decentralized.

There is no federal level education ministry. Instead, each of the ten provincial and three territorial governments is responsible for developing curriculum and determining major education policies and initiatives. However, each provincial ministry of education recognizes the importance of maintaining high standards and best practices, and they use one another as benchmarks when formulating major policy decisions and initiatives. This collaboration is aided by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), which is comprised of each of the heads of the provincial ministries of education. Studies on Canada’s varied provincial education systems indicate that many of the provinces’ key policies are very similar.

In 1999, the CMEC published the “Victoria Declaration,” a statement that laid out educational goals at the national level. In this statement, the Ministers emphasized that their goals for an educated citizenry focused not only on personal development, but on the development of Canada’s social and economic goals. The Victoria Declaration also outlined a set of practical goals, including increased collaboration between the provinces on curriculum initiatives and best practices, expanding access to higher education, promoting more policy-based research, and enhancing the links between CMEC and the federal government.

Among the policies adopted by most or all of the provinces are: adoption of a common curriculum for all the schools within each province; high selectivity in teacher education programs and a strong focus on the integration of immigrant children into the education system (Canada may have the highest rate of immigration of any country in the world).

One particularly successful province, Ontario, educates 40% of Canada’s five million students, and has one of its most diverse populations. Prior to the elections of 2003, Ontario’s conservative government had adopted an aggressive education reform strategy based on centralized testing and teacher accountability in a political environment that deeply alienated the teachers and their unions. During the 2003 campaign, the Liberals, who prevailed, put forward an alternative approach which also insisted on high academic standards, but offered to engage the teachers in a joint effort to develop their capacity to meet the same challenges to which the previous government had been responding, in particular the challenges posed by the province’s lowest performing students. An environment characterized by bitter conflict turned into one of collaboration. The new reform agenda committed the teachers to an agenda they played a strong role in designing, rather than fighting an agenda they believed was being imposed on them.

Between 2003 and 2010, Ontario’s Ministry of Education proposed and implemented a series of major reforms. These included establishment of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, a one-hundred person team, separate from the Ministry, devoted exclusively to directing and supporting this work. The Secretariat works with schools to set high but achievable goals for improvement in these basic skills and to identify ways to improve achievement. Specially-designated teams at both the schools and district levels were funded to support the program, creating the capacity needed to carry it out. The result of these efforts was to raise the average proficiency rate on grade 3 provincial exams in reading, math and writing from an average of 55% in 2003 to 72% in 2014.

The second major reform was the Student Success Strategy, which focused on identifying potential dropouts early and providing them with the additional help they needed to succeed, including one-on-one learning opportunities, development of a range of new high school majors to appeal to a larger number of students, and the addition of experiential learning to classroom learning. Government provided the resources the high schools needed to hire designated special teachers devoted to this program alone. This program, in combination with a national interprovincial program called the Red Seal Program, are credited with increasing high school graduation rates from 68% in 2003, when the new government came into office, to 82% in 2013. The new Red Seal Program offers industry-recognized certificates in 18 fields to high school students who complete specified programs of technical study and pass their examinations.

The Ontario Ministry of Education now hopes to build on those achievements in the coming years. In the 2014 policy plan, the Ministry emphasized increasing the use of technology for learning in secondary schools and in teacher professional development, improving the integration of in-school special needs services with services provided by community partners, strengthening communications and family engagement initiatives, and expanding skills-based and entrepreneurial learning opportunities through the Specialist High Skills Major Program.



Ethnic Makeup

Canadian 32.2%; European 77.8%, Chinese 4.5%, North American Indian 4.2%, other 50.9%


$1.682 trillion; $46,400 per Capita

Major Industries

Services: 70.7%; Industry: 27.7%; Agriculture: 1.6%


Unemployment: 7.1% ; Youth Unemployment: 11.5%

Educational Attainment

Upper Secondary School Graduation Rate: 83.3%

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