Each province has its own Ministry of Education, which is run by a Minister of Education appointed by an elected Prime Minister. The Ministry sets standards, determines curricula and allots funding to the state schools in their province, as well as oversees the teacher certification process and the provision of school support services (transportation, health and food services and libraries). Provinces typically organize their school systems around locally elected school boards. Local school boards are elected bodies, and work in conjunction with the provincial government. School boards are responsible for all major hiring and personnel decisions, from the chief superintendent to the teachers. They also set annual budgets and may have some oversight on new programs and policies. Some of the provinces, such as Alberta and Ontario, provide public funding to a sizeable sector of religious schools, mostly Catholic schools.
While there is a Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) in Canada, there is no federal Ministry of Education. CMEC is mainly a vehicle of the ministers of education from the provinces to exchange information with one another and to benchmark each other’s systems. The federal government does provide funding for post-secondary education, adult occupational training, and programs intended to extend educational equity to speakers of minority languages and to members of Canada’s indigenous groups.
Over the last 20 years, most provinces have taken over the funding of their schools, so that the local contribution is zero or close to it. This is the case in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. The provincial government provides funding directly to schools. The amount of funding a school board receives is recalculated each year based on the number of regular students, special needs students, and how remote its location is. The majority of schools (whether public, charter, or private) receive some funding from the government, depending on how they are classified. Charter schools are expected to meet the same academic standards as public schools, while private or independent schools must only meet broad general standards. Ontario funds Catholic schools at the same per pupil cost as it does public schools, as per their provincial constitution. Public funds do not go to other independent schools however. In British Columbia, independent schools (including Catholic schools) receive per pupil student funding from the province. Schools whose per pupil costs are the same or less than public schools receive 50 percent; schools that have higher per pupil costs than the public schools receive 35 percent.
Accountability and Incentive Systems
Accountability systems are developed at the provincial level in Canada. Several Canadian provinces have eliminated the aggressive accountability programs put in place for teachers in the early 2000s and replaced them with systems more focused on improvement. Ontario, for example, eliminated performance pay for teachers. Instead, teachers are expected to be accountable to their peers and to be motivated by school culture, school leadership and a shared purpose, rather than by the promise of bonuses or the fear of termination. Similarly, in failing schools, the focus is on improving the performance of current staff, rather than seeking replacements. At the national level, a sample of Canadian students take tests in reading, math and science at the ages of 13 and 16 called the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP). PCAP’s results are used at the national level to determine progress across the provinces every three years. Ontario has established the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), which advises the Minister of Education on issues regarding school assessment and accountability. EQAO designs and implements annual student assessments for students in grades 3, 6, 9, and 10. Results are aggregated at the school and school board levels. EQAO publishes profiles of successful schools alongside analysis of the policies that have led to the schools’ success.
In British Columbia, the Ministry recently engaged provincial education partners in designing a new Framework for Enhancing Student Learning that encourages cross-partner ownership of student learning. It addresses long-standing differences in performance among particular groups of students, including Aboriginal students, children in foster care, and students with special needs. Schools and districts are required to develop multi-year improvement plans and submit annual progress reports that include aggregate and subgroup results on student outcomes. The Ministry can issue administrative directives and deploy special advisory teams to assist districts as needed. These team-based supports are designed to promote capacity building and encourage continuous improvement.
Support for Low-Performing Schools
As mentioned earlier, First Nation schools for indigenous students are funded at the federal level. These are a mix of federally operated schools and schools operated by provinces. The low performance of students in these schools has been a major issue in Canada over the last decade or more. Federal investment has increased dramatically in these schools, including new categories of funding to build physical infrastructure and capacity of staff. In addition, there are significant investments in special programming to increase literacy and numeracy achievement as well as student retention, along with stronger links between First Nation schools and post-secondary training opportunities.
Ontario makes support for low-performing schools a priority through its Ontario Focused Intervention Partnership (OFIP). Starting in the 2006-07 school year, the government invested about $20 million (US$15 million) to provide supports for all school boards and almost 800 elementary schools that were having trouble in achieving continuous improvement (an additional allocation supported before- and after-school tutoring programs). In the targeted schools, more than half of the student body was scoring at level 1 or 2 in reading, writing and mathematics on the provincial assessments designed for grades 3 and 6 by EQAO. These schools represented about one-fifth of the province’s elementary schools. As of 2016, just 63 schools have similar proportions of students achieving below the Level 3 provincial standard.
When it began, OFIP involved all of Ontario’s district school boards, with the most intensive support and direction provided to the lowest performing schools. But rather than close down schools or replace school leaders, the Ontario approach to supporting low-performing schools is to build the professional capacity of educators to meet student learning needs. A ministry support team serves as coaches, sharing research into effective practices, providing opportunities for professional learning, and funding teacher release time for planning, monitoring, and reflection. School teams use the School Effectiveness Framework to develop and implement their School Improvement Plan. The framework outlines a program of observation, analysis and reflection for school leaders; promotes collaboration with successful schools; and provides resources as administrators move forward with improvement plans.
British Columbia’s new Framework for Enhancing Student Learning requires schools to create teams and local partnerships to address struggling student populations including Aboriginal students, students in foster homes, and special needs students. The province and districts will report at least annually on overall results, as well as by identified populations. The results will then be analyzed and used to inform plans and priorities for improving student learning.
Video: Rob Andrews, who directs the Student Success initiative at the Ministry of Education in Ontario, describes how that effort looks in action.