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Context

In 2000, the first year of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Canada turned in one of the strongest records of student achievement in the world. These results were further distinguished by the lack of large disparities in student scores across socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial lines. Canada has remained a top performer in more recent iterations of PISA, with several of its provinces—Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec—demonstrating particularly strong results. Canada’s performance has declined slightly in mathematics and science over time, but remains stable in reading.  

Canada has much in common with its larger neighbor to the south, but student performance has significantly outpaced that of the United States. The stronger performance of Canada is not, as some might assume, due to fewer immigrants or to a centrally directed education system. Canada has one of the highest rates of immigration of any country in the world, and its education system is even more decentralized than that of the United States. In Canada, there is no federal level education ministry; instead, each of the 10 provincial and three territorial governments is responsible for developing curriculum and determining major education policies and initiatives. While each province and territory has developed its own system, a strong teacher force has been a common element across the country, as has a strong foundation of social supports, including health care for all Canadians funded, in large part, by the federal government. A major focus of the federal government as well as the provinces in recent years has been to ensure equity in the education system for Indigenous populations who have historically lacked the same educational opportunities as other Canadians.

This profile highlights the education systems of two provinces: Ontario and British Columbia.

Ontario educates 40 percent of Canada’s five million students and has one of Canada’s most diverse populations. Nearly 30 percent of the province’s population is immigrant. Ontario scored among the top regions in the world in reading on the 2018 PISA, but its scores in science and mathematics continued to drop from 2015 levels. The decline in mathematics, in particular, has been a concern in the province even though Ontario continues to do well in all subjects compared to other international jurisdictions. There is little difference in performance between Ontario’s immigrant population and other populations. 

Ontario’s commitment to both equity and excellence is longstanding. In 2003, the Ministry of Education implemented major reforms, in partnership with its teacher unions, to improve basic literacy and numeracy skills of students and to reduce the high school dropout rate by engaging students in experiential learning opportunities and career-focused programs. It also developed a provincial framework for leadership development and organized a system of ongoing training and qualifications for both teachers and school leaders. In 2013, the Ministry revamped teacher education, lengthening the training and practicum periods and cutting program openings, in an effort to increase the quality of teachers and reduce oversupply. The new government elected in 2018 has focused on arresting a decline in the province’s mathematics performance and paring back spending in education, proposing a requirement that all high school students take online courses and provisions allowing larger class sizes. Confronted with student and teacher protests, however, the Ministry scaled back those proposals. Other reform efforts were paused amid the coronavirus crisis.  The Ministry did release a revised mathematics curriculum in 2021, aimed at restoring a “back to basics” approach.

British Columbia educates about 11 percent of Canada’s students and is also known for its linguistic and cultural diversity. About 42 percent of its student population is first or second generation immigrant, the majority of whom are from Asia. Like Ontario, British Columbia has performed well on PISA since 2000, though its scores slipped in all three subjects in 2018, with mathematics declining most significantly. Also like Ontario, British Columbia continues to demonstrate high levels of equity in student performance, with socioeconomic and immigrant status showing much less impact on scores than in most OECD jurisdictions. The province’s latest round of education reform started in 2011 with a new Education Plan, aimed at adapting the system to the challenges of the century ahead. The Ministry got input from a broad range of groups including teachers, parents, business leaders and others for the redesign of its provincial curriculum framework.  The new framework focuses on key content alongside communication, thinking and personal and social core competencies. It was fully implemented in all grades in 2020; the work of organizing teaching and learning to support the new curriculum has been primarily district-led and is ongoing. Alongside this curriculum reform, British Columbia has revamped its provincial assessments to align with the content and goals of the new curriculum; reviewed its funding model with a goal of improving equity in funding across districts; and redesigned its framework for planning and monitoring progress in districts.

Quick Facts

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Population

Population: 37,943,000 

Population growth rate: 0.77% 

Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021

GDP

GDP: $1,843,053

GDP per capita: $49,031 (2019 estimate in 2010 dollars)

Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021

Employment

Unemployment rate: 9.56%

Youth unemployment rate: 11.10%

Sources: OCED 2020 and CIA World Factbook 2020

Economy

Services-dominated economy

Key service industries: transportation, health care, IT, banking, communication, tourism

Key manufacturing industries: automobile and aerospace

Sources: CIA World Factbook 2021

Postsecondary Attainment

Ages 25-34: 63% 

Ages 25-65: 59.4%

Sources: OECD Education at a Glance, 2020

Governance 

Governance Structure

Each Canadian province has its own Ministry of Education; Canada’s elected Prime Minister appoints a Minister of Education to oversee each Ministry. The Ministry sets academic standards; determines curricula; allots funding to the schools in its province; manages the teacher certification process; and handles provision of school support services (transportation, health and food services, and libraries). Locally elected school boards typically oversee individual school districts, working 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 of new programs and policies. Some of the provinces, such as Alberta and Ontario, provide public funding to a sizable sector of religious schools, primarily Catholic.

While there is a Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) in Canada, there is no federal Ministry of Education. The CMEC is a forum for the ministers of education from the provinces to exchange information and benchmark each other’s systems. The federal government does fund postsecondary education, adult occupational training, and programs intended to promote educational equity for speakers of minority languages and members of Canada’s Indigenous groups.

Planning and Goal Setting

Strategic plans and visions for education are established at the province level. However, the CMEC serves as a forum for the ministers of education to identify areas of collective action and country-wide priorities. The 2017-21 CMEC strategic plan names eight priorities: improving Indigenous education, facilitating postsecondary transitions, expanding use of technology in elementary and secondary education, improving math skills in elementary and secondary education, sustaining postsecondary training, making universities economic drivers, attending to student well-being and developing global competencies. 

Ontario released its latest vision for education in March 2019, Education that Works for You. This vision was created with significant public engagement. It was updated in 2021.  Priorities include improving math strategy and STEM learning, establishing a digital curriculum platform, increasing focus on indigenous education, and increasing focus on financial literacy. 

British Columbia’s Ministry of Education published its most recent strategic plan in 2018 with the Vision for Student Success. The plan was created to ensure alignment with the CMEC priorities and includes five priority areas: quality teaching and leadership, student-centered learning, future orientation, high and measurable standards, and healthy and effective learning environments.

Education Finance

Education is funded primarily at the provincial level in Canada, with the exception of federally funded First Nations schools. First Nations students are served in a mix of these federally funded schools for those students who live on reserves and provincially funded schools for others across the country. About 45 percent of First Nations citizens live on reserves.  The low performance of First Nations students has been a major issue in Canada over the last decade or more. Federal investment in these students has increased dramatically as a consequence, including the addition of new categories of funding to build physical infrastructure and staff capacity. In addition, there have been significant new investments in special programming to increase literacy and numeracy achievement as well as student retention, along with stronger links between First Nations schools and postsecondary training opportunities. These federal efforts have been coupled with provincial strategies to support First Nation and indigenous peoples living in each province.

Over the last 20 years, most provinces have centralized school funding. This is the case in both Ontario and British Columbia where the provincial governments provide funding directly to schools. The amount of funding a school board receives is recalculated each year based on its number of general education students, special needs students, location, and other factors. 

The majority of schools across Canada (whether public or private) receive some funding from the provincial 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 rate as public schools, as per its provincial constitution. Public funds do not go to other independent schools, however.  British Columbia provides all independent schools, including Catholic schools, some per pupil funding. Schools with per pupil costs equal to or less than those at public schools receive 50 percent of the public school per pupil rate, while schools with higher per pupil costs receive 35 percent of the public school rate.  

In 2019, the Ford government in Ontario announced a realignment of priorities as part of its education reform strategy. The government originally planned to increase class sizes in grades 4 and above, but in 2020 it revised its plan to keep class sizes stable up to grade 8 and to raise class sizes by one student in grades 9 through 12. In addition, the government created a new Supports for Students Fund to allow districts flexibility in how to use resources to address students’ learning needs, including special education and mental health. Supports for Students replaced a fund that specified districts hire additional staff and educators to address the needs of at-risk students.

In 2017, the British Columbia Ministry of Education embarked on a major review of the provincial education funding formula, which was originally implemented in 2002 with little public consultation. The goal of the new review was to improve equity in funding across school districts, and the process involved extensive consultation with teacher unions and other stakeholders in the education sector. The Funding Model Review Panel released its recommendations in late 2018. During 2019, the government convened working groups of parents, teachers, and administrators with the goal of better understanding the implications for students of the panel’s recommendations. The working groups released their final reports in late 2019. Based on this input, the Ministry implemented some of the Funding Model Review Panel’s recommendations in the 2020-21 school year, but is still developing a plan for the remaining recommendations 

Accountability

At the national level, a sample of Canadian students takes tests in reading, mathematics, and science at ages 13 and 16. The results of this test, known as the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP), are used to determine progress across the provinces every three years. All other accountability is done at the provincial level.

School Accountability

In Ontario, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) designs and implements annual student assessments for students in grades 3, 6, 9, and 10. Individual student results are provided to parents and are aggregated at the school and district school board levels. Schools that do not meet provincial standards are required to develop improvement plans for professional development, curriculum coaching, or other school-based interventions. EQAO publishes profiles of successful schools alongside analysis of the policies that have led to the schools’ success. 

From 2006 to 2018, Ontario made a strong effort to improve schools with low provincial exam scores. The Ministry placed literacy and numeracy coaches in schools; shared research into effective teaching practices; provided opportunities for professional learning; and funded teacher release time for planning, monitoring, and reflection. The current government has shifted funding from these school-based efforts to more district-led improvement planning and provincial supports for mathematics instruction. 

In British Columbia, the province administers assessments in grades 4 and 7 in reading, writing, and mathematics and in literacy and numeracy in high school. Scores on these assessments are reported publicly. They are also included as one of several measures on a new Framework for Enhancing Student Learning. The Framework was introduced to replace an earlier version viewed as overly prescriptive. The new Framework encourages local districts to take ownership of their improvement plans with the aim of boosting overall student performance and addressing long-standing performance gaps among particular groups of students, including Indigenous 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.  

Teacher Accountability

The provinces operate their own teacher accountability systems. Several provinces have eliminated the punitive programs put in place in the early 2000s and replaced them with systems more focused on improvement. 

In Ontario, the Ministry of Education structures the Teacher Performance Appraisal (TPA) program but leaves its administration to principals. Teachers are rated on 16 competencies aligned to three standards of practice: 1) professional knowledge; 2) professional practice and leadership in learning communities; and 3) ongoing professional learning. The evaluation process emphasizes recommendations for continuous improvement, rather than punitive accountability measures or advancement opportunities. Evaluations, including observation, are performed at least every five years, and more frequently for low-performing teachers. Teachers complete Annual Learning Plans that set goals for growth and principals coach them to meet those goals, whether or not they are in an evaluation year. The Ministry also gives annual awards to teachers who excel in achieving results for students and in contributing research to the field.

Ontario has eliminated performance pay for teachers, but teachers can be penalized for unsatisfactory ratings on the TPA. Teachers who receive two unsatisfactory ratings are placed under review status and given an Improvement Plan; a third unsatisfactory rating is grounds for a recommendation for termination by their principal to the school board. However, the Ministry tries to ensure teachers feel accountable to their peers and are motivated by school culture, school leadership, and a shared purpose, rather than the promise of bonuses or the fear of termination.

In British Columbia, teacher appraisal is not required, but many principals meet with teachers to develop professional learning plans for the school year. Some school districts also work with teachers’ unions to develop their own systems for teacher appraisals, but these are generally reserved for addressing specific concerns or are conducted at the request of teachers seeking feedback.

Foundation of Supports

Canada is notable for its support of equity. It is one of the few countries where immigrant children achieve at a level similar to their non-immigrant counterparts. Despite different policies in individual provinces, there is a consistent focus on giving all students equal opportunities for success. The PISA tests show that immigrant children achieve scores as high as their non-immigrant peers within three years of arriving in Canada, which is much better than most OECD nations. It should be noted that Canada’s selective immigration policy which favors skilled immigrants may be partially responsible for equity of performance compared to other countries that do not have those policies.

Supports for Young Children and Their Families

For new parents, Canada offers both maternity benefits and parental benefits. Maternity benefits are available for up to 15 weeks and amount to 55 percent of the mother’s salary. Parental benefits include standard benefits for up to 40 weeks (one parent can take no more than 35 weeks) at 55 percent of salary, and extended benefits for up to 69 weeks (one parent can take no more than 61 weeks) for 33 percent of salary.

Canada also provides a national monthly childcare benefit for families with children under age 6, the Canada Child Benefit (CCB). The income-tested CCB replaced a universal benefit in 2016. Provinces supplement the CCB to further subsidize the cost of care. Quebec is alone among Canadian provinces in offering a universal benefit and guaranteeing a public childcare slot for all families, but almost all of the provinces are expanding provision.  

In Ontario, the government provides funding to localities to support early education and care services in the province. The provincial government licenses childcare centers and inspects them regularly. In addition, the Ministry operates EarlyOn centers, which are free drop-in centers, located in schools, that offer services to children from birth to age 6 and their families, including parenting support. The government has pledged to create 30,000 spaces in childcare centers in schools over the next five years. Licensed childcare centers in Ontario are required to meet provincial standards for teacher qualifications, teacher-child ratios, and alignment with Ontario’s framework for early childhood education, “How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years.” 

Ontario offers the Ontario Child Benefit as a supplement to the CCB, providing low and middle income families with a subsidy per child per year. It also offers a childcare fee subsidy, based on a family’s adjusted net income. Since 2019, the Ontario Child Care Access and Relief from Expenses (CARE) tax credit has allowed low- and middle-income families to claim up to 75 percent of eligible childcare expenses. 

In British Columbia, the majority of childcare centers are run by private or non-profit organizations. The government issues licenses for childcare providers and municipalities inspect centers regularly to ensure they meet standards for health and safety. The many provincial and municipal regulations, however, result in a fragmented system, and childcare centers operate at varying levels of effectiveness with limited accountability. To address this, British Columbia released a vision for childcare in 2018 with a goal of universal care, although a date is not specified. The province has launched a three-year, CAN$1 billion (US$761 million) project to improve access to affordable childcare and to create 22,000 new childcare spaces by 2021. The province also pledged additional funds the same year to pay raises, introductory training, and in-service professional learning for early childhood educators. In 2020, it also added new subsidies for families to make childcare affordable so that all low-income families will receive free childcare and middle-income families will receive subsidies.

In addition to its childcare centers, British Columbia has Strong Start Early Learning Centers to help ensure school-readiness among young children. These drop-in centers offer education and support services for all families with children under age 5, free of charge. At least one Strong Start Early Learning Center is located in each school district, and the province recently added extra funds for outreach to families in remote and hard to serve areas.

Canada also has comprehensive, free, universal health care for all citizens, funded by national and provincial taxes. Each province operates its own health care system, and “essential services” eligible for coverage vary by system. The national government provides health services for First Nations and Inuit people. In Ontario, the Ontario Health Insurance Plan covers most visits to doctors and hospital procedures. In British Columbia, the Medical Services Plan covers all required medical services, including maternity care.

Supports for School Aged Children

Most Canadian provinces have targeted education funding for disadvantaged populations. In Ontario, for example, schools are given additional per pupil allocations for a series of demographic indicators of risk (low-income, recent immigrant, low parent education, or single parent status). There are other allocations for English language learners as well as special education students (see below). British Columbia provides additional per pupil allocations for special education students (see below) and for Indigenous students and English language learners. School districts receive an additional Supplement for Vulnerable Students based on factors like poverty levels in the district, demographics, social conditions (e.g., local crime rates), and adult educational attainment. The recent education funding review in British Columbia added a new Equity of Opportunity Supplement for the 2020-21 school year, designed to better reflect the number of disadvantaged students in schools and expand funding to cover more low-income students, students with mental health needs, and students in foster care. 

In addition to targeted education funding, Canada encourages parents to set up a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) for all children. The government matches 20 percent of family contributions, regardless of household income, and an additional 20 percent match for low-income families. Low-income families are also eligible for the Canada Learning Bond which provides an additional contribution to the child’s RESP each year until the child is 15 with no requirement for family contribution.

Indigenous students are a traditionally underserved group across Canada, and there have been efforts at the federal level to better support this community for the last decade. Following the documentation of abuses of First Nation students at residential schools, Canada formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2007.  As part of the TRC recommendations, Canada created a new agency, Indigenous Services Canada, to provide and support the independent delivery of services such as health care, childcare, housing, education, and infrastructure by Indigenous groups and self-governments. Both Ontario and British Columbia have provincial agencies that support and coordinate services for their Indigenous populations, and both provinces have increased investments in housing, health equity, and child and youth services for First Nations and Indigenous populations and have committed to public progress reports.

Ontario also provides support for recent immigrants through a province-wide network of settlement centers. These centers offer one-stop access to tutoring, after-school activities, and employment services. In addition, the Settlement Workers in Schools program places settlement workers directly in Ontario schools with high proportions of recent immigrants. They collaborate with school staff to provide school-based supports, such as information sessions for immigrant families, and help connect families with out-of-school services as needed.  In 2018, Ontario developed the Black Youth Action Plan for education, which outlines a series of resources and supports designed to increase opportunities for Black students and their families across the province. Resources include mentors and advocates to ensure that students access education opportunities.  The plan is part of the broader Ontario anti-systemic racism strategy.

Learning System

Preschool

As with the K-12 system, early childhood education in Canada is run by the 10 provinces and three territories, although the federal government operates early childhood programs for Indigenous children, children of military families, and new immigrants. 

Ontario provides free full-day kindergarten for all four- and five-year-olds; enrollment is not compulsory. Full-day kindergarten aims to create a foundation for schooling through a combination of play- and inquiry-based learning in the areas of problem solving, language and literacy, mathematics, and social, physical, and emotional skills. The program follows the 2016 kindergarten curriculum, which establishes pedagogical approaches and overall expectations for learning. This curriculum is aligned with the province’s early years framework, “How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years.” The vast majority of students enroll in kindergarten in the province. In addition to the kindergarten program, Ontario school boards are required to offer supplemental before- and after-school programs from kindergarten to grade 6 if there is sufficient demand. These programs are fee-based; fees are set by local school boards and are not regulated by the government.

In British Columbia, full-day kindergarten is compulsory for all five-year-olds. All kindergarten programs in British Columbia follow the provincial curriculum. In addition, British Columbia’s Early Learning Framework, introduced in 2008, applies to early learning programs in all settings. It sets a vision and principles for early learning and provides specific guidance on topics like supporting the transition to primary school. In 2019, the province updated the Framework to include children up to age 8 and better align with the primary school curriculum. Other key changes include an increased focus on inclusive education and incorporating Indigenous perspectives.

Ontario and British Columbia use the Early Development Instrument (EDI) to measure school readiness in students entering primary school. Historically, the EDI has been administered on a three-year cycle by school boards. One year is for planning, the second is for data collection, and the third is for data dissemination. In the collection year, teachers complete questionnaires for every kindergarten student who will transition to first grade the following year. The questionnaire measures physical health, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development,  communication skills, and general knowledge. The data are used to identify needed supports for children, inform school board improvement plans, and evaluate full-day kindergartens. 

Primary and Secondary Education

System Structure

School is generally compulsory across Canada from ages 6 to 16; the exceptions are British Columbia where the starting age is 5 and Manitoba, New Brunswick and Ontario where students are required to stay in school through age 18.

Standards and Curriculum

Canada does not have a national curriculum; rather, the provincial governments are responsible for establishing the curricula for their schools, and each province has its own, ministry-established common curriculum. In addition to traditional compulsory subjects such as language, mathematics, science, social studies, and art, all provinces include citizenship education at both the primary and secondary levels.

Ontario has established curriculum, resources, and achievement standards in the Arts, French, Health and Physical Education, Language, Mathematics, Native Languages, Science and Technology, and Social Studies at the elementary level, and additionally for Business Studies, Canadian and World Studies, Classical and International Languages, Computer Studies, Interdisciplinary Studies, Native Studies, and Technological Education at the secondary level. The curriculum is revised cyclically in consultation with curriculum developers, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders. A full revision cycle takes about nine years, with different components of the curriculum updated every year. In 2016, Ontario revised the Social Studies and History curriculum to be more culturally responsive and increased support for education in Indigenous languages and in 2019 added a new First Nations, Metis and Inuit Studies curriculum for grades 9-12. The curriculum is currently under review, and a new version of the mathematics curriculum, stressing a “back to basics” focus, was implemented in the 2020-21 school year. The Ministry also added financial literacy content to the Social Studies and Business Studies curricula in grades 4 through 12.  The Ontario Ministry of Education provides sample activities and rubrics by grade level and subject to help teachers incorporate activities and assessments directly aligned with the curriculum goals.

British Columbia recently rolled out a new curriculum designed to help students succeed in a fast-changing, interconnected world. The curriculum was fully implemented as of the 2019-20 school year. Designed to be “concept-based and competency-driven,” the curriculum maintains focus on literacy and numeracy while supporting deeper learning. It is also flexible, encouraging students to engage in their own learning and follow their interests. The three core competencies —communication, creative and critical thinking, and personal and social competence — and two skill foundations—literacy and mathematics— are integrated into all subject areas.

British Columbia’s curriculum for grades K-12 includes English Language Arts, Languages, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, French, French as a Second Language, Physical and Health Education, Arts Education, Career Education, and Applied Design, Skills, and Technologies. All subjects have grade-by-grade curricula except Languages, which begin at grade 5, and Career Education and Applied Design, Skills, and Technologies, which are organized by grade span. In addition, there are curricula for elective vocational subjects available at the upper secondary level. The Ministry of Education defines “what to teach” but not how to organize the time, space, or teaching methods. Each subject area has a set of “Big Ideas” that students need to understand, curricular competencies that describe what students should be able to do, and curriculum content that describes what they should know. Teachers are encouraged to create courses, modules, thematic units, or learning experiences that meet students’ needs and interests.  The province provides a set of resources for teachers and classrooms to use to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and perspectives across all subjects.

At all grade levels, the curriculum is intended to support both disciplinary and interdisciplinary learning and enable a variety of learning environments.

Assessment and Qualifications

The primary national assessment is the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP), which measures the reading, mathematics, and science skills of a sample of 13- and 16-year-old students. The PCAP was formulated to be much like PISA; each year, one of the three core test subjects is the primary focus of the examination. In addition to the tests, PCAP also collects data on Canadian learning contexts. Students, principals, and teachers complete surveys about school learning environments and how much value is placed on the core subjects. PCAP’s results are reported by CMEC and analyzed by province, gender, and language spoken. They are used to inform broad policy decisions and as a benchmarking standard across provinces, but CMEC does not provide data on individual schools or school districts to the public.

All provinces also develop their own assessments. Most have province-wide examinations in numeracy and literacy at select grade levels, and some have core-subject tests for secondary school graduation. In Ontario, students are assessed in mathematics, reading, and writing at grades 3 and 6; in mathematics at grade 9; and in literacy at grade 10. The tests are developed and administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office, a semi-independent agency established by the Ministry in 1996. In British Columbia, students take the Foundation Skills Assessment in reading, writing, and numeracy in grades 4 and 7, which was recently revised to align with the 2016 curriculum. New literacy and numeracy assessments have replaced end-of-course tests in high school, but the updated grade 12 literacy assessment was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Implementation is expected in 2021-22. 

Students in Ontario must pass the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (or, if they do not pass, complete a literacy course in grade 12) in order to earn a high school diploma. Eventually British Columbia’s new high school literacy and numeracy assessments will be required for graduation, but scores will be awarded on a 4-point proficiency scale and will not impact course grades. High school graduation rates vary across the country; the graduation rate is 87 percent in Ontario, 84 percent in British Columbia, and 83 percent on average across Canada.

Canada has community colleges similar to those in the United States, some of which are open admission and some of which have specific academic requirements for admission. Admission to universities in Canada is typically based on student performance in high school, and primarily on grades. Students who wish to continue to university submit their transcripts to their school(s) of choice and are generally accepted on the basis of grades alone. Some universities, however, are expanding their admissions criteria for more holistic assessment of applicants. The University of British Columbia, for example, announced that as of 2019 applicants would be evaluated not only on core-subject course grades, but also on the depth and rigor of their coursework and on their work in non-core subjects relevant to their intended area of university study. Students are given preference at universities in their home province but may apply to any university across the country. There is no national or standardized exam required for admission.

Canada has the second-highest attainment rate in postsecondary education among OECD countries: 61.8 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in Canada have postsecondary credentials compared to 44.5 percent in the same age group on average across the OECD in 2018. In 2017, Ontario made college and university tuition and educational expenses free or low-cost for many students through the Ontario Student Assistance Program, which offers grants and low-interest loans to students from low- to middle-income families.

Learning Supports 

Struggling Students

Canadian provinces have their own approaches to supporting students who struggle academically.

Since 2003, Ontario has focused on supporting struggling students in schools. As part of its goal to improve literacy and numeracy rates, the Ministry has implemented a series of major reforms. These include the establishment of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat in 2004, a 100-person team devoted exclusively to working closely with districts and schools to improve literacy and numeracy. The Secretariat originally focused on kindergarten to grade 6 but later broadened its focus to grade 12 and was renamed the Student Achievement Division. The initiative worked 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 school and district levels were funded to carry out the program. 

Ontario also developed the Student Success Strategy, which focused on identifying potential dropouts early and providing them with extra support, including one-on-one learning opportunities. The program also developed a range of new high school majors to appeal to more students and integrated experiential learning with classroom learning. Using government funds, high schools hired designated teachers to support the program. 

British Columbia’s approach to addressing struggling students gives a great deal of flexibility to local schools and districts. At the school level, teachers can refer struggling students to a Learning Assistance Teacher (LAT), who is responsible for working with students who have mild to moderate difficulties in learning and behavior. Some schools have a designated LAT position, while in others this position is combined with other support services. The LAT works with the classroom teacher to design academic supports for the student, which can include short-term individual or small group teaching to help close knowledge or skills gaps. Additional supports for struggling students are designed at the district level. For example, districts receive funding to provide summer learning, which can include remedial courses. The 2020 Framework for Enhancing Student Learning also requires districts and schools to develop local partnerships to address the needs of struggling student populations, including Indigenous students. 

Special Education

There is no national special education provision, so special education services are designed by each province. The scope of services differs across the provinces, but in general there is a focus on placing students with special needs in mainstream classrooms. For example, Ontario considers a wide range of students to have “special needs,” from students with developmental or physical disabilities and/or learning disabilities to students who perform far above their grade level. Schools aim to meet the needs of all of these students through modified educational programs and access to necessary resources. For students who require additional support, there is a formal process of identification and a process for shaping an individual program. There are also special schools for students with severe disabilities including deafness, blindness and the most severe learning disabilities. The Ontario Ministry of Education allocates specific funds to school boards for special education programs and services, provides expert advice to school boards when considering special education policies, and has a tribunal in place to help mediate between school boards and parents if a conflict arises. This is in addition to a three-tier funding model (based on levels of need) the province uses to allocate funds for special needs students.

In British Columbia, there is also an emphasis on inclusion of students with special needs in the mainstream education system. The basic allocation to each district factors in the costs of education for students with learning disabilities, students with mild intellectual disabilities, students requiring moderate behavior supports, and students who are gifted.  Students with more severe disabilities, including those with severe physical handicaps, serious mental illness, autism, and those requiring intensive behavioral interventions, receive supplementary funding.

Digital Platforms and Resources

Canadian provinces vary in the development of systems and resources for online learning. Provinces that did not have systems in place prior to the coronavirus pandemic quickly developed them to facilitate distance learning in early 2020. 

In Ontario, a provincial online learning platform called the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) allows teachers to share their own materials—or other teacher- or Ministry-created materials available within the VLE—with students. Since 2016, British Columbia’s Distributed Learning program has allowed students not well served by traditional, in-person schooling to participate in online learning. School districts request approval from the Minister of Education to offer Distributed Learning, and students can enroll in full-time online learning or a blended model. Some schools design their own resources for Distributed Learning, while others use resources provided by Open School BC, within the Ministry of Education. As of 2018-19, about 1 percent of public school students and nearly 10 percent of independent school students in the province were enrolled in Distributed Learning programs. 

In addition, both Ontario and British Columbia developed new online resource libraries to provide teaching and learning support during the coronavirus pandemic. Ontario’s Learn at Home website and British Columbia’s Keep Learning website provide online learning resources and activities for both educators and families.  

Career and Technical Education

Governance and System Structure

There is no single approach to vocational education among provinces in Canada. At the secondary level, courses are offered either alongside academic courses in a comprehensive school or, occasionally, in separate vocational schools, depending on the province. Graduates of secondary vocational programs may then enter the workforce, a postsecondary program to expand and enhance their skills, or an apprenticeship in their occupational area or trade. 

The Canadian Council of Directors of Apprenticeships (CCDA) serves as an interprovincial body to promote collaboration and alignment on apprenticeship training and trade certification. Although apprenticeship programs were initially conceived for adults, students are choosing apprenticeships following secondary school in increasing numbers. The Canadian government promotes apprenticeships through the Apprenticeship Incentive Grant and Apprenticeship Completion Grant, both of which are small grants available to registered apprentices. In order to encourage people in industry to take on apprentices, the government also offers a business tax credit equal to 10 percent of the wages paid to apprentices.

CCDA manages the Red Seal program, which establishes national assessment standards for skills in 56 trades. Programs participating in the interprovincial Red Seal program are recognized as having met industry standards of excellence; students who have completed formal education or apprenticeships can earn a Red Seal endorsement after completing a national Red Seal examination in their field, and their credentials are portable across Canada. The Red Seal is well-regarded and helps secure better jobs, higher wages, and career advancement opportunities.

In Ontario, vocational education courses are offered in secondary schools as well as at the postsecondary level. Ontario high schools offer the Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program and cooperative education opportunities, described in detail below. Students with an SHSM seal on their diploma earn industry-recognized credentials and can transition directly into apprenticeships, the workplace, or further postsecondary options. In British Columbia, vocational education is offered primarily at the postsecondary level. However, there are career education courses offered in secondary schools. These courses are overseen by the Ministry of Education, the provincial Industry Training Authority (ITA), or jointly. The ITA also oversees postsecondary apprenticeship programs. After graduating from high schools, students can continue to a full apprenticeship overseen by the ITA to earn industry credentials or enroll in postsecondary education or training at a college.   

CTE Programs

Vocational education in Canada is mostly at the postsecondary level. Secondary school graduates interested in earning vocational qualifications can choose to pursue an apprenticeship or attend a community or technical college. Apprenticeships last two to five years, depending on the field. Businesses receive financial incentives from the government to participate in these programs. At the end of the apprenticeship, students take a vocational skills exam to earn their qualification. While some provinces have their own qualifications framework, the most popular vocational qualifications are the Red Seal credentials which are recognized across all provinces. 

Community and technical colleges offer programs ranging from one to four years in duration. Program offerings vary by province but typically include vocational certificates, a diploma of vocational studies, associate’s degrees, and a technical bachelor’s degree. Similar to the US system, students have the option to study at a community or technical colleges and transfer to a university to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Ontario

Students in Ontario start a career/life planning program in kindergarten. The program is designed to build students’ career-related knowledge and skills through curriculum-linked learning experiences as well as school-wide and community activities. At the secondary level, all students are required to take a Career Studies half-credit course in grade 10 to graduate from high school. The course has three components: developing skills needed for work, exploring and preparing for work, and planning for work, including financial management. 

Ontario also offers Specialist High Skills Majors (SHSM) and cooperative (co-op) education in secondary schools. SHSM are programs of eight to 10 classes in 19 industry or trade fields. In this program for grades 11 and 12, students are required to take a defined bundle of credits within their chosen sector, complete sector-specific certification and training, participate in experiential learning, and develop essential skills and work habits. SHSM programs were put in place in the early 2000s and have been very popular; the Ontario Ministry of Education credits them with raising high school graduation rates in the province since they were put in place from about 70 percent in 2004 to over 85 percent in 2019. The number of students participating in these programs has also increased every year. Cooperative (co-op) education opportunities allow students to earn credits while working; these credits must follow Ministry policy and curriculum and include a classroom and community component. The Ontario curriculum includes two co-op education courses: one links an internship to a related course and one allows students to create a co-op education experience around a specific interest that is not related to a specific course.  The Ontario government is committed to work-based learning opportunities and has beefed up relevant funding in recent years. 

British Columbia

In secondary schools in British Columbia, all students take two required Career Education courses in grades 10 through 12, and a small percentage of students take additional career-focused elective courses, some of which count toward completion of postsecondary apprenticeships. The curricula for these courses and the most common career-focused elective courses are included in the province’s recently revised K-12 general education curriculum. Provincial curricula for the two required Career Education courses, Career-Life Education (CLE) and Career-Life Connections (CLC), are designed to be as flexible as possible in order to accommodate differences in school structures and grade groupings. Schools have flexibility in how they will structure and deliver the course, which can include small group or one-on-one instruction. CLC requires students to complete 30 hours of work experience or career-life exploration, which can be a school-approved work placement, community service, paid student employment, fieldwork, entrepreneurship, or projects focused on an area of deep interest. Students must also complete a capstone project, through which they reflect on their competency development and in- and out-of-classroom learning experiences. The capstone project is required for graduation, but the format and grading criteria are determined by teachers. 

The provincial general education curriculum also includes curricula for Work Experience courses, overseen by the Ministry of Education, and Youth Work in Trades courses, overseen by the Ministry and the ITA. Both types of elective courses include a combination of work experience and classroom time based on the provincial curriculum, but they do not lead to full industry credentials. Youth Work in Trades students can, however, register with the ITA as Youth Apprentices in order to begin earning credit toward a postsecondary apprenticeship. In both types of elective courses, students receive a final course grade from their teachers based on the classroom component of the course. Students who want to earn an industry credential must continue vocational education and training at the postsecondary level, including apprenticeship.

British Columbia schools can provide additional locally developed, career-focused offerings. For instance, some schools may offer cooperative (co-op) education programs that can include coursework, career exploration, pre-employment training, skills enhancement, and work experience placements for credit toward graduation. 

In addition, the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training and the Ministries of Education and Advanced Education are working together to implement the BC’s Skills for Jobs Blueprint, a comprehensive strategy to reengineer the education and skills training system. Goals include doubling the number of apprenticeship program seats; expanding dual credit options for secondary students; making it easier for Red Seal tradespersons to earn teaching certificates; conducting a skills outreach strategy to ensure key stakeholders are aware of training programs; aligning education and training options with jobs in demand; and establishing stronger partnerships with industry and labor to deliver training and apprenticeships.

Teachers and Principals

Teacher Recruitment

Canada is consistently able to recruit strong candidates into teaching. While each province sets its own policies for entry into teacher education, teaching is generally thought of as a high-status and well-paid job. Provinces have struggled with recruitment of teachers in remote parts of the country, however, and most offer bonuses and incentives to attract candidates into teaching.

Canadian teacher salaries are determined on the provincial level and therefore reflect each province’s economic situation and the funding available. As a result, teachers’ salaries vary widely across the provinces, but they are, for the most part, quite high when compared to other professionals with a similar level of education. They are almost always higher than Canada’s GDP per capita, and higher than the OECD average teacher salaries. 

Ontario has focused not only on recruiting strong teachers but on retaining them. In 2006, the Ministry eliminated the unpopular provincial licensing exam for teachers and instituted the New Teacher Induction Program (see below), in partnership with the teachers’ unions. The Ministry also created Survive and Thrive, which is an online community for teachers at all levels—including teacher candidates—to share information and experiences, as well as to establish online mentorship relationships. In 2019, Ontario adopted new hiring policies focused on merit and diversity rather than seniority.

British Columbia has been highly focused on teacher recruitment since 2017, when the province’s Supreme Court ruled 2002 legislation barring teachers from negotiating class size and composition, including the share of students with special needs relative to available support resources, was unconstitutional. As a result of this ruling, the school system agreed to restore language from previous contracts that called for smaller class sizes. Since 2017-18, British Columbia has invested about CAN$400 million (US$300 million) annually in the Classroom Enhancement Fund to create and maintain new teaching positions across the province. As of late 2019, the Classroom Enhancement Fund had allowed districts to hire and retain 4,200 new teachers, including 700 special education teachers and 190 educational psychologists and counselors. An additional CAN$1.6 million (US$1.19 million) was targeted to support teacher recruitment in rural districts through teacher application management, coordination of national and international recruitment, and local incentives to help cover relocation expenses, transitional housing, and professional development.

Teacher Preparation and Induction

Teacher training programs are housed in Canadian universities, although separate standards for teacher qualifications exist among the provinces. There are only about 50 teacher education programs in Canada, so it is easier for provincial governments to regulate quality than in countries with many more programs. Typically, students must complete a bachelor of education degree or a bachelor’s degree with an additional education certification in order to teach at any level, and several provinces require further subject qualifications for secondary school teachers. Following initial education, the majority of provinces require another form of assessment, either through an examination or a certification process. The requirements for induction also vary across the provinces, although most do have at least an informal orientation period.

In 2015, Ontario took major steps to reform teacher preparation in order to address the province’s oversupply of teachers and, at the same time, increase the quality of teachers. First, the Ministry cut almost in half the number of teacher education slots in programs run by 16 research universities across the province. Second, the Ministry extended teacher preparation from a one- to a two-year program. And third, it added an 80-day practicum requirement. In 2019, the Ministry announced that prospective teachers would also have to pass a mathematics proficiency test. That test is currently being developed by the EQAO. 

Teachers who complete their teacher education program receive a Basic Qualification, which varies by general or technology education, English or French, grade band, and subjects. Teachers are required to be qualified in at least two consecutive grade bands (grades 1-3, grades 4-6, grades 7-10, and grades 11-12).

Once Ontario teachers graduate from teacher education, the province provides a year-long induction program (with an option to extend to a second year). The New Teacher Induction Program gives all new teachers a reduced teaching load and assigns them an experienced teacher mentor, who also has a reduced teaching load. The new teachers also take part in professional development designed to orient and support them throughout the year. The new teachers as well as the mentors are evaluated at the end of the year.

In British Columbia, there are nine universities that offer initial training for teachers. Programs last from one to two years, and all include a practical experience. After completing a preparation program and earning a Professional Certificate, teachers are assigned a Teacher Qualification Service category which is used by school boards to set salary levels. There are seven categories.

The British Columbia Teachers Council has the responsibility of approving any new teacher education program and requires that the programs meet provincial standards. The Council is currently reviewing these standards, after a year-long process of gathering input from teaching candidates, current teachers, school leaders, parents, and the public. The Ministry of Education has supported the teachers’ union to oversee the New Teachers Mentoring Project for the past five years. The project is currently on hold, as the Ministry is planning to redesign it to support the new curriculum and assessment system.

Teacher Career Progression

Canadian teachers have opportunities to progress in their careers. Successful teachers may be promoted to department head and can take part in professional development and training to take on leadership roles in the school and the school system later in their careers.

In Ontario, teachers can boost their salaries through Additional Qualifications, which are awarded on completion of short courses focused on specific content areas as well as specializations such as technology use. The curriculum for these courses is approved by the Ontario College of Teachers, the teacher-led credentialing organization.

Teachers in British Columbia can advance in the province’s Teacher Qualification Service categories by completing additional programs, including degree, diploma, or integrated programs. 

Teacher Development

All Canadian provincial Ministries of Education support and require ongoing teacher training efforts. Like nearly all other aspects of primary and secondary education in Canada, teacher training is decentralized and subject to different requirements depending on location.

In Ontario, teachers receive six professional development days each school year. Two days must be spent on professional development related to topics aligned with Ministerial goals; teachers have free choice for the remaining four. Fellow teachers deliver this professional development through the Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP). In this program, classroom teachers are recruited or apply to participate in a collaborative project with peers, which may involve investigating their own teaching practices or engaging in another form of education research. These teacher leaders then receive support to design and facilitate professional development based on their research. As part of the program, teachers are expected to develop protocols, organize their own projects, direct research into their practices, and design professional learning for their peers. The Provincial Knowledge Exchange program provides funding for school boards to disseminate TLLP projects to further professional learning. The funding allows school boards to connect prior TLLP participants with school-based learning teams to share best practices. The goals of this program are to further professional learning communities, promote teacher leadership, and facilitate best practice sharing. 

Principals are also expected to implement teacher professional learning communities in response to academic needs (determined through polling teachers) and gaps in student knowledge. There are no province-wide requirements for how much professional learning time must be protected, but principals are evaluated on—and expected to evaluate themselves on—their responsiveness to teachers’ professional learning needs.

In British Columbia, teachers are also required to have six professional development days each year. Since 2015, the Ministry has certified approved courses and categories of courses. The Ministry provides workshops for teachers, while the main teacher union, the BC Teachers Federation, also organizes professional learning opportunities. Since 2011, the province has focused its professional development on what it calls “inquiry-based” professional learning communities. These networks of teachers meet regularly to focus on understanding and addressing specific challenges in their schools. Certain teachers train to become “Coordinators of Inquiry” and are released from 10 to 20 percent of their teaching duties in order to lead these networks. 

Principal Recruitment, Preparation, and Development

Each province has its own process for recruiting and training principals. Ontario in particular has prioritized school leadership development, defining clear roles for principals in driving school improvement and student achievement. The province’s leadership strategy includes attracting the right people to the principalship and helping to develop them into instructional leaders. The Ontario Leadership Framework describes successful practices of school and system leaders based on the latest research and provides a foundation for the province’s leadership development efforts.

In order to become a principal in Ontario, a teacher must have at least five years of teaching experience, certification in three of four age divisions (these are classified as primary, junior, intermediate, and senior), two Specialist qualifications or a master’s degree, and have completed the Principal’s Qualification Program (PQP). The Ontario College of Teachers, the teaching regulatory body, develops guidelines for PQP providers (universities, principals’ council, some district school boards partnered with councils) and accredits them. The PQP includes 250 hours of content organized around the Ontario Leadership Framework, plus a 60 hour in-school leadership practicum requiring the aspiring principal to lead a collaborative inquiry project with support from a principal mentor. Once on the job, the Ontario Ministry of Education provides funding to support new principal mentoring for the first two years.

There are no formal requirements for the principalship in British Columbia, although districts generally require principals to have a teaching certificate and a master’s degree, preferably in educational leadership or with coursework in leadership. Universities and professional organizations like the British Columbia Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association offer a range of pre-service training opportunities, including graduate programs and summer induction programs for new school leaders. Some districts offer their own formal non-credit pre-service programs for school leaders. The province has developed a leadership framework but is still deciding how to move ahead with implementation.