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
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.
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.
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.