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 several of its provinces —Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec —demonstrating particularly strong results. In the 2012 PISA assessment, Canada was ranked sixth in reading, tenth in math and eighth in science. In 2015, the country did even better, ranking second in reading, ninth in math, and seventh in science. These numbers are even stronger for some of the provinces, including British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta and Quebec, which ranked in the top five in one or more subjects when compared to all jurisdictions and sub-jurisdictions.
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. The stronger performance of Canada is not, however, due to fewer immigrants or because its education system is centrally directed. Canada has one of the highest rates of immigration of any country in the world, and its education system is even more decentralized than in the U.S.
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. 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 and it is clear that the provincial ministers learn a great deal from one another.
In 1999, 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 development of individual students, but on the development of Canada’s social and economic goals. The 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.
This profile highlights two particularly successful provinces: Ontario and British Columbia.
Ontario educates 40 percent of Canada’s five million students and has one of its most diverse populations. Nearly 30 percent of the province’s population are immigrants. According to the 2015 PISA exam results, Ontario scored fifth in the world in reading. Its scores in science and math dropped a bit in the latest round of PISA, but Ontario continues to do particularly well. Since 2003, Ontario’s Ministry of Education has proposed and implemented major reforms 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 on-going training and qualifications for both teachers and school leaders. In 2013, the Ministry also revamped teacher education, lengthening the training and the practicum period and cutting the slots available, in an effort to increase quality of teachers and reduce oversupply. Most recently, the Ministry’s focus has been on ensuring equity and well-being for all students, expanding early childhood education and care as well as increasing support for at-risk students. There has also been a major focus on strengthening mathematics across the province. And in 2017, the Ministry announced a review of the provincial curriculum and assessment system.
British Columbia educates about 11 percent of Canada’s five million students and is also known for its language and cultural diversity. About 30 percent of its population are immigrants. According to the 2015 PISA exam results, British Columbia scored first in the world in reading, second in science, and sixth in math. Like Ontario, British Columbia also demonstrated high levels of equity in student performance, with immigrants actually performing better in science than non-immigrants in 2015. Much of this success is attributed to its high-quality teaching force. However, a history of strained relations between the teacher unions and the Ministry of Education made it very difficult to implement education reforms at the systems level until recently. The 2011 Education Plan marked a turning point. It outlined five key elements of education reform: personalized learning for every student; quality teaching and learning; flexibility and choice; high standards; and learning powered by technology. The Ministry worked with education partners to redesign the curriculum framework around key competencies and supported the development of teacher networks focused on improving student performance. This engagement sent the message that the Ministry would be relying on the professional expertise of teachers rather than issuing a top-down directive. In 2015, the province embarked on a complete redesign and “modernization” of its curriculum and assessment system, which it expects to be fully implemented in all grades by 2020. The province also announced in 2018 that it is reviewing its education funding formula, to ensure more equity of opportunity for all students.
PISA 2015 Mean Scores by Country for Reading, Mathematics, and Science
Canadian 32.2%; European 77.8%, Chinese 4.5%, North American Indian 4.2%, other 50.9%
$1.682 trillion; $46,400 per Capita
Services: 70.7%; Industry: 27.7%; Agriculture: 1.6%
Unemployment: 7.1% ; Youth Unemployment: 11.5%
Upper Secondary School Graduation Rate: 83.3%