Open Letter: Response Letter to the Globe and Mail: 40 Years of Pan-Canadian Cooperation in Education


In his column on education in last May 22 issue of the Globe and Mail, Gary Mason describes an important change in Switzerland's education policy. He suggests that Canada could learn a lot from the Swiss, particularly with respect to establishing national objectives and better harmonization among the provinces and territories.

Comparisons between the two countries have little validity and can be seriously misleading. Switzerland is a relatively small country with an ancient culture and long-established traditions. Canada, on the other hand, is a young, vast country with one of the most diverse populations on the planet. We view this diversity as a source of great richness that leads to innovation and creativity.

In our country we believe that education is best delivered by levels of government that are closest to the people. Canadians have not "...agitated for a harmonized education system, one that offered uniformity" as the Swiss have, according to Mason. That does not mean there has been no harmonization and cooperation among our provinces and territories. For more than 40 years they have worked together on common policy concerns through the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC).

Just a month ago, in April 2008, ministers of education issued a joint statement entitled Learn Canada 2020, the framework they will use, through CMEC, to enhance Canada's education systems, learning opportunities, and overall education outcomes. The vision of Learn Canada 2020 is quality lifelong learning opportunities for all Canadians. The ministerial statement recognizes the direct links between a well-educated population, a vibrant knowledge-based economy in the 21st century, a socially progressive, sustainable society, and enhanced personal growth opportunities for all Canadians.

Mr. Mason implies that in Canada we do not assess our school systems on a regular basis whereas, in fact, we have a rigorous system of assessment that is recognized worldwide as a model for large-scale evaluation. Since 1989, national assessments have been carried out by CMEC in the key subject areas of language, mathematics, and science. These assessments provide invaluable information to ministers that they then use to inform their own policy decisions. As well, they enable comparisons to be made among provinces and territories. The assessments also give researchers a wealth of data on performance and the contextual factors that influence that performance.

There are many more similarities than differences from one province or territory to another at the elementary-secondary level, and to facilitate transitions when they do occur, ministers have for many years published a student transfer guide. This document has received very positive comments from school administrators, teachers, and counsellors who help these students in selecting the courses that will allow them to graduate in the same time frame as if they had not moved. At the postsecondary level, as well, students can move from one institution to another with relative ease, notwithstanding the autonomy enjoyed by those institutions. This is an area where ministers are also working jointly to facilitate transfers and to establish criteria for the accreditation of the institutions.

In their discussions through CMEC, ministers may identify issues that are national priorities in the sense that they are common to all regions. That does not necessarily mean that they need to be addressed in a common way. In fact, experience has shown us that, given the unique circumstances in each jurisdiction, they are usually dealt with most effectively and efficiently at the provincial or territorial level.

In the end, the success of government education polices is best measured by the results they produce. In the case of Canada, we need only to look at the performance of our education systems in a large-scale international assessment conducted regularly by the Paris-based OECD, which consists of the major industrialized countries, including Switzerland. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) looks at the performance of 15-year-olds in language, science, and mathematics.

In the most recent assessment (2006), the performance of Canadian students was well above the international average in all three subject areas. In fact, Canadian students, on average, finished in the top tier of all countries surveyed in every domain tested in the assessment.

In science, only two jurisdictions, Finland and Hong Kong-China, surpassed Canadian students in overall test scores. Canada's results in mathematics fell within a group of high-ranking countries that includes Japan, New Zealand, and Belgium. Staying on course with past results in PISA, Canada maintained a strong performance in reading, placing fourth after Korea, Finland, and Hong Kong-China.

In Canada, less than 10 per cent of the variation in students' performance can be explained by socioeconomic background, which is indicative of a high level of equity in a diverse student population.

Canada's ministers are constantly looking for innovative policies to improve learning for all their citizens. Canada's performance in meeting the needs of its very complex society is a clear indication that those policies are working.

Dr. Raymond Théberge
Director General
Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC)

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Tamara Davis
Communications Coordinator
Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC)
416 962-8100, ext. 241