Canada ranks fourth among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for student achievement as measured by the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) 2015 study, which signifies global leadership in education. However, while PISA measures traditional academic subjects such as reading, math, and science, we know that this is not enough to thrive in the 21st century. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by U.N. member states in 2015 set a high bar for what education systems should achieve. This includes proficiency in traditional academic subjects like reading and mathematics, but also global citizenship, early childhood development, and technical and vocational skills. Any country considered an education superpower must succeed at teaching this full package, what we call breadth of skills.
As part of our Skills for a Changing World project, we mapped the breadth of skills represented in education policies in 152 countries around the world. While in Canada each province decides its own curriculum and policies, we found that across Canada skills such as problem solving, creativity, and collaboration feature prominently in policy and curriculum statements. Ontario’s education mission, for example, includes developing “new generations of confident, capable and caring citizens.” Other Canadian provinces, such as British Columbia and Quebec, reference social cohesion, living together, and inclusiveness as important skills for an educated citizen. So it is clear that Canada has its sights set high, at least in its stated policies.
The second area where Canada excels is in equity. National governments have a responsibility to educate all of their citizens to meet the SDGs, regardless of their gender, where they live, how wealthy they are, their ethnicity, immigrant status, or whether they have a disability. Again looking at the 2015 PISA scores, Canada is not only one of the highest performing countries, it is also one where student performance depends the least on how rich or poor the students are, and immigrant students are performing just as well as non-immigrant students. The only way to achieve the SDGs for education is by lifting learning achievement up for all citizens, and Canada is leading the way on equity.
Canada is also working on changing the culture in its schools. In Toronto, for example, a morning school ritual now includes paying tribute to the traditional lands upon which the school was built and acknowledging the indigenous groups who lived there prior to European arrival. In this way, Canada has begun taking steps to use education to rectify the inequities that the institution caused over several centuries. However, Canada still has improvements to make, as 20 percent of students still experience bullying and nearly a quarter report that they “feel like an outsider in school.”
Finally, to be an education superpower, a country cannot only focus on education within its borders. It must also support improved education worldwide. Canada has been a strong supporter of the SDGs, especially Goal 4 on education, and it headquarters the UNESCO Institute for Statistics in Montreal, the go-to source for global education data. Despite this, Canada needs to drastically improve its foreign aid to education, which is at US $292 million annually and declined by 20 percent from 2010 to 2015. This ranks far below Germany, France, and the U.S. who are committing billions per year. Canada´s new Feminist International Assistance Policy, launched in June, is one step in the right direction and provides a platform for Canada to be a global leader in education for women and girls.
While not perfect, Canada is on its way to education superpower status. This is not only because students perform well on international academic tests—it is because they are learning to be the kinds of well-rounded citizens who will lead the continually evolving workforce of tomorrow.