Sociology of Education in Canada

Sociology of Education in Canada

Dr. Karen L. Robson




As a sociologist, I have long been fascinated by the ways in which social stratification appears at the very centre of a great deal of topics associated with the discipline. So much about social life is explained by pre-existing and persistent inequalities among members of society. Social class, immigrant status, race, gender, and various other characteristics that people are ascribed appear to strongly shape the paths that are available to them. At the same time, there is no shortage of discussion about the importance of education.

Matters pertaining to education flood the media daily, whether about access, cost, jobs, or poverty. Education is widely regarded as the linchpin that has the potential to be the great equalizer or even the solution to a host of social problems.

A simple Google News search of “Education and Canada” as I originally wrote this preface has revealed the following current headlines:

  • Quebec tuition fight about keeping education accessible, students say (, March 22, 2012)
  • Higher the incomes and education levels, higher the debt: Statistics Canada (Vancouver Sun, March 26, 2012)
  • Federal budget potential turning point for native schools (, March 26, 2012)
  • Why Canada’s professors are the best (best-paid, that is) (Toronto Star, March 23, 2012)

In the first example, students in Quebec are protesting about post-secondary tuition fee increases, even though students in this province pay the lowest tuition fees in the country. Protesters are arguing, however, that low fees enjoyed in Quebec foster accessibility to post-secondary programs that should not be eroded. In the second story, the reporter summarizes recent Statistics Canada research that has revealed that individuals with higher levels of education also make more money, but they are also more likely to carry large amounts of debt. The third headline about the federal budget references the money that will be allocated to improve First Nations education, a topic that has seen a great deal of attention due to media coverage of the desperate conditions found at several First Nations communities, particularly those in remote areas. The last example is about professors’ salaries and why they are significantly higher than those found among the occupational group in other countries.

All of the above topics touched upon in various media stories have a place in the sociology of education. What is particularly interesting—in my opinion as a researcher and an educator—is taking such examples and dissecting them. How can we as sociologists of education understand all the different issues being discussed in a single media story? What larger, underlying social forces and assumptions are at play? How do the issues in one media story link to other topics around education or inequality?

What is common to all the stories I selected above for illustrative purposes is money: Quebec students are angry about having to pay more tuition, education leads to higher incomes (and more debt), First Nations education is underfunded, and professors in Canada make a lot of money. It would be easy to make quick and simplistic judgments based on such similarities: students have to pay so much money because Canadian professors are overpaid, and that may also be partly why First Nations education is underfunded. It is easy to focus on the obvious connection and attribute much of the blame of the problem to a single source, and indeed this is often the strategy employed in divisive politics. The tools that are provided by the discipline of sociology, however, allow us to understand seemingly “straightforward” issues and break them down into numerous critical components. What are the historical or cultural factors that led to current conditions? What interest groups have a stake in the outcomes of the issue being discussed? What are the larger social trends that may be fuelling these situations? What larger social discourses are colouring how these issues are being discussed by various groups?

In this book, I have tried to link the scholarly with the everyday. In my daily pedagogy as a university professor, I have focused very pointedly on delivering lectures in ways that are most likely to keep students interested. What I have found is that many students lose interest in potentially very interesting subject matter because it does not speak to them—it does not resonate. The sociology of education is certainly a topic that should resonate with students—it pertains to an important part of their lives. As such, there are many current examples that can be brought into the discussion that are occurring around them and may have had an impact on them in the past, currently, or may do so in the future. In this text, many current and topical issues in Canadian education have been used to make the concepts as relevant as possible. I have also tried to focus on marginalized populations that students may not initially have thought about as having particular unmet needs in education. It is my goal that students recognize the deep breadth of stratification in society and how the sociology of education is inextricably linked to such issues of stratification—in both determining who gets what kind of education and how education shapes life chances.

There are nine chapters in this book. The first chapter introduces the study area of this sub-discipline, using recent events in the Attawapiskat First Nation as an illustrative case study for how we may understand various topics in the sociology of education. Chapter 2 focuses on various theories—starting with the classical and progressing chronologically to poststructural, feminist, and critical race theories that are in more common use today. These theories are helpful for understanding the larger social world within which education exists. In Chapter 3, the history of education in Canada is traced from its roots in English and French Canada and the different political and cultural influences that gave education in different parts of Canada their distinctive character. In Chapter 4, the focus shifts to the structure of education in Canada and the commonalities among structures at various levels of education across the jurisdictions. Alternative structures from the norm are also given consideration, as is the federal system that governs on-reserve First Nations education in Canada. Curriculum is then turned to in Chapter 5, tracing the historical shifts in the content of what students learned at school and how this content also varied by region. The different potential influencers behind curriculum are also given careful attention as it is important to note that curriculum is a social construction that is never neutral—there are various groups that have a vested interest in what is taught in the school system. The arguments around large-scale assessments and multicultural education are also given much consideration, as they are also two controversial aspects of curricular content in Canadian education.

In Chapters 6 through 9, the discussion of school-related topics is less historical and more contemporary. Chapter 6 covers socialization and how the school serves as a major agent of socialization for children. A variety of correlates of this socialization are considered, as the socialization of students can express itself in many facets of the formation of identity. The school is a place where students learn about gender and appropriate gender roles, follow rules, and learn how to integrate with different peer groups. In Chapter 7, the school as a place of the perpetuation of structured or social inequalities is explored. Several potential sites of stratification are considered, from social class and neighbourhood, to race and immigration status, to ability and family structure. Because education is widely regarded as a precursor to entering the labour market, the topic of Chapter 8 is school-to-work transitions. How school-to-work transitions, as well as other key indicators of the “transition to adulthood,” have changed over time and by generation is given consideration, as is how such transitions in Canada are comparable to those experienced by young adults in other Western nations. The final chapter turns the discussion to current challenges to educational practice. There is much talk about the global economy and the need to prepare future workers with a global education. In this chapter, such claims are explored alongside the evidence of how educational institutions are implementing global education into practice. With funding cuts the focal point of budgets at every level of government, institutions of education have been subjected to “austerity” measures along with various other public institutions. The impact of such financial cuts on different levels of schooling is undeniable, but one definite outcome is the increasing tuition costs of post-secondary education. In addition to tuition increases, there are concerns voiced among students and teaching professionals that are related to the increasing personal costs of post-secondary education, such as the possible consumerist orientation adopted by newer generations of students about the economic value of their education.

In addition to what I believe is fresh content that will be accessible to the modern post-secondary student, each chapter ends with Review Questions and Exercises. The review questions are those which relate to comprehension around the Key Terms and concepts used in the chapter; each key term is also defined in the Glossary. The exercises are intended to further the students’ exploration of the subject matter of each chapter, either in the form of a written assignment or group work. The exercises, unlike the review questions, require additional research to be undertaken by the student. Finally, where possible, Film Recommendations have been made that would be useful to generate in-class discussion about a particular aspect of the sociology of education in Canada.



I would especially like to thank Rachel Stuckey, the developmental editor for this book, who has gently, but effectively, whipped this book into shape. I would also like to thank the reviewers of the manuscript, whose valuable feedback and suggestions were incorporated into the text in many instances:

Anthony Campeau, Nipissing University

Gleema Nambiar, University of Regina

C. Paul Olson, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

Jorge Sousa, University of Alberta

Conversations with two outstanding undergraduate students—Anne Pedersen and Sean DeZilva—were also very important in the earlier stages of conceptualizing the framework of this book.

I want to thank my former MEd student Jaime Wegner-Lohin for her suggestions around the topic of children in care—something is often overlooked in broader discussions around education.

I would also like to thank Paul Anisef, my colleague and mentor, for giving me the opportunity to work with him on such enjoyable education projects and to learn from his wealth of knowledge.

The support of my partner, Jason McKay, and my mother, Dorothy Robson, was incredibly important in making this book possible to work on during the very long process from start to finish.

And finally, my undergraduate and graduate students in the sociology program at York University—too numerous to name—continue to be a great source of inspiration for me, keeping me motivated to find innovative ways to present materials so that they may have the most possible relevance to their own lived experiences.



Originally published by:

Pearson Canada Inc. (2013)

Toronto, Canada




Source: “Sit quietly and pay attention” by Carey Ciuro is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to

  1. Define sociology of education.
  2. Explain and give examples of what is meant by social structure.
  3. Explain how understanding news stories about education-related topics can be enhanced by incorporating approaches from the sociology of education.

Introduction to the Sociology of Education

On any given day in Canada, there is likely to be a major news item that features the topic of education. Whether it is about the value of a university degree, the cost of education, the working conditions of teachers, or achievements of students, education is of great concern and interest to policy makers, politicians, and Canadians in general. There is a common belief in Canadian society (and beyond) that education is essential to ensure a good quality of life and that education holds the key to an individual’s success. Parents who hope their children have a better standard of living than they did will more often than not point to education as being the major determining factor in this outcome. This is particularly true if the parents are recent immigrants (Krahn and Taylor 2005), because the parents very likely settled in Canada to improve the prospects of their children. Education, therefore, is regarded as something to be attained in order to ensure future economic security, social status, and perhaps even social and psychological well-being.

In this book, the topic of education is discussed within a sociological framework. The sociology of education is a branch of sociology that studies how social structures affect education as well as the various outcomes of education. Social structures in general refer to enduring patterns of social arrangement. Sociologists see social structure in all aspects of society. For example, social class is a social structure that generally refers to the socioeconomic background of an individual and his or her family. Social class has been found to impact on many aspects of life that are related to education, including educational achievement (i.e., grades), educational attainment (highest qualification), and future aspirations. Other examples of social structures are bureaucracy, legal systems, the family, religion, and race. These are all enduring patterns of social relations that are observable in society—groupings that are entrenched in our collective minds and that guide our behaviours and shape our life outcomes.

The sociology of education is a way of examining education in order to understand how social structures shape various aspects of education. Indeed, these social structures shape not only how we understand education, but also how it has been designed over the years, how the structure of education systems exists today, and the various outcomes associated with educational credentials.

A Case Study of a Major Education-Related News Item in Canada

It is perhaps most useful to introduce the topic of sociology of education by using a recent case study that received much national and international attention. After giving details of this case, various approaches from the sociology of education can be used to further understand the events. On February 27, 2012, a motion calling for the equal funding of First Nations education was passed unanimously in the House of Commons.1 This means that the members of the House of Commons agreed that schools on First Nations reserves should be given the same kinds of resources as “regular” schools that are found throughout the rest of the country. This news made headlines across Canada.

But why is this a major historic landmark for First Nations education? It may seem like a very reasonable request to many—something that should not have to be asked for, but is already assumed to be in place.2 In order to understand the significance of this decision, it is necessary to have more information about some of the events that led one particular member of Parliament to introduce the motion in the first place.

Attawapiskat First Nation

Much of the recent discussion about poor living conditions in First Nations communities has been a result of attention given to circumstances at the Attawapiskat First Nation, an isolated fly-in community located in the James Bay region of Northern Ontario. This community is home to the Muskego James Bay Cree and has a population of around 3500, although in 2012 just over half of all members lived on the reserve, with the remainder living off site.3 Much of the year, the reserve is inaccessible by ground transportation. In the winter months, “ice roads” serve as a means of travelling into and out of the community.

In October 2011, Chief of Attawapiskat First Nation Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency. This state of emergency was called due to a housing crisis faced by the community and the fast approach of winter. Some families were living in non-insulated tents and sheds with no electricity or running water. The Canadian Red Cross mobilized in late November to assist in the housing crisis. A period of over one month passed before the Red Cross stepped in—because, in the meantime, provincial and federal governments were debating responsibility for the community, and in the process accomplishing little to improve the circumstances of those in makeshift housing and sub-zero temperatures.

This was not, however, the first time a state of emergency had been declared in Attawapiskat. In fact, it was the third time in as many years. The first declaration of emergency was made in April 2009, when site demolition of a school closed years earlier due to a massive diesel leak on the land released the strong odour of diesel fumes into the air. The community closed its two schools due to an air quality crisis and requested evacuation. The federal government did not support an evacuation and asked instead to monitor air quality in the area. In July 2009, according to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, “soil sampling and testing is completed. Continuous air quality monitoring is implemented. Both demolition sites (the former elementary school and the old water treatment plant) are capped with clay soil to prevent odours, vapours, and water accumulation.”4

The second declaration of emergency occurred a few months later in July of the same year, when a massive sewage flood dumped waste into eight homes in the community. Those affected by the flooding (about 90 people) were evacuated by the community and placed in off-reserve accommodation for several weeks. The provincial and federal governments again did not consider these circumstances to warrant evacuation.

Many people probably did not hear of the first and second declarations of emergency at Attawapiskat, but they very likely are aware of the situation that unfolded in late 2011. What changed? Local officials and the member of Parliament for the area, Charlie Angus, started a major publicity campaign, which included numerous news conferences, letters, and a YouTube video.5 People started to pay attention after the media gave the issue considerable coverage. Photographs of the decrepit and overcrowded housing conditions were revealed, showing residents living in tents and other temporary accommodations (often called “third world” in the media), often without plumbing or proper heating
systems, resulting in not only national but international outcry.6

Attawapiskat First Nation and School Facilities

The above discussion details three recent major crises at the Attawapiskat First Nation. But these particular crises occurred in tandem with another major issue that has left the community without a permanent school for more than 12 years. The community had been waiting to have a new school built after the old one (built in 1976) was closed in 2000 due to site contamination. Concerns about contamination of the land upon which the school sat began shortly after the school was built. In 1979, thousands of litres of oil leaked into the soil near the school, and in 1982, evidence was found of oil in the school foundation and petroleum fumes in the classrooms. In the mid-1980s, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) investigated the complaints and recommended a cleanup of the area. Still, over 10 years later, more environmental investigations into the site revealed a high level of contamination of harmful toxins requiring immediate action.7 Additional site testing in 2000 revealed again that the school was sitting above highly toxic land, with soil readings of various chemicals that were well beyond safe levels for humans. Throughout the two decades of site contamination, students and teachers continued to attend class at this school despite the strong chemical odours and numerous health-related complaints.

The school was officially closed permanently in 2000 due to the contamination. INAC then moved the school into temporary portable classrooms beside the contaminated site. Children had to attend classes in these portables, which were placed on contaminated brownfields (i.e., land previously used for industrial purposes).8 These same portables were still in use at the time of writing (2012) to accommodate over 400 elementary school children in the community. See Box 1.1 for a description of the temporary school.

Numerous plans by the federal government to build a new school have since failed to materialize. Three successive INAC ministers (Robert Nault, Andy Scott, and Jim Prentice) have promised, and then reneged on, a new school for the community. Plans to build a new school in 2008 were cancelled, with Chuck Strahl, minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development, indicating that there were more pressing projects elsewhere to fund.9 Frustrated by the ongoing delay in replacing their school, teenagers and adults in Attawapiskat began a campaign to raise awareness of their situation in the rest of Canada and the world.


Box 1.1 – A Decade-Old “Temporary” School

Linda Goyette, reporting for Canadian Geographic in 2010, provides an account of the decade-old “temporary” school in Attawapiskat.

“As Shannen Koostachin used to say, this place is not a real school. Eleven rough buildings stand in a narrow strip between the fenced contamination site and an airstrip. In poor condition, the gloomy structures do not resemble anything you could describe as a school.

“I arrived at recess time. Kids poured out of the squat classrooms to play tag, kick a ball or climb up on a fire hydrant to play King of the Castle. This barren yard is their playground—no swings, no slides, no monkey bars, no baseball diamond or soccer field. In deepest winter, students pull on parkas, snow pants and boots to walk to the community centre for phys. ed. Their school has no gym.

“There is no library, no cafeteria, no art room, no music room. There are no heated corridors between the scattered classrooms. Every day, children and teachers walk inside and outside—inside and outside, inside and outside—through blizzards, ice fog, sleet and thunderstorms. Maintenance workers move a rough wooden ramp to a different portable every year to allow access to a disabled student as he moves through the grades.”10

Source: Still Waiting in Attawapiskat, by Linda Goyette, Canadian Geographic magazine, Dec 2010. Used with permission of the author.

Shannen Koostachin

Shannen Koostachin was a well-known teen activist from Attawapiskat who became the face of the Attawapiskat School Campaign. Koostachin and her classmates decided to fight back against the federal government’s failure to deliver the promised school in 2008 after Chuck Strahl’s announcement, using social media such as YouTube and Facebook. They began a campaign that they called “Education Is a Human Right,” calling for “safe and comfy” schools with quality, culturally based education for First Nations students. The campaign developed momentum and received national attention and support from teachers and students from across the country. Shannen Koostachin, while only 13 years old, spoke at a rally on Parliament Hill in 2008 and met with INAC minister Chuck Strahl to ask him why no school had been built. Koostachin also spoke at numerous rallies and youth conferences and was nominated for an International Children’s Peace Prize. The movement created by her and her friends and supporters is considered to be the largest children’s rights movement in the history of Canada.

Shannen and her sister attended high school off the reserve, making the decision to leave the fly-in community and move to Temiskaming Shores, Ontario—500 kilometres from Attawapiskat. This decision was based on her and her family’s belief that quality high school education could be attained only outside of their community and off-reserve. Tragically, Shannen was killed in a car accident in May of 2010 at age 15.

Shannen’s friends and family, as well as MP Charlie Angus, rallied together in order to carry on Shannen’s vision of equal education for First Nations children and youth, calling this campaign “Shannen’s Dream.” Shannen’s work was focused on raising awareness about the lack of a school in Attawapiskat and the series of broken promises made by federal ministers to the community. She and her supporters believed in equal educational opportunities for all Canadians.

Charlie Angus, the New Democratic Party member of Parliament representing Timmins–James Bay (Ontario), introduced Motion 571 as a private member’s bill into the House of Commons on September 17, 2010. Motion 571 is also known as Shannen’s Dream, after Shannen Koostachin. It read:

“That, in the opinion of the House, the government should:

  1. declare that all First Nation children have an equal right to high quality culturally-relevant education;
  2. commit to provide the necessary financial and policy supports for First Nations education systems;
  3. provide funding that will put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools;
  4. develop transparent methodologies for school construction, operation, maintenance and replacement;
  5. work collaboratively with First Nation leaders to establish equitable norms and formulas for determining class sizes and for the funding of educational resources, staff salaries, special education services and indigenous language instruction; and
  6. implement policies to make the First Nation education system, at a minimum, of equal quality to provincial school systems.”11(From Motion 571, published in the Notice Paper no. 66, September 20, 2010, available at hoc/House/403/NoticeOrder/066/ordpaper066.PDF. Used with permission of the House of Commons)

The motion was also widely accepted by First Nations communities and many education-related organizations, such as the Canadian School Boards Association,12 the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association,13 and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

Despite the motion and the continued momentum of the campaign, the school, which was again promised in late 2010, was in various stages of planning and negotiation. A detailed timeline of events around this time, including meetings between INAC and the community officials, can be found at 1100100016328.

During the Attawapiskat state of emergency declaration of 2011, the federal government appointed a controversial “third-party manager” to handle the band’s finances—to the outcry of band officials, as the gesture suggested to the band that they were not capable or trustworthy enough to manage their federal funds.

Angus reintroduced the motion again (now referred to as Motion 202) in the House of Commons in November 2011. This coincides with the flurry of media attention that was being given to the living conditions on the Attawapiskat First Nation at that time, and rekindled larger public interest in the poor education facilities in the community. The motion was passed unanimously in late February of 2012, meaning that in principle, all voting members of the House of Commons agreed on equal funding of First Nations schools. The federal budget announced on March 29, 2012, by the Conservative government committed $100 million over three years to Aboriginal education, although the same budget allocated $26.9 million in cuts to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

On March 6, 2012, Attawapiskat First Nation and the current minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan announced that a construction contract had been awarded to a Manitoba firm (along with artist renderings) for the new school, which is expected to open for the 2013–2014 school year.14

Using the Sociology of Education to Help Understand the Events in Attawapiskat

The above description of recent events at Attawapiskat First Nation has been an attempt at summarizing a series of crises experienced by the First Nation over the last several decades. There are many details missing, and a thorough historical overview of the crises would warrant its own separate book. The objective of this brief summary, however, is to demonstrate that understanding education-related issues, such as the ones in Attawapiskat, can be greatly aided by the use of sociological approaches.

There are many questions that may emerge from the above discussion of the events in Attawapiskat. Motion 571 (later 201) advocating for equal treatment of First Nations students may seem to be an odd request, for example. Why would they not be treated equally in the first place? Why would it take so long for a school to be built? Why are the living conditions in that First Nation so substandard? There are no easy answers to these important questions, but there are sociological arguments that can be made about what larger social structures and histories have contributed to the current situation.

Each successive chapter of this book is divided into a topic area within the sociology of education that can be applied to many different topics within the expansive area of education (see Figure 1.1). This textbook is divided into eight additional substantive chapters, which all focus on different aspects of the sociology of education.

In Chapter 2, various theoretical approaches to the sociology of education are considered. The discipline of sociology is strongly anchored by theory and the methodological foundations of research practice. Chapter 2 is an important exploration of various sociological theories that can be used to understand topics in education in Canada and beyond. The chapter begins with the traditional macro-sociological approaches offered by Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim, and moves into various more contemporary theories in the sociology of education.


Circle in the centre surrounded and connected to 8 other evenly spaced circles. The middle circle reads Education-Related Issues with the 8 surrounding circles listing: Stucture of Education; Theories in the Sociology of Education; Curriculum; Current Challenges to Educational Practice; Socialization; Stuctual and Social Inequalities; School-to-Work Transitions; History of Education
Figure 1.1 Education-Related Issues

One particular theory that is discussed in Chapter 2 is critical race theory. This theory understands race to be at the centre of issues of inequality in education. Much more nuanced than straightforward and overt “racism,” critical race theory argues that the racial minority students are often disadvantaged because there is an informal cultural baseline to which they are always being compared. Because “Whiteness” is the dominant cultural and racial group in Canada, norms and expectations associated with “White culture” are considered the norm and any deviations from that are seen at worst as weaknesses and at best as “exotic” characteristics. Critical race theory can perhaps help contextualize some of the cultural frustrations expressed by First Nations officials and representatives of the INAC. Critical race theorists would argue that First Nations priorities in education (which may include culturally relevant curriculum) are “different” from the norm and therefore considered less legitimate and inferior. Critical race theorists may also interpret the prime minister’s decision to intervene with “third-party management” of the Attawapiskat First Nation (during the 2011 crisis) to be indicative of mistrust about the First Nation’s ability to manage its own finances and as an attempt to “repair” the matter by sending an uninvited member of the dominant culture.

In addition to critical race theory, some of the theories of social mobility may also be useful to understand the situation in Attawapiskat. Social mobility theories examine how individuals are able to achieve upward social mobility—or advance their social position. Social mobility theories, however, illustrate that it is difficult for disadvantaged youth to better their situations and that they are more likely to stay in the same social class and economic conditions into which they were born, due to various factors including strong processes of socialization that make movement out of their class of origin rather challenging.

It is not possible to entirely understand educational practices today unless their historical contexts are considered. In Chapter 3, the history of education in Canada is discussed as it developed in different pockets across the country. The history of how Aboriginals were treated in Canada is particularly important to the Attawapiskat case. While the colonization of Canada and resulting mistreatment of Aboriginals is an acknowledged fact in this nation’s history, of particular importance to issues pertaining to education is the historic Indian Act of 1876—a legal document which still dictates how Aboriginal affairs (including education) are structured in Canada. The Indian Act was a piece of legislation that was drawn up after Canada became a nation (1867), in order to articulate the obligations of the Canadian government to First Nations people. At that particular time in the country’s history, the government had allocated First Nations people to specific areas of land (starting the “reservation” system) and had decreed that the First Nations people were wards of the Crown to be taken care of by the federal government, without rights to self-government. Importantly, the act dictated that issues of First Nations education (which at that point in time was entirely concerned with assimilating the “Indians” into British Christian culture) were the responsibility of the federal government. It is important to recognize that this historic Indian Act is still the reason that matters of on-reserve schooling are treated as a concern to be dealt with by federal politicians. For the rest of Canadian students, education is a provincial matter that is shaped by individual policies of each jurisdiction. In terms of the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, housing for on-reserve communities is still a federal issue and it is not possible (legally) for an on-reserve citizen to have a mortgage (i.e., if they want to buy a house, it is not possible unless they have all the funds at hand or go through alternate means of funding).

In Chapter 4, the discussion turns to the structure of education. As noted, on-reserve schools are operated by the federal government. About 20 percent of First Nations (i.e., not including Métis or Inuit) children attend school on reserve in schools managed by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Structural changes since the 1970s have meant that more First Nations bands are now somewhat in control of their schools—the amount of control varies according to the First Nation. In the early 1990s, INAC transferred some of the control of the school to Attawapiskat First Nation Education Authority (AFNEA). This sharing of control between federal and local officials has the potential to cause conflict, because although the local band officials have gained control over decisions on hiring and staffing, the federal officials still have control over major spending initiatives, such as building new schools.15 As such, inherent tensions can be seen as being “built in” to the way First Nations are able to control the educational infrastructures in their communities.

In Chapter 5, the focus turns to curriculum. Curriculum encompasses that which is learned in school and comprises the learning objectives for each level of education (grade) and subject. Curricula have changed significantly over time, and these changes are documented in Chapter 5. Also, what is taught also tends to vary across the different jurisdictions of Canada. Despite being under federal jurisdiction, on-reserve schools do not have not an official curriculum. Instead, guidelines indicate that the education quality must be “comparable” to that offered by the provincial jurisdiction. In other words, children at on-reserve schools should be receiving the same quality of education as those in provincially run schools (Mendelson 2008). Pictures of dilapidated schools with scarce resources built on toxic land cast much doubt on the likelihood that comparability targets have been met in such cases.

One major element of the dream that Shannen Koostachin had about First Nations education is that the curriculum of on-reserve students would be culturally relevant and reflect the beliefs and practices of First Nations people. Aboriginal education advocates have argued that typical Canadian curricular practices tend to have a Eurocentric view of the world that is strongly attached to the scientific method. In order to give relevance and legitimacy to the traditional practices in the community, critics argue that Aboriginal “ways of knowing” and cultural practices should be incorporated into the curriculum of on-reserve schools (Aikenhead 2006) and off-reserve schools with substantial Aboriginal students. Many First Nations school boards implement the provincial curriculum and make adjustments to make it more culturally relevant (Mendelson 2008), although Mendelson (2008) notes that the (small) First Nations school boards have an onerous task of organizing all aspects of education (curriculum, funding, hiring, policy development, codes of conduct, etc.) within the First Nation, whereas children in provincially run schools have external policy-makers at the level of the provincial ministry dedicated to curriculum development. Without external levels of curriculum development support, it is difficult to maintain quality and improve performance.

As described by a recent Senate Standing Committee on First Nations Education:

Currently, every First Nation community is left on their own to try to develop and deliver a range of educational services to their students. First Nations schools operate without any statutory recognition and authority to do so. Federal policy to guide efforts in this regard is, at best, ad hoc and piecemeal. The Department requires First Nations to educate their students at levels comparable to provincial and territorial jurisdictions, and yet provides them no meaningful supports by which to do so. No one actually knows who is ultimately accountable for the educational outcomes and services provided to First Nations students. This situation is, quite frankly, incomprehensible. (Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples 2011:56. Senate of Canada. Reproduced with permission.)

No establishment of a Canada-wide plan for First Nations education or development of a consistent system of First Nations education exists. It is also not an insignificant point that many of the parents and grandparents of current First Nations students were subjected to the residential schooling system that forcibly removed First Nations children from their homes at an early age (from around 1930 to the late 1960s) to be placed in boarding schools where they often experienced abuse and humiliation and were made to “unlearn” their First Nations cultures.

Turning to Chapter 6, the discussion moves to socialization in the schooling process. Children and youth spend a great deal of their lives in school, and in addition to their families, schools are agents of socialization that shape them into the persons that they become as adults. Children must learn how to be students—the role that they will have in the class and the appropriate behaviours associated with this role. Students are also socialized into becoming future productive members of society through being taught essential literacy and numeracy skills, and in many jurisdictions renewed attention has been given to including moral education into the curriculum. Socialization is accomplished through many means in the school setting in which they experience their education: the relationship that students have with their teachers and with one another, and the school bond (commitment to one’s school) that they have.

One of the messages that the Attawapiskat School Campaign led by Shannen Koostachin emphasized was the general sense of worth that inadequate schools were giving to young people about themselves as individuals. In a speech, she articulated this very message when she said, It’s hard to feel pride when our classrooms are cold, when mice run over our lunches. . . . It’s hard to feel you can have the chance to grow up to be somebody important when you don’t have proper resources, like a library.”16 The disadvantaged socialization prospects of young people in this already economically depressed community suffering from a high youth suicide rate were at the heart of the campaign.

In Chapter 7, attention is turned to structural and social inequalities in schooling. Clearly, the Attiwapiskat students in the case considered in this chapter have experienced many structural and social disadvantages in their schooling, most notably in the form of the inadequacy of their school facilities. Larger social inequalities also affect children and others in the area, particularly the high rates of poverty and unemployment that are experienced by individuals living on the Attawapiskat First Nation. As discussed in Chapter 7, socioeconomic status is closely linked to the educational outcomes of children, in which children from poor families do worse at school and have less favourable overall outcomes.

Aboriginal youth in general have strikingly low rates of high school graduation, and this is even more pronounced if they live on reserve. In some remote communities, youth must make the decision to leave their family homes in order to be able to attend high school in a larger community, as many First Nation communities do not have secondary schools. Leaving one’s community and family can be a difficult decision for anyone, particularly a young person. As discussed above, Koostachin and her sister left their First Nation community to attend high school because of their perception that in order to have successes later in life, a superior education had to be sought outside their community. The low educational attainment of Aboriginal youth has enormous ramifications. Without completing secondary education, the employment prospects of youth (Aboriginal or otherwise) are incredibly limited. This results in a continued cycle of poverty that is largely due to structural and social inequalities experienced in early life and exacerbated by limited employment prospects in their communities.

As stated above, education is clearly associated with future life outcomes of individuals, and this is the focus of Chapter 8. The end of formal education is usually followed by a transition into the labour market. Such school-to-work transitions have changed over time in Canada, with youth now spending longer periods of time in formal education. As suggested in the previous paragraph, Aboriginal youth are far more likely to drop out of high school, which severely curtails their employment opportunities. In remote reserves such as Attawapiskat, there are very limited employment opportunities to begin with—with unemployment rates at around 90 percent. The biggest job provider is the Victor diamond mine run by De Beers, which employs about 100 band members. De Beers also worked with Northern College to train workers for the diamond mine. The mine is located on traditional Cree territory. The First Nation does not receive any direct revenues from the mine, although the Province of Ontario does receive tax revenues from the operation.

Chapter 9, the last chapter of this book, is about current challenges to education practices. Various challenges are identified, with particular attention paid to issues that are highly associated with globalization, or the merging of individual country economies into a global market. The global economic crisis is discussed in this chapter, particularly with regard to its ramifications into various areas of people’s lives—including education. It brings issues of government spending into the forefront of government debates. What money is being “wasted” on unnecessary public services? What cuts can be made?

The conditions of economic deprivation in Attawapiskat spurred the Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper to declare that more than $90 million had been given to the community since he had taken office in 2006, and to question how it had been spent. The Conservative government then offered additional monies on the condition that “third-party management” (which would be paid by the band) would be in charge of administering funds. The ideological approach of neoliberalism is also explored in this chapter, particularly in relation to how such approaches contextualize conflicts experienced in education. Neoliberalism is the ideological belief in the reduction of public spending and promotion of reliance on private enterprise within a global economy. The introduction of the third-party management can be interpreted as the federal government’s neoliberal response to the crisis in Attawapiskat.

Neoliberal policies are also reflected in the influence of private enterprise creeping into public institutions. One obvious and ever-increasing example is when advertisers are allowed to promote products within schools. In the case of Attawapiskat, the De Beers company has been running a “Books in Homes” program since 2009 in James Bay, providing around 2000 area children with their school textbooks each year.

Chapter Summary

In this chapter, sociology of education was defined. Social structures were also defined, along with examples of how social structures impact on the sociology of education. The crisis in Attawapiskat First Nation was detailed, with particular attention given to the passing of the Shannen’s Dream motion and how it was a product of the ongoing Attawapiskat School Campaign. The focus of each additional chapter was then introduced, paying particular attention to how concepts from the chapter could give additional insights to the events that have unfolded at the Attawapiskat First Nation in terms of their school crisis as well as their general state of long-term and marked economic disadvantage.

Review Questions

1. Define sociology of education.

2. What is meant by social structure? Give three examples of social structures that may have an impact upon education.


  • Using Figure 1.1 as a guide, summarize the various dimensions of the sociology of education that are applicable to the Attawapiskat school crisis.
  • Look through the headlines of local and national newspapers and identify an education-related topic that is currently being given attention. Summarize the issue. Using the Attawapiskat case study detailed in this chapter as an example, suggest various aspects of the sociology of education that may be useful in understanding the issue you have identified in more detail.
  • Using the internet, examine problems that have been identified at other First Nations schools. Some particularly striking examples are found in the cases of the Bunibonibee and Lake St. Martin First Nations. What do these cases have in common with Attawapiskat? How are they different?

Film Recommendation

  • Canada: Apartheid Nation (directed by Angela O’Leary)

Key Terms

sociology of education


Theories in the Sociology of Education


Source: “Musee Carnavalet shop sign eyeglasses” by Mark B. Schlemmer is licensed CC BY 2.0

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to

  1. Understand what is meant by macrosocial, microsocial, mesosocial, and middle-range theory.
  2. Explain how agency, structure, ontology, and epistemology are related to major underlying assumptions within sociological theories of education.
  3. Describe structural functionalism and the contributions made by Durkheim and Parsons.
  4. Explain Marxism and neo-Marxism, and name the major theorists associated with these perspectives.
  5. Explain how critical pedagogy is associated with the Marxist perspectives.
  6. Describe Weberian and neo-Weberian approaches to the sociology of education.
  7. Define institutional theory.
  8. Describe symbolic interactionism and identify major theorists associated with this perspective.
  9. Explain what is meant by phenomenology.
  10. Define what is meant by cultural reproduction theory and identify major theorists associated with this orientation.
  11. Explain what is meant by social capital.
  12. Describe the social mobility approaches to the sociology of education.
  13. Define ecological systems theory.
  14. Describe how feminist theory is connected to the sociology of education.
  15. Explain critical race theory and how it is related to the sociology of education.


This chapter introduces several theories concerning the sociology of education. Because this text explores education from a sociological perspective, it is essential that we consider how theory contributes to our understanding of education as a part of society. Sociological theories help us to take various pieces of a puzzle and put them together, using a specific framework to help us make sense of it all and to give us the tools we need to talk about the “bigger picture.” Each theoretical perspective represents a particular way of understanding the social world. It is like seeing the world through a specific set of glasses (see Figure 2.1). The way we see the world clearly influences how we interpret the social processes that are occurring within it. In this chapter, theories are presented chronologically as they have developed over time.

Many theories are given consideration in this chapter. No one theory is “right”—you will see that every theory has its own strengths and weaknesses. All theories focus on different aspects of human society; some focus on class, others on race, others on gender. There is much overlap, and while many theorists talk about class, for example, you will find that they think of it in markedly different ways. And the prominence of particular theoretical perspectives follows definite trends. Some of these theories were very popular in the discipline at one point (e.g., structural functionalism) but are barely considered now. However, it is important to understand the origins of all theories of educational sociology in use today. Understanding the era of a theory—that is, the historical circumstances under which it emerged—often also helps to understand the emphasis given to different aspects of social life.


Figure 2.1 Theory and the Sociology of Education

Each theory is presented with a brief overview followed by examples from recent research, including Canadian research where possible. This chapter is meant to be a synopsis of the various theories used by sociologists of education; it is in no way an exhaustive overview of all theories within the discipline. Theories are presented in roughly chronological order, starting with structural functionalism of the late 1890s and ending with critical race theory, which is dominant today.


When you are learning about sociological theories, you may run across numerous words that you have not encountered before. Various theories are peppered with strange terminology. Theorists have adopted the use of specialized words to capture concepts that often have very complex meanings. Below, many such instances of these terms are discussed: cultural capital, habitus, racialization, and primary effects, just to name a few. Many of these terms are specific to one particular body of theories or a particular theorist.

Some terms, however, are used throughout the discussion of theory rather frequently. These terms are macrosocial theory, microsocial theory, mesosocial theory, middle-range theory, agency, and structure.

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Agency and Structure

What is more important in explaining social life—individuals or the social structures around them? This is the question at the heart of the debate between agency and structure. Agency refers to the individual’s ability to act and make independent choices, while structure refers to aspects of the social landscape that appear to limit or influence the choices made by individuals. So, which one takes primacy—individual autonomy or socialization? Of course, this question is not easily resolved and it is central to theoretical approaches in sociology. Some theorists emphasize the importance of individual experience, therefore favouring agency. Those theorists who favour agency are associated with microsociological explanations of social phenomena. Other theorists view society as a large functional organism. These are macrosociologists, who see the social world as a series of structures with varying degrees of harmony.

The agency–structure debate in social theory isn’t simply about which is more important; it also considers what it is that ties the individual to society. Society is more than a collection of individuals—there is something larger at work that makes those individuals a “society.” The structural functionalists and Marxists (i.e., macro theorists) emphasize how social structures determine social life and maintain that individual actions can be reinterpreted as the outcomes of structural forces. In other words, it may seem that individuals made decisions to act in certain ways (e.g., get a specific job or take a specific course) and these theorists would argue that the larger forces of society and structure constrain an individual’s choices in such a way that these are the only decisions that can be made. Symbolic interactionists and phenomenologists are microsociological theorists who focus on the subjective meanings of social life and how these meanings are responsible for creating individuals’ social worlds. Much research in social theory has focused on how to reconcile the structure and agency debate by exploring how individuals are connected to society. Some reconciliatons are offered by Berger and Luckmann (1969), Giddens (1984), Ritzer (2000), and Bourdieu (1986). Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus as a bridge between structure and agency will be discussed later in this chapter. Similarly, Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) discussion of the various ways and levels at which the child interacts with the environment will also be a considered as way of bridging the gap between agency and structure.

Ontology and Epistemology

Also underlying theoretical perspectives are other assumptions about the social world. There are two very important assumptions to consider when thinking about theories in the sociology of education—ontology and epistemology.

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Figure 2.2 Various Terms in Sociological Theory and How They Relate to One Another

The theoretical perspectives considered in this text all have “taken-for-granted” ontological and epistemological orientations in their worldviews. Figure 2.2 graphically illustrates how ontology, epistemology, agency, structure, and the levels of social theory tend to correspond to each other on a spectrum. Microsocial theorists, for example, tend to emphasize agency over structure, point to the importance of understanding subjective reality, and use interpretive methods (in-depth qualitative interviews) when undertaking their studies. On the opposite end of the spectrum are macrosocial theorists, who focus on structure and believe in an objective reality that is to be learned about through positivist methods.

When learning about theories, it is important to think about what the theorist is assuming about social life. Theorists approach their subject with specific orientations to the primacy of agency or structure, micro/macro/meso sociological concerns, and specific beliefs about the nature of reality and how it should be studied. There are stark distinctions among theoretical approaches and recognizing the assumptions made by theorists in this way can help you understand the major differences in the “schools of thought” explored in the rest of the chapter.

Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalism is a body of theories that understand the world as a large system of interrelated parts that all work together. Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons are two major theorists in this area.

Émile Durkheim

French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) is best known for his theory of moral regulation. He was also the first sociologist of education. Durkheim was interested in explaining why the rise of individualism in society did not result in widespread social breakdown. Durkheim wrote during a time when individualism was replacing the authority of the Catholic church in France and the collectivist social bond built on religious homogeneity. Societies no longer had singular dominant religions that bonded them together, or even dominant ethnicities. How was society being held together? Durkheim’s answer was that social life was possible because of the trust that existed among members of society. For society to function, there must exist an unwritten moral code that people follow. This moral framework is at the core of Durkheim’s theory of society.

Because of this belief in the importance of a shared moral code, Durkheim considered it the role of education in society to instill society’s morals in the minds (and actions) of young people. His writings on the subject stress this point very much, as reflected in such titles as Moral Education (1925).1 He argued that it is only through education that a given society can forge a commitment to an underlying set of common beliefs and values, as well as create a strong sense of community or nationhood. This moral education prepares us to be productive members of society by socializing and integrating us, whereby we not only understand but also value common morals. We become autonomous adults but we are guided in our acts by the moral codes that have become firmly ingrained in our beings.

Durkheim’s belief that society is held together by a common set of values and morals is at the heart of structural functionalism because it emphasizes how the various parts of a social system work together. Society functions because shared norms and morals create a sense of trust that leads to general social cohesion. Schools are integral to this process because they instill the correct moral codes into children so that they can develop into productive adults that contribute to society.

Talcott Parsons

Durkheim died in 1917 and structural functionalism, particularly as it related to the sociology of education, was largely ignored until Talcott Parsons invigorated the discussion in the late 1950s with his widely cited article “The School Class as a Social System: Some of Its Functions in American Society.” Like Durkheim, Parsons argued that schools existed to socialize students. Up to school age, children are primarily socialized at home by their families, but the values instilled in the child at home are particular to the family. The child is judged in a particular way—as a member of his or her family. There is no way of judging his or her character relative to other children. The school plays a central role in bridging individuals to society. It is within schools that children are assessed in a standardized universalistic way that does not take their social background characteristics into account. According to Parsons, schools level the playing field so that children are assessed on the basis of merit—how they are judged is based only on how they perform on a standardized set of goals regardless of social background.

In this way, school prepares young people for their roles as adults. Parsons argued that American schools emphasized the values of achievement and equality of opportunity. Adults’ later placement in the workforce is a reflection of how much they achieved and how successful they were in their schooling. The school is functionally related to the workforce because it assigns people to their roles based on achievement, skills, and capability. It needs to be emphasized that structural functionalists do not believe that inequality is non-existent. On the contrary, they believe it is inherent to the functional system. Social inequality, in other words, exists because it is functional in society. People who are at the lower ends of the educational and socioeconomic spectrum are there because they fill necessary places there—and because they did not meet the qualifications for higher placement.

As you may imagine, structural functionalism is not without its critics, and many criticisms are well-founded. In particular, the approach fails to account for how many ascribed traits, like socioeconomic background, gender, and race, appear to be so important in determining life outcomes. A plethora of research has provided compelling evidence that the education system does not operate on a purely meritocratic basis. However, despite its shortcomings, structural functionalism has been a useful framework for understanding how morality and norms are spread across society and the school’s role in this process. See Box 2.1 for a recent analysis of education in Canada using a Durkheimian perspective.


Box 2.1 – Understanding Past Practices through a Durkheimian Lens

Recently, Loren Lerner (2010) presented an analysis of how children were portrayed in photographs contained in Canadian Pictorial, a monthly magazine published in Montreal, between 1906 and 1916. The magazine published mostly photographs and, according to Lerner, these photos served to “uphold the ideals of Canada’s Anglo-Saxon Protestant citizens who originated from Great Britain and to educate Canadians from non-British backgrounds to be like them” (p. 234).

Lerner argues that the photos were part of a larger educational mandate, following Durkheim, to teach young Canadians how to be “good” and “moral” citizens. Below, she comments on the implied meaning of a photo of Aboriginal children taken in a residential school in 1914. In an attempt to assimilate the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, residential schools were established by European-Canadians in the early twentieth century and funded by churches and the government. Aboriginal children were taken away from their families and communities and forced to abandon their language and culture. Many children experienced abuse in these schools. These worldviews of a presumed collective conscience and correct moral character, argues Lerner, are clearly depicted in the above photo:

English Canadians saw it as their social mission to impose particular meanings on these images of children, and so manipulated them to cohere with a worldview that was embedded with class-consciousness and traditional beliefs and customs. This was a collective vision that seemed to either ignore or reluctantly endorse the new realities of a society that was quickly changing . . . Durkheim believed that education was intrinsically linked to a society’s notion of an ideal person. The object of education was to develop in the child a certain number of physical, intellectual, and moral states demanded by society. It could be argued that Durkheim’s concept of education as the socialization of youth based on moral beliefs and traditions was consistent with Canadian Pictorial’s objective to educate the Canadian child. (p. 257)

  The conviction that Aboriginal children could be assimilated is proudly documented in a full-page professional photograph of a classroom of students at Mellapolla near Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The banner-like title above the picture reads “Making Good Canadians of the Children of the Red Man.” The students, who are of all ages and include a few adults, are sitting at attention, while the female teacher at the back of the classroom stands in front of a very large map of Canada. The caption reads: “Only within quite recent times have the Indians of that part of the country come within close touch of civilization.” This statement was untrue. The text continues: “Now there is a well-equipped little school for the Indian children with a young lady teacher from England in charge. The photograph was specially taken for the ‘Pictorial’ by the first man to penetrate far north of Prince Rupert with a moving-picture camera . . .” The words are loaded with the supremacist connotation that the children, until now isolated, are being civilized by the white race that has come to save them from their non-civilized condition. The children’s submissiveness in front of the camera suggests that the experiment is succeeding, though most look unhappy or uncomfortable in the setting. The last sentence of the caption is particularly telling: “The expressions on the faces of the Indian children are worth studying.” The phrase “expressions on the faces” speaks to a longstanding belief that the human face carries signs of character and attributes. While it may hide a person’s true nature, if studied correctly, that nature will be disclosed. The expressions of Aboriginal people were often said to be wild and savage, but if they changed in an appropriate way, it signaled that the person had been successfully converted into a peace-loving Christian. Similarly, indoctrination in the guise of education could lead to the metamorphosis of Aboriginal children into acceptable Canadian children. (pp. 254–255)

  For Durkheim, the intervention of the state in the internal life of the family was mandatory because the traditional family had the power to retard social development. He believed that society was created through the development of a collective conscience shared by all different types of children. As such, through education the child could be released from the bonds of a regressive family and learn to become integrated into a social group. This was also true of the immigrant or Aboriginal child, who could become a functioning member of society by learning to make a living as part of an occupational group. Only when the normative functions once exercised by institutions such as the family and religion turned into a relationship of mutual dependence could these children become real Canadian citizens. (p. 259)

Source: Lerner, Loren. 2010. “Photographs of the Child in Canadian Pictorial from 1906 to 1916: A Reflection of the Ideas and Values of English Canadians about Themselves and ‘Other’ Canadians.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth3(2):233–263. doi:10.1353/hcy.0.0098.

Karl Marx and Neo-Marxism

Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German intellectual and revolutionary known for his creation and endorsement of socialism and communism. Marx was a prolific writer, and among his many books were The Communist Manifesto and three volumes of Das Kapital. Writing during the industrial revolution in Europe (a point in history which markedly changed how goods were produced and thereby how people earned a living), Marx believed that all social relations were rooted in economic relations, particularly the mode of production, which refers to the way of producing goods and services. In capitalist systems, the mode of production is such that it places workers and owners in direct opposition to one another. Both groups have differing interests: the workers, for example, want to command the highest wage, while the owners, in order to drive the greatest profit, want to pay the lowest possible wage. This relation of production under capitalism, or the social relations that stem from capitalism, means that workers are always subservient and dependent on owners.

Marx viewed society as divided into distinct classes. At the most basic level, there were owners (the bourgeoisie) and workers (the proletariat). He argued that the only way to achieve a just society was for the proletariat to achieve class consciousness—to collectively become self-aware of their class group and the possibilities for them to act in their own rational self-interest.

The idea of class is at the very core of Marx and Marxist scholarship. While Marx was a prolific writer, he wrote relatively little on education. However, he did emphasize that class relations spilled into all aspects of social life, therefore the role of education in society—capitalist society—would be a topic of much relevance under a Marxist framework. In particular, the educational system of a society exists to maintain and reproduce the economic systems of society. Institutions in society, including education, were the outcome of activities and ideas that were created through the specific material conditions and circumstances surrounding them.

Neo-Marxism and Marxist Social Reproduction Analysis

The social activism of the 1960s in North America provided fertile ground for scholars to become receptive to Marxist theory. In the 1970s, two important contributions were made to Marxist social reproduction analysis in the sociology of education. The first was by Louis Althusser in 1970 and the second was by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in 1976.

Althusser (1918–1990) was a French Marxist philosopher who wrote on a wide range of topics. In terms of the sociology of education, he is best known for his theory of ideology. He believed that ideology was used to socialize children into their subordinate statuses in the capitalist system. Not only did the education system work to reinforce this socialization, but religion, the law, and the media (and other social structures) were used to pass on this ideology of the ruling class. He referred to the forces of these social structures in reproducing the social order as state ideological apparatus. To Althusser, ideology had two meanings. The first refers to the set of routine material practices in which teachers and students are involved. For example, rooms in schools are divided into spaces where certain people or groups of people accomplish certain jobs—the principal has his own office, the teachers have their own social space, and the support staff have their own area. The second aspect of ideology relates to “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Althusser 1971:153). In other words, ideology refers to “those systems of meanings, representations and values embedded in the concrete practices that structure the unconsciousness of students” (Arnowitz and Giroux 1987:86). To Althusser, this second aspect of ideology meant that individuals were engaged in unconscious acts that reproduced their class positions without even being aware of such processes. The physical and cultural surroundings reinforced this ideology, making it seem natural, although it was driven by the larger capitalist agenda, which was responsible for reproducing inequalities in social class.

In 1976 Bowles and Gintis wrote Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, which is widely considered to be the most influential neo-Marxist work in the sociology of education. The authors critically examined the education system in the United States and argued, in a Marxist vein, that the way school was organized in the United States was designed to replicate the class system and to benefit elites. There are two terms that are popularly associated with the work of Bowles and Gintis, and which overlap somewhat with Althusser’s concept of ideology: the correspondence principle and the hidden curriculum. The correspondence principle is the overarching theme of their book, which suggests that the education system is set up to serve (or correspond to) the class-based system so that classes are reproduced and so that elites maintain their positions. The authors provide evidence of this relationship by showing how the statistical relationship between (1) intelligence and future earnings and (2) intelligence and future occupation disappears once socioeconomic background is accounted for. In other words, class origins are the major driving force behind the future jobs and incomes that young people achieve—not their intelligence. It is through the hidden curriculum that schools are able to reproduce the class system. The hidden curriculum refers to the subtle ways that students are taught to be co-operative members of the class system. There is a “correspondence” between the economic system and the structure of school. Social relations and work principles developed at a young age in the education system parallel those of the wider capitalist society. Students must learn deference and be subservient to teachers, have respect for the established order, and accept that they have no control over what they learn. Engraining these traits in young people “corresponds” with their future roles in the labour market. From a young age, young people are therefore socialized to accept their class placement in the capitalist economy.2

Marxist theory and neo-Marxism enjoyed popularity in the sociology of education in 1970s and 1980s, but has since fallen from favour as the theoretical paradigm of choice among researchers. Neo-Marxism is a term that generally refers to Marxist approaches from the twentieth century and beyond which in some way modify original Marxist theory. In Canada, the 1970s and ’80s produced numerous important pieces of work in the sociology of education under the Marxist/neo-Marxist umbrella, including Wotherspoon (1984, 1987) and Livingstone (1983, 1985). However, one major criticism of the versions of Marxism described above is that they tend to ignore other characteristics that are influential in the social landscape, such as gender and race or ethnicity.

Marxist theory and neo-Marxism have largely been superseded by other theories in the discipline, particularly postmodern theories of gender and race, which are discussed below. Some researchers in the sociology of education refer to Marxist authors covered in this section and use certain aspects of their theory, combined with other theories. For example, in their study of how working-class students from an inner-city school in Vancouver understood Canadian citizenship, Kennelly and Dillabough (2008) used the framework of phenomenology but appealed to Althusser’s concept of ideology to help them understand the position of disadvantaged youth.

Makropolous (2010) has called upon Bowles and Gintis’s correspondence principle to explain Ottawa students’ attitudes to French immersion curriculum. She concluded that the French immersion program in Ottawa was geared toward students who were preparing for university. Those who did not share that goal were not successful in the program. See Box 2.2 for a discussion of how Marxist theory is related to approaches in pedagogy.

Box 2.2 – Critical Pedagogy and Its Marxist Roots

Critical pedagogy is a term that frequently comes up in neo-Marxist approaches to teaching. Critical pedagogy refers to a general philosophy of teaching that recognizes and attempts to rid the classroom and teacher–student interactions of relationships and practices that perpetuate inequalities. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, is credited with starting this movement with the publication of his highly influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1970. Freire uses a metaphor of “banking” to describe how the education system is organized—students are empty banks and teachers deposit knowledge into them. Freire rejects this model, arguing that this assumes that the object of education (the student) knows nothing and has nothing to offer to the “educator,” which serves to dehumanize both the student and the teacher.

Many prominent education researchers have been influenced by the work of Freire, including Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren. Giroux is currently a professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University and has published about 35 books and 300 scholarly articles. His most recent interests have focused on how the media represent youth and negatively influence current pedagogical practices (Giroux 2010; Giroux and Pollock 2010).

Canadian-born McLaren is a professor of Education at UCLA and has written over 45 books, along with hundreds of scholarly articles (see, for example, McLaren 2010; McLaren and Jaramillo 2010). McLaren is known for his work in promoting a radical critical pedagogy which “attempts to create the conditions of pedagogical possibility that enables students to see how, through the exercise of power, the dominant structures of class rule protect their practices from being publicly scrutinized as they appropriate resources to serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many” (McLaren 2010:5). Like the neo-Marxists described above, McLaren understands schools as being a place of social reproduction, and his critical pedagogy is aimed at dismantling this process which results in what he views as the continued oppression of many.

Critical pedagogical approaches are used extensively in Canadian research. For example, Barrett et al. (2009) interviewed 47 teacher-educators from Ontario’s New Teacher Induction Program from eight different faculties of education across Ontario. The researchers used elements of McLaren’s approach to critical pedagogy, indicating that teacher-educators suggested that the curriculum of teacher training contained elements that reduced the likelihood of teachers adopting a critical pedagogical perspective. One example is the pairing of new teachers with senior colleagues who were not likely receptive to the idea of introducing emancipatory teaching practices.

Other prominent scholars associated with neo-Marxism include Michael Apple and Paul Willis. Apple’s work Ideology and Curriculum (1979) was critical of Bowles and Gintis, indicating that they had failed to account for the role of ideology and culture in reproducing systems of domination. He agreed that economic reproduction (i.e., reproducing social classes) was indeed an outcome of schooling, but that it went beyond simple economic aspects. To Apple, social reproduction was also the result of ideological and cultural practices that occurred within schools. Schools serve to educate students and as such they convey knowledge to students. This knowledge is a particular type of knowledge, however, which is considered “legitimate knowledge.” It reflects the ideologies and cultural practices of the ruling classes, and passing this type of knowledge on to students also contributes to social reproduction. More recently, Apple has been interested in the rise of neo-conservatism in the United States and its influence on creating American educational policy (based upon right-wing political ideology). Aurini and Davies (2005) have considered Apple’s perspective in their research on the growth of homeschooling in Canada. They agree with Apple that to some extent many parents who opt to homeschool are politically conservative, but they trace the growth of homeschooling to a more general trend of parents being closely involved in their children’s education (i.e., “intensive” or “helicopter” parenting) rather than any particular politically based movement.

Another neo-Marxist theorist is Paul Willis, who is best known for his resistance theory. His groundbreaking work Learning to Labour (1977) was an ethnographic study of working-class adolescent boys in the UK. In particular, Willis examined how these youth resisted the schools’ attempt to control them by rejecting the values associated with the middle class. They openly rejected the value of the intellectual offerings associated with school work. They also openly rejected the authoritative structure associated with the school. The findings from this research led him to coin the term resistance theory, which referred to how marginalized students do not comply with the values, discipline, and expected behaviours of middle class school structures. Instead of being viewed as acts of delinquency, these acts of rule breaking are interpreted as a class-based resistance. Paradoxically, however, these resisting behaviours also served to reproduce their class position—preventing the acquisition of the skills and training required for jobs outside the realm of manual labour.

Raby and Domitrek’s (2007) more recent study of rule-breaking by Canadian high school students largely confirms Willis’s theory. They found that adolescent boys from marginalized backgrounds tended to resist the White middle-class techniques for dispute resolution (i.e., “talking it out”), favouring physical aggression. They were also more likely to have been in conflicts with teachers and lacked the middle class cultural knowledge required to navigate the school system effectively.

Weber and Neo-Weberian Approaches

Max Weber (1868–1920) was a German sociologist who, along with Marx and Durkheim, is widely regarded as being a “founding father” of sociology. Weber, however, differed from Marx and Durkheim in a very important way. Unlike Marx and Durkheim, who were macro-theorists, his theory does not describe the overall nature of society. Instead, his micro-theoretical ideas pointed to how people both construct society and are constrained by it at the same time (King 1980). Weber focused on education in many of his writings.

One of Weber’s most famous analyses is contained within The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he identifies the growth and success of capitalism as being largely contingent upon the spread of Protestantism in Northern Europe. The values and tenets associated with this branch of Christianity encourage hard work, and the subdivision of Calvinism provided even more support for his association between the rise of capitalism and religious affiliation. Calvinists believed in predestination; in other words, one’s “destination” (i.e., heaven or hell) was determined at birth. As a result of this uncertainty, people looked for clues about their fate. They consequently interpreted success in business and in work as a signal that they were held in God’s favour. Weber argued that the religious beliefs at the time facilitated the growth of capitalism. As time went on and beliefs became more secularized, capitalism was so entrenched and established within society that the initial complimentary religious attitudes that allowed it to develop were no longer necessary. Unlike Marx, Weber argued that ideas were central to the social groups and institutions we observe. His understanding of ideology is one that, in contrast to Marx, is based upon subjective understandings held by people, not overarching dominant forces that control individuals.

Linked to his interest in religion and its place in society was Weber’s analysis of rationalization. Rationalization occurred when society became more secular, scientific knowledge began to develop, and an increasing reliance on scientific and technological explanations began to emerge. Instead of being based on customs or religious belief, more and more social actions were the outcome of beliefs related to scientific thought. Rationalization paved the way for what Weber referred to as “rational-legal authority,” which is a type of political leadership that is regarded as legitimate due to being rooted in established laws (which themselves are the outcome of rationalization). Closely related to the concepts of rationalization and rational-legal authority is bureaucracy, which is an administrative structure that follows a clear hierarchical structure and involves very specific rules and chains of command. If you are enrolled in a post-secondary institution like a college or university, you have had first-hand experience of bureaucracy. If you want to appeal a grade, for example, you must fill out the right forms, send them to the right office, and wait until various people in the bureaucracy (professors, deans, heads of departments, grade appeal committees) read your appeal and make a decision on it. The decision then trickles back to you in the reverse manner. Bureaucracies organize work in specific ways and can be frustrating because they are, by design, inflexible.

In addition to his contributions above, Weber also provided a unique interpretation of the nature of social stratification. As discussed earlier, Marx indicated that there were two social classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. These classes were entirely determined by the relationship that individuals had to the means of production. Max Weber, in contrast, had a more complex understanding of stratification, identifying class and status groups as the two major distributors of power within a society.

However, both Marx and Weber argued that social classes had the tendency to reproduce themselves. This tendency for reproduction is, in fact, the ultimate feature of classes. The concept of status is central to understanding how Weber understood how society was divided into groups with competing interests. Weber defined status as being associated with honour and privilege, independent of class membership. According to Weber, status groups are moral communities, concerned with upholding the privilege of their members in society. Weber also argued that status groups could cut across classes and thus acted to work against class unification. As well, status groups also secure power through “social closure,” whereby they restrict rewards to those who possess certain characteristics (social or physical) (Parkin 1982). Weber indicated that it did not matter which criteria were used to distinguish “outsiders”: “whatever suggests itself most easily is seized upon” (Parkin 1982:102, quoting Weber 1968:1012). The result of this social closure would be to secure resources and advantages at the expense of other groups.


Status groups often limit membership based on credentials. Credentialism is a major theme in Weberian (and neo-Weberian) discussions of the sociology of education. Credentialism refers to the requirement of obtaining specific qualifications for membership to particular groups. More specifically, the actual skills obtained through these credentials are often not explicitly associated with the job’s task. Many entry-level office jobs or jobs in the civil service require new recruits to have a university degree, although the skills required in these jobs may have nothing to do with the degree that individuals have. This is an instance of credentialism. People with many years of practical experience in a given field but who have no degree may be denied jobs or promotions because they have no formal credentials.

Randall Collins is probably the best-known sociologist of education working in a neo-Weberian framework. Like neo-Marxism, neo-Weberian approaches refer to modifications to Weber’s theories that have occurred in the twentieth century forward, but still retain many of the core elements of Weber’s writings. In 1979 he published The Credential Society, a book that continues to be influential in the study of credentialism. He coined the term credential inflation to refer to the decreased value of the expected advantage associated with educational qualifications over time. You may be familiar with the popular notion that a bachelor’s degree is now equivalent to what a high school diploma “used to” be. This is an example of credential inflation—that expected returns to a university degree now are what the high school diploma used to be “worth” a generation ago. See Box 2.3 for examples of studies in the sociology of education drawing on Weberian and neo-Weberian perspectives.

Box 2.3 – Weberian Approaches to the Study of the Sociology of Education

Weber’s (1951) major study of how occupational status groups controlled entry with credentials was done in China, where he described how administrative positions were granted to individuals based upon their knowledge of esoteric Confucian texts, rather than on any skills that were particular to that job (Brown 2001). Weber described how the “testing rituals that gained one admittance to sectarian religious communities and the various forms of economic and political credit they afforded were predecessors to the formalized educational credential requirements for employment in the modern era. Formal educational claims of competence . . . were inseparable from jurisdictional issues (politics) of employment, that is, from position monopolies that were based on substantively unassailable cultural qualifications” (Brown 2001:21). In other words, credentialism, in its many forms and through many processes, has been around in various cultures for some time and serves to reproduce culture and protect status groups.

Taylor (2010) recently examined credential inflation in high school apprenticeships in Canada. She notes that education policy-makers have shown an interest in making the “academic” and “vocational” streams in high school education more comparable by mixing these curricula. The typical trajectory is for teens to attend secondary schools where they can take courses in various subjects (vocational and academic) and receive a diploma upon credit completion. However, Taylor’s data analysis showed that vocational education occupied a vague position within secondary education, particularly when credentialism was being emphasized. Trades training continues to be stigmatized and associated with less intelligent students, despite efforts to integrate the programs. Instead of an integration of these programs, the researcher instead saw a pronounced effect of educational stratification and an “intensification of positional competition” where students tried to further differentiate themselves in the labour market.

Foster (2008) traces the professionalization of medicine in Canada in his analysis of foreign-trained doctors. The medical profession is a status group that requires certain credentials for entry. In Canada, that credential is a medical degree from Canada (or a recognized foreign institution). Foster asks why there is a doctor shortage while there are so many foreign-trained doctors in Canada who are unable to practise. He argues that the professional closure of the medical profession in Canada is regulated so that foreign-born, non-European and non-White practitioners are at a serious disadvantage.

Institutional Theory

John Meyer (along with his associates) is another sociologist of education (currently professor emeritus of sociology at Stanford University) who also questions the overall legitimacy of credentialism. His developments in the theories around sociology of education were largely a reaction to the arguments put forth by the structural functionalists and the Marxist scholars in the 1970s. He has noted that educational systems have expanded worldwide, but that this expansion is not necessarily related to labour market demands. Known as institutional theory, Meyer’s central argument is that the global expansion of education has not been the result of institutional or workforce requirements for this level of training, but rather that of a wider democratic belief in the good of expanding education associated with institutional rituals and ceremonies that make it legitimate, rather than actual practices in the workforce that necessitate such levels of training (Meyer and Rowan 1977, 1978; Meyer, Boli, Thomas, and Ramirez 1997). He has further argued that there is a loose coupling (or a weak association) between the belief in the importance of expanding schooling in democratic societies (reflected in government and political positions) and the actual need for such skills. Loose coupling also exists when educational ideals are expressed (again, perhaps by government agencies or in policies), but the actual ability to attain those skills is rather limited.

Aurini (2006) provides useful illustrations of loose coupling in a Canadian context. She describes how public education in Canada has “loosely coupled by adhering to common institutional scripts (e.g., hiring credentialed staff), by avoiding performance indicators such as standardized tests, and by adopting vague and expansive language to describe organizational activities, such as ‘social development’ and ‘emotional intelligence’” (p. 89). Aurini goes on to argue that Ontario public schools have “recoupled” in recent years by introducing standardized tests in an attempt to demonstrate competency. Her research on private schooling businesses (i.e., private tutoring companies like Kumon or Sylvan Learning Centre) demonstrates that these institutions are examples of loose coupling because they do not make promises of improved grades (which would be a logical coupling of tutoring and educational outcomes), but focus on their services as providing the outcome of increased “skills” and self-esteem.

Symbolic Interaction

Symbolic interaction is a microsociological approach to social theory that emerged in the 1960s and is closely associated with the work of George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). Mead is regarded as a founder of what is known today as social psychology.

Mead and the Development of the Self

Symbolic interaction theory in general asserts that the world is constructed through meanings that individuals attach to social interactions. Mead’s approach to understanding social life was grounded in his understanding of the steps in child development. In 1934, he used the terms “I” and “Me” to refer to the process that individuals go through in understanding themselves in a social world. A child enters the world only understanding the concept of “I”—he or she is mostly unaware of the social world except as it relates to fulfilling his or her own needs. The “I” is controlled by impulses and basic human needs and desires. As a child gets older, the social part of the self—the “Me”—develops. The child learns about other people through the understanding and meaning he or she attributes to gestures. The “Me” develops through interaction with other people and through the social environment. This happens by learning how individuals respond to specific acts and gestures made by the individual. The “Me” is the social self. The “I” is our immediate response to others.

Mead posited that there are two distinct stages that a child goes through in order to realize “Me.” The first is the play stage, where children learn how to take the attitude of a single particular other. For example, children may play house and act as “mommy” or “daddy.” This stage, however, is very limiting because it allows the child to take on only two possible roles. The second stage—where full development of the self occurs—is the game stage, where a child learns to take on the attitude of everyone else. By being able to internalize the roles of several others, he or she is about to function in organized groups in society. By being able to take on various roles at a time, he or she understands the roles and attitudes of multiple people. This understanding of collective attitudes of a society is what Mead referred to as the generalized other. The generalized other keeps individuals connected to society by an understanding of shared meanings; it can be considered a bridge between the individual (micro) and the wider society (macro).

Symbols and Herbert Blumer

In addition to these concepts, Mead emphasized the importance of significant symbols and social life. Significant symbols are generated vocally through the use of language and are embedded in a deep web of meaning. One task of symbolic interaction (SI) is to understand how people attribute meaning to different symbols. This aspect of SI was more fully developed by Herbert Blumer (1900–1987), a student of Mead’s. Blumer (1969) extended Mead’s theory and focused on three basic concepts: meaning, language, and thought. People’s behaviours toward things are based upon the meaning that such things have for them. “Things” can refer to objects, other people, ideas, and the self. The meaning that people attribute to things is derived largely from complex social interactions that individuals have amongst themselves that involve vocal language. There is also no pre-existing objective meaning—meaning is continuously created dependent on particular contexts and is constantly negotiated through thought. In creating meaning, the social actor must be able to take different points of view (i.e., the generalized other).

Box 2.4 – Recent Examples of Symbolic Interaction Theory Used in Education Research

How do ethnic minority students perceive racism in their teachers? This is the question Stevens (2008) asked in his study of Turkish students in a vocational school in Belgium. Stevens was interested in exploring how ethnic minorities in a White, Flemish educational institution defined racism and how particular contexts and interactions between students influenced the students’ perceptions of racism. He found that students made different claims about racism based on perception, which were very specific to students and particular contexts. The students regarded “racist-joking” by teachers to be perceived as racist only if there was a definite racist intent. He also found that students did not evaluate teachers’ ability to teach based on their perceived racism of that teacher; perceived racists were also considered good teachers by some students.

Alternatively, Rafalovich (2005) used an SI approach to examine how children’s behaviour was “medicalized.” Interviewing teachers, parents, and clinicians from two cities in North America (one in Canada, the other in the United States), Rafalovich examined language to reveal how certain childhood behaviours were contextualized by educators as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Typically, the behaviour was escalated to a potential “medical” problem (rather than just an individual behavioural characteristic of being a child, such as “daydreaming”) when teachers started to compare such children with other children in the class. While not denying the existence of ADHD as a medical problem, the author argues that this process often acted to assign meanings to behaviours as a problematic medical condition, instead of typical childhood behaviours. Rafalovich argues from an SI perspective that the meaning of the behaviour of acts such as “daydreaming” are open to interpretation. The author examines how teachers, who are not certified to make official diagnoses, play an important role in the medicalization of children’s behaviours.

Within the sociology of education, symbolic interactionist perspectives are useful for examining how meaning is attributed to language. When drawing upon an SI theoretical framework, researchers are much more likely to reference Blumer or successive theorists in the area (e.g., Denzin 1989), rather than referring to Mead. The general spirit of the research, however, remains the same: examining how meaning is created through the use of language in various social settings. See Box 2.4 for recent examples of research in the sociology of education employing an SI approach.


The term phenomenology is used to refer to a variety of philosophies that span many disciplines. Here, the discussion is based upon phenomenological sociology, which originated with the work of Austrian social scientist Alfred Schütz (1899–1959) in the early 1930s. Schütz’s work was very much influenced by the writings of Max Weber. While he admired Weber’s work, he felt that it had a serious deficit in that it overlooked the meaning that individuals attributed to their actions.

Schütz (1970, 1972) found a way to manage this perceived shortcoming of Weber by borrowing insights from the phenomenological philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). Husserl’s focus as a phenomenological philosopher was in the area of formal structures of consciousness. Schütz’s theory emerged as a blend of Weberian theory with Husserl’s understanding of consciousness (Hamilton 1991). He agreed with Weber that social sciences were different from the natural sciences and therefore required special techniques for the study of the subject (an interpretivist epistemological orientation). He argued that people are continuously trying to make sense of the world and that the social scientists must recognize that we are engaged in a process of trying to make sense of the process of other people trying to make sense. Unlike those he or she is observing, however, social researchers have a “disinterested attitude” (Schütz 1970) because they are concerned with making sense out of what they see as a purely cognitive exercise—not because they have any practical interest in the outcomes of the interactions they are analyzing. Therefore, social scientists must study unintentional consciousness—or the meanings attributed to actions in everyday life. The term “life-world” (Lebenswelt in German) is one closely associated with Schütz’s work and refers to the analytical attention given to meaning in the lived world.

Many sociologists since Schütz have taken up the phenomenological position. Berger and Luckmann further popularized the approach in the late 1960s with the publication of The Social Construction of Reality. More recently, Scanlon (2009) used a Schützian approach to studying the learning experiences of Canadian adult learners. Using this approach, the author was able to understand the complex life-worlds of adult students, and identify specific segments which helped or distracted them from their studies. Through the use of phenomenological sociology, Scanlon was able to produce a nuanced understanding of the complexities of adult education that may enable adult educators to better understand their world, which is of growing importance as more adults return to education for retraining.

Wong and Lohfield (2008) similarly studied the experiences of immigrants with foreign medical doctor credentials who had to re-enter medical school in Canada in order to have their credentials recognized. Using a phenomenological approach, the researchers analyzed interviews they had undertaken with 12 recertifying medical students in Ontario. The researchers’ analysis revealed that the recertifying doctors experienced many barriers to gaining access to retraining. After they were accepted into recertification programs, they then went through periods of loss tied to their professional devaluation in their host country. They also experienced a sense of disorientation during training because they did not know how to act in social situations around their peers, not understanding their “expected roles” as international medical graduates. The participants described various coping strategies that helped them adapt to their situation. Like Scanlon (2009), Wong and Lohfield indicate that information from their study can be used to assist medical educators of the unique needs that recertifying doctors may bring to the medical classroom.

Cultural Reproduction Theory

Cultural reproduction theory is most closely associated with the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002). Bourdieu is one of many theorists associated with what is known as poststructuralism. Poststructuralism is a reaction to structural functionalism, which favours the importance of social structures in explanation of social life over individual action. Poststructuralism is associated mostly with the writings of a fairly diverse set of French philosophers (including Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault) whose only substantial area of agreement was that structuralism was flawed. There is no tidy definition that encompasses all the major theorists associated with poststructuralism—their areas of writing were all very disparate.

Like many social theorists, Bourdieu wrote on a host of topics. Bourdieu was markedly influenced by Marxism, as he believed that social position (class) greatly determined the life chances of people. But he disagreed with the Marxist notion of class and argued that social stratification processes emerged from a variety of difference sources, such as the forms of capital. Bordieu’s writings that pertain specifically to education (1977, 1984, 1986) will be focused on here and deal with the role of cultural reproduction in the education system. Like many theories, it is necessary to understand various terms the theorists in question used.

The Forms of Capital

Many social theorists talk about “capital.” The term capital is borrowed from the discipline of economics and is used to describe tangible assets. The idea of capital is typically associated with money and assets that are easily converted to money. Social theorists have borrowed the term capital and used it to refer to other assets that people possess, such as their social skills and cultural knowledge.

Bourdieu is perhaps most well-known in the field of education for his contributions in the area of cultural capital. It is not easy to define cultural capital, as Bourdieu himself defined the term in several different ways throughout the course of his writings. But the characteristic that his various definitions shared is that cultural capital refers to high status cultural knowledge possessed by individuals. High status cultural knowledge is acquired by experience and familiarity with high culture activities, such as going to the opera, ballet, or theatre as well as the appreciation of art, literature, and classical musical, and theatre attendance. It is theorized that familiarity with these forms of leisure allows individuals to give off signals that give them advantage in high status circles. Bourdieu argued that children with cultural capital were appraised more favourably by their teachers than children who did not possess this form of capital, even though this form of capital did not necessarily impact on how well the child was doing in school. Familiarity with high culture may give a child more sophisticated language skills, for example, which may result in the teacher rating that child more positively.

Cultural capital is one vehicle through which culture is reproduced. By cultural reproduction, it is meant that the high status classes reward individuals who exhibit the traits and possess the knowledge of the upper class, therefore maintaining their power. Having cultural capital gives individuals access to exclusive social circles that those who do not possess cultural capital cannot penetrate. The honing of (or investment in) this capital occurs over the life course. In the case of upper class families, children are groomed to have certain cultural knowledge and mannerisms from a very young age. Children exposed to high culture will adopt the language and knowledge associated with participation in these leisure pursuits, and as a result of this, may give cues to teachers that will result in their preferential treatment in the classroom (Bourdieu 1977). These signals are very similar to what Bernstein (1971) referred to as “language codes.” This is essentially Bourdieu’s argument about how inequality persists in schools, despite efforts to base academic achievement solely on merit and ability.

As well, cultural capital functions by a principle of cumulative advantage (for those who possess it) or cumulative disadvantage (for those who do not have any). While there are types of tastes and styles associated with all social classes or subgroups, only those that are able to potentially further economic and/or social resources are considered cultural capital.

In addition to cultural capital, Bourdieu (1986) identified (at least) two other broad types of capital. The first is economic capital, which refers to characteristics that are quickly and relatively easily converted into money. Educational attainment, job skills, and job experience are included in this type of capital as their transformation into money is a well-understood process. The second type of capital is social capital, which Bourdieu conceptualized as micro-based in networks and individual relationships that potentially led to access to resources.

These forms of capital do not exist in isolation from one another, but are closely linked. Each form of capital is convertible into another form. Economic capital is at the root of all capitals such that economic reward can be derived from both social and cultural capital. For example, signals of cultural knowledge (such as the ability to speak in an “educated manner”) are rewarded in the classroom, which is easily converted into a type of economic capital—educational attainment.

As Bourdieu was a poststructuralist, his theoretical positionings were somewhat in response to structuralism. Bourdieu was not content to advocate a theory according to which individuals were either bound by social structures or where individual agency was prioritized. His solution to the structure/agency problem was the habitus. The habitus can be understood as embodied social structure—that piece of social structure that we all carry around in our heads, and which largely regulates our actions. The habitus guides our behaviours, our dispositions, and our tastes. It originates from our lived experience of class and the social structures in which we have become familiarized and socialized. Our decisions may be our own decisions, but they are greatly guided and restricted by the social structure that exists within each of us (see Figure 2.3).

Field is another major concept used by Bourdieu. Field refers to social settings in which individuals and their stocks of capital are located. Fields are important because it is only within these contexts that we can understand how the rules of the field interact with individuals’ “capitals” and their habitus to produce specific outcomes.


Figure 2.3 Agency, Structure, and Bourdieu’s Concept of Habitus

Box 2.5 – Applying Bourdieu’s Theory to the Study of Education

Lehmann (2009) used Bourdieu’s ideas of cultural capital and habitus to explore how first-generation university students from working class backgrounds integrated into the culture of the university. Being “first generation,” these individuals were the first persons from their families to enter university. Bourdieu himself argued that universities (especially elite ones) are places where the possession of cultural capital is particularly important for success. Students from working class backgrounds, however, are at a disadvantage because they typically do not possess much cultural capital. Lehmann was interested to see how these individuals coped with being university students—the university being a field that was mismatched to their class, and stocks of capital. Lehmann conducted qualitative interviews with 55 first-generation students at a large university in Ontario at two points: (1) at the beginning of their studies in their first year, and (2) at the beginning of their second year. Lehmann found that students compensated for their deficiencies in cultural capital by focusing on aspects of their social class background that they felt gave them an advantage. The habitus of the working class students was characterized by a strong work ethic, maturity, and independence.

Taylor and Mackay (2008) studied the creation of alternative programs within the Edmonton Public School Board. The EPSB is well-known for its policies on school choice and alternatives, and combined with provincial policies from the 1970s, much flexibility has existed for the creation of alternative programs. The authors focus on the creation of three alternative programs between 1973 and 1996: a Cree program, a fine arts program, and a Christian program. The authors note that alternative programs are tied to fields that are stratified by race and class. They noted that some proponents of the different schools found it easier to access social and cultural capital to exert influence than others. Advocates for the Cree school had to find individuals with cultural capital (university professors) to back them in order to be considered legitimate, while advocates for the Christian school had individuals with vast stocks of economic, social, and cultural capital in the core of their membership.

The school setting is an example of a field (Bourdieu and Wacquant 2002). Students bring their social, cultural, and economic capital and their habitus to this field, and the power relations within this field (teachers, principals) interact with them to bring about certain outcomes. Getting good grades is valued in the educational field, but a student’s cultural capital may impact on his or her grades because teachers have been found to reward students who possess cultural capital more favourably than students who do not (Bourdieu and Wacquant 2002). See Box 2.5 for how Canadian researchers have used Bourdieu’s framework in education research.

Social Capital Approaches

While Bourdieu discusses multiple forms of capital, other theorists have focused solely on the important role that social capital plays in the educational outcomes of young people. Most notable among these theorists is James Coleman (1946–1995), who found that children who attended Catholic and private high schools (both of which are privately funded in the United States) had a much lower dropout rate than those who went to public schools, even when parental socioeconomic characteristics were taken into consideration. Coleman (1988) argued that it was the social capital in the students’ communities and families that accounted for this difference, arguing that social ties were much stronger among those who went to Catholic and private high schools. Coleman theorized that children’s educational achievement was driven by strong parental interest, which had additional effects that extended into the community. Additionally, strong bonds between parents and children, and among extended family, led to intergenerational closure which resulted in informal social control and monitoring of children.

In contrast to Bourdieu, Coleman was a theorist mostly influenced by rational choice theory—the idea that people’s actions are the result of decisions based on reason. Coleman argued that social capital was not simply a possession of individuals but that it was a public good whose benefits may be received not only by those who actively contribute to it, but also by all members of the social structure. Being active in a parent–teacher association may, for example, benefit an individual’s child, but it will also serve to strengthen the ties within the community, which has positive effects for all members.

Field (2003:24) documents how Coleman’s later definition of social capital is explicated almost exclusively in terms of children’s development. The ties that develop in a community through the civic engagement of parents have the “spillover” effect of not only improving the educational attainment of children, but also ensuring their healthy cognitive development. Coleman (1988) asserted that social capital is something that individuals can possess but that it also serves to reinforce the social structure. However, Coleman’s rational choice background meant that he interpreted the “public good” aspect act of investing in social structures not as an intended consequence of individuals’ actions, but rather as an “unintended consequence of their pursuit of self-interest” (Field 2003:25).

Coleman also contrasts with Bourdieu in his understanding of the holders of social capital and the good that it served. While Bourdieu maintained that social capital was held by the privileged elite, Coleman’s conceptualization of social capital involves all members of the social structure. Field also indicates that Coleman’s view is

. . . naively optimistic; as a public good, social capital is almost entirely benign in its functions, providing a set of norms and sanctions that allow individuals to co-operate for mutual advantage, and with little or no “dark side.” Bourdieu’s usage of the concept, by contrast, virtually allows only for a dark side for the oppressed and a bright side for the privileged. (2003:26)

The third major theorist associated with social capital is Robert Putnam (b. 1941). To Putnam, “social capital refers to connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” (2000:19). In this view, social capital is more a characteristic of societies than individuals (Portes 1998). Putnam emphasized membership to voluntary organizations as key indicators of social capital in communities, with the steady decline since the 1960s as proof that social capital is on the decline in the United States.

Putnam identified two different types of social capital: bonding capital and bridging capital. Bonding capital is considered “exclusive” in the sense that it occurs within established groups in order to reinforce group solidarity, whereas bridging capital is “inclusive” in that it is used for information diffusion and linkage to other groups. Bonding capital is useful for reinforcing group solidarity and identity, while bridging capital is useful for diffusion of information and network expansion (Putnam 2000:22–23).

While Putnam regarded social capital as a characteristic that is contingent upon the social and economic specificities of individual societies, Field (2003) notes that Putnam has been criticized for failing to clearly account for the processes underlying the creation and maintenance of social capital in communities. Like Coleman, Putnam’s understanding of social capital is rather celebratory of “the good old days,” with little consideration of the potentially negative aspects of social capital. Both Coleman and Putnam regard social capital as a remedy for various social problems in American cities. See Box 2.6 for an example of how social capital theory has been used to study university education in Canada.

Box 2.6 – Immigrants and the Role of Social Capital in University Education

Abada and Tenkorang (2009) were interested in social capital’s impact on the pursuit of university education among immigrants in Canada. Particularly, they wanted to examine how different ethnic groups used different forms of social capital to their advantage. Social capital theorists tend to discuss social capital in very broad terms, and therefore there are a lot of different ways of understanding what social capital actually is. Coleman emphasized the role of the family in providing social support while Putnam focused on civic engagement (ties to the community). Abada and Tenkorang looked at the role of family characteristics (including how much of a sense of “family belonging” individuals had), the extent to which individuals participated in community events, and how much trust they had for family members, people in their neighbourhood, and people in their workplace. Abada and Tenkorang also argued that language usage among friends could be thought of as social capital, as speaking in one’s mother tongue may be understood as maintaining ties among members of ethnic groups.

Abada and Tenkorang found that intergenerational relations in the family facilitated the pursuit of post-secondary education among immigrants, supporting Coleman’s idea for the importance of intergenerational closure (i.e., parents interacting with parents of other children) on achievement. In terms of minority language retention, however, the researchers found that this can actually inhibit academic achievement, suggesting that while it may have positive effects in connecting individuals to their communities, it may also prevent them from making connections with external social networks that lead to a larger variety of opportunities. The researchers also found that different aspects of social capital mattered more to different ethnic groups. In particular, trust was found to be much more important to the success of Black youth compared to the other ethnic groups examined. The researchers suggest that a chronic misunderstanding of this group’s culture by the education system has potentially led to a greater mistrust of school authorities, which may have made trust a key issue among Black youth.

Micro/Meso/Macro Aspects of Social Capital

Social capital, as described above, is unique in that it is one of the few concepts associated with sociology of education that is explicitly discussed in terms of its micro, meso, and macro aspects (see Figure 2.4). Bourdieu discusses social capital as a characteristic that people have—their connections and networks. This is a micro-social approach to social capital. Putnam, on the other hand, speaks of social capital as it being a property of societies—a very macrosocial approach. He also suggests the idea of bridging capital, which connects groups to each other—which is a mesosocial idea. Coleman, in contrast, speaks of social capital that emerges out of individual actions (e.g., the micro acts of parents) that serves to create closer-knit communities (a macro effect). To Coleman (1987), the ability of individual effects to serve the public group was evidence of a micro–macro linkage.


At the macro level, society, there are collective values. At the meso level, community, there are intracommunity networks. At the micro level, individual, there are individual ties.
Figure 2.4 The Micro, Meso, and Macro Levels of Social Capital Theory

Social Mobility Approaches

Social mobility approaches within the sociology of education examine how social class positions influence the educational achievement and attainment of individuals. Social mobility refers to the ability of individuals to move from one social class to another. Much previous research has shown that social class background matters for educational achievement and attainment—this is not news. But how researchers approach this process does indeed vary considerably. Below, the approaches of Raymond Boudon and John Goldthorpe are considered.

French sociologist Raymond Boudon (b. 1934) identified what he called primary and secondary effects of class differentials on educational attainment (Boudon 1973). Primary effects are differences between classes and educational attainment that relate directly to academic performance. In other words, children from working-class families doing worse on standardized tests than their peers in the higher social classes would be considered a primary effect. Primary effects are dependent on characteristics of the family of origin, such as wealth, material conditions, and socialization.

Secondary effects, however, refer to the difference between the classes and educational attainment that relate to educational choices irrespective of educational performance. In a very simplistic example, a secondary effect would be if two individuals who were doing equally well at school were from opposite social classes and the working-class student decided to pursue an apprenticeship in the trades and the middle- or upper-class student decided to go to university. Unlike primary effects, secondary effects are entirely dependent upon choices made by individuals and their families. In a similar vein, many researchers have found that even when children from the working class perform at the same levels as middle- and upper-class children, they tend to have less ambitious educational goals (Jackson, Erikson, Goldthorpe, and Yaish 2007).

One assumption underlying the idea of secondary effects in Boudon’s theory is that children from the lower social classes have limited ambitions because they are socialized that way. Boudon (1981) argued that middle-class families had to encourage their own children to aspire to higher levels in order to simply maintain their status. Working-class children, however, may not be pushed as hard because the requirements to maintain the same social class is necessarily lower than for the middle classes. Researchers from around the world have asked how relevant primary and secondary effects are on the academic achievement of children. Nash (2005) found that in Canada, the secondary effects were found among high school students, showing that students who had high aspirations were likely to have higher grades and come from higher social origins. Nash also found, however, that these secondary effects on school achievement were relatively minor compared to overall primary effects.

Dutch researchers (Kloosterman, Ruiter, de Graaf, and Kraaykamp 2009) have also explored how primary and secondary effects impact on the transition to post-secondary education (i.e., beyond high school). They also explored whether secondary effects had diminished over time, given the emphasis placed on the importance of post-secondary credentials in Dutch culture. The authors found that in Dutch society, the importance of primary effects in determining educational inequality had grown between 1965 and 1999.

Similarly, Swedish (Erikson 2007) and British (Jackson et al. 2007) research has also found that the impact of primary effects on the transition to post-secondary education has significantly increased over time. In the Netherlands and Sweden, the lessened effect of secondary effects (and increase of primary effects) from the late 1960s to the 1990s were at a similar level, while in Britain the effect of primary characteristics was much greater. Overall, this suggests that cross-nationally, individual social backgrounds are at the root of educational inequality and that aspirations play a lesser, yet still important, role.

Goldthorpe and Associates

John Goldthorpe (b. 1935) changed British sociology in the 1970s when he and his colleagues embarked on an extensive study of social mobility in the UK. Conventional research in this vein focuses on intergenerational mobility between the social class positions. Social class positions are determined by characteristics of their occupations (or their fathers’ occupation). Goldthorpe and his colleagues are best known for their creation of this way of measuring and understanding social class, an idea that is more engrained in British culture—but is no less important in determining the life chances of individuals in Canada.

More recently, Goldthorpe (1996) and colleagues (Breen and Goldthorpe 1997) have been examining the role of social class and educational attainment in an approach that is inspired by Boudon’s. Specifically, Goldthorpe is interested in why individuals tend to stay in the same social class, despite popular belief that upward mobility is possible to anyone who desires it. Breen and Goldthorpe (1997) proposed a formal rational action theory of educational differentials that states that the differences we observe in educational attainment by social class is due to rational decisions made by individuals. Breen and Goldthorpe acknowledge that the secondary effects of social class do play an important role in explaining educational differentials by class, but strongly reject that this is due to influences of a “(sub)cultural kind . . . operating through class differences in values, norms or beliefs regarding education or through more obscure ‘subintentional’ pro-cesses” (p. 278). Rather, they argue, these differences come about through individuals rationally weighing the costs and benefits associated with pursuing additional education. People engage in a process of considering how likely they are to succeed at additional schooling, the associated tuition fees, the anticipated payoffs and time investments, and weigh these against potential alternatives. And all these factors themselves vary according to a person’s social class position. For example, someone from a working class background may decide it is simply not worth it to invest all the time and effort into a university degree when they will be saddled with the responsibility of repaying a huge student debt when they are done. Recent Canadian research by Caro, McDonald, and Willms (2009) has considered this theoretical position when examining the academic achievement of children in Canada. The authors found a gap between academic achievement and social class that increasingly widened as children got older.

Bronfenbrenner and Ecological Systems Theory

Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917–2005) was the founder of ecological systems theory. As an educational psychologist, Bronfenbrenner made numerous contributions to American education policy during his life. Most significantly, he was co-founder of the Head Start program in the United States. Head Start began in 1965 as a set of educational, nutritional, health, and parental involvement intervention programs aimed at low-income children in the United States.3 These programs stem from Bronfenbrenner’s theory about the nature of child development and how children are profoundly affected by various aspects of their environment. His ecological systems theory asserts that child outcomes are the results of the many reciprocal effects between the child and his or her environment. For example, how children are treated by parents and by their peers has a strong influence on their development. Children who are mistreated by their parents and bullied by their peers will have less favourable developmental outcomes than those who are raised in a positive and nurturing environment and get along well with other children.

The environment in which the child is raised has profound impacts on their outcomes as human beings in society. This is not limited, however, to just interactions with parents, peers, teachers, and family members. Bronfenbrenner theorized that a child’s environment had five distinct elements which interacted together and all had the potential to impact on a child’s development: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystem. The micro, macro, and mesosystems relate very closely to the way microlevel, mesolevel, and macrolevel were defined earlier in this chapter. Microsystems refer to the immediate setting in which the individual lives and his or her individual experiences with family members, caregivers, friends, teachers, and others. The biological makeup of the child (including temperament) is also included in the microsystem. The mesosystem refers to how various microsystems connect to one another; so for example, mesosystems are concerned with how children’s interactions with their parents may carry over into how they interact with their teachers. The exosystem level contains people and places with which the child may not be directly involved yet still be impacted by. A child may not have any direct interaction with a parent’s workplace, but the outcomes of the interactions that occur there will have an impact on him or her. Parental job stress or job loss will definitely impact the child in terms of the parent’s disposition in the home (in the case of job stress) or the economic resources he or she can provide (in the case of job loss). Macrosystems concern the larger environment in which children live—urban or rural, developed or underdeveloped, democratic or non-democratic, multicultural or not, for example. The final system, the chronosystem, relates to the socio-historical changes and major events that influence the world. For example, the chronosystem is vastly different for people during a time of war than during a time of peace. The way that particular ethnicities are regarded during specific historical times is also a chronosystem feature. For example, the way that Aboriginals in Canada have been treated historically in Canada is part of the larger chronosystem of how they experience social life. How Muslims are regarded in post–September 11 North America is also part of the chronosystem.

As you can see, elements of all these systems work together to shape the development of children, and many of them are beyond the control of the parent. This theory recognizes that while parents have an important role in shaping the lives of their children, there are bigger, external forces over which they have no control, but which similarly impact on their child’s development. Figure 2.5 illustrates how these systems all relate to each other and different characteristics that comprise each system.


5 Circles increasing in size with the Individual Child in the centre. The remaining circles, from inside to outside, are: microsystem with mesosytem, exosystem, macrosystem, and the final, largest circle being chronosystem. The various groups and interactions from this section are shown visually.
Figure 2.5 Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model
Source: Adapted from Urie Bronfenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1979).

The Healthy Families Project in Canada is an example of a policy that is based upon theoretical assertions made by ecological systems theory. The Healthy Families Project was an intervention that involved extensive home visitation to families who had children deemed to be at very high risk for future criminal behaviour.4 The project was carried out in five test sites across the country between 2001 and 2004: three in Edmonton, one in Whitehorse, and one in Charlottetown. The goal of such interventions from an ecological systems perspective is to improve the environmental contexts of children, where possible, mostly targeted at improving parenting techniques. In terms of the effectiveness of the program, results indicated noticeable benefits of the intervention. In Prince Edward Island, for example, an increase in parents’ knowledge of child development and their child’s temperament were noted, although the intervention was not successful at improving family function overall (Elnitsky et al. 2003). They also found that the intervention was associated with a sharp drop in child welfare involvement, and was more effective overall with younger first-time parents.

Feminist Approaches

Feminist theory within the sociology of education is concerned with how gender produces differences in education, whether it concerns access to education, treatment in the classroom, achievement, or learning processes. Feminist theory and feminism in general has undergone tremendous shifts since its beginning in the late nineteenth century compared to how it is popularly understood in academic research today. There are three general “waves” that are associated with feminism (Gaskell 2009). First wave feminism is associated with the women’s rights and suffrage movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The concern of feminists of this generation was to achieve equal rights to men.

Second wave feminism, which occurred in the 1960s and extended into the early 1990s, focused on women’s equality, financial independence, women’s access to work, and sexual harassment. An important theoretical orientation that developed during this time period was standpoint theory, which is associated with the work of prominent Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith. Among her contributions to sociology, Smith is known for feminist standpoint theory, which calls for a sociology from the standpoint of women. Standpoint theory focuses on the settings, social relations, and activities of women that are their own lived realities. Unlike other feminist approaches that emphasize how sex roles shape the domination of women, standpoint theory focuses on how knowledge plays a central role in social domination of women and how a dearth of women’s voices in the construction of this knowledge contributes to oppression. In Mothering for Schooling, Griffith and Smith (2005) used a similar approach to show how mothers’ work in getting children ready for school, volunteering at schools, and helping with homework is necessary for the school system to function, but it also serves to hinder women in working for income. The authors show how this gendered labour is closely tied to the success or failure of children at school and how the school system depends on this invisible and uncompensated labour.

Having emerged in the early 1990s, third wave feminism is what is most commonly (but not exclusively) associated with feminist approaches in research today. Also known as critical feminism, third wave feminism is largely a response to the White middle-class focus of second wave feminism. Not only concerned with gender, third wave feminist scholarship also focuses on the intersection of race and class in producing inequality.

Box 2.7 – Examples of How Feminist Researchers Approach the Sociology of Education

Zine (2008) uses a feminist approach to study identity among Muslim girls at an Islamic school in Toronto. She notes how these girls construct a gendered and religious identity “within and against the dominant patriarchal discourses promoted in Islamic schools” (p. 35). Zine examines how the girls’ identities have been shaped by resisting the dominant Islamophobic discourses prevalent in mainstream society as well as the patriarchal discourses in parts of the Muslim community. The author highlights how these girls have multiple discourses of oppression that they resist when forming their identities.

Currie, Kelly, and Pomerantz (2007) studied teenage girls at a high school in Vancouver to illustrate how a discourse of “meanness” was used to maintain covert forms of power. Teenage girls reported how popularity was maintained through the use of relational aggression, which refers to subtle forms of aggression that are couched in “mean” gossip creation, “backstabbing,” being given the “silent treatment,” and being ridiculed and called names. The authors found that the girls described myriad unspoken rules about what constituted the right type of femininity, which involved interactions with boys and manners of dress. The authors stressed that this type of aggression is usually absent from discussion of girls’ aggression because it embedded in girls’ identities and is often invisible to teachers.


Often dubbed postmodern feminism, the critical feminist scholarship of third wave feminism frequently scrutinizes the meaning surrounding gender and how power relations play themselves out in subtle ways. The work included under critical feminist or postmodern studies in the sociology of education is incredibly varied. There is no single theory or theorist that can be associated with this perspective. Other feminist scholars (Dillabough and Acker 2008; McNay 2000) have adapted the work of major theorists, such as Bourdieu, so that they are more overtly focused on issues of gender. Many self-identified postmodern feminists draw on the work of Michel Foucault, a theorist associated with discourse analysis (and poststructuralism). Discourse refers to the way that a certain topic is talked about—the words, images, and emotions that are used when talking about something. Postmodern feminists who use a Foucauldian approach would be interested in examining how language is used to maintain gendered power relationships. Many critical feminist scholars draw upon the work of several theorists to fine-tune their particular theoretical orientation. Box 2.7 provides some examples of some recent Canadian critical feminist scholarship in the sociology of education.

Critical Race Theory

As suggested by the name, critical race theories put race at the centre of analysis, particularly when analyzing educational disadvantage. Critical race theory (CRT) has its roots in legal scholarship from the United States. Examination of the racialized nature of the law has been extended to examine how race is embedded in various aspects of social life, including education (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995; Tate 1997). Critical race theorists assert that inequalities experienced in education cannot be explained solely by theories of class or gender—that it is also race and the experience of being racialized that contributes to stratification of many aspects of social life, including education. In general, critical race theorists do not assert that race is the only thing that matters, but that race intersects with many other important factors that determine life chances, like class and gender. Like their predecessors studying law, critical race theorists examining education emerged from studying African Americans and school achievement. Acknowledging that gender and race do account for many differences observed in educational attainment, it still remained a fact that middle class African-Americans had significantly lower academic achievement than White Americans (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995).

Discourses and Cultural Hegemony

Critical race theory is not simply about overt racism. Scholars and educators—and most people in general—like to view themselves as nonracist. Critical race theorists examine the often very subtle ways that racism plays itself out in various social structures. In fact, they point to how racism has become “normal” in society (Ladson-Billings 1998). Their mandate is not simply to highlight race as a topic of study, but also to point to how traditional methods, texts, and paradigms, combined with race and class, contribute to discourses which impact upon communities of colour (Solorzano, Ceja, and Yosso 2000). There are dominant discourses in Canadian society which, critical race theorists argue, favour White culture. A very simple example is to look at how the topic of “family” is discussed in classrooms. A curriculum that is based upon North American “White” culture may assume that “family” means two parents (a male and a female) and their children. When teachers are discussing “the family,” this may be what they are assuming everyone understands and experiences in their home life. If, however, a child comes from a different background where “family” constitutes an extended family or even an entire community, he or she would be subject to a dominant discourse that does not reflect his or her lived reality. See Box 2.8 for an additional example of how discursive practices influence curriculum.

Box 2.8 – Canada the Redeemer: Discourse and the Understanding of Canadian History

Schick and St. Denis (2005) describe how curriculum is a major discourse through which White privilege is maintained. Drawing on the term “Canada the Redeemer,” coined by Roman and Stanley in 1997, they argue that curriculum has normalized Whiteness by creating a national mythology around the history of Canada. In particular, the discourse that is perpetuated is one that characterizes Canada as being “fair.”  The intentionally ironic phrase “Canada the Redeemer” refers to the discourse that surrounds Canadian culture as being perhaps a “little bit racist” but “nowhere as bad as the United States,” and that Canada “saves” people from racism and provides a safe haven. The mainstream discourse of Canadian culture tends to emphasize that Canada is a peaceful and multicultural society and that early pioneers’ hardships and toil tamed the land into what we enjoy today. Shick and St. Denis argue that this discourse favours a particular “White” perspective and reveals only a very specific view of how Canada originated—one that is highly debatable, particularly if the perspective of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples are taken into account.

Schick and St. Denis argue that Whiteness as the dominant cultural reference is embedded in everyday taken-for-granted “knowledge”—so much so that it in effect becomes invisible and permeates all aspects of curriculum. White students may believe that hard work and meritocracy allowed their ancestors to earn their place in society, but this fails to acknowledge that racist policies limiting Aboriginal education actually enabled the success of White students. Canadian history curriculum has traditionally taught that Canada was particularly generous to White European settlers, “giving away” land to these newcomers. Such a historical discourse fails to recognize that this free land was originally taken by violent and coercive means from the original inhabitants. The authors, speaking about the discourse surrounding Canada’s national identity, state that “one point of pride about how Canada is different from the United States depends on the construction of an egalitarian, not racist, national self-image. There is a great deal at stake in keeping this mythology intact” (p. 308). The authors suggest that it is necessary that anti-racist pedagogies are promoted within the classroom. These ways of teaching students specifically address the taken-for-granted, day-to-day practices of how White identities are produced and maintained. Antiracist pedagogies specifically confront the notion of “White culture” being normative and “natural” and reconceptualize these assumptions as being a major force in the perpetuation of subtle forms of racism.


The idea of cultural power also relates back to Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci, who popularized the term hegemony (Gramsci, Hoare, and Smith 1971). While Gramsci himself was associated with Marxism, aspects of his writings on power relationships have been useful for critical race theorists and feminist scholars alike. Cultural hegemony refers to popular beliefs and values in a culture that reflect the ideology of powerful members of society. In turn, these values are used to legitimate existing social structures and relationships. It is a form of power used by one group over another, largely by consensus. The widely accepted definition of the family described above would fit into this category of cultural hegemony in Canada. Cultural hegemony also exists, to a much larger extent, in the dominance of “Whiteness” and White values in much of Canadian society. Pidgeon (2008) has written about how the typical Canadian definition of “success” in post-secondary education refers to finishing a program and making financial gains as a result. Success, however, for Aboriginal students means something much more complex. According to Pidgeon, “Success in university for many Aboriginal nations means more than matriculating through prescribed curriculum to graduation. The benefits of university-trained Indigenous peoples extend beyond financial outcomes. Higher education is valued for capacity building within Aboriginal nations toward their goals of self-government and self-determination. Higher education is also connected to empowerment of self and community, decolonization and self-determination” (2008:340). The author argues that counter-hegemonic discourses around the notion of success must be entertained by university officials to improve Aboriginal student retention.


Racialization is the process by which various groups are differentially organized in the social order (Dei 2009). These groups exist within hierarchies of power that value the identity and characteristics of one group over all others. According to CRT, “Whiteness” and the culture surrounding Whites is prioritized in our culture, and various social institutions, including those responsible for education, embrace those values (whether they acknowledge it or not) which place racialized individuals at an inherent disadvantage. White privilege is embedded in a discursive practice that legitimizes hierarchies that are based on race (Schick and St. Denis 2005). An important task for teachers, students, administrators, and researchers is to question how the privilege associated with Whiteness keeps existing power positions in place. See Box 2.9 for additional discussion of Whiteness.

If White culture is understood as the “norm,” and the practices and beliefs from this culture are embedded in the curriculum of our places of education, students from non-White backgrounds will be at a disadvantage in variety of ways. First, their own cultural knowledge and practices are, by default, considered illegitimate at worst, or “weird” or “exotic” at best. Second, they are made to adapt to White culture in order to succeed. In the words of Ladson-Billings (1998:18), they are made to follow a curriculum based upon a “White supremacist master script.” Third, teaching strategies developed from the dominant culture may fail with racialized students, thus labelling such students as “high risk.”

Box 2.9 – What Is Meant by “Whiteness”?

Critical race theorists speak a lot about “Whiteness.” But what is Whiteness? Is it appearance? is it a race? or a culture? How should we understand Whiteness? Within CRT, Whiteness refers to people who are phenotypically (i.e., appear as) Caucasian and have experienced the socialization of living in a culture where they are the dominant group. Whiteness implies the general shared value and cultural experiences of Caucasians in Canada as the dominant group. Their values and ways of thinking are the default for “normal” in Canadian society and for all societies where colonialism has resulted in racial inequality. In a qualitative study of White student teachers, Solomon, Portelli, Daniel, and Campbell (2005) illustrate how they resisted and downplayed their own racial identities. They tended to argue that their successes in life were due to merit and hard work alone and that White privilege did not exist in Canadian society. Many voiced hostility at the suggestion that their achievements were the outcome of anything but their own diligence. It is not surprising that many student teachers reacted to the suggestion that they possessed “White privilege” (and that this permeated into areas of their lives and clouded their judgment) with some degree of hostility. Indeed, anti-racist educators have identified this as an uncomfortable yet necessary stage of anti-racist pedagogy (McIntyre 1997; Schick and St. Denis 2005; Solomon et al. 2005).

Millington, Vertinsky, Boyle, and Wilson (2008) used a critical race approach in their examination of Chinese-Canadian masculinities and physical education (PE) curriculum in Vancouver, British Columbia. The authors examined how, historically, Chinese boys are stereotyped as “unmanly” by White boys, as they are characterized as studious and passive. The authors note how this specific definition of masculinity prevailed in a Vancouver high school. This White, middle-class definition of masculinity was realized through the rewarding of physically aggressive performances in PE class by these males and by their physical and verbal intimidation of the Chinese-Canadian males. The researchers noted how the types of games played in the PE curriculum—like football and dodgeball—rewarded this kind of behaviour, while marginalizing the Chinese-Canadian boys. Furthermore, the teachers did not see these unfolding dynamics as acts of racism, although they had a key role in facilitating such hegemonic masculinities.

In contrast, Levine-Rasky (2008) uses CRT in an analysis of a neighbourhood school referred to as Pinecrest, within a large Canadian city. From the 1960s to the late 1980s, the school that served a particular area was comprised of a relatively homogenous student body which reflected the make-up of the neighbourhood—Jewish from a high socioeconomic background. Starting in the 1990s, a neighbouring community that was made up largely of new immigrants was beginning to grow. As a result, children from the neighbouring community started attending Pinecrest, eventually resulting in a stark shift in the demographic of the school. Levine-Rasky spoke to parents in the neighbourhood, many of whom themselves attended Pinecrest as children, to see if they sent their own children there. Nearly half of their own children who were entitled to attend Pinecrest (due to the catchment area) did not. The author explored the reasons these parents had for sending their children elsewhere and found that many of these parents were engaged in maintaining their “Whiteness” and “middle-classness.” Rather than being overtly racist or ethnocentric, the parents often indicated their reservations stemmed from their belief that immigrant children may somehow disrupt the educational process by requiring disproportionate attention or having parents who did not understand the value of education.

An important extension of critical race theory is anti-racist pedagogy, which refers to classroom techniques and curricular approaches that address racialization. This will be covered in Chapter 5.

Chapter Summary

In this chapter, several theoretical perspectives have been described, all of which have application to the study of the sociology of education. The chapter began by introducing theoretical terminology that is embedded within many theoretical perspectives: macro-social theory, microsocial theory, mesosocial theory, middle range theory, agency/structure, and ontology and epistemology. The first theoretical perspective that was discussed was structural functionalism, which is associated with the work of Émile Durkheim, and later, Talcott Parsons. The critical perspective of Karl Marx, which emphasizes the idea of social class and conflict between classes, and those who were influenced by Marxist theory (neo-Marxists) were then discussed, as was the linkage between Marxism and critical pedagogy. The next classical theorist considered was Max Weber, as well as the neo-Weberians, who emphasized the idea of credentialism within the sociology of education.

Meyer’s institutional theory was next introduced, which juxtaposes the democratic entitlement to education with the “loose coupling” that such education actually serves in the job market. The microsocial approaches of symbolic interaction and phenomenology were then briefly addressed. Next, theories focused on the reproduction of culture were considered. Social capital was also introduced, and it was shown that social capital can be understood as macro-, meso-, and microtheoretical theoretical concept. Theorists that regard education as a major component of social mobility were then discussed, with emphasis placed on the notion of “primary” and “secondary” effects.

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory understood the process of child development (and hence the role of education) as being influenced from several spheres (i.e., systems) that interacted with each other to contribute to children’s life chances. The chapter ended with newer contributions from feminist and critical race theorists, who prioritize gender and race in their understanding of educational processes and practices in Canada.

Some approaches, like functionalism and Marxism/neo-Marxism, described the overarching nature of society, while others like symbolic interaction and phenomenology emphasized that subjective meaning was core to understanding social processes. Other theories occupied a middle range, focusing only on trying to explain distinct aspects of social life, like the social mobility approaches and their attention to the relationship between social class and educational attainment. Each theoretical perspective has its own strengths and weaknesses and the prominence of many fades as new theories develop.

When considering a particular topic area in the sociology of education, one should think about the particular theoretical perspective(s) that would be appropriate to explore it. Some will be more fitting than others. An interest in how students experience racism in the classroom, for example, is probably best addressed through the use of critical race theory while structural functionalism probably will not be helpful here. Questions around how society reproduces itself through subtle means can be approached from the perspective of the cultural and social reproduction theories that have been presented—but institutional theory or symbolic interaction probably will not be much help. A researcher must also consider his or her own beliefs about the nature of reality. What is given priority, agency or structure? What bridges the two? In terms of ontology, is meaning all essentially subjective, or is it that scientists have the task of uncovering objective facts? These are not at all easy issues to resolve and have engaged philosophers and social theorists for centuries. But all these preconceptions influence what social theories will make their way into sociology of education research.

Review Questions

1. Define what is meant by macrosocial, microsocial, mesosocial, and middle-range theories.

2. Explain why ontology, epistemology, agency, and structure are important underlying concepts within the theories of the sociology of education.

3. What is meant by structural functionalism? Who are two major theorists associated with this approach and what is the difference between their approaches?

4. Define Marxism in terms of how it relates to the sociology of education. What is neo-Marxism? Who are some key neo-Marxists within the sociology of education and what are their contributions?

5. What are Weber’s main contributions to the sociology of education? What major terms have neo-Weberians added to discussions in sociology of education?

6. Define symbolic interactionism. How is it different from phenomenology?

7. According to cultural reproduction theory and social mobility approaches, what are the underlying forces that shape educational outcomes?

8. Identify and define the “systems” within ecological systems theory and how they relate to one another.

9. What is meant by “waves” of feminism? What is meant by postmodern feminism?

10. According to critical race theory, what is meant by racialization? What is meant by “Whiteness”?


  • Communicate where five theorists discussed in this chapter fit on the spectrum. Explain the rationale behind your placements.
  • How are Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and Boudon’s idea of secondary effects similar and how are they different?
  • How is “Whiteness,” as described by critical race theorists, also related to habitus and to cultural hegemony?
  • Select three theorists and explain how they attempt to link agency and structure.
  • How would Marx, Bourdieu, Boudon, and Goldthorpe explain the differences behind educational attainment by social class?
  • Look on the internet for information about intervention programs that have been informed by ecological systems theory, including the programs mentioned in the chapter. What were the programs? How were they informed by ecological systems theory? Were they effective?
  • Look up the phrase “the myth of meritocracy.” What does it mean? Where does it come from? How can it be applied to the theories that have been discussed in this chapter?
  • What topics would you be interested in studying in the sociology of education? What theoretical position(s) would be most appealing to your interests and why? Discuss in groups.
  • Using sociological abstracts through e-resources in your university or college library, find a recent journal article on education that considers more than one theoretical approach. Which theories does the author(s) use? Which aspects of the theories are considered? Were the theories supported by findings? Why or why not?
  • Think about your experiences in the education system up to this point. From the perspective of a postmodern feminist or critical race theorist, can you identify any instances of cultural hegemony? Have you experienced any curriculum, for example, that you recognize as promoting a hegemonic view, whether it be gendered and/or racist?

Key Terms


bonding capital

bridging capital



correspondence principle

credential inflation


critical race theory (CRT)

cultural capital

cultural hegemony

cultural reproduction

ecological systems theory

economic capital



feminist standpoint theory

hidden curriculum

institutional theory


macrosocial theory


mesosocial theory


microsocial theory


middle-range theory




postmodern feminism


primary effects



resistance theory

secondary effects

social capital

social mobility

state ideological apparatus


status groups

structural functionalism


symbolic interaction theory


A Historical Overview of Education in Canada

Source: “Raleigh Hills School 1912” by Beaverton Historical Society is licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to:

  1. Identify major education-related historical events in Quebec and Ontario.
  2. Explain how tensions between the French/Catholics and English/Protestants influenced the development of education in Quebec and Ontario.
  3. Explain how the British North America Act and Section 93 are important parts of education-related legislation.
  4. Identify major events in post-Confederation education in Quebec and Ontario.
  5. Explain the structure of school governance in Canada.
  6. Identify major events in the development of education in the rest of Canada.
  7. Define the four educational regime types.
  8. Summarize the history of residential schooling in Canada.
  9. Identify three different types of school segregation practices in Canada’s history.
  10. Explain three major socio-historical functions of mass schooling.
  11. Explain what is meant by the feminization of the teaching corps.


The history of education in Canada is a long and complex one that varies according to region. In any social history, there are various interpretations of the facts, and the social history of education in Canada is no exception. This chapter begins by examining the formation of education systems in what is now Quebec and Ontario, as this is where settlement patterns were heavily concentrated until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The education systems of Quebec and Ontario are shaped by complex historical and cultural specificities that cannot be examined in any detail here. In brief, between 1791 and 1841, these two regions were called Lower Canada and Upper Canada, corresponding to the southern parts of the provinces we know today. In the 1840 Act of Union, the Canadas were united into the United Province of Canada, with two parts, Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario). The provinces took on the names we know now with Confederation in 1867.

Many important political events shaped the systems of education in the two areas. French Canada (New France) had been settled for hundred of years before the British colonialists arrived. Wars between the English and the French eventually led to French defeat and an ongoing political battle by the French not to become assimilated into British culture, which extended—in no small part—into the systems of education that became dominant in each region.

New France and Lower Canada 1600s–1830s

With over 400 years of history, summarizing the development of education in French Canada in this textbook can only partially cover the many events that led to the system of education that now exists in Quebec. More complete discussions are available by noted educational historians of Quebec, such as Louis-Phillip Audet (1971).

Stark differences between French and English Canada meant that education developed rather differently in Quebec compared to the rest of the country. Settling Canada by the 1600s, a system of “petites écoles” had been established by the French regime early in the century, offering basic education mainly to boys, within a strict Catholic framework. Later, in 1639, Ursuline nuns (the first Catholic nuns to arrive in the New World) established schools for girls that stressed domestic skills like needlework as well as religious studies. In the towns of New France, religious orders provided educational instruction in the three “Rs” (i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic) and religious studies, while more advanced educational pursuits were available to males who wanted to enter the clergy or train in a profession. The Collège des Jésuites was established in 1635, which offered a classical education and theological training to males. Later, in 1660, the Séminaire de Québec was founded by Bishop Laval, which is now known as Université Laval.

Catholic missionaries also played a large role in the education of colonists in New France. Many of their ambitions (orders such as the Récollets and Uruslines) were oriented toward assimilating the Aboriginal people to the ways of the French, but with little success. A series of wars between the French and British led to the conquering of New France in 1763. The increase of settlers in the British Empire resulted in the Constitutional Act of 1791, which created an Upper and Lower Canada, which were where southern Ontario and southern Quebec currently exist.

Political concerns in Quebec were distinct from those in the rest of Canada, due to major cultural, linguistic, and religious differences. Rebellions occurred in the late 1830s by Patriotes who attempted to invade Upper and Lower Canada. The Patriotes were opposed to British control over what had been originally French territory, as well as colonial control over the government of Lower Canada. Such political concerns acted to supersede the perceived importance of establishing a school system.

Upper Canada 1790s–1850s

The first government effort toward publicly funding schools dates to the late 1790s, when the Legislative Council and House of the Assembly of Upper Canada requested from the King of England that land and funds be given to the establishment of schools and a university (Di Mascio 2010)—a request that was honoured. In 1799, acts were passed that guaranteed technical education to orphaned children and also required that teachers be certified (Di Mascio 2010). It should be noted that Lower Canada was now part of the British colony, having ceded defeat to the British. Thus, the legislation passed in Upper Canada was applicable to Lower Canada as well, but as discussed below, the acceptance of these imposed education laws was met by much resistance in Lower Canada.

In 1807, the District School Act signalled the first official action in government-aided schooling. The act allocated one school to each district; however, it also required the payment of tuition (Di Mascio 2010). Tuition meant that education would not be available to all children due to lack of financial means. Critics argued that this arrangement was reserved for the rich and that these schools resembled the elite grammar schools found in England. Critics called for a true system of common schooling that would be available to all.

While the district schools did in fact serve the elite who could afford the tuition, there is evidence that the desire for common schooling accessible to all was being favoured on a more widespread basis. The Kingston Gazette, a conservative newspaper of the time, also expressed such sentiment in 1810, writing that:

[o]ur population is composed of persons born in different states and nations, under various governments and laws, and speaking several languages. To assimilate them, or rather their descendents, into one congenial people, by all practicable means, is an object of true policy. And the establishment of common schools is one of those means. (Di Mascio 2010:47, citing the Kingston Gazette, 25 September 1810)

The War of 1812 between Canada and the United States sidetracked discussions of education until 1815. In 1816, however, the Common School Act was passed, which was the first major step in providing mass schooling for the “common” people in Upper Canada. This act provided a grant to each of the 10 districts and also created boards of education within each district, which were to be responsible for textbooks, courses, and establishing school rules. As well, within the district, any community that had 20 or more students could establish a school that would have three trustees who would be responsible for hiring and firing teachers. There was great uptake in requests for government-aided schools—so much so that the government requests outweighed the financial resources available from the government (Di Mascio 2010), resulting in a bill that was passed in order to slow the growth of these schools.

In 1840, the two Canadas (Upper and Lower) were combined into the United Province of Canada. The School Act for the United Province of Canada of 1841 was passed shortly thereafter, which created non-denominational public schools for Upper Canada that were not oriented toward any particular religion. Publicly funded Protestant and Catholic schools were created for residents of Lower Canada. A compulsory taxation system was also introduced to levy school taxes.

In addition to the common school, there also existed voluntary schools, which were mostly located in large urban centres and financed by private tuition fees (Gidney and Millar 1985). Prior to the 1840s, these types of schools were varied in their offerings—some were select academic schools serving the elite, while others were day schools offering education to anyone who could afford the modest fees. After 1840, however, voluntary schools became almost exclusively associated with boarding schools attended exclusively by members of the upper social classes. Others went to “common schools.”

The difference between the common school and the voluntary school was also associated with the idea of “respectability” (Gidney and Millar 1985). Many viewed education as the responsibility of parents, although the grant-aided common schools were tainted with the stigma of being “charity” schools suitable only for those students whose parents were not able to properly provide for their children. “Mixing” with such children also carried the reputation of being inherently risky as common schools were catering to the lower classes, who might somehow sully the children of the middle and upper classes with their lack of “proper” upbringing. As documented by Gidney and Millar (1985), the voluntary sector’s private venture schools (i.e., schools being run as businesses by one or more individuals) became extremely unstable due to the reliance on fees and the teacher’s need to earn a living as well as provide the physical resources and space for the school to take place. If a family needed to withdraw their children from a school due to financial hardship, this could have the unintended consequence of putting a school at risk of closure. In addition to private venture schools, joint stock or proprietorial voluntary schools also existed. These schools were run by trustees, usually on the behalf of a denomination, and were funded through donations or shares. These types of voluntary schools also suffered from financial instability.

Egerton Ryerson became chief superintendent of education in Upper Canada in 1844—a position he held for 32 years. Ryerson is widely regarded as the most influential person behind creating the public school system that we know in Canada. He was a minister, educator, and political figure in Canada, who studied educational systems around the Western world in order to design one that he thought most appropriate for Canada. In 1846, Ryerson drafted a bill that became the Common School Act—the first major piece of education-related legislation in the history of Upper Canada. This act was particularly important because it detailed the organization of the school system as it had never been described before. The act designated schools for teacher training and designated a superintendent for each school district who would be responsible for examining schools on an annual basis and ensuring that they met the standards for the federal grants they would be receiving. The way in which school trustees were to be elected was also detailed. It also levied a rate bill or a school tax on the parents of all children of school age. Ryerson also recommended a series of approved textbooks, adding that schools that used alternative textbooks not approved by the new provincial board of education would not receive financial aid. Also, the Common School Act included a clause that assured “protection of children” from being required to participate in lesson or exercise of a religious orientation that the parents found objectionable (Hodgins 1894).

Lower Canada 1830s–1850s

Much resistance to the School Acts imposed by Upper Canadian politicians is evident in the history of education in Quebec. Political discourse of the time demonstrates the attempts of the British to spread their ideas of culture—including their ideas of how an educational system should be organized—to Lower Canada. In the years immediately following the Rebellions of 1837, John Lambton (Lord Durham), member of the British elite, was asked by the British prime minister to accept a mission to the Canadas (giving him extensive powers as governor-in-chief of the Canadian colonies) in order to understand the conflicts within and between Upper and Lower Canada and to offer possible solutions. Durham was required to complete a full report within a few short months (indeed, he spent only a little over three months in the Canadas). He also hired several assistants—among them Sir Arthur William Buller, who also arrived with Durham from England at the same time. Noting the “deplorable” state of education in Lower Canada, Buller was responsible for conducting an inquiry into it (Audet 2000).

Buller prepared a survey for central figures or priests within parishes so that he could gather information about the school system of Lower Canada. However, his efforts were not met with co-operation; most school officials would not comply. The Buller recommendations were presented in British Parliament in 1839 along with Durham’s report. An important feature from the report was his belief that a reform of Lower Canadian education required the Anglicization of the French Canadians. While he praised the clergy-run seminaries and the admirable qualities of the “peasants” of Lower Canada, he was critical of major aspects of French Canadian life, including (his perception of) their ambitions and social arrangements. He commented that they did not strive to better themselves and was critical of what he saw as better education for girls in the nunneries:

The difference in the character of the two sexes is remarkable. The women are really the men of Lower Canada. They are the active, bustling, business portion of the habitants, and this results from the much better education which they get, gratuitously, or at a very cheap rate, at the nunneries which are dispersed over the province. (Curtis 1997, citing Lord Durham’s Report)

The Durham Report (incorporating Buller’s recommendations) was presented in 1839 and contained two major recommendations: the union of both Canadas and the introduction of responsible government (in which the government is responsible to the elected representatives of the people), two recommendations that were eventually realized. However, his report was also a scathing analysis of what he regarded as a race-based crisis between the French and the English. Durham was critical of the virtual absence of the middle class in Lower Canada, characterizing the habitants as peasants. His report was so divisive on the issue of “race”-based differences that he concluded that no laws or institutions could be amended until the divisions between the French and English were ameliorated. His solution to this amelioration was to assimilate the French Canadians into the British culture, which he unabashedly regarded as superior in all ways (Ouellet 2000). Obviously, such a report would not be received well by the habitants of Lower Canada.

In addition to Anglicizing the French, his recommendations also included the introduction of a new mandatory school tax, official school inspections, and religious instruction that would be agreed upon by both major denominations. His vision also included the creation of primary schools, teacher’s schools, and institutions of higher learning (Ouellet 2000). Teachers engaging in political activity would be dismissed immediately. New schools would be inspected and supervised by individuals not connected to the Catholic clergy. As noted by Audet (2000), Buller’s model of the new school system was closely associated with tight control, Anglicization, and de-Catholicization. Schools were seen as an instrument of nation building, which required everyone to adopt a British nationality (Curtis 2003).

Following the recommendations of Durham, the Canadas were united. The creation of a specific number of district councils was imposed on Lower Canada (which had no formal governmental organization in many parts of the province). A School Act was passed in 1841 and brought with it many new reforms. District councils would serve as district boards of education that would decide of courses of study, license teachers, and decide on school rules and regulations. And possibly more significant was the act’s new levying of school taxes, which was met with much resistance in Lower Canada. Upper Canada responded in 1846 (with the Common School Act) by imposing much tighter restrictions on the collection of school taxes.

While the acts drafted by Ryerson served to expand public schooling in Upper Canada, they were met with much resistance in Lower Canada. The reforms in the 1846 act were met with more opposition than the initial changes in 1841. Petitions were signed, elected school officials failed to perform their roles, and there was widespread refusal to pay taxes. Various amendments that attempted to appease the opposition failed, including the suspension of property tax in 1845, which resulted in the closure of several schools. This was again reversed in the following year, and taxes were levied on all families with school-aged children, whether they attended school or not (Curtis 1997).

Violent opposition to local government representatives and tax-supported schools was frequent in the 1840s in Canada East. Attacks on school supporters were reported and continued into the 1860s, with the most violent attacks occurring in the District of Trois-Rivières. Such incidents involved the burning of schoolhouses and school records and even the maiming of horses belonging to local officials. This widespread anti–school reform violence became known as the “guerre des éteignoirs” (candle snuffers’ war). The metaphor is used to suggest that the revolters were “snuffing out” the light of knowledge and that this battle was one that was between “darkness” (ignorance) and “light” (enlightenment) (Nelson 1985).

The label guerre des éteignoirs is laden with a particular view of events, however. This particular view—that French Canadians were opposed to becoming enlightened—was a fairly common interpretation of social history until over 100 years later (Curtis 1997; Nelson 1985). Nelson (1985) argues that the events of school reform further exacerbated political hostilities that were present prior to the rebellions of 1837. Upper Canadians had imposed new political structures, forced taxation from unelected officials, and were trying to oust the clergy from key roles in the schools—all of which ran counter to the desires of many habitants.

While Egerton Ryerson is known the major school promoter of English Canada, his counterpart in French Canada was Jean-Baptiste Meilleur. After the rebellions of 1837, Meilleur served in a variety of political roles but had a keen interest in matters related to education in Lower Canada, as evidenced by his contribution to the Durham and Buller enquiries. He was made superintendent of schools for Lower Canada in 1842 and served for 13 years in this role, having to apply seven versions of the Schools Act during his tenure. Meilleur himself was opposed to forced taxation due to the poverty experienced by the rural habitants (Lortie 2000).

Upper Canada 1850

In 1850, Ryerson passed a second Common School Act, which allowed school tax to be levied on all property. Prior to this, tax was collected only from families with children. This act also provided for the free admission of all children to schools. A series of acts passed in the 1850s created the foundation of the public provincial education system we see today in Ontario (Young and Bezeau 2003). Another act passed in 1871 made school attendance compulsory for children between the ages of 8 and 14, and “common schools” were renamed as “public schools.” Another major event of the 1850s was the creation of the University of Toronto as a non-denominational university. Prior to this, Kings College had been granted its royal charter by King George in 1827 and was run by the Church of England. In 1850, the school was secularized, which included the removal of religious exams.

Grammar schools existed along with common schools and functioned as a type of secondary education, where classics (i.e., Greek and Latin) were taught along with more advanced English (Gidney and Lawr 1979). Girls were also attending grammar schools in increasing numbers (although the schools had been originally created only for boys). Legislation passed in 1853 (the Grammar School Act) specified the subjects (e.g., English, Latin, arithmetic, history) that were required to be taught, and grammar school was considered to be a “preparatory” school for the university-bound and a “finishing school” for the much larger group of non-university-bound pupils (Gidney and Lawr 1979). Grammar schools also received government funding, although the fees associated with grammar schools compared to common schools would have been notably higher. People of all classes—upper, middle, and lower (when possible)—attended the grammar school. The grammar school, teaching much the same content as the common school, had much more status because it gave a classical education. Therefore,

the grammar school—even the most lowly country school with only a few pupils learning the rudiments of Latin while all the rest studied nothing but English and commercial subjects—had an ambience and bestowed a status that no common school could aspire to. The grammar school, by virtue of its identification with classical teaching, shared in an educational enterprise that conferred a liberal education and gave access not simply to “jobs” or ordinary occupations but to “professions.” (Gidney and Millar 1985:34)

In the mid-1850s, separate schools (Catholic) also gained status as permanent school boards in Upper Canada, after years of struggle by the Catholic minority in the province.

Lower Canada 1850s

School inspectors, although discussed extensively in the many acts, were not established in Lower Canada until 1852. Meilleur and other officials regarded centralized school inspection as a major step in creating a sound education system (Curtis 1997; Little 1972). In 1853, the Legislative Assembly appointed a special committee to examine education in Lower Canada, headed by Louis-Victor Sicotte. The Sicotte Report revealed much about the wanting educational conditions of Lower Canada, including the illiteracy of half of the school commissioners and the unqualified teaching staff.

After Meilleur retired in 1855, he was replaced by Pierre Joseph Olivier Chauveau, a man with a lengthy history of involvement in the politics of Lower Canada. In 1856, Chauveau presented his first report his new role as superintendent of public education in Lower Canada, outlining his various suggestions for improvements to the school system. The reforms he recommended were not particularly innovative, and were mostly a reiteration of what Meilleur and Sicotte had previously demanded. The concerns outlined by Chauveau, however, were more readily addressed by politicians in the successive years, which has been attributed to Chauveau’s being more “connected” and having friends in important government positions and also having a reputation as being a “man of letters” (i.e., an intellectual). During his tenure as superintendent (1855–1867), three teachers’ colleges were established in Lower Canada, and two academic journals on education were launched (one in French, the other in English). His tenure as superintendent also included dealing with the concerns of Protestants, who were the minority in Lower Canada, and the majority Catholic population, which were dealt with in a new administrative body called the Council of Public Instruction.

Confederation in 1867 and Section 93

Confederation occurred in 1867, creating a country comprising the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The British North America Act became the constitution of the new country and contained an important section pertaining to matters of education. Section 93 of the British North America Act reads:

In and for each Province the Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to Education, subject and according to the following Provisions:

  1. Nothing in any such Law shall prejudicially affect any Right or Privilege with respect to Denominational Schools which any Class of Persons have by Law in the Province at the Union:
  2. All the Powers, Privileges and Duties at the Union by Law conferred and imposed in Upper Canada on the Separate Schools and School Trustees of the Queen’s Roman Catholic Subjects shall be and the same are hereby extended to the Dissentient Schools of the Queen’s Protestant and Roman Catholic Subjects in Quebec:
  3. Where in any Province a System of Separate or Dissentient Schools exists by Law at the Union or is thereafter established by the Legislature of the Province, an Appeal shall lie to the Governor General in Council from any Act or Decision of any Provincial Authority affecting any Right or Privilege of the Protestant or Roman Catholic Minority of the Queen’s Subjects in relation to Education:
  4. In case any such Provincial Law as from Time to Time seems to the Governor General in Council requisite for the Execution of the Provisions of this Section is not made, or in case any Decision of the Governor General in Council on any Appeal under this Section is not duly executed by the proper Provincial Authority in that Behalf, then and in every such Case, and as far as the Circumstances of each Case require, the Parliament of Canada may make remedial Laws for the due Execution of the Provisions of this Section and of any Decision of the Governor General in Council under this Section.

It is in this historic act that matters of education become a provincial, not federal, issue and where the rights of denominational schools—where they existed prior to Confederation—would be protected.

Post-Confederation Ontario

In 1871, the Ontario School Act was passed, which legislated that free, compulsory elementary schooling in government-inspected schools was to be provided for all. This act also transformed grammar schools into two types of high schools—ones that focused on classical instruction (which included English grammar, composition, Greek, Latin, history, literature, trigonometry, algebra, and natural history), called collegiate institutes, and high schools, which offered classical training but also had a track for an “English course” that focused on natural sciences and “practical” topics instead of the classics (Gidney and Lawr 1979). By the mid-1870s, however, school inspectors did not believe that the two streams could be maintained and the two programs became blended into a single one. Changing attitudes toward the importance of a classical education in an age where science knowledge was becoming more important eventually led to the recasting of collegiate institutes into first-class, well-equipped and well-staffed urban high schools by the end of the century.

The Ontario Schools Question became a major political issue in Ontario in the early 1900s. Instead of focusing on denomination, this conflict was language-based, pitting both English Catholics and Protestants against Franco-Catholics. English was made a mandatory subject in 1885, and five years later this was extended to making it the language of instruction, except under specific conditions where this was not possible. In 1910, Franco-Ontarians organized to promote French-language interests, which was met with much hostility. In 1912, Regulation 17 was issued, which limited French instruction to the first two years of elementary schooling, and was further amended in 1913 to allow one hour of French instruction per day. The reaction to these laws escalated into a political crisis and Regulation 17 could not be enforced. It was not until the late 1960s that legislation was passed to permit instruction in French at the elementary and secondary levels (Oliver 1972).

Post-Confederation Quebec

Chauveau continued on as premier of Quebec until 1875. Further important legislative changes occurred during his premiership, including the division of Protestants and Catholics into their own school committees. The Protestant minority in Quebec wanted explicit guarantees for the autonomous organization and control of their own schools (Silver, 1982). The new bill was met with hostility by many, including the French-language press, but was also considered a stepping stone for how they hoped the rights of Catholics in Ontario would be respected (Silver 1982). Critics argued that Section 93 of the British North America Act, which safeguarded the rights of Roman Catholics and Protestants in education, meant that other bills offering such concessions were not necessary and possibly unconstitutional. Ultramontanism, or the belief in the absolute authority of the Catholic Church (and the Pope), characterized Quebec. The belief that Catholic education was the only appropriate manner in which to transmit the necessary values to sustain the French-Canadian community continued to play a strong role in shaping Quebec educational policies and practices (Curtis 2003). The battle between British Liberals and Quebec Ultramontes with regard to the role of church and state was one of fundamentally opposite ideals. British nationalism and French Canadian nationalism carved out the political and cultural landscape and contributed to many clashes between the two groups.

Audet (1971) characterized the education system in Quebec between 1876 and 1959 as stagnant and unmanageable, and in great need of reform. A major reform occurred in the 1960s during the Quiet Revolution. The Quiet Revolution is the name given to a period of rapid social change in Quebec that occurred from 1960–1966. The provincial election of that year saw Jean Lesage take office as premier, changing the ruling party from the Union Nationale to the Liberals. Lesage ran on a platform of strong reform, with campaign slogan “It’s time for a change” (Durocher 2011).

The existing educational system was experiencing extreme stress due to the population increase from the baby boomer generation. Prior to the reforms, the Catholic and Protestant systems ran parallel to one another, with the former servicing mostly the French-speaking population and the latter the English-speaking. Clear differences existed between them. For example, there was no kindergarten in the Catholic system, while it was readily available in the English Protestant sector (Henchey 1972). French Catholic education was typified by a seven-year elementary program after which a transition was made to secondary school—in areas where they existed. The route to post-secondary education was through the classical colleges, which were generally reserved for the elite. In contrast, the English Protestant sector had a system in which public high schools were available to all and whose curriculum was oriented to university admission (Henchey 1972). These major differences between the two systems can be attributed to the greater affluence of the families who attended the English Protestant schools. As noted by Henchey (1972), there were many reasons for francophones to be discontent with their education system. The census of 1961 revealed that only half of 15- to 19-year-olds were in school and that a quarter of this age group had left school prior to completing the elementary level. Both of these figures were the highest in the entire country.

In 1959, a commission was established to inquire into the state of education; it was chaired by Alphonse-Marie Parent, whose official inquiry became known widely as the Parent Commission. The resulting report urged massive reforms, including the creation of an official education department and the removal of the Catholic Church from control of the school. Bill 60 was passed in 1964, which restructured the education system to one that was centralized and reduced the role of the Church in order to lay the framework for further reforms (Henchey 1972). The second phase of reforms was recommended shortly thereafter, including the creation of a network of kindergartens and a standard six-year elementary education. Reforms also called for expansion of the curriculum and more “activist” student-centred teaching approaches (Henchey 1972). Secondary education was to be standardized to five years and offer core subjects and electives. A compromise was also to be reached regarding the trajectory to be taken by students who wished to go on to post-secondary education. Prior to reform, francophones and anglophones had different routes, but the reforms proposed three-year institutes that would prepare students for either university study or technical education (these Collèges dEnseignement Général et Professionnel were formally established in 1967). In addition to these structural reforms, all teacher education was to occur in universities. The dual denomination system of Catholic and Protestant schools boards still remained, but with more governmental control.

In 1977, the Charter of the French Language, or Bill 101, was passed. This bill is historic because it strengthened the role of the French language in Quebec. In terms of education, immigrants and francophones were steered into French schools. Students under the age of 16 could attend English schools only if they had parents who had been educated in English or if they had already received a substantial portion of their education in English in Canada. This new law contributed to the decline of English school enrolments in Quebec (Freeland 1999; Henchey 1999).

The 1980s were characterized by another wave of reforms, which involved “centralization of control and detailed programs” (Henchey 1999:228), while major reforms of the late 1990s focused on curriculum. In 1997, following a constitutional amendment, all denominational school boards (which had been in place since 1875) were eliminated and English and French school boards were replaced. Recall that the British North America Act of 1867 ensured the right to denominational education; Quebec became exempted from this part of the constitution in 1997 (Young and Bezeau 2003). Quebec is not the only province to have constitutional amendments to matters of education. See Box 3.1 for further discussion.

Box 3.1 – Constitutional Questions

While Quebec required a constitutional amendment to remove denominational school boards and replace them along linguistic lines, it is not the only province to make such specialized changes to the British North America Act. Newfoundland had to use such amendments to make changes in its provincial education systems. Section 93 of the British North America Act, as discussed above, secured the rights of denominations that had legal denominational rights prior to Confederation.

Provinces that joined Canada after Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick had Section 93 applied or another special section added, depending on the denominational nature of the province (Zinga 2008). For example, British Columbia entered Confederation using Section 93, but it has never had denominational school boards because they were not seen as “applicable,” and it had a public school system that did not support denominational schooling from its beginnings.

Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, but with a special provision pre-empting Section 93 that provided for the constitutional protection of Roman Catholic, Anglican, Salvation Army, and United Church of Canada denominations, which was further amended in 1987 to include the Pentecostal Assemblies (Zinga 2008). In the 1990s, it was determined that the continuation of the school structure under five separate denominations was not tenable, and reforms were suggested that would remove denominational rights and replace the schools with a single unified non-denominational system. After two referendums, the province was successful in achieving a constitutional amendment that permitted the creation of a unified non-denominational system (Constitution Amendment, Newfoundland Act, 1997).

New Brunswick faced a different kind of constitutional question much nearer to the time of Confederation. The province passed a Common Schools Act in 1871, replacing the Parish Schools Act, 1858. In the new act it was stated that all schools would be non-sectarian. This act would have the effect of abolishing denominational schools—something that is guaranteed in Section 93. However, as noted by Zinga (2008), it was unclear whether schools prior to this act had legally existed before Confederation. Catholic schools existed, but on an informal basis since the 1850s. Roman Catholics objected and the issue was taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Catholics had no legal grounds because Catholic denominational schools had not legally existed prior to Confederation. Violent protests in 1875 resulted in what are now known as the Caraquet riots, in which two people were shot and killed. The provincial government compromised by allowing Catholic students to be grouped together in the same schools and exempted Roman Catholic religious orders from having to attend the provincial normal school (although they still had to pass an exam to acquire a teaching licence). This political struggle is referred to as the New Brunswick Schools Question (Little 1972).

The Development of Education in the Rest of Canada

The discussion thus far has focused on Ontario and Quebec’s educational history. What follows are major important highlights from the historical development of education in other parts of Canada. Each province and territory warrants its own complete book on the topic, as the cultural and political issues specific to each geographic region contributed to the shaping of the educational landscape as we see it today.


Manitoba became the first Western province to join Canada in 1870, entering Confederation with a dual denominational system (Catholic and Protestant). The majority of Catholics were francophones, while the majority of Protestants were anglophones. Hence, schools were divided upon linguistic and sectarian grounds. Later trends in immigration meant that the linguistic divide was no longer an accurate portrayal of the makeup of the province. Under Thomas Greenway, the Liberal premier of Manitoba, the Public School Act of 1890 removed tax support for denominational schools and instead created a system of non-sectarian public schools. French was also abolished as an official language of the province. Parents could send their children to French Catholic schools, but they would not be funded. Moreover, they would still have to pay taxes to the public system. French Canadians in Manitoba and in the rest of Canada were angered by these changes, and tensions arose between the linguistic and religious groups.

Various protests and proposed amendments to the acts failed. The matter became a federal one known as the Manitoba Schools Question and Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier used his position on the topic to leverage his federal political campaign, winning the most seats. Laurier amended the act to restore some rights to Catholic instruction, although this had to be done within the public system. Catholic teachers could be employed in schools where 40 or more of the students were Catholic, religious instruction could be given half an hour per day, and the use of French as the language of instruction would be permitted in communities whose numbers warranted it, as long as English was used as well. These acts are widely considered the most famous controversy in the history of Canadian education, as they demonstrate the loss of francophone and Catholic rights outside Ontario.1

British Columbia

John Jessop was British Columbia’s first provincial superintendent of education. He arrived from Ontario after being trained as a teacher in the Ryersonian system in 1853. He headed to British Columbia in 1858, when the discovery of gold in the Fraser Valley became big news. After a failed attempt at seeking gold, Jessop opened a private school in Victoria (Johnson 1971). At the time, there were other private schools on the island, as well as three “colonial schools” that had been established earlier in the decade for the children of new settlers. From that point on, Jessop campaigned for a public school system. The Public School Act of 1872 was modelled on Ryerson’s legislation enacted between 1846 and 1871, although money was given to schools through provincial revenues rather than property taxes (Johnson 1971). Jessop, unlike Ryerson, did not make accommodation for denominational schooling, although this appears to have already been a tradition in the province. Much resemblance existed between Jessop’s schools and Ryersonian reforms, including the emphasis on textbooks, school inspectors, and the duties assigned to teachers (Johnson 1971). In general, Jessop as a school promoter created in British Columbia a system very similar to that in which he was trained in Ontario.

Alberta and Saskatchewan

Alberta and Saskatchewan have similar histories of public schooling development, as they were both originally part of the North-West Territory and became independent provinces in 1905.

The first schools that were opened in Alberta and Saskatchewan were parochial. A Catholic school was established by a missionary (Father Thibault) at Lac Ste. Anne in 1842, while Reverend Rundle formed the first day schools in Fort Edmonton in the 1840s. In 1840, the first school in Saskatchewan opened in Cumberland House, which was run by a Cree Anglican Minister, Henry Budd. In 1875 the North-West Territories Act was passed, which allowed for the local government to operate schools and created provisions for Catholic and Protestant schools. Financial support from the territorial government for schooling was first received in 1880, providing funding for both Protestant and Roman Catholic schools. School districts were established in the early 1880s as well, with Edmonton established as the first district in the current Alberta, and Moose Jaw in the current Saskatchewan.

As settlers began arriving from the east, the demographics of the region shifted. There was no longer a straightforward English Protestant and French Roman Catholic dichotomy, as there had been when the Protestant and Catholic school systems were decided. Two individuals played important roles in creating the system of education found in the North-West Territories: Frederick Haultain and David Goggin. Haultain was elected to the Territorial Assembly in 1888 and appointed Goggin as superintendent of education in 1892. In 1892, Haultain replaced the dual confessional school system with a non-sectarian state system that permitted separate schools for the Protestant and Catholic minorities, which closely resembled the model in Ontario. Like his counterparts across the country, he saw public schooling as an arena for creating nationalism and thereby assimilating minorities. Arrangements for public schooling were created by the civil authorities of the North-West Territories. When Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905, they adopted many of the policies used in Ontario, including a public and separate school system.

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island

Like most of Canada, the first schools in the Maritime provinces were run by the Protestant or Catholic Church. The Free School Act of 1864 in Nova Scotia, the Common Schools Act of 1871 in New Brunswick, and the Free Education Act of 1852 in Prince Edward Island were major pieces of legislation that would set the groundwork for public schooling. Across the Maritimes, although at different times, education leaders campaigned for non-sectarian public schooling, passing acts that would fund only non-denominational schools. With the long history of Protestant and Catholic schools in place across most of the country, public reaction to such new legislation was often hostile.

In 1867, the premier of Nova Scotia, Charles Tupper, introduced the Free Schools Act, which created a system of state-subsidized schools. The following year, more legislation was passed to fund these schools through local taxation. These schools were non-denominational but did include some Christian education. Opposition expressed itself through brief outbreaks of violence, which involved the burning of some schools (Xavier 1957). A compromise was eventually reached whereby Catholics were allowed to establish their own publicly funded schools, provided that religious instruction occurred after school hours. In 1871, similar tensions were experienced in New Brunswick, where the Common Schools Act eliminated denominational schools, although in this case the response took a more violent turn resulting in two deaths (see Box 3.1). A similar compromise to the one arrived at in Nova Scotia regarding the funding of Catholic schools was eventually made.

In Prince Edward Island, the Free Education Act was passed in 1852, which was mainly to attract qualified teachers to the area. Reformers were not opposed to religion in schools, but thought it was problematic in schools that had both Catholic and Protestant students (O’Connor 2006). Normal schools for teacher education were created and purposely did not include religious teachings because of the mix of students in attendance. In 1857, a publicized school inspector’s report revealed that Bible readings were on a decline on the Island. Protestants reacted with great indignation, largely blaming the Catholics, whom they felt were being overly accommodated (the Catholics would generally oppose religious teachings offered in the Protestant-dominated school system). Prince Edward Island joined Confederation in 1873, and because denominational schools were not provided beforehand, Section 93 was deemed irrelevant. Prince Edward Island was not isolated from the general anti-Catholic sentiments being expressed in neighbouring provinces, and although unrest had not reached violent proportions there were still denominational tensions on the island. The tensions culminated in the 1877 attack on the Charlottetown Orange Lodge (the Orange Order is an organization affiliated with Conservative Protestants). No one was seriously injured in the attack, but the outbreak revealed the tension that had been building for years due to the Catholics’ increasingly marginalized role in many aspects of provincial politics, including education (O’Connor, 2006). See Box 3.2 for a discussion of how denominational rights have been incorporated into educational practices across Canada.


Church of England missionaries organized the first schools in Newfoundland in the 1720s, opening further schools across the larger outports in the eighteenth century. The Newfoundland School Society organized schools concerned for education of the poor in 1823, and established over 40 non-denominational schools across Newfoundland within the next 10 years.

Box 3.2 – Manzer’s Typology of Educational Regimes

Ronald Manzer (1994) identified four types of “educational regimes” that emerged during the nineteenth century as a result of political struggles around the roles of the state and church in matters of education.

The non-sectarian public school system is the most liberal in that there is a firm separation between the church and the state. As such, clergy and other religious representatives have no control over locally run school boards. In addition to not being permitted to have any authoritative role within the school system, religious instruction does not occur within the school. British Columbia adopted this regime in 1872, while Manitoba changed to this regime in 1890.

The second educational regime type is called non-sectarian public schools with minority denominational districts. This type of regime typified the public education system of Upper Canada. This type of school is characterized by a majority of non-sectarian public schools (often identifying as Protestant), with an allowance made for separate denominational schools (usually Catholic) that are under strict control by the central education department with regard to curriculum, teacher training, and testing. The North-West Territories adopted this type of structure, and it was passed on to Alberta and Saskatchewan when they entered Confederation as new provinces in 1905.

The de jure non-sectarian, de facto reserved public schools represents another compromise between liberalism and religious communities. This regime is present in the three Maritime provinces, which passed legislation forbidding denominational schools but eventually worked out compromises with the Catholic community and reserved some schools for them, given that certain conditions were met. Such organization allows religious groups (Catholics) to have local control over their schools, particularly in geographically isolated areas where such religious minorities may actually be a majority.

The fourth regime is called concurrent endowment of confessional systems. In this role, the state provides funding but the control over education is maintained by religious authorities. This type of regime was found in Quebec, which had a “dual confessional system” (representing Protestant and Catholics) until 1997. Manitoba had this type of arrangement as well until 1890, while Newfoundland’s schools were largely in the hands of the six denominational groups that operated schools until constitutional amendments in 1997.

Government involvement with the funding and organization of schools began with the 1836 Education Act, which established non-denominational boards of education. While the schools themselves clearly had denominational orientations, they were open to children of all denominations (mostly Protestant or Catholic). The Newfoundland Act of 1842, however, responded to rising tides of denominationalism in the region, distributing funds evenly between Roman Catholic and Protestant school boards. Protestants had reacted angrily to non-denominationalism, arguing that it gave too much influence to Roman Catholics (McCann 1998). The perceived threat of the Catholics, even rumours of a Catholic revolution, shaped the denominational system that was enacted in 1842. Further amendments in the 1870s created another denominational grouping—the Methodists.

Economic problems affected the education of children in the region particularly strongly. In 1900, only half of the children between 5 and 15 were in school, and school funding was at the lowest rate since 1861. Economic struggles persisted, though in 1920 an Education Department, Normal School (for teacher training), and Memorial University College were established (McCann 1998). Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949 and retained its denominational system under its Terms of Union. Like Quebec, Newfoundland did not enact compulsory schooling legislation until the 1940s.

The Territories

The North-West Territory was the name originally given to the vast land that contained the territories as we know them now, as well as Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the northern parts of Manitoba and Ontario. The Yukon became its own territory in 1898, and Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905. Nunavut became a separate territory in 1999. Section 93 of the British North America Act of 1867 does not apply to territories. The right of separate schools to exist has existed since the 1901 Territorial School Ordinance. When established, the law of the territories applied to the Yukon unless otherwise amended. This meant that the provision for separate schools, which had been made in 1875 in the Northwest Territories Act, applied to the Yukon as well. At the time, however, there were only two small schools operating in the territory, although the Gold Rush in 1896 would result in a considerable influx of new settlers, creating demand for an education system. A public school and a Catholic school were in operation in Dawson by 1900, with the Catholic school having a much smaller enrolment than the public school, reflecting the religious makeup of the population.

In the early 1900s, several political discussions emerged about the annexing of the Yukon to British Columbia. The non-sectarian organization of schooling in British Columbia deeply concerned Catholic school advocates in the Yukon, who worried that their schools would be lost if such an annex occurred. Amid a volatile political climate, and still recovering from the Manitoba Schools Question debate, the federal government was not interested in opening up another political controversy on minority rights (Stuart 1993). The issue remained dormant until 1937, when Duff Pattullo, the premier of British Columbia, opened up the question of annexing the Yukon to revive the economy and exploit the natural resources of the area. With the annexation discussions progressing, Catholic representatives in Ottawa began to take up the cause of minority school rights in the soon-to-be annexed Yukon. The federal and provincial governments realized that annexation without conflict was not possible and the issue was quietly dropped (Stuart, 1993).

Nunavut inherited the North-West Territories (NWT) Education Act when it became a territory in 1999. It has since amended changes in the Nunavut Act of 2002, but none of these pertain to denominational schooling. Major revisions to the acts relate to the inclusion of Inuit language and culture in teaching and curriculum, and more control from the district education authority rather than territorial authorities.

The History of Aboriginal Education in Canada

Before colonization, Aboriginal people had their own systems of transferring knowledge to their offspring that were appropriate to their needs (Axelrod 1997). For approximately 100 years (1880–1980), a large proportion of Aboriginal children were removed from their family homes and sent to boarding schools. These schools were known as residential schools or sometimes industrial schools. Regardless of what they were called, they shared the same characteristic in that children spent long periods of time in these total institutions, in which they were separated from their family and community.

Egerton Ryerson also played a significant role in the introduction of the residential schooling system in Canada. After passing the Common School Act of 1846, which prescribed the education system for the majority of the population in Ontario, he was asked by the assistant superintendent general of Indian affairs to make recommendations for the education of Aboriginal children. In an 1847 report to the Legislative Assembly, he recommended a boarding school model that would train students in religion and manual labour. He also recommended agricultural training so that Aboriginal people would move toward a farming lifestyle. While Ryerson himself did not implement any of these recommendations, they did provide the foundation of what was to become the residential schooling system in years to follow.

Canadian politicians and policy-makers in the late 1800s were very clear that the purpose of residential schools was to fully assimilate Aboriginal children. The beginnings of the residential school in 1880 were in much part borrowed from the industrial school model being used in the United States, which was summarized in the landmark Davin Report of 18792 as being based upon the principle of “aggressive civilization.” In order for the Aboriginal people to be fully “civilized,” it was determined that they must be removed from their families so that they could learn not only to read and write, but also to “acquire the habits and tastes of . . . civilized people” (Clae and Clifton 1998, citing Grant 1996). As the Church was heavily involved in the running of residential schools, a considerable component of becoming “civilized” was to adopt the beliefs of Christianity. The Canadian government, until relatively recently, actively supported the assimilation of Aboriginal people into a system of European living that embraced European and Christian values.

Attendance at residential schools became mandatory in 1894, with fines or imprisonment being legally threatened if children failed to attend. Two years later, around 1500 children were in attendance in residential schools across Canada. About half were located a considerable distance from Aboriginal communities and were oriented toward older students, where girls were trained in the domestic arts and boys in farming skills and trades.

As time progressed, the failure of the residential school was becoming apparent. Death and illness arising from the poor health conditions at the schools was noted as early as 1906, after medical inspection by Dr. Peter Bryce, chief medical officer for the Departments of the Interior and Indian Affairs, revealed appalling conditions. In Western residential schools, the death rate of the children was estimated to be around 50 percent due to highly infectious disease such as tuberculosis.3 Two years later, Dr. Bryce revealed additional evidence that suggested that children were purposely being exposed to tuberculosis and being left to die by staff of the residential schools. He received no response to the recommendations of his report to improve the health conditions of the schools, and his reports were not made public until 1922 (Sproule-Jones 1996). He was eventually forced to leave his position in 1921. In 1922, he released a book entitled The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921.

Mandatory school attendance laws increased the numbers of students attending residential schools in 1920. In addition to questionable health and sanitary conditions, the education provided at such schools was often poor, as many teachers were not formally trained. Despite high enrolment, the number of children who were functioning at age-appropriate grade levels was very low, and almost no students achieved the Grade 8 level or beyond.

The 1950s saw a political shift toward mainstreaming students, or placing them in regular schools, where possible. Clae and Clifton (1998) note that residential schools began to take on a “child welfare” purpose in this era: children who required institutional care “for social or family reasons” would be admitted to residential schools. More day schools were also opened on reserves. This resulted in a significant increase in the number of Aboriginal children attending provincially run public schools. In 1970, the National Indian Brotherhood called for an end to the federal control of Aboriginal schooling, and residential schools eventually began to close. In many cases, children on reserves were educated in on-reserve schools, which have their own unique set of problems (discussed in Chapter 4). Table 3.1 details major points in history as they relate to the treatment of Aboriginal education.

In total, between the late 1800s and until the abolition of residential schools, about one-third of Aboriginal children were placed in residential schools, often for a large portion of their childhoods (Clae and Clifton 1998). Much of what was taught in residential schools was based upon the assumptions that their own cultures were not worth preserving or knowing. The trauma of being separated from parents and siblings, along with the prison-like conditions of many facilities, had long-lasting effects on many former students (Knockwood and Thomas 1992). Children were also forbidden to speak their mother tongue, which further entrenched the idea that Aboriginal cultures were worthy only of shame. The residential schools were also places where a significant proportion of the students experienced mental, physical, and sexual abuse by school officials. Breaking of rules by students often resulted in severe physical beatings and humiliations.

The damage that residential schools did to children, not only while they were there but also in terms of the long-term psychological damage that occurred and has been passed down through generations due to psychological distress, has only recently been widely acknowledged. It has been suggested that the symptoms many residential school survivors present are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, and the term residential school syndrome has been used as a term for the shared set of psychological problems that such survivors possess (Brasfield 2001), which can include flashbacks, avoidance of situations that may trigger memories, relationship problems, and drug and alcohol abuse (Sochting et al. 2007).

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It was not until the late 1980s that abuse in residential schools received any formal recognition. The United Church made a formal apology to Aboriginal people in 1986. A 1989 case in Newfoundland involving non-Aboriginal children abused by clergy at an orphanage put the wheels in motion for former residential school abuse victims to pursue litigation.Clae and Clifton (1998) have identified four distinct political attitudes that have shaped official policy toward Aboriginal people in Canada. The first attitude that ran from early colonial settlements to around 1910 was that of assimilation. The settlers saw the Aboriginal people as a problem to be fixed by turning them into European Canadians. By 1910, prior assimilation techniques had failed, and therefore a segregation approach was adopted, whereby Aboriginals were educated for life in their own communities, to which they would be restricted. In 1951, segregation was abandoned in favour of an integration approach, which advocated for Aboriginal “absorption” into mainstream society. The principle of integration was embraced by policy-makers until the early 1970s, when calls for Aboriginal self-determination and control were growing.

In March 1998, the Canadian government issued a Statement of Reconciliation within its Gathering StrengthCanadas Aboriginal Action Plan document. This statement acknowledged the wrongdoing of the federal government’s assimilation policies of previous years and also included an apology to victims of abuse at residential schools. Part of the document is excerpted below:4

The ancestors of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples lived on this continent long before explorers from other continents first came to North America. For thousands of years before this country was founded, they enjoyed their own forms of government. Diverse, vibrant Aboriginal nations had ways of life rooted in fundamental values concerning their relationships to the Creator, the environment, and each other, in the role of Elders as the living memory of their ancestors, and in their responsibilities as custodians of the lands, waters and resources of their homelands.

Sadly, our history with respect to the treatment of Aboriginal people is not something in which we can take pride. Attitudes of racial and cultural superiority led to a suppression of Aboriginal culture and values. As a country, we are burdened by past actions that resulted in weakening the identity of Aboriginal peoples, suppressing their languages and cultures, and outlawing spiritual practices. … We must acknowledge that the result of these actions was the erosion of the political, economic and social systems of Aboriginal people and nations.

The [residential school system] separated many children from their families and communities and prevented them from speaking their own languages and from learning about their heritage and cultures. In the worst cases, it left legacies of personal pain and distress that continue to reverberate in Aboriginal communities to this day. Tragically, some children were the victims of physical and sexual abuse. The government of Canada acknowledges the role it played in the development and administration of these schools. Particularly to those individuals who experienced the tragedy of sexual and physical abuse at residential schools, and who have carried this burden believing that in some way they must be responsible, we wish to emphasize that what you experienced was not your fault and should never have happened. To those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools, we are deeply sorry (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Reproduced with the permission of the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, 2012.)

Aboriginal leader Phil Fontaine has played an important role in bringing public awareness to the suffering that occurred at residential schools and has been instrumental in having various church groups publicly acknowledge their part in the abuse. He has also been at the centre of successfully negotiating settlements for residential school survivors. Fontaine served as grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs from 1991 and national chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 1997–2008. In 2005, the Canadian government negotiated the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which agreed to pay out a sum of $2 billion as a compensation package to former residential school students. Former students are to receive a base payment called the Common Experience Payment of $10 000, plus $3000 for each additional year that they attended. Any monies not formally recovered by previous students are to be put into a fund to assist in Aboriginal program development. Another aspect to the settlement agreement is the Independent Assessment Process, which is a separate class action out-of-court process of resolution for those who suffered serious physical and sexual abuse in residential schools.

In 2008, the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. Truth commissions are periodically created by governments in order to collect information on historical events that may have been incorrectly documented. The desired outcomes of this truth commission are to properly acknowledge the experiences of former residential school students and to document them as thoroughly and accurately as possible and to create public awareness about the residential school system.5

The Canadian government also established a $350 million Healing Fund. This fund was created to fund and support programs and the healing needs for Aboriginal people who were affected by abuse in the residential school program, as well as intergenerational effects of residential schooling. Although a person may not have personally attended a residential school, his or her parents or grandparents may have, and this may have impacted on these individuals’ parenting and grandparenting skills (Morrissette 1994) or put them at an increased risk of experiencing poverty, for example (Bougie and Senécal 2010). Residential schooling often resulted in disconnection and emotional distance from family members, and alienation from their culture, traditions, community, and language (Stout and Peters 2011). It has been argued that the effects of residential schooling have impacted many generations of Aboriginals.

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to former residential school students. After a meeting between Phil Fontaine and the Pope Benedict XVI in April 2009, the Vatican expressed “regret” that Aboriginal people suffered such “deplorable” treatment in the residential schools that were operated by the Roman Catholic Church.6 The reaction of victims and Aboriginal leaders to this “expression of regret” was mixed, as it was not a formal apology.

Black Segregated Schools

While the oppression and slavery of African Americans is well-documented and acknowledged in American history, the segregation of Canadian Blacks is a lesser-known historical fact. African Americans came to Canada in large numbers in the period between 1820 and 1860 through the “Underground Railway”—a series of informal networks that helped enslaved Blacks escape the United States into Canada (as well as into Mexico and other states where slavery was illegal). During this time, tens of thousands of freed slaves settled Canada West.7

While Canadian politicians were quick to argue that the abolitions of slavery in the British Empire demonstrated moral superiority over the United States (McLaren 2004), many White Canadians reacted negatively to the settlement of Blacks in their communities, often refusing them entry to public schools. The School Act of 1850, however, permitted segregated schools for Blacks. Local school officials based their refusal on arguments focusing on the perceived superiority of the “White race” and the potential threat that allowing Black students into the classroom may have on other students, particularly girls. The vehement opposition to allowing Blacks in public schools existed in many communities, despite a legal prohibition on discrimination due to race, religion, or language (McLaren 2004).

While Egerton Ryerson publicly opposed the segregation of Blacks, he argued that there was little he could do to change the minds of large swaths of the population who were determined to keep Blacks out of public schools. The School Act prior to amendments made in 1850 clearly states that it was illegal to deny education to any child resident in the school district. In 1850, the School Act was amended to read that “It shall be the duty of the Municipal Council of any Township, and of the Board of School Trustees of any City, Town or incorporated Village, on the application, in writing, of twelve, or more, resident heads of families, to authorize the establishment of one, or more, Separate schools for Protestants, Roman Catholics, or Coloured people” (Hodgins 1911:213). Segregated schools, like other public schools, were funded by provincial grants to local schools that “matched” the tax contributions paid by local residents (Walker 1999).

It should be noted, however, that the religion-based separate schools were often strongly supported by members of their respective denominations. In contrast, there is rather compelling evidence that Blacks did not choose separate schools; their segregation was chosen for them as a result of overtly racist beliefs and practices (McLaren 2004). Whether or not Blacks supported segregated schools is debatable, and certainly there is evidence that there were advocates on both sides of the issue from the Black community.

Segregated schools never officially existed in Toronto, although critics note that neighbourhood segregation probably acted as a de facto divider in creating unofficial separate schools for Blacks and Whites (McLaren 2004). The last segregated school in Ontario, located in Merlin (near Chatham), was closed in 1965.

Large numbers of African Americans also immigrated into Nova Scotia during the same time as many settled the southern parts of Canada West. Similar to the public attitudes in Canada West, Nova Scotia attitudes were “consistently hostile” toward Blacks (Winks 1969). By the 1830s, several segregated schools existed for Black students, run by an English philanthropist society (Winks 1969). Other charitable organizations funded Black education and some grants were made by the provincial government, although the demand for schools often outweighed the supply (Walker 1999). Black segregated schools also existed in New Brunswick, while Blacks in Prince Edward Island all attended the same schools due to living in the same residential district. While schooling was provided, the quality available in segregated schools was often poor, with inadequately trained teachers and lesser equipment (Walker 1999).

In the 1870s, Black parents in Halifax began protesting about the educational limitations placed upon their children; although they were paying taxes to the public school system, they were able to attend only the inferior segregated schools (Walker 1999). The School Act was amended in 1884 to permit Black students to attend public school in their local area. The result was that in areas of Black concentration Black students would continue to attend the segregated schools, but in integrated areas they would not be barred from the local (White) school (Walker 1999). The last segregated school, in Guysborough, Nova Scotia, was closed in 1983.8 In addition to Ontario and Nova Scotia, the practice of segregating Black students was also found to some extent in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and British Columbia (Chan 2007).

Chinese Segregated Schools

Chinese immigrants began arriving in Canada in large numbers during the latter half of the nineteenth century as gold prospectors in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. Chinese immigrants were also instrumental to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, on which over 15 000 Chinese migrants worked between 1880 and 1885.9 In the early 1900s, school segregation of Chinese students was in effect at various times in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Victoria, and Westminster (Stanley 1990). In Victoria, segregation of Chinese students was first proposed by the school board in 1901 and then enacted between 1904 and 1905 (Stanley 1990). Partial school segregation for Chinese students in younger grades was in place in Victoria between 1908 and 1922. Calls for school segregation were based on the perceived threats that the Chinese presented to White children, both moral and physical. As argued by Stanley (2002), the strategy for racializing the Chinese was to represent them as “inexorable outsiders to the moral community of Canada” (p. 149). The discourse of politicians and school officials characterized the Chinese as dangerously different from White society, often being accused of spreading disease, living in unsanitary conditions, and committing crimes. Resting on the assumption that British Columbia was a “White man’s” country, anything that deviated from the cultural, moral or physical norms associated with “Whiteness” was perceived to be a threat (Stanley 2002). Most of the Chinese in Canada who were affected by the segregation policies were Canadian-born.

In 1909, the Victoria Chinese Public School was opened to educate Chinese students who were refused admittance to the regular public system.10 In 1915, the Rock Bay School was established for Chinese boys who had poor English skills and were two or more years older than the average age of students in their grade placement. These boys were segregated also because they were perceived to be a “sexual menace” and a risk to White girls in public schools (Stanley 2002). In 1922, the Victoria School Board moved to create segregated schools for Chinese students (Stanley 1990). Parents and students, however, resisted the segregation by organizing a strike against the public school system. When the students were brought to their new school, they all ran away upon a pre-arranged signal. To put pressure on the public school system in Victoria, the Chinese community established its own school for the children who were affected by the segregation measures. The tensions between the Chinese community and the school board lasted the duration of the school year. Leaders in the Chinese community voiced outrage at the overtly racist practice that they perceived as solidifying their status as second-class citizens.

Expressing how such segregation would contribute to future prospects of Chinese Canadians, the president of the Chinese Canadian Club, comprised of second-generation Chinese Canadians, wrote to the editor of the Victoria Daily Times in October of 1922:

If we accept this we have no reasons to expect any better results, so the next step will be on the grounds of imperfect knowledge of English we will be prevented from the entrance classes or the High School. You can therefore see, Mr. Editor, how serious the question is for us. It is not the 200 children now affected that we have to think of, but the whole of our future is involved in this question. We cannot afford to take any other attitude that the one we have taken.

We ask ourselves this question: What can be the purpose behind this movement? Can it be to prevent us securing an English education so that our children can be permanently ignorant, so that they must remain labourers to be exploited? Being ignorant of the language we will be unable to take our part by the side of other Canadians, and we will then be pointed out as those who refuse to learn the customs or social life of the country—in fact, refuse to assimilate. It will have been forgotten by then that it was not because we did not want to learn, but because certain narrow-minded autocrats have taken upon themselves the responsibility of preventing our learning.11

In other words, Chinese Canadians saw this segregation as preventing future generations of their children from achieving social mobility. After a year of conflict, the school board dropped its segregation order in the successive school year of 1923–1924.

Japanese Segregation

Japanese settlers were recorded in Canada as early as the late 1870s. By the early 1920s, over 10 000 Japanese immigrants had settled in Canada. After the beginning of the Second World War (after Japan bombed the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii in 1941), the Canadian government began to regard Japanese Canadians as a potential threat to national security. The removal of all persons of Japanese descent from the coastal regions of British Columbia was ordered (around 21 000), and they were moved to interior housing settlements far away from the coastal region. The first stage of removal required Japanese Canadians to report to holding centres, often the Hastings Park Clearing Centre, where they were held for periods ranging from weeks to months until they were “relocated.” A makeshift school was created at Hastings, which mostly consisted of volunteer teachers. In terms of relocation, adult men were taken to internment camps where they were forced to work on construction projects, while wives and children were left in abandoned mining camps. Families wishing to remain together were transported to work on large sugar beet farms on the prairies.12 During this time, the provincial government took no responsibility for educating the children on such settlements (Roy 1992). The British Columbia Security Commission (the federal agency responsible for overseeing the evacuation) helped organize school for Japanese children in the settlements, arguing that it was essential to provide an education for the children in order to keep up morale, reduce juvenile delinquency, and “assure” the fathers who were forced to work in camps that their children were being educated (Roy 1992). The schools were staffed by Japanese women, some of whom had teaching credentials, and the lessons followed the B.C. curriculum at the time. The “Commission schools” had a total population of around 2500 pupils throughout the war and were committed to providing education only up to Grade 8. Church groups volunteered to offer assistance for providing kindergarten and high school instruction. After the end of the war, interned Japanese Canadians were given the choice of settling east of the Rockies (i.e., not returning to British Columbia) or going to war-ravaged Japan.

Why Mass Schooling?

As detailed above, mass public schooling began in Canada in the mid-1850s. In the previous half of the nineteenth century, parents of the middle class were accustomed to paying for their children’s education through private and voluntary sources (Gidney and Millar 1985). But what were the social conditions that led to its creation? Many accounts of the history of the education system in Canada, particularly accounts prior to the 1960s, represent it as the “triumph of great men” (Di Mascio 2010:36) who created an education system in an effort to overcome increasing class inequalities. Such a publicly funded education system would reduce the disadvantages faced by poor children.

Interpretations from the 1960s forward, however, have challenged the traditional readings of educational history (Di Mascio 2010:36). Newer interpretations understand early school advocates as elite “school promoters” who founded the public school system as a means of entrenching a certain type of values on the growing Canadian population: middle class, British, and Christian (usually Protestant). But the social processes behind the eventual acceptance of mass schooling are more complex than the visions of a few prominent men. Along with mass schooling came great political and cultural struggles. The marginalization of Catholics and francophones outside Quebec and attempts to “assimilate” them—as well as all other non-British Protestants—can be argued to be the major underlying project of much controversial school legislation.

Di Mascio (2010) and Prentice and Houston (1975) argue that writings in the first Toronto newspaper, the Upper Canada Gazette in the early 1800s, provide considerable evidence that “education” was largely about training children into the correct values and morals, which were those that supported the monarchy and Christianity. While rearing children was traditionally the role of the family, an increasing discourse found in these early writings presents this as an important task for an expanding education system.

Houston (1972) details how the common social problems of the day were again thought to be cured by mass schooling. Social problems were blamed upon immigrant families from lower social classes (mostly Irish-famine settlers), who were accused by British elites of not raising their children properly. A prominent education reform advocate of the time, Charles Duncombe, commented in 1836:

Every person that frequents the streets of this city [Toronto] must be forcibly struck with the ragged and uncleanly appearance, the vile language, and the idle and miserable habits of numbers of children, most of whom are of an age suitable for schools, or for some useful employment. The parents of these children are, in all probability, too poor, too degenerate to provide them with clothing for them to be seen in at school; and know not where to place them in order that they may find employment, or be better cared for.13

Schooling was touted as a means to reduce juvenile delinquency and adult criminality that was perceived to be inextricably linked to ignorance and poverty. Therefore, the relation of crime reduction to public schooling became increasingly used in debates around mass schooling, particularly when trying to convince the public that any proposed tax levies would be for the good of all, not just the impoverished and immoral (Houston 1972).

In addition to fixing the ills of society, much discourse around public schooling in the 1840s by Ryerson and others relates to how mass schooling would be a “powerful instrument of British Constitution” (Houston 1972:263). To Ryerson, the content of schooling would not have any American or “anti-British” sentiment at all, and this is evidenced in his insistence that American textbooks not be used and his restriction of American teachers in the mid-1840s. Public schooling was seen as a way to maintain and foster a sense of Britishness in Upper Canada that may have been perceived to be under threat given large waves of immigration at the time. According to Houston (1972), the massive influx of famine Irish in 1847 gave much thrust to Ryerson’s claims that if mass public schooling were not provided, the future of the new colony was at grave risk.

There are other social aspects to the general acceptance of the idea of mass schooling, apart from “proper socialization,” that have been considered by historical researchers. Errington (1993), for example, found evidence that many families in Upper Canada were often in search of educational opportunities for their children, but could not afford to send their children due to economic constraints and the workloads associated with life at that time. Gaffield (1991) argues that as land inheritances dwindled for the offspring of Upper Canadian children, families were looking for other ways to ensure a future for their children, and education was seen as a way of substituting for land inheritance.

Teachers in Canada

Teachers clearly play a prominent role in schools. Schools cannot exist without them. As schooling expanded, so too did the number of teachers. The number of teachers in Canada has “marched steadily forward” (Harrigan 1992), from 13 000 in 1870 to over 329 000 in 2006.14

The occupation of teaching was one of the only viable non-manual occupational choices for young, unmarried women in the early to mid portion of the twentieth century, although it did not pay any better than stenography or skilled factory work. Women have represented over half of all teachers in Canada since 1870, with percentages above 80 from 1905–1930. This increase of women in teaching not only in Canada, but in the Western world in general, has been referred to as the feminization of the teaching corps. Harrigan (1992) estimates that between 1910 and 1930, one in six women between the ages of 20 and 40 was or had been a teacher. Similarly, in the period between the two World Wars and for the 20 years following the Second World War, one in six women would become teachers at the age of 20, with higher rates among the middle class. Various reasons for the feminization of the occupation have been offered, including the absence of other opportunities, the expansion of schooling, urbanization, and gender stereotypes (Harrigan 1992).

While women comprised the majority of teachers, they often worked for less pay—less than half in the nineteenth century—than their male counterparts. Women often were allocated to teaching elementary grades due to the perception that they could not control older children and that they were more suited to providing the nurturing required by younger students (Prentice 1977). Male teachers, in contrast, often became school administrators (Prentice 1977). And in the nineteenth century, women who married could no longer remain teachers because being married made them ineligible to be considered “professional.” Prentice (1977) argues that expansion of elementary schooling at the beginnings of Canadian educational history was largely attributable to the “cheap” labour of female teachers. The pay gap between male and female teachers has closed in recent decades, however, in no small part due to the role of teachers’ unions and federations.

Teacher Training in Canada

As mass schooling has expanded across Canada, so too has the schooling of teachers. Prior to the mid-1840s, there were no formal establishments for teacher training. In 1846, Egerton Ryerson opened the first normal school in Ontario in order to facilitate the better training of teachers. A normal school is the name that was given to the first teacher training institutions. The name comes from the école normales originally established in France to train teachers. The name derives from a learning approach that would provide “model classrooms” for student teachers to learn model teaching practices. These model schools were to set the “norms” or standards for student teachers; hence the name.

The first normal school opened in British Columbia in 1901, although such schools accounted for the training of only a small proportion of teachers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (Harrigan 1992). The ongoing creation of normal schools across the country, however, did signal the growing concern for the development of a supervised and regulated certification scheme for teachers serving in the expanding public school system. Harrigan notes that as time went on, the governments required more qualifications of teachers and linked the qualifications to teachers’ salaries. Normal schools eventually gained prestige and became known as teachers’ colleges, and soon were the only path for entering the teaching occupation (Harrigan 1992).

Between 1900 and 1940, a full two years of training were added to the average teacher’s length of study. The next biggest increase in training came in the late 1960s and 1970s, when university degrees became required for admission to teachers’ colleges. Harrigan (1992) points out that in the 1960s, about 25 percent of teachers had university credentials. By 1980, however, over 75 percent had them. Figure 3.1 shows the substantial increase in the percentage of teachers holding degrees in nine provinces between 1952 and 1973.15 This increase in teachers’ schooling, however, corresponds with the expansion of schooling in society in general.

Figure 3.1

Province % with Uni Degree in 1952 % with Uni Degree in 1973
British Columbia 36 67
Alberta 35 73
Saskatchewan 14 52
Manitoba 19 59
Ontario 24 52
New Brunswick 12 52
Nova Scotia 19 50
Prince Edward Island 5 38
Newfoundland 4 52

Not all jurisdictions approached teacher training in the same way, however. In 1945, Alberta became the first province to shift all teacher preparation from normal schools to Faculties of Education within the university system. By the mid-1970s, all provinces had changed their minimum teacher qualification to university training.

Chapter Summary

This chapter began by discussing how education developed in New France, and how this changed when Lower Canada was conquered by the British in 1791. The various pieces of legislation that contributed to the development of free public schools were described. In Upper Canada, much of the development of the education system is attributed to Egerton Ryerson, who served as Superintendent of Schools from 1844–1876. In Lower Canada, there was much resistance to legislation that was passed in Upper Canada regarding schools, particularly because Lower Canadian schooling was traditionally seen as the purview of the Catholic Church.

Confederation occurred in 1867, which introduced the British North America Act. This Constitution contained an important clause, Section 93, which made matters of education a jurisdictional (rather than federal) matter. It also allowed for the protection of denominational schools where they legally existed beforehand. As other provinces and territories joined Confederation, the adaptation of Section 93 determined if and how separate schools would be accommodated. Provincial “schools questions” arose, often transforming into significant divisive federal political issues when the rights of francophone and Catholic minorities in the provinces were eroded by the prevailing wishes of the Protestant and English-speaking majorities.

Public schooling developed at different times and at different paces in various parts of the country, depending upon the settlement patterns of the area. In addition to the creation of mass public schooling, many Aboriginal children were subjected to the residential schooling system in Canada, which began in 1880 and carried on for nearly 100 years. Other forms of racial segregation also occurred within the public schooling system in various parts of the country. Black students attended segregated schools in many parts of Ontario and Nova Scotia, while Japanese and Chinese students faced segregation in British Columbia.

Teachers have always been at the centre of the school, and in addition to an increase in mass schooling, an increase in the number of teachers as well as the educational requirements of teachers occurred from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s. Teachers became predominantly female, although earlier in the history of Canadian education were restricted to elementary teaching and were paid much lower wages than their male counterparts. Increased standardized teacher training at universities and the later formation of teachers’ unions and federations has resulted in the narrowing of the wage gap between male and female teachers in more recent decades.

Review Questions

1. Identify three major events in the history of education in Ontario and Quebec.

2. Explain how the British North America Act and Section 93 influenced denominational schooling in Canada.

3. Explain what the Manitoba Schools Question was and why it was a major political crisis.

4. Explain why the British Columbia development of schools was fundamentally different from the rest of the country.

5. Define the four types of educational regimes identified by Manzer.

6. Identify three “school promoters” and explain three major contributions each made to the development of education in his region.

7. Define what is meant by residential schooling and the “intergenerational effects” of residential schooling.

8. Identify the three different racial groups that were forced into segregated schooling and the social conditions that led to these segregated schools.

9. Identify four major reasons that social historians have given for the rise of mass schooling.

10. Explain what is meant by the “feminization of the teaching corps.”


  • Use the internet to look up the Northwest Territories Schools Question. How does it fit into the political landscape of the other “schools questions” discussed in this chapter?
  • Use the internet to look up the residential school that was closest to where you currently live. What was it called? In what years did it function? Who ran it? How many students attended the school?
  • Using archival sources, look up the history of a normal school in your area. When did it open? What was it called? What was the enrolment? How long did it stay open?
  • Create a timeline of major events that occurred in Canadian educational history, by province/territory.

Film Recommendations

  • The Little Black School House, 2007, Directed by Sylvia Hamilton
  • The Fallen Feather, 2007, Directed by Randy N. Bezeau
  • Where the Spirit Lives, 1989, Directed by Bruce Pittman
  • The Mission School Syndrome, 1988, Northern Native Broadcasting

Key Terms

common schooling

feminization of the teaching corps

intergenerational effects of residential schooling

non-denominational public schools

normal school


voluntary schools


The Structure of Education in Canada

Source: “Pixel view” by supergiball is licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to

  1. Define pre-elementary programs and describe how they are organized in Canada.
  2. Explain how elementary and secondary school programs are similar across Canadian jurisdictions.
  3. Identify key differences in the Quebec schooling system compared to other jurisdictions.
  4. Define school choice and give examples of school choice in Canada.
  5. Explain the structure of school governance in Canada.
  6. Identify the differences between charter and alternative schools.
  7. Summarize how private schools are funded in Canada.
  8. Describe how education for on-reserve First Nations children and youth is under federal jurisdiction.
  9. Explain how universities and colleges differ in their missions and governance structures.
  10. Explain recent controversies over private universities.
  11. Describe the process of acquiring the skills of a trade.
  12. Explain the difference between informal and formal adult education in Canada.


Uniquely, Canada is the only country in the world with no federal education department (OECD 2011). Instead, the 13 jurisdictions (10 provinces and 3 territories) are responsible for the delivery, organization, and evaluation of education. This decentralization of decision making to individual jurisdictions was determined in 1867 and is explicitly declared in Canada’s Constitution Act. One reason for this decentralization was to protect the interests of the different populations who inhabited the particular parts of the country, as strong ethnic and religious differences existed by region.

The structure of education is, however, very similar across the country, although there are notable differences between jurisdictions, which are due to the unique historical, cultural, geographical, and political circumstances upon which they were developed. Each jurisdiction is guided by its own Education Act, which is a detailed legal document that outlines how education will be organized and delivered, along with student eligibility criteria, duties of employees (teachers, principals, superintendents, and support staff), accountability measures, and different types of programs available.

There are many costs associated with education, including the staffing of institutions at various levels and the cost of the land and buildings (and their maintenance) in which they are housed. In 2006, Canada spent 6.1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education (Canadian Education Statistics Council 2010). Gross domestic product refers to the total value of goods and services produced within a country. Education spending in relation to GDP is often used in international comparisons because the amount of money a country spends on education is regarded as a measure by which to evaluate the relative importance that a country places on the education and training of its citizens. Such investments are known to improve the economic productivity of a country and promote economic growth. The average amount spent by the OECD countries was 5.7 percent. In Canada, around 40 percent of the 6.1 percent was invested in tertiary education, which places Canada (along with the United States) as the largest spender on this segment of the educational sector. The amount of money spent on education from all three levels of government each year is about $80 billion and represents around a quarter of total public expenditures.

In general, education in Canada can be split into four distinct sets of programs: pre-elementary, elementary, secondary, and post-secondary.

Pre-Elementary Programs

Public pre-elementary programs (pre–Grade 1) are available in all jurisdictions in Canada, although their length does vary. Pre-elementary programs, often called kindergarten, are offered to 4- to 5-year-olds (usually the criterion is turning 5 by a certain date, which varies by jurisdiction). Most pre-elementary programs are not mandatory. In other words, parents can choose to skip sending their children to pre-elementary and begin schooling their children when they are old enough to enter Grade 1. In some provinces, notably Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador, however, attendance at pre-elementary is mandatory. Nova Scotia is slightly different in that the year prior to Grade 1 is called Grade Primary and it is technically classified as part of the elementary school program rather than as pre-elementary.

The intensity of pre-elementary programs also varies by jurisdiction. In many areas kindergarten is a half-day program, while in others it is full-day. Recently, Ontario, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island have implemented full-day kindergarten. This recent attention to expanding kindergarten programs is at least partially due to reports released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2003 and UNICEF in 2008, which showed that among economically advanced countries, Canada ranked at the bottom in terms of early education and childcare provided to 0- to 6-year-olds (see Mahon 2009 for an overview; OECD Directorate for Education 2004; UNICEF 2008). With the exception of Quebec, most childcare in Canada is paid for by individual families, which means that the earlier publicly available pre-elementary programs are offered, the easier it is for parents to return to the labour force. Recent research has also found that early childhood education and full-day kindergarten can have positive effects on academic performance in the early grades (Cooper, Allen, Patall, and Dent 2010; Fusaro 2007), particularly for children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Many jurisdictions offer more than one year of publicly available pre-elementary education, depending on the particular circumstances of families and the availability in a particular area. In Quebec, an additional year is available to children with disabilities and some children from low-income families. Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba also have additional years available to students who meet special criteria and live in areas where such provisions are available. Ontario’s pre-elementary programming is unique in Canada in that it is universally publicly available and covers two years: junior kindergarten and senior kindergarten, which children attend from age 4. By 2014, full-day junior and senior kindergartens are anticipated to be universally available in Ontario.

Elementary and Secondary Programs

In Canada, public education is free to all Canadian citizens and permanent residents. All jurisdictions require mandatory attendance for children and youth between certain ages, although this varies by area. The age at which schooling becomes compulsory is generally around 6 or 7 (as of a certain date determined by the jurisdiction). Compulsory education ages are obviously lower for jurisdictions where pre-elementary is also mandatory, like New Brunswick. The minimum age at which youth may terminate their school attendance also varies by jurisdiction. In most jurisdictions, the age is 16. In recent years, attention has been paid to increasing the age at which youth can leave school. The rationale for such an age increase is that in order for young adults to have the necessary skills to compete in the labour market, they will require the basic skills of education that is provided up to the age of 18. Much research (discussed in later chapters) also points to the poor employment prospects for high school dropouts. New Brunswick increased its age of compulsory education from 16 to 18 in 1999, as did Ontario in 2007.1 At the time of writing, the government of Alberta was currently moving toward increasing the school-leaving age from 16 to 17.

The division between elementary and secondary school also varies by jurisdiction, but in general the length of the program is 12 years (or 13, if kindergarten is included). Depending on the jurisdiction, the particular grades encompassed by “elementary” and “high school” vary, with some jurisdictions denoting grades in the middle of “elementary” and “high school” as “middle school” or “junior high.” Elementary education is typically the first six to eight years of education while high school (secondary school) begins at Grade 9 or 10. Sometimes “middle school” or “junior high” covers Grades 6 or 7 to Grades 8 or 9. Figure 4.1 illustrates the typical pre-elementary to secondary trajectories by jurisdiction.

Province or Territory Pre-elementary Elementary | Primary Junior high | Middle Senior high Secondary
Newfoundland and Labrador Yes Grades 1-6 Grades 7-9 Grades 10-12 N/A
Prince Edward Island Yes Grades 1-6 Grades 7-9 Grades 10-12 N/A
Nova Scotia Yes Grades 1-6 Grades 7-9 Grades 10-12 N/A
New Brunswick – English Yes Grades 1-5 Grades 6-9 Grades 9-12 N/A
New Brunswick – French Yes Grades 1-8 N/A N/A Grades 9-12
Quebec – General Yes Grades 1-6 N/A N/A Grades 7-11
Quebec – Vocational N/A N/A N/A N/A Grades 10-13
Ontario Yes Grades 1-8 N/A N/A Grades 9-12
Manitoba Yes Grades 1-4 Grades 5-8 Grades 9-12 N/A
Saskatchewan Yes Grades 1-5 Grades 6-9 Grades 10-12 N/A
Alberta Yes Grades 1-6 Grades 7-9 Grades 10-12 N/A
British Columbia Yes Grades 1-7 N/A N/A Grades 8-12
Yukon Yes Grades 1-7 N/A N/A Grades 8-12
Northwest Territories Yes Grades 1-6 Grades 7-9 Grades 10-12 N/A
Nunavut Yes Grades 1-6 Grades 7-9 Grades 10-12 N/A

The Quebec System

Quebec has a different structural arrangement of its elementary and secondary programs than the rest of the country. The first difference is that pre-elementary to the end of secondary school spans 12 years instead of 13. And instead of grades, the Quebec system has cycles. The first six years of education correspond to elementary education and are divided into three cycles. Cycle I (premier cycle) corresponds to Grades 1 and 2, Cycle II (deuxième cycle) to Grades 3 and 4, and Cycle III (troisième cycle) to Grades 5 and 6. Quebec’s secondary schools (école secondaire) are called Secondary I–V and correspond to Grades 7 to 11, spanning five years. There are two cycles in secondary school. Secondary Cycle 1 (enseignement secondaire premier cycle) corresponds to junior high school Grades 7 and 8, and Secondary Cycle 2 (enseignement secondaire deuxième cycle) corresponds to senior Grades 9 to 11.

The cycle system is different from the grade system used in the rest of Canada in that desired learning outcomes are focused on the completion of a cycle rather than a grade. In others words, children have two years to master the curriculum outcomes of each cycle, rather than a single year to master a grade-specific curriculum. Proponents of the cycle approach argue that two-year cycles allow children to learn at their own pace and foster competencies in a variety of skills.2 The curriculum gives considerable focus on “cross curricular competencies,” which refers to the development of skills that are not specific to any particular subject, such as problem-solving and planning projects (Henchey 1999).

Another major difference of the Quebec education system compared to the rest of Canada is the Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP). CEGEPs are post-secondary institutions in Quebec that serve as two-year pre-university preparatory colleges or three-year professional/trade programs to prepare students for either further study or the labour market. Their closest comparison in the rest of Canada would be junior colleges. Students who complete five years of secondary education in Quebec cannot typically apply straight to university programs, but must progress first to CEGEP, then to university. CEGEPS have existed in Quebec since 1967 and there are currently 48 throughout the province.3 Students graduate from CEGEPS with a Diplôme d’études collégiales (DEC).

Funding of Primary and Secondary Education in Canada

In Canada, public education from kindergarten to the end of secondary education is provided free of charge to Canadian citizens and residents if they complete their secondary education by a certain age maximum (often 19). Expenditure on public education comes from municipal, provincial, federal, and private sources. Schools receive a per-pupil amount, which is a fixed amount of money for each student enrolled in the school (or in secondary school may be associated with number of credit hours in which the student is enrolled). In some jurisdictions, private schools also receive funding. Private schools, or independent schools, are different from public schools in that they do not receive (complete) funding from any government sources and can select their own students and charge tuition. In general, private schools that receive no government funding are not required to follow the provincial or territorial curriculum. Six jurisdictions provide partial funding for private schools (a percentage of the provincial per pupil amount) if they meet certain criteria, such as following the provincial/territorial curriculum and employing provincially certified teachers.

Public and separate school systems that are publicly funded serve about 93 percent of all students in Canada. Jurisdictions west of (and including) Quebec provide partial funding for private schools if certain criteria, which vary among jurisdictions, are met. No funding for private schools is provided in the other jurisdictions, although they still may be regulated.

School Choice

In recent years, the discussion around school choice has become a hot topic in Canada and beyond. School choice refers to the freedom that parents (and students) have in selecting the type of school that their children attend free from government constraint, whether it is public, alternative, charter, religious, or private.

The unique structure of schooling in Edmonton has been dubbed the Edmonton Model by education specialists. Reforms began in the 1970s when the superintendent of schools pushed to decentralize the system. Funding was allocated to schools on a “weighted student formula,” meaning that a per-pupil amount was observed, in addition to taking into account individual student characteristics. For example, students with special needs received a higher share of per-student funding. Parents were free to choose the school that they wanted their children to attend and were not limited by any catchment areas (boundaries). Principals in Edmonton schools have control over about 90 percent of the school’s budget (compared to other school systems where they control far less of the budget and much decision making occurs by administration at higher levels). Advocates of the Edmonton Model argue that because school leaders are given this type of control, they can best serve their students because they are in the best position to know their needs. Edmonton also operates within the Alberta jurisdiction, which offers charter and other types of alternative schools that are publicly funded, and private schools that also are partially funded. Decentralization combined with a high degree of school choice are what characterize the Edmonton Model, which has been adopted in many American cities (MacQueen and Wells, 2006). Table 4.1 provides an overview of school choices available by jurisdiction.

Table 4.1 School choices by jurisdiction

Independent | Private Catholic School Public Francophone Distance Education Other
British Columbia Divided into “Groups” based on programs and teacher certification Group 1-50%; Group 2-35%; Groups 3 and 4, no funding Catholic schools run as independent Yes Yes, but must be enrolled at a public or independent school Mandarin bilingual school
Alberta Registered private schools – not required to follow provincial curriculum or have AB certified teachers not publicly funded. Accredited private schools which meet curriculum and evaluation criteria and have certified teachers funded at 60% Separate Catholic School Board, publicly funded Yes Yes Outreach program for individuals who find traditional school setting does not meet their needs. Unique charter schools alternative programs which emphasize certain language, culture, or subject areas (e.g., fine arts, German, hockey)
Saskatchewan Those deemed ‘historic’ receive full funding; others do not Yes Yes Some publicly funded Protestant schools
Manitoba Funded independent schools follow provincial curriculum and teachers are Manitoba certified, funded at 60% Yes Senior Years Technology Education Program
Ontario Independent schools, non-funded Yes Yes Yes Alternative schools with unique approach to program delivery; Separate Protestant board consisting of one school
Quebec Accredited private schools, 40% funded Yes and public Anglophone Yes Public Anglophone and Francophone school boards
New Brunswick No funding for independent schools Yes
Nova Scotia No funding for independent schools unless private special education for children with learning disabilities
Newfoundland and Labrador No funding for independent schools Yes Yes One Innu Native schools
Prince Edward Island Yes
Yukon Yes Yes
NWT Funded at 40% Yes Yes
Nunavut Yes Yes Bilingual Aboriginal schools

School Governance

The term school governance refers to the way that a school system is governed, or run. At the provincial and territorial levels, each province/territory has at least one department or ministry that is responsible for education, which is headed by a publicly elected minister who is appointed to this position by the party leader of the province/territory. At the provincial/territorial government level, these ministries and departments define the policy and legislative frameworks to guide practice and also function to provide administrative and financial management.8

At a local level, the governance of education lies in the hands of smaller units. These units vary in what they are called and how individuals acquire positions in such organizations. These local units of governance are called school boards, school divisions, school districts, or district education councils. Their powers and tasks vary according to provincial and territorial jurisdiction, but usually include the administration of a group of schools (including the financial aspects), setting of school policies, hiring of teachers, curriculum implementation, and decisions surrounding new major expenditures. All provinces and territories have public school boards (see Table 4.2), which represent the local governance of public education for K–12 education in a particular geographic region. Historically, school boards have been regarded as democratically elected organizations which give the public a say in elementary and secondary education (Howell 2005). In addition to public school boards, separate school boards also exist in some provinces, which are discussed later in this chapter.

In all provinces and territories, the local governance of education is staffed with locally elected officials, who run during municipal elections. Often these officials are called school trustees. Depending on the province or territory, school trustee positions are often voluntary or associated with a small stipend rather than being a full-time paid position. School boards meet regularly throughout the school year and the public are often invited to attend meetings. School trustees will have different jobs depending on the particular jurisdiction in which they are working. Table 4.2 lists the departments responsible for K–12 education in each province and territory, along with the number of school boards (or similar structure) that exist in each jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, school boards have the authority to levy a local tax on property to supplement local education. In such jurisdictions, such school boards have more control over the budgets of their district.

Provincial Dept Responsible School Boards
British Columbia Ministry of Education 60 public school boards | districts
Alberta Alberta Education 62 public, separate (Catholic) and Francophone school boards
Saskatchewan Saskatchewan Education 29 school divisions – public, Catholic, Protestant, Francophone
Manitoba Manitoba Education and Literacy 39 school divisions and districts
Ontario Ministry of Education 72 school boards, 31 English public boards, 296 English Catholic boards, 4 French public boards, and 8 French Catholic boards; small number of schools managed by “school authorities” i.e., in remote areas or in hospitals
Quebec Ministry of Education, Recreation and Sports English (9) and French (60) school boards – 3 special status school boards: Cree, Kativik, Littoral (Lower North Shore)
New Brunswick Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 14 school districts, 5 Francophone, 9 Anglophone
Nova Scotia Department of Education and Culture 8 school boards with publicly elected board members
Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education 5 district school boards (1 Francophone)
Prince Edward Island Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 3 school boards (1 French language)
Yukon Yukon Education 1 school board
NWT Department of Education and Employment 8 divisional education council | school board
Nunavut Department of Education 26 district education authorities and one

In addition to school boards and trustees, school boards are usually responsible for hiring a board superintendent, who serves as the chief executive officer for that school board. The superintendent is not a member of the school board but oversees the general supervision of the school system and implements policies that the board recommends.

School councils are also an important part of the structure of education in Canada. They usually are made up of parent volunteers, teachers, non-teaching staff, community members, and sometimes students who provide recommendations to the school principal and, in some cases, the school board. Many school councils are also active in organizing social events and fundraising. School councils have become required in many jurisdictions, which is one way the government has created parental involvement in education (Brien and Stelmach 2009), although critics may see it as a way of regulating parental involvement in education. Figure 4.2 illustrates these different levels of structure that are common to most jurisdictions, although the roles performed by individuals at each level can vary greatly by province/territory. See Box 4.1 for a discussion of the power struggles that can occur between the different levels of governance in the primary and secondary schooling system.

Figure 4.2 Individuals and Groups Involved in Primary- and Secondary-School Decision Making


The Minister of Education tops the hierarchy. The next level down are District Superintendents; following behind are School Board Elected Trustees. Next level down in the hierarchy are School Councils. Parents and Students, Principals and Teachers, and Teacher's Associations complete the hierarchy.

Box 4.1 – Power Struggles in the Administration of Education

With so many levels to the structure of education in each jurisdiction, and with each level (ministers, school boards, superintendents, teachers, principals, school councils) having its own particular interests, it is not surprising that there are disagreements among the different stakeholders that result in calls for restructuring. In 1996, the Liberal government in New Brunswick abolished school boards altogether, by replacing them (led by elected officials) with school districts, which were divisions of the Department of Education. All 18 school boards were abolished and 250 newly elected trustees were removed from office. The Liberals’ rationale for the restructuring was to make the structure more efficient, streamline decision making, and create more consistency in the development and implementation of policy. New Brunswick became the only school system in Canada without publicly elected school officials.9 The government replaced the boards with local parent-run groups. Attempts by the parent-run groups to have influence in the education system were often ineffective due to the centralized nature of the new education structure. The dissatisfaction of parents was evident in protests, such as a blockade set up by parents in an effort to prevent local schools from being shut, which ended with RCMP using tear gas on the protesters.10 School boards, in the form of district education councils, were later reintroduced by the Conservative government in 2000.

The mid-1990s also saw efforts by Conservative governments in Alberta and Ontario to reduce the powers of school boards. In Ontario, under the Mike Harris government, the Fewer School Boards Act was passed in 1997, which reduced the number of school boards from 124 to 72, and the number of trustees from 1900 to 700. Salaries of trustees were also cut from $40 000 a year to $5000 a year. The platform on which the Harris government was elected in 1994 was largely based on cost-cutting of what were perceived as inefficient bureaucratic expenses. These changes also coincided with the amalgamation of several communities around Toronto into the Greater Toronto Area. The outcome of these two levels of restructuring were fewer, but much larger school boards, with fewer trustees (with minimal pay) representing much larger populations. In addition to these changes, school boards were no longer permitted to collect property tax to raise money from provincial shortfall. Instead, the Ministry of Education collects taxes and distributes them to school boards on a fixed per-student amount. School boards were also not allowed to run a deficit and were required to submit annual balanced budgets. In 1995, the Conservative government in Alberta also changed policy that disallowed public school boards from directly collecting property taxes, also switching to a standardized per-student amount.

In both Ontario and Alberta, such changes to the powers of school boards were met with much protest. Alberta school boards took the loss of their taxation revenue all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2000. The Court decided that it was it was within the province’s right to reform education in the way it saw fit. In 2002, three Ontario school boards defied the provincial law which required them to submit balanced budgets. School boards in Toronto, Hamilton, and Ottawa submitted deficit budgets. They argued that the funding they received from the province did not adequately cover the expenses they met (Multimer 2002). These boards were temporarily taken over by the Ministry, which appointed its own supervisors. This takeover was met by protest by trustees, parents, and unions, who argued that any further budgetary cuts would seriously harm children’s education.

Separate School Boards

In Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario, separate school boards operate along with public school boards. Separate school boards are denominationally based and generally represent schools that are associated with the Catholic faith, although a handful of Protestant school boards do exist. Separate school boards have their roots in the British North America (Constitution) Act of 1867, which provided some protection for denominational schools that existed prior to Confederation. The purpose of the act was to protect and prevent provincial governments from tampering with denominational schools that existed in Upper and Lower Canada prior to Confederation (at the time, entirely Protestant and Catholic, representing the English and French) and to protect minorities living in each part of Canada (Protestants in Lower Canada, Catholics in Upper Canada). The Protestant school boards in English Canada largely moved into the secular school system.

Newfoundland and Quebec, which both had denominational schools systems, made constitutional amendments to eliminate denominational schools in the late 1990s, with Quebec moving to French and English school boards. Manitoba eliminated constitutionally protected denominational schools in 1890. See Box 4.2 for a discussion of some of the debates surrounding faith-based schools and funding.

Box 4.2 – Funding of Faith-Based Schools

As shown in Table 4.1, provinces west of (and including) Quebec fund private/independent schools to some extent. And, because many private schools are religiously based, these provinces are partially funding faith-based schools provided they meet certain criteria, like following provincial curricula and being staffed by provincially certified teachers.

Debates have surfaced in Ontario over the way the British North America Act is used in modern educational practice. Critics have argued that the way the act is implemented serves to privilege the Catholic faith over others (see Magnuson 1991 for an overview). In Ontario, for example, no funding is given to private schools (many of which are faith-based), while the Catholic school board is publicly funded. In other words, the only faith-based schools that get funding in Ontario are those belonging to the Catholic school board, which is entirely publicly funded. In Atlantic Canada, where no independent schools receive public funding, Catholic schools are not funded either.

Other faith-based schools in Ontario (which do not receive funding) have argued that it is unfair to seemingly privilege the Catholic faith over others. They have fought back with legal challenges and created a lobby group that advocates for the funding of faith-based schools that meet provincial guidelines. The group, Public Education Fairness Network, comprises members from the Armenian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh communities. They argue that the Ontario school system is not a secular one, by virtue of the fact that it funds Catholic schools, and that this funding should be extended to the remaining 53 000 students (or 2 percent of all students) who attend independent schools in Canada.11

In the late 1990s, Arieh Hollis Waldman brought a case before the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which dealt directly with the matter of public funding of non-Catholic religious schools. He argued that he wanted to provide his children with a Jewish education, and as a result would experience financial hardship—a hardship he would not experience if he wanted to provide his children with Catholic education. He argued that this practice was discriminatory and violated the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 1999, the UN Human Rights Commission ruled that although a provincial government is not obliged to provide funding to religious schools, if it does, it should then provide funding on a nondiscriminatory basis, without preference to certain religions. In 2007, the issue of funding non-Catholic religious schools made headlines again during the Ontario provincial elections, when Conservatives, then led by John Tory, made the funding of faith-based schools an election issue, promising to extend funding to such schools if elected. Dalton McGuinty, whose Liberal Party won that election, was strongly opposed to extending funding to such schools.12

Alternative Schools

The term alternative school very broadly refers to a school that differs somehow in its delivery of education from mainstream public schools. In many provinces, alternative schools exist within the public school system. In general, alternative schools emphasize particular languages, cultures (e.g., Aboriginal), or subject matter (e.g., arts), or they use a specific teaching philosophy. Often, alternative schools at the high school level are geared specifically toward children and youth who are deemed to be at a high risk of dropping out of school. For example, the alternative school programs in British Columbia and Quebec are mostly dedicated to this population and often have classroom setups, schedules, and curricula that are modified to accommodate this particular group of young people. Many alternative schools also emphasize small class sizes and year-round programming.

In Alberta, for example, publicly funded and administered alternative programs specialize in fine arts, French immersion, German, hockey, science, and Montessori. Montessori is a teaching philosophy developed by Italian educator Maria Montessori in the late nineteenth century that focuses on learning through child-centred and child-led experiential learning and by the natural development of children’s learning through pursuing their interests, rather than formal teaching practices. Montessori schools are generally oriented toward young children. In Ontario, a wide variety of alternative schools are offered by the district school boards, particularly in urban centres like Ottawa and Toronto (see Box 4.3).

Box 4.3 – Alternative Schools in the Toronto District School Board

Serving over a quarter of a million students each year, the Toronto District School Board is the largest in the country and the fourth largest in North America.13 To accommodate the diverse learning needs of the students in this district, several alternative schools are offered at the elementary (19) and secondary level (22).

As stated on the TDSB website:

TDSB Alternative schools offer students and parents something different from mainstream schooling. Each alternative school, whether elementary or secondary is unique, with a distinct identity and approach to curriculum delivery. They usually feature a small student population, a commitment to innovative and experimental programs, and volunteer commitment from parents/guardians and other community members. While the schools offer Ministry approved courses, these courses are delivered in a learning environment that is flexible and meets the needs of individual students.

   In all alternative secondary schools students complete credit courses. Courses may be delivered through large group instruction, smaller co-operative groups, an independent study program, or other forms of learning that are negotiated with the teachers. Programs and program delivery models vary from school to school. Each school’s small student population typically includes a variety of ages and grade levels and provides a nurturing environment for students who benefit from having staff know them individually. Different secondary schools begin at different grades and offer different pathways where “success is the only option.”

   Each alternative school, whether elementary or secondary, is a school of choice and has its own distinct culture. With such a wide range of alternative schools representing a host of different program delivery models, it is important for students and their families to visit a variety of alternative schools before choosing one that best meets their needs.”14

Many alternative secondary schools within the TDSB are focused on engaging students who are at a high risk of dropping out, or have dropped out in the past. An alternative program for lesbian, gay, and transgendered youth is housed within the OASIS alternative school, which also has programs for youth interested in skateboarding and street art. Other secondary alternative schools in the TDSB focus on experiential learning, creative arts, or university preparedness, and many also strongly emphasize the democratic student-inclusive decision-making processes that greatly inform their institutional philosophy.

At the elementary school level, the TDSB offers alternative schools generally all of which emphasize fostering strong linkages among students, school staff, parents, and the wider community. In terms of specific specializations, among the many alternative elementary schools in Toronto, there are those that focus on Africentric education (discussed in Chapter 5), social justice, and holistic and experiential learning.

Source: From Toronto District School Board website “Alternative Schools” menuid=490&pageid=379.

Charter Schools—A Special Case of Alternative Schools

Charter schools are special types of alternative schools that are semi-autonomous, tuition-free public education institutions that are unique in that they organize the delivery of education in a specialized way that is thought to enhance student learning. Currently in Canada, charter schools exist only in Alberta, and have been part of that province’s education system since 1994. Charter schools deliver the provincially mandated curriculum in a unique way that is spelled out in its charter, which is a formal agreement between the administration of the charter school and the minister of learning.

Charter schools provide basic education in a unique, different, or “enhanced” manner that characterizes the charter school in its own unique way. One major difference between charter schools and other alternative schools is that the governance of charter schools is undertaken by members of the charter board instead of the local school authority or district. The charter board typically comprises parents, teachers, and community members, unlike the governance of other public schools, which is undertaken by officials elected by public ballot.

While the types of charter schools in Alberta vary considerably, they all share the following characteristics (Alberta Learning 2002):

  • they must provide access to all students, where space and resources permit;
  • they must have a written charter that describes unique manner in which the school will deliver education and what student outcomes are intended;
  • they must follow the Alberta Learning curriculum;
  • they must not be affiliated with any religious faith;
  • they must be accountable to the minister of learning and demonstrate that the mandates of their charter are being realized and that improved student learning has occurred;
  • there is a minimum enrolment of 100 students;
  • they must specialize in a particular educational approach or service that is designed to meet the needs of a particular group of students; and
  • they may not charge tuition fees.

Charter schools are unique in that they can bypass district school boards and report directly to the province. Therefore, charter schools have much more flexibility than regular public schools. Flexibility in the governance of the school and the autonomy that the school has from the regular public system are also features of charter schools. They manage their own funding and hire their own (Alberta-certified) teachers. Charter schools in Alberta do not have permanent status and are renewed only when they have been evaluated as successful by the province.

In 2011, there were 13 charter schools in Alberta. Table 4.3 lists their names, locations, and specializations.15 As reported in the table, 9 of the 13 charter schools are in large urban centres in Alberta. The charter schools in Calgary are much larger and comprise 83 percent of the enrolment of students in charter schools in Alberta (Alberta Education 2011).

Table 4.3 Characteristics of Charter Schools in Alberta

Name Location Focus
Almadina Language Charter Academy Calgary English as a Second Language
Aurora Charter School Edmonton Traditional education
Boyle Street Education Centre Edmonton At-risk youth
Calgary Arts Academy Calgary Arts immersion curriculum
Calgary Girls’ School Academy Calgary Leadership in young girls
Calgary Science School Calgary Inquiry-based, technology-rich
Centre for Academic and Personal Excellence (CAPE) Medicine Hat Academically capable under-achievers
Foundation for the Future Charter Academy Calgary Academic excellence and character development
Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School Stony Plain Traditional Indigenous teachings
New Horizons Schools Ardrossan Gifted education
Suzuki Charter School Edmonton Academics enriched with music
Valhalla Community School Valhalla Rural leadership
Westmount Charter School Calgary Gifted education

Charter schools have been contentious in Canada and elsewhere. Supporters of charter schools argue that such schools provide much-needed flexibility within the public system and give parents more choice about where they can send their children, without the burden of tuition fees. The flexibility in the delivery of the curriculum is also considered an advantage for students who can benefit from the unique approaches adopted by charter schools, such as students for whom English is a second language, gifted students, or at-risk youth. Supporters also argue that because charter schools are accountable to the province, they can be renewed only upon demonstrating that their charter mandates have been met. Such accountability helps ensure a high-quality education. Supporters of charter schools have also argued that competition with the regular public schools may also place pressure on public schools to improve, if they must compete with charter schools for students.

Opponents of charter schools, however, argue that such schools dismantle the public school spirit of having a common core of education for all. As curriculum in charter schools is delivered in special ways, students will receive different education overall from students in regular public schools. Opponents also argue that charter schools will encourage a two-tiered system to develop, where only students from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds will benefit from charter schools as such parents are characteristically more likely to try to form a new charter school. And because charter schools are small, there is only limited availability for students, which raises concerns about equity and fairness around access. Critics of charter schools argue that instead of improving the quality of traditional public schools indirectly through pressure and competition for students, the presence of charter schools actually discourages the reform of public education, instead encouraging parents to create “niche schools” that serve only special interests (Kuehn 1995). A final major criticism of charter schools has to do with its governance structure. Because charter schools are publicly funded, critics argue that their governance structures should be publicly elected, instead of appointed from within. See Table 4.4 for a summary of these arguments for and against charter schools.

Before you open the following panels | accordion, brainstorm the points in favour and against Charter Schools.

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Charter schools also exist in similar forms in the United States, England, and Wales (“academies”), Sweden (“free schools”), and Chile (“voucher schools”). While New Zealand does not have “charter schools” per se, massive educational reform in the late 1980s resulted in an entire education system comprised of self-governing schools that operate in a similar manner to charter schools.

Private Schools

In general, private schools are schools that are owned and operated outside of the public authority (Magnuson 1993). In Canada, private schools often do not receive any government funding and instead charge tuition fees. Because education is a provincial matter, however, the funding of private schools varies across Canada. In British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec, some funding is given to private schools, provided they meet a variety of conditions, such as employing accredited teachers and teaching the provincial curriculum. Alberta provides the largest funding of private schools in Canada, funding up to 70 percent of the per student amount.

The regulation of private schools varies greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Those that partially fund students require that students meet a number of conditions, while those that do not receive funding are not subject to monitoring. In Ontario, the private schools are neither funded nor monitored, except at the secondary level in the case where the school is offering credits toward the Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

Around 7 percent of all school-aged children in Canada attend private schools, which has grown slightly from 1994 when the figure was around 4.5 percent (Lefebvre, Merrigan, and Verstraete 2011). The numbers, however, vary considerably among the jurisdictions. Around 10 percent of all school-aged children in Quebec are in subsidized private education. In British Columbia, the total percentage of school-aged children in subsidized private education is around 9 percent, compared to just under 5 percent in Alberta and around one percent in Saskatchewan (Lefebvre, Merrigan, and Verstraete 2011, citing Marois 2005). See Box 4.4 for a discussion of private education in Quebec.

Private schools add to the range of school choice that parents have around the educational options available to their children. Private schools, unlike public schools, however, often restrict access based upon admission criteria, which often includes demonstrated academic ability but may also include religious affiliation and even ethnic background (Magnuson 1993). Many private schools can be classified as associated with a particular religious affiliation or be academically oriented. Less often, private schools focus on a particular activity, such as ballet or athletics.

In Canada, the best-known private school is Upper Canada College, which is a boys’ school located in Toronto that has been in operation since 1829. Upper Canada College has among its alumni several lieutenants governor, premiers, and mayors. The school has a reputation for being the school of choice for wealthy and influential Canadians, having tuition fees of around $30 000 per year.

Box 4.4 – The Prevalence of Private Schools in Quebec

Quebec has the highest rate of elementary and secondary students attending private school—around 10 percent. In Quebec, only about 6 percent of elementary school children are in private education, compared to over 18 percent of secondary students. In Montreal, however, about one in three secondary students attends a private school.

Quebec has a unique history around private elementary and secondary schools. The popularity of private schools in Quebec has been argued to be at least partially due to the historical significance of private schools in Quebec (Lefebvre, Merrigan, and Verstraete 2011; Magnuson 1993) which gained merit in New France during the 1600s, during which time religious orders established schools in the colony (Magnuson 1993). For centuries, church-run schools were associated with the education of the ruling elite (Magnuson 1993). Massive educational reforms of the 1960s acted to almost eliminate the presence of such schools, however, severely weakening the position of private schools in Quebec.

Public funding of private education in Quebec has been available since the 1980s, after revision of education financing legislation. The amount of subsidy given to students in private schools varies annually according to the subsidy given to students attending public school, and also varies by level of education (elementary or secondary). There are limits placed on the fees that a funded private school may charge, however. Funded private schools may not charge fees that are over half of its per-student grant—e.g., if a per-student grant is $3000, the school may not charge more than $1500 (Magnuson 1993). The subsidies for children in secondary private schools are much larger than for children in private elementary schools, which explains the vastly different enrolment rates at each level.

Home Schooling

In Canada, home-based learning, or home schooling, is permitted in all provinces and territories. In such arrangements, children do not attend school, but are educated at home, usually by a parent. Because each province and territory has its own Education Act, the regulations around home schooling vary by jurisdiction. In the majority of jurisdictions home schooled students must be registered with the department of education. In Saskatchewan, parents must apply to the local school authority for permission to home school their children.

Funding for home schooled children also varies considerably by jurisdiction, with the majority offering no funding to parents who home school. Notable exceptions are British Columbia, which funds $250 per home schooled child if that child is registered with the public school district, and Alberta, which gives 16 percent of the basic per-pupil amount directly to the parent. In some jurisdictions, home schooled students registered with the local school district have access to textbooks, learning materials, and equipment.

While home schooled children typically follow provincial curricula, an alternative approach to home schooling is called unschooling, a term coined by home schooling advocate John Holt (Holt 1981). Holt believed that the schools system was fundamentally flawed, and therefore heavily endorsed home schooling. He believed, however, that to replicate a classroom experience in the home would be to replicate the flaws in the present system. He believed that children are natural students possessing great curiosity and are eager to learn when they are free to pursue their own interests. Unschooling is home-based education without curriculum, schedules, tests, or grades. The approach is entirely child-led. Topics are pursued as children show interest in them.

It is not known how many children are “unschooled” in Canada as they would usually be classified as home schooled.

French-Language Programs

The Canadian Charter guarantees parents the right to educate their children in their first language if it is English or French. French-language schools are present in every province and territory, and in order to attend a child must have at least one parent who is a native French speaker.

French immersion programs are for students whose first language is not French and is available in all jurisdictions, except New Brunswick. All classes are taught in French except for English. The goal of French immersion education is to develop linguistic excellence in the French language. In New Brunswick, changes in 2008 resulted in the termination of French immersion programs, which were replaced by intensive French instruction for all anglophone students beginning in Grade 5.

French immersion is widely supported because it promotes bilingualism. Some critics, however, have argued that French immersion actually promotes streaming of children. Willms (2008) found that French immersion students differ from English instruction students in a variety of important ways. French immersion students tend to be from significantly higher socioeconomic backgrounds, less likely to be male, less likely to have a learning disability (or be in special education), and have better performance on standardized tests. These differences are not the outcome of French immersion per se, but rather factor into the selection of students into such programs. Because French immersion programs are academically challenging, higher-ability children are more likely to be enrolled in such programs, while children who struggle in school would be discouraged from enrolling. Children in French immersion also come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and are more likely to have parents with university degrees, indicating that economic factors also play a role in who attends French immersion (Worswick 2003).

Aboriginal Education

About two-thirds of First Nations peoples live off reserve and their children attend provincially run schools. The Constitution Act of 1867 (and later the consolidation of many Aboriginal-related laws into the Indian Act of 1876) stated that the Crown is responsible, however, for the education for First Nations people who live on reserves. See Box 4.5 for further discussion of the education clauses in the Indian Act. Inuit and Métis people are not governed by this law. Inuits do not live on reserves but typically in municipal areas which would have territorially funded education, while Métis children living on Métis settlements would attend provincially run on-settlement schools. Specifically, it is the federal government’s responsibility to provide and fund primary and secondary education on First Nations reserves. About one in five First Nations children are educated on reserve, with the remaining attending schools under provincial jurisdiction (Richards 2009).

Box 4.5 – The Historical Significance of the Indian Act in Delivering Education to First Nations Children

The 1867 Constitution has played a significant role in how education has been organized in Canada. First of all, the Constitution granted provincial jurisdiction over education. Within the Indian Act enacted in 1876, responsibility for “Indians” and “Lands Reserved for Indians” was delegated to the federal government, which included all aspects of their education.

Sections 114 through 122 of the Indian Act pertain specifically to education. In no uncertain language is it clear that the intention of the education sections of the Indian Act promote the use of education as an assimilation technique (Mendelson 2008). While too lengthy to replicate here, the act in its entirety can be found on the Department of Justice Canada website ( page-35.html).

As noted by Mendelson (2008), the act explains in detail that schools are to be imposed on First Nations children, whether or not they or their parents wished for them to attend. Rather significantly, the act also allows the minister of education to establish agreements with provinces and religious orders to run such schools but it does not permit the minister to make agreements with First Nations to run their own schools (Mendelson 2008).

In addition to not providing the possibility for First Nations to run their own schools, the act also indicates that the children will receive “comparable” education to other Canadian children, but does not specify how this will be ensured.

Mendelson (2008:3) argues “The Act’s core purpose was to provide a legal basis for the internment of Aboriginal children and to establish government control as a means of pursuing assimilation. The Act contains no reference to any substantive educational issues, the quality of education or the rights of parents to obtain an adequate education for their children.”

While the act remains legally in force today, the language is so outdated that enforcement of the many clauses is not possible. The obsolete language and the vague wording of the act, however, mean that there is little framework from which First Nations education reformers have to improve educational policy. Mendelson (2008, 2009) argues that this lack of structure and clarity in federal policy has resulted in a “policy vacuum” which has significantly slowed the progress of any educational improvements for on-reserve students. With no actual First Nations “school system” in place and the isolation of many First Nations on-reserve schools, some specialists have argued for the creation of a separate First Nations Education Act to radically reform the current law (Mendelson 2008, 2009; Richards 2008).

Elementary and secondary on-reserve education is managed by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), which runs programs that oversee the instruction of on-reserve schools and reimburses the tuition costs for students who attend off-reserve schools (which are under provincial jurisdiction). It should be noted that AANDC has undergone a name change in 2011 and previously was known as the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development since the mid-1950s. Federal policy indicates that on-reserve educational services are to be comparable to those provided by the province in off-reserve public schools.

In 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood (now known as the Assembly of First Nations) presented the federal government with a written policy on First Nations education entitled Indian Control of Indian Education. As indicated by its title, this document outlined the importance of local control, parental involvement, and culturally relevant curriculum. The DIAND was quick to respond to the position paper, handing over administrative control of on-reserve schools to the bands in the same year. There are over 500 band-operated schools on First Nations reserves in Canada, with only a few being managed by DIAND (Simeone 2011). Approximately $1.8 billion will be spent in 2012–2013 to fund the on-reserve education of around 120 000 First Nations primary and secondary school students. Most, but not all, on-reserve schools are at the kindergarten and primary level, however. Around 40 percent of normally on-reserve students attend school off-reserve in provincially run and private schools because of the absence of secondary schools on many reserves. Children of secondary-school age must often commute long distances or move off reserve in order to attend secondary school.

An important exception to federal control over First Nations education occurred in 1975, when the Cree community of James Bay, located in Northern Quebec, established its own school board. Prior to this, children were being sent off reserve to be educated in residential schools. The establishment of the Cree School Board signalled protection of Cree culture and the education of their children in their own language and traditions.16 The school board function is recognized within Quebec’s Education Act and is funded by both the federal and Quebec governments (Mendelson 2008).

In 2008, the Canadian government committed $70 million over two years to improving and reforming First Nations K–12 education.17 As discussed throughout this textbook, there is considerable evidence that on-reserve schools are not comparable to provincial schools in many aspects, given that the educational outcomes of First Nations students lag so far behind those of other Canadians. First Nations community leaders, policy-makers, and politicians have repeatedly called for overhauls to the First Nations education system with the aim of improving outcomes for First Nations students. The specific reforms that have been suggested vary by province, but include partnerships between provincially run schools and First Nations groups, and agreements that give First Nations groups more control over the education of their children and allow them to deliver an education program that is more culturally relevant.

More recent similar agreements have been reached by other First Nations groups, provincial education authorities, and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. In 1997, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Chiefs approached the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development with the idea of making a Mi’kmaq Education Authority to service the 13 different Mi’kmaq communities in the province with culturally relevant and self-governed education. In 1999, after much debate, the Mi’kmaq Education Act was incorporated into federal law and the jurisdiction of the education in these areas was transferred to the Mi’kmaq Nation (Mendelson 2009).

More recently, the B.C. First Nations have been working together with provincial and federal authorities to make amendments to First Nations education laws in their province. In 2007, the First Nations Jurisdiction over Education in British Columbia Act was passed which created a new First Nations Education Authority in British Columbia. The resulting education authority will be run by First Nations and responsible for the K–12 program in participating First Nations, including curriculum and teacher training (Mendelson 2009).

International and Offshore Schools

Not all Canadian elementary and secondary schools are physically located in Canada. There are schools in Antilles, China, Egypt, Ghana, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Singapore, St. Lucia, Switzerland, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, and United Arab Emirates that use the curriculum of one of the provinces in Canada. Provincial ministries inspect the schools, which offer credits toward Canadian secondary diplomas. These schools are not publicly funded. Such schools are English speaking and often cater to globally mobile professional families (Hayden and Thompson 2008).

Offshore schools is a term that has been given to a new group of schools that follow the British Columbia provincial curriculum and employ teachers with B.C. teacher’s certificates. Such schools are mostly located in China. In 2002, British Columbia amended its Education Act to allow school districts to establish a “company” that would be able to offer for-profit schools outside of the country. At the time of writing, there are about 25 of these schools in operation. Offshore schools are often viewed as feeder schools for international students who wish to pursue post-secondary studies in Canada. By being educated in English and learning from a British Columbia curriculum, students in other countries can meet the requirements of universities across Canada. The tuition fees collected from offshore schools are also used to fund public education in British Columbia.

Post-Secondary Education in Canada

In Canada, post-secondary education is available at a range of government-supported and private institutions across the country. Such public institutions receive a substantial amount (50 percent or more) of their operating capital from the government and do not operate for a profit. Such institutions provide various credentials after completion of a program of study, such as degrees, diplomas, certificates, and attestations (Council of Ministers of Education, Canada 2008). While the ability to grant degrees has traditionally been solely the domain of universities, recent changes in some jurisdictions now allow colleges and private universities to award some types of degrees. According to the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, a “recognized postsecondary institution is a private or public institution that has been given full authority to grant degrees, diplomas, and other credentials by a public or private act of the provincial or territorial legislature or through a government-mandated quality assurance mechanism.”18

There are 163 universities (public and private) in Canada, as well as 183 public colleges and institutes (Council of Ministers of Education, Canada 2011). Other institutions at the university (almost 70) and college (about 50) level have selected programs that meet the requirements of quality assurance at the level of the jurisdiction.

Post-secondary education in Canada is funded through a combination of municipal, provincial, federal, and private funds, which vary considerably by province and territory. Student tuition fees make up around 20 percent of the funding of post-secondary education.


Canadian public universities grant undergraduate degrees that range from three to four years, depending on the program of study, as well as some types of specialized diplomas. The word “university” is a legally protected term that can be applied only to institutions that meet the requirements outlined in the province or territorial University Act and which have been given such recognition by the regulatory body. Universities exist for the primary purposes of granting degrees and conducting research. The mission statements of universities emphasize non-economic objectives (Orton 2009) and the importance of the pursuit of knowledge.

As a major expectation of universities is the active research program of its academic community, an important element of academic life on university campuses is the principle of academic freedom. Academic freedom refers to the ability of researchers to teach, conduct research, publish, and communicate their academic findings and ideas without being at risk of losing their jobs or being otherwise penalized if their results are deemed controversial. In universities, tenure is a mechanism that ensures academic freedom for faculty members. Tenure refers to the process by which junior professors are found to meet the rigorous requirements of a given institution in the fields of teaching, research, and university service, and are granted permanent status wherein they cannot be dismissed without just cause. It has been argued that without this type of job security, academics may not pursue difficult or controversial topics and only research “safe” topics so as to not risk losing their jobs.

In addition to undergraduate degrees, many universities offer post-graduate study at the master’s and doctoral level. Master’s programs usually last one or two years, while doctoral programs are three years or longer. Universities can be divided into four general types: primarily undergraduate, comprehensive, medical doctoral, and special purpose (Orton 2009). Primarily undergraduate universities are those that focus on undergraduate degrees (mostly bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees) and have few or no graduate program offerings. Comprehensive universities are those that are characterized by a wide range of programs at both the undergraduate and post-graduate levels, and also have a high degree of research activity. Medical doctoral universities are those that have a wide offering of PhD programs in addition to medical schools. And special purpose universities are those that specialize in a particular field of study, awarding most degrees in a specific field.

Governance in Canadian Universities

Canadian universities are considered autonomous, non-profit corporations (Jones, Shanahan, and Goyan 2001), which were created in jurisdiction-specific acts or charters. Public universities have much freedom in their governance as they are permitted to set their own admission requirements and program offerings. Interventions by the government are limited to concerns around fee increases and student funding (Council of Ministers of Education, Canada 2011). In terms of governance, public universities usually have two tiers of structure: a board of governors and a senate. The characteristic of having these two legislative bodies for the purpose of university governance is known as bicameralism (Jones, Shanahan, and Goyan 2001). The vast majority of Canadian universities have adopted bicameralism since the 1960s, although the composition of the board of governors and senate can vary considerably between institutions.

Governing boards at a university tend to comprise persons of various backgrounds, including alumni (Jones 2002), although typically about two-thirds of the board are from outside the university. Faculty, students, and senior university administration (such as deans and the president) also typically sit on the board. The tasks of the board of governors are typically focused on issues related to policy and finances. In contrast, the major tasks associated with the university senate tend to be focused on academic matters, such as programs of study, admission requirements, appeals, and program planning. University senates are typically comprised of faculty, students, and senior university administrators. The rationale behind having a bicameralist system is historically rooted in the attempts to balance both academic and public interests within the formal organizational governance structure of the university (Jones 2002).

While the senate may be responsible for academic matters, and governing boards for administrative matters, a third source of decision making is found in the administrative structure of the university itself (Jones 2002). A university has a president who is appointed by the governing board. The job of the president is to attend to the day-to-day affairs of the institution and delegate authority within a structure of central administrative structure. In addition to the president, there are also at least two vice-presidents, deans of faculties, and heads of individual university departments. While there are many specific differences in the roles of each administrative position according to particular universities, one common role that the university president plays is serving as the official linkage between the university and the provincial government (Jones 2002). Also, the selection of higher-level administrative roles including the president and deans employs a participatory process, which includes a search committee comprised of various members of the university community, often including students (Jones 2002). Figure 4.3 represents a very general flow of decision making that is common to many Canadian universities.

Figure 4.3 Typical Flow of Decision Making in Canadian Universities

The multilayered hierarchy is headed by the MInister. The President | Vice Chancellor follows with a number of VPs reporting up to her|him. Deans and Associate Deans report up with involvement from the Senate and Board of Governors. Chairs or Heads of Departments report to ADs. Faculty Associations and Unions; Staff Associations and Unions; and Student Associations complete the decision-making structure.

Faculty associations have also played an important role in university administration in the last few decades, with unonized and non-unionized faculty associations in place at most Canadian universities (Jones 2002). Such associations, particularly those that are unionized, have significant influence in the area of faculty salaries, workload, tenure, and promotion and academic freedom. Often, faculty associations include members other than full-time professors, including part-time faculty and librarians.

Student participation in the governance of universities increased in the 1960s and 1970s (Jones 2002), with student associations existing on all campuses. Usually university students are mandatory fee-paying members of at least one student association. The services that are offered by student associations vary according to campus, but can range from running businesses like campus pubs and restaurants, to printing a student paper, organizing student social activities and campus events, and monitoring institutional policies and practices (Jones 2002).


There are literally thousands of colleges (sometimes called institutes) in Canada, ranging from those that grant degrees to those which provide specialized training in specific job-related skills, such as agriculture, arts, or paramedical training. Many private colleges that offer specific job skill training are called career colleges. Of all colleges in Canada, about 150 are recognized public institutions, with this figure including CEGEPS in Quebec (Council of Ministers of Education, Canada 2011). Colleges and institutes are legislated under provincial College Acts (or their equivalent, depending on the jurisdiction) and have a primary purpose of education (rather than research and education, as in universities). Mission statements of colleges usually emphasize economic objectives (Orton 2009).

In addition to degree-granting institutions, many other colleges can be classified as multi-purpose colleges insofar as they offer a range of programs that vary from one to three years in duration (Orton 2009). In addition to these two sub-types of colleges, there are other special purpose colleges that offer programs only in a specific area of study. As mentioned above, career colleges are another type of college operated on a for-profit basis and usually offer certificates and diplomas oriented toward professional development (Orton 2009), although some are gaining degree-granting status in specific programs of study. Another distinction between colleges and universities pertains to the concept of academic freedom. In colleges academic freedom is not guaranteed, and in career colleges it is essentially nonexistent (Orton 2009).

College Governance

College governance structures differ from those of the universities in that relatively few have a senate equivalent. In contrast, most have boards of governors with representation from students, teachers, the public, and jurisdictional governments. College governance (depending on the college) can also be influenced by business and industry representatives, who may sit on advisory boards or committees. There is often a more obvious and direct linkage between business interests and colleges governance (where there is a more direct connection with specific career-related training) than in universities. In contrast to universities, where the senate (or equivalent body) determines academic policy, in colleges, the provincial or territorial government authorizes degrees (if any), while the board is in charge of authorizing diplomas and certificates. Faculty councils may be present in colleges and institutes and serve in an advisory role, although such presence at a career college is very rare (Orton 2009).

Public and Private Post-secondary Education

The vast majority of universities in Canada are publicly funded (i.e., they receive government funding at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels for their operation), while just a fraction of the thousands of colleges in Canada are public institutions. Private universities and colleges, in contrast, do not receive public funding. In Canada, there are relatively few private universities, compared to the United States, for example. Many American universities, particularly those that are regarded as “ivy league” or very prestigious, are private in the sense that they do not receive government funding and generate their operating budgets from tuition fees and private donations. Tuition at private universities and colleges is generally much higher than at public institutions.

In Canada, there are relatively few private universities, although many colleges are considered private institutions. Many provinces passed legislation to allow private post-secondary institutions to grant degrees beginning in 2000. The introduction of these new laws was not without controversy, particularly in Ontario (see Box 4.6). Prior to this, private universities and colleges still existed, but the granting of degrees was limited to publicly funded institutions. In 1999, New Brunswick became the first province to pass a law called the Degree Granting Act, which allowed for-profit universities to operate in the province and to grant post-secondary degrees. In 2000, the Mike Harris government passed similar legislation in Ontario, which sparked much public debate. Harris argued that because many Ontario students were prepared to leave Ontario to attend American private institutions, offering similar private education within the province would retain these students. Harris also argued that because these schools have no public funding, there was no cost to the taxpayer. Critics, such as the Canadian Federation of Students, argued that allowing for-profit universities would create a two-tiered system that catered to the wealthy and that the for-profit institutions would be inaccessible to non-elites. Today, private degree-granting universities and colleges are established in Ontario, New Brunswick, British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba. The majority of these private institutions have religious affiliation.

Box 4.6 – The Arguments For and Against Private Universities

Cudmore (2005b) summarizes the arguments for and against private universities. First, during times of fiscal crisis and increased student demand, opening private universities creates additional student “spaces” that may otherwise not be available, and such spaces do not bear any cost on the government. The second argument for private universities stems from an outlook that views the current post-secondary system as fundamentally flawed. The introduction of competition from the private sector is one way to put the pressure on public post-secondary providers to increase accountability. The third possible advantage of permitting private universities is to attract business—particularly education entrepreneurs (such as the University of Phoenix and the Apollo Group, both major players in American private education)—to the local economy and stimulate economic growth. The final argument in favour of private universities centres on the issue of student choice; if students want to attend the degree programs offered by such institutions and pay the associated fees, this choice should be available. Otherwise, Canada may lose students to other countries where such choice is available.

There were many groups that were strongly opposed the new legislation allowing private universities, including the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Association, and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. One of the major criticisms against private universities is the claim that they do not receive public money (Cudmore 2005b). Critics argue that private universities in the United States do in fact receive public money—up to 30 percent of the funds that are spent by such institutions are drawn from publicly subsidized student financial assistance programs or direct public subsidies (OCUFA 2000; OPSEU Online 2000). Subsidies include the ability to provide tax deductions to donors, and to claim tuition paid to such institutions as a tax deduction, for example. Critics also argued that attention to the neglect in the public system would decrease the perceived need for a private system. In other words, funding problems have led to decreased enrolments and program cutbacks, which have created a perception that there is a need for such a niche market, and fixing the problems in the existing system would negate the perceived need for private institutions.

Two more criticisms against private universities relate to their tuition cost and the quality of their educational product. Above, the concern that students had entered a two-tiered system in Canada was described. Related to this is the mounting student debt that a student attending such a private institution may incur over the duration of his or her degree program. Faculty associations have also argued that the values of public and private universities are not necessarily the same, with much of the staffing of private universities in the United States being drawn from part-time and contract faculty. The quality of the end product of a degree program has also been questioned by critics as there is no quality assurance from the province associated with the degrees being offered. Students are given the responsibility of deciding whether they believe that their completed degrees will be recognized by other post-secondary institutions or potential employers.

Currently, there are 17 private universities operating in Ontario, all which have religious affiliation.19

Post-Secondary Choices for Aboriginal Students

While Aboriginal students attend various post-secondary institutions across Canada, there are over 20 First Nations community colleges located throughout Canada as well as one university. Some of the First Nations colleges are in association with provincial universities and colleges.

Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC) was the first Aboriginal-controlled post-secondary education institution in Canada that granted degrees. It was established in 1976 and is associated with the University of Regina. The mission of the university is

to enhance the quality of life, and to preserve, protect and interpret the history, language, culture and artistic heritage of First Nations. The First Nations University of Canada will acquire and expand its base of knowledge and understanding in the best interests of First Nations and for the benefit of society by providing opportunities of quality bi-lingual and bi-cultural education under the mandate and control of the First Nations of Saskatchewan. The First Nations University of Canada is a First Nations’ controlled university which provides educational opportunities to both First Nations and non-First Nations university students selected from a provincial, national and international base.20 (First Nations University of Canada website http://www.fnuniv. ca/index.php/mission. Used with permission.)

This is the only Aboriginal-controlled university in Canada. There are three regional campuses in Saskatchewan and they are located in Regina, Saskatoon, and Prince Albert. Starting out with only nine students in 1976, the First Nations University of Canada now has a steady enrolment of about 1200 students per year, mostly at the undergraduate level, although some master’s programs have recently started to be offered. Students are attracted from all the provinces and territories.

Vocational Pathways

Vocational training generally refers to a multi-year program of study that provides instruction in a skill or trade that leads a student to a job in that particular skill or trade. Such training can be acquired in secondary schools as well as at the post-secondary level. Public colleges and institutes as well as private colleges offer many programs that lead to vocational credentials. In addition to post-secondary institutions, workplace-based apprenticeship programs also exist. There are two ways that a person can enter an apprenticeship program: (1) by completing a pre-apprenticeship program through a college or vocational school, and then securing work with an employer to whom the apprentice is contracted to work for a fixed period of time, or (2) by securing work and then being sponsored by an employer into an apprenticeship program (Schuetze 2003).

The training of an apprentice combines work supervised by a qualified journey-person combined with in-class learning. Traditional trades training has been comprised of around 80 percent on-the-job training with 20 percent classroom teaching (often referred to as block release wherein apprentices are in school full-time for a period of four to six weeks). Apprenticeship training spans between 6000 and 8000 hours, which can take about three to five years to complete (seasonal work will take longer as the training can take place for only a limited time each year). After successful training, the apprentice takes an exam to become a certified journeyperson (Scheutze 2003). It should be noted that the apprenticeship model is slightly different in Quebec, where in-school training occurs before a person is formally registered as an apprentice (i.e., in the CEGEP system). The apprenticeship process then consists of on-the-job training and accumulated work experience (Schuetze 2003).

Apprenticeships are a relatively small part of the workforce in Canada, comprising only about one percent of the total labour force. The average age of a person in apprentice training is significantly higher than those in other post-secondary pathways—28 years of age (Scheutze 2003). There are around 150 registered trades in Canada, the majority of which serve the manufacturing, resource, and construction sectors of the economy. Trades and their requirements vary by province, although an interprovincial list of “Red Seal” trades has been established to allow for the competencies of a person’s trade to be tested so that they can practise their trade across Canada and are not limited to the jurisdiction in which their training occurred. There are currently 52 trades that are Red Seal, including baker, ironworker, machinist, hairstylist, cook, plumber, powerline technician, roofer, tilesetter, welder, and pipefitter.

Adult Education

The term adult education (or adult learning) refers to participation in education by the adult population aged between 25 and 64. The definition refers to people who are not in the initial cycle of their education (Canadian Education Statistics Council 2010; Kerr 2011). The initial cycle of education refers to education pursued in primary and secondary institutions and often includes post-secondary education when completed in young adulthood. Adult learners comprise the segment of the population who often have come back to education after a period (sometimes a lengthy period) in the workforce or out of the labour force completely. The changing nature of work and the rapid development of technology mean that education is often not confined to the initial cycle of life any longer. There is an increased requirement for individuals to learn throughout the lifespan for various reasons, including keeping on top of the most recent changes in technology in the knowledge economy (Canadian Education Statistics Council 2010).

Adult education can generally be broken into two broad types: formal and non-formal (Rubenson, Kjell, Desjardins, and Yoon 2007). Formal adult education occurs in a structured manner and leads to formal credentials, like degrees, certificates, or diplomas. In contrast, non-formal adult education consists of organized learning activities that do not result in formal credentials, such as workshops and seminars (Canadian Education Statistics Council 2010). In 2008, just over 40 percent of adults aged 25 to 64 had participated in some form of formal or non-formal education (Canadian Education Statistics Council 2010).

Adult learning is often referred to as continuing education. Indeed, many post-secondary institutions have established their own faculties of continuing education, offering credited programs within their colleges and universities. Seen as an increasingly necessary part of life, continued learning exists for employees in all types of sectors, from government employees at all levels, to workers in health-related professions, to members of trade unions. Adult education takes place in a variety of settings including churches, offices, libraries, and lecture halls.

Chapter Summary

This chapter began by describing how pre-elementary programs varied across Canada, being mandatory in some jurisdictions but not in others. In most jurisdictions, mandatory schooling begins at the elementary level at around 6 years of age and continues until secondary school, with the minimum school-leaving age set at 16 in Canada. Although there are minor differences in the way that grades are organized into “elementary,” “middle,” and “senior high” (and in what they are called), the similarities across the provinces and territories outnumber the differences. The one exception is in Quebec, which uses a system of cycles instead of grades, with emphasis being on the mastery of a set of skills associated with a two-year cycle, rather than a grade-specific curriculum.

The funding of public primary and secondary schools is covered by different levels of government, although some children attend fee-paying private schools. In some jurisdictions, however, some part of the fee of private schools is covered by the province, provided that the school meets particular curricular and staffing criteria. Private schools are part of a larger demand that parents have had for a variety of school choice from which to select when deciding on the best educational options for their children. The presence of separate school boards for Catholic schools, alternative schools, charter schools, and home schooling were all discussed as part of the selection of schools that are available in Canada. The special case of on-reserve First Nations education was also discussed, with attention being paid to the historical circumstances that gave federal (rather than provincial) jurisdiction over the education of on-reserve First Nations children.

Post-secondary education was addressed in terms of the differences and similarities between universities and colleges. While universities emphasize research and the pursuit of knowledge, the mandate of many public colleges is usually more economic in nature (i.e., to acquire job-related skills). The governance structure of universities was described as being bicameralist, with two distinct bodies—one responsible for financial concerns and one for academic-related matters. In contrast, colleges were more likely to be governed by a board.

Within post-secondary education, as with primary and secondary education, there is also the option for public or private institutions. The differences between private and public universities and colleges were discussed. Post-secondary choices specifically oriented to Aboriginal education were also presented.

In addition to university and college trajectories, the apprenticeship path of training in a skilled trade was also explained. Finally, an overview of adult education was given, which encompasses the lifelong path of learning that is required of individuals in today’s rapidly changing work environment.

Review Questions

1. Define pre-elementary education. How do pre-elementary programs vary across Canada in terms of ages at which they are offered and policies around mandatory attendance?

2. Explain how the “cycles” system in Quebec differs from “grades” in other provinces.

3. Explain what is meant by school choice. Give three examples of school choice options in Canada, being sure to fully explain each of your selections.

4. Describe three major organizational structures in school governance.

5. Describe three arguments in favour of charter schools and three arguments against them.

6. Explain how private school funding differs by province. Why is the enrolment in Quebec private schools so much higher than in the rest of the country?

7. Describe three major historical events that have shaped the policy surrounding on-reserve First Nation education.

8. Explain what is meant by offshore schools.

9. Explain what is meant by bicameralism as it pertains to university governance.

10. Describe two major ways that the governance of universities and colleges differ.

11. Identify the arguments in favour of private universities and three arguments against them.

12. Identify the two major pathways that are possible for individuals wishing to apprentice in a skilled trade.

13. Describe the two different types of adult education.


  • Use the internet to look up the Education Acts of two jurisdictions. What topics do they cover? What are three noticeable differences in content between the Education Acts of the two jurisdictions you have selected? What are three major similarities between the acts you have chosen?
  • Look up the governance structure of your post-secondary institution. Is it bicameralist? Describe the administrative bodies at your institution. What do they do? Who is represented on the bodies? Are students represented at any level?
  • Use the internet to look up the home page of a private university in Canada. Describe the private university you have chosen. Where is it located? Does it have any religious affiliation? What is the cost of going to this university? What kinds of degrees does it grant? In what ways is it similar to the college or university that you attend? In what ways is it different?
  • Look up the mission statements of three universities and three public colleges. How are they different?
  • Describe the student association at your post-secondary institution. How much do you pay in fees per year to this association? What kinds of services does it provide?

Key Terms

academic freedom

adult education

alternative school


career colleges

charter schools

comprehensive universities

continuing education

degree-granting institutions

Education Act

formal adult education

French immersion

gross domestic product

home schooling

medical doctoral universities

multi-purpose colleges

non-formal adult education

per-pupil amount

primarily undergraduate

private schools

private universities and colleges

school boards

school choice

school councils

school governance

separate school boards

special purpose colleges

special purpose universities




vocational training


The Role of Curriculum

Source: “Learn” by Voluntary Amputation is licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to

  1. Describe how Canadian curriculum was shaped by socio-historical processes from pre-industrial Canada to the present day.
  2. Identify the three influences on curriculum and describe how they influence what is taught in schools.
  3. Identify the two main ways that curriculum accountability is maintained.
  4. Compare how the different large-scale assessment practices in Canada vary by province and territory.
  5. Contrast the six arguments that are for and against large-scale assessments.
  6. List the five stages of multicultural education that have occurred in Canada.
  7. Identify two key conflicts in the implementation of multicultural curriculum.
  8. Identify two ways that multicultural education is being addressed in Canadian curricular practices.
  9. Describe how in some parts of Canada adjustments have been made to the curriculum to incorporate Aboriginal and ethnic minority perspectives.
  10. Define White privilege and how anti-racist pedagogies can be used to promote multicultural education.


Curriculum is the content of schooling. It is that which is learned in the schooling environment. This is not limited simply to familiar subjects like mathematics, science, or reading. The curriculum is significantly more far-reaching. It also prepares students to become future workers and citizens. And it is because of this socializing nature of the curriculum that it is a topic of enormous sociological interest.

The curriculum is a social construction with many embedded and taken-for-granted assumptions about what knowledge should be transmitted to young people. Who decides what goes into the curriculum? What assumptions about knowledge are engrained in Canadian curricular practices?

Because education is under provincial and territorial jurisdiction in Canada, each province and territory has its own ministry of education that has an official curriculum guide for teachers to follow. These are official documents and the following of the curricular guides is mandatory for teachers. Curriculum guides tell teachers what should be taught and when (i.e., in what order and how much time to allocate to specific topics). The detail of the curricular documents, however, varies greatly from province to province. The method by which the teacher chooses to teach the topic is entirely up to them. Teachers learn about ways of teaching specific topics as part of their teacher training (which also follows curricular guidelines, but at a post-secondary level).

Historical Events in Canadian Curriculum Development

Developments in curriculum cannot be completely understood if the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which they occurred are not taken into account. The context of what is taught at school has been an ideological battleground, with various religious, economic, cultural, and political advocacy groups playing major roles at different points in history. A thorough overview is well beyond the scope of this textbook, discussion, but a brief summary (drawn primarily from the much more thorough overview given by Tomkins 2008) will help contextualize major curricular shifts that have happened across this vast country. Figure 5.1 summarizes some of the major historical events in Canada and how they influenced what was taught to children.

Larger Historical Events Years French Canada English Canada Residential Schooling
Pre-industrial Canada

English settlers arrive in Upper Canada

1600s-1700s Jesuit Ratio Studiorum Informal parent and church-regulated system
United Province of Canada (1841)

British North American Act (1867)

1840s-1890 Church controlled schooling Egerton Ryerson embarks on curricular development Aboriginals children removed from their families and forced intro residential schools. This practice did not end until 1996.


Massive influx of immigration (1892-1920)

First World War (1914-1918)

Second World War (1939-1945)

1890-1945 Missionaries provide informal schooling Mandatory attendance laws  (1920s)

New Education introduced (1930s)

New Education gains popularity (1940s)

Cold War (1947-1991)

Quiet revolution Quebec

French language legislation Official Language Act (1974)

1945-1990s Revamping of entire Quebec school system (1970s) Refocus of rigour to math and science (1960)

Changes to curriculum to respond to demands of Aboriginals, French Canadians, women, and ethnic minorities (1970s)

Increased centralization (1980s)

Large-scale reforms in many provinces (1990s)

Pre-Industrial Canada

Until the 1840s, education was largely in the hands of the family and the church. Prior to this time, Canada was a pre-industrial society which was mostly based upon agriculture. In New France and English Canada, a systematic curriculum for the education of young people was not established until the 1840s. The 1600s, however, marked the creation of the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum in New France, which was a plan of studies for males who wanted to enter the priesthood. In 1635, the Jesuit College was founded in Quebec, which provided training of priests, as well as males of the upper classes pursuing esteemed vocations. Formal schooling at this point in time was largely limited to the social elite. Similarly, the education of girls in Quebec coincided with the arrival of the Ursulines (a Catholic order of nuns) in 1639. Their school, opened in 1657, focused on teaching the doctrine of the Catholic church, but also the “three Rs” (reading, writing, and arithmetic). Domestic skills were also included in the curriculum. Education in Upper Canada and the remainder of what is now known as Canada was not established until later in the nineteenth century due to lack of settlement.

It was not until the late 1700s that English settlers arrived and settled permanently in Upper Canada. It was the case that schooling was simply not widely available in Upper Canada prior to 1840. In other parts of Canada, the situation was similar. For example, in New Brunswick, a “moving school” was introduced, which required that teachers in different parishes “keep” school in turn. The curriculum at the moving school focused on the three Rs and Protestant biblical teachings. While uptake was high, most children only attended school for a maximum of four years, and attendance during those four years would not likely be consistent. In western Canada, formal education was also closely associated with churches.

Victorian Canada (1841–1892)

In 1841, the United Province of Canada reunited Canada West (Upper Canada) and Canada East (Lower Canada) after several years of armed rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada. Large-scale immigration from England, Scotland, and Ireland meant that the population was growing rapidly. Industrial technology emerged in the form of manufacturing and the development of the railway, and many new immigrants were drawn to cities.

Egerton Ryerson, whose work on establishing education in Upper Canada was described in Chapter 3, is considered to be Canada’s first major advocate of curriculum development. Serving as chief superintendent of schools in 1846, he was concerned about the lack of a formally established curriculum, and expressed concern that such a curriculum was necessary to assimilate the large numbers of immigrants that had arrived in Upper Canada. His focus was on organizing a curriculum for Upper Canada, and his efforts in Upper Canada were later adopted by other school promoters across Canada. Upper Canada was where the mass of the population existed and was therefore a logical starting point for Ryerson. Ryerson travelled extensively and studied school systems internationally in order to bring Canada in line with existing educational practices in other countries, borrowing heavily from Ireland, Scotland, Prussia, France, and Massachusetts in the United States. As discussed in Chapter 3, he spent the 1840s to the late 1870s developing the public school system in Upper Canada.

Ryerson’s vision of education led to the implementation of ideas such as departmental control over the use of particular textbooks and curriculum. He also advocated for the education system to be subjected to equitable public funding as well as to be open to inspection and scrutiny. The idea of textbooks, school libraries, common curriculum, public funding, and accountability is engrained in our understanding of education systems now, but in the 1840s these were quite radical suggestions that were met with a great deal of resistance. Despite being a member of the clergy, Ryerson was also a strong advocate of non-sectarian schools, and many of his reforms reflected his desire to keep control of the schools in the public domain rather than in the hands of the Church of England. English language and literature, mathematics, geography, history, and natural sciences were core to Ryerson’s proposed curriculum. Central to Ryerson’s curriculum was also a “Common Christianity” that he envisaged would educate young people toward a shared sense of morality and duty.1

In Atlantic Canada, provincial boards of education were established in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The prescribed curriculum was one that was meant to be non-denominational. Curriculum development was very similar in western Canada after Confederation in 1867. Non-sectarianism was again strongly prescribed. The rest of Canada developed similar patterns of non-sectarian school curriculum development as they joined Confederation and established their own provincial education acts. The two provinces that deviated the most from “Ryerson uniformity” were Quebec and Newfoundland. Tomkins argues that the case of Newfoundland is explained by its extreme denominationalism (Protestant/Catholic divide) and late entrance into Confederation. In Quebec, religious and linguistic communities played a larger role in the control of schooling, leaving it out of the government’s jurisdiction.

Modernization and Curricular Reforms 1892–1920

Canada’s population dramatically increased between 1892 and 1920 due to mass immigration. During this time, about four million new inhabitants arrived in Canada. The Yukon (1898), Alberta, and Saskatchewan (both in 1905) also joined Confederation between these years, adding to Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Manitoba, which had joined earlier. Canada at this time was engaged in country-building and the “Canadianization” of new immigrants, which continued to be an overarching curricular objective. Growth of Canadian schools at this time is also greatly attributable to laws instituted around compulsory attendance. All provinces except Quebec had mandatory attendance laws by 1920. Increased enrolments and population growth meant the massive expansion of the Canadian education system.

In the early 1900s, New Education was introduced in English Canada, which incorporated less traditional topics of study into the classroom. Traditionally, the subjects covered in formal schooling focused mainly on English (literature and grammar), mathematics, learning Latin, and the rote learning of historical dates and geography. New Education introduced the subjects of home economics (“domestic science”), agricultural studies, and physical education to the curriculum, but not with uniform success. Kindergarten was also introduced as a New Education reform. At this point in history, the major purpose of public education in English Canada was to assimilate the large numbers of new immigrants at the time to dominant Anglo-Saxon values and to keep the Canadian curriculum free of American influence. See Box 5.1 for a discussion of the content of curriculum during this time in Canada’s education history.

Box 5.1 – Early Textbooks in English Canada: Loyalty to the British Empire and Christian Values

The introduction of the required use of specific textbooks in the classroom was a hallmark of the beginnings of the education system in English Canada. Under the influence of Egerton Ryerson, the required textbooks in Upper Canada were initially (1846) readers adopted from Ireland. This may seem like a curious choice, but Ryerson rationalized that these texts were more suited to the Canadian temperament and, more importantly, did not contain American influence. The creation of a Canadian identity in education was central to the curricular objectives at the time. A Canadian series of these readers was created in 1867.

But what was in these readers? These textbooks contained the messages about what constructed a model citizen. Baldus and Kassam (1996) analyzed the schoolbooks used in Upper Canada between 1846 and 1910. They found that the books of that time reflected the morality of the upper class. They argue that accepting the social order was a major concern for British conservatives in Canada, and that schoolbooks repeatedly emphasized working hard and the acceptance of suffering and of one’s place in the social order.

Van Brummelen (1983) examined the content of textbooks in British Columbia between 1872 and 1925. Like texts in Upper Canada, loyalty to the British Empire was also found to be a strong underlying theme. The books used in British Columbia, however, strongly emphasized literal interpretations of the Bible, although this decreased significantly by the late 1880s. Van Brummelen documents how the early textbooks from the 1870s conveyed a literal interpretation of the Bible, including discussions about history. For example, the Biblical stories of Adam and Eve and the Tower of Babel were interpreted as actual world history events in the earliest texts. Christian beliefs were emphasized as mandatory to live a useful and productive life. The literal interpretation of the Bible loosened over time and the messages shifted to a more general emphasis on promoting a common Christian sense of morality which prevailed into the 1930s.

Van Brummelen argues that the books chosen reflected the values and morals of a small group of educational leaders. This is how they thought children should be socialized. The contexts of these books must be understood in tandem with the social climate of the time, however. As Van Brummelen concludes, “. . . with a vast and only sparsely settled expanse, with the constant threat of American annexation, with an often hostile native population, with a plurality of nationalities and religions, with poor communication and transportation, and with an almost non-existent sense of national identity, it would have been surprising if textbooks, and consequently, schools, had not held before the students a common Canadian vision of life and society that the leaders wanted to inculcate” (p. 24). A significant part of that vision included socialization into Christian values. However, Sheehan (1990) argues that across Canada, loyalty to the Empire was an important message found in readers that were used in most provinces in the early twentieth century.

1920 to Post–Second World War

In the 1920s, New Education and similar reform efforts continued to gain popularity as British educators (influenced by progressive movements in the United States) continued to argue that education should be more encompassing than just the three Rs. Learning purely through memorization was also regarded as a less acceptable pedagogical practice than it had been in the past, with more attention being shifted to the possibilities of students engaging in experiential learning. The late 1930s and early 1940s saw the beginnings of the progressive education movement, which is a pedagogical approach that prioritizes experiential learning (i.e., learning through doing and experiencing) over the amassing and memorization of facts. Reforms of this era were characterized as being more child-centred, activity-based, integrating various subjects where possible (Lemisko and Clausen 2006). For example, social studies emerged as a subject, which was the result of combining geography, civic education, and history. The content of this course, offered across grade levels, was based upon developing democratic and cooperative behaviour through experiential learning. Alberta led all provinces in adopting major revisions to the curriculum in the late 1930s that promoted progressive education, with other provinces following in the 1940s.

Post-War Curriculum Changes: 1945–1980

Although a mandate of Ryerson and many other education advocates of his time (and later) across Canada was to avoid American influences in curriculum, many American ideas found their way into Canadian curriculum in the post-war years, including the idea of scientific testing. The cultural content of the English Canadian curriculum, however, remained British. In fact, throughout curriculum development in Canada, there have often been marked efforts to keep the curriculum “Canadian” and culturally distinct from that used in the United States (Sumara, Davis, and Laidlaw 2001). Topics of study were British, although education influences were recommendations that had been adapted from prominent British educators through the influence of American education advocates.2

The Cold War era, or the years following the Second World War, was associated with competition and political tension between the Soviet Union and its communist allies and the Western world—primarily the United States. Competition between the opposing sides manifested itself in two important ways. The first was the “Space Race”—which referred to a rivalry between sides as to which nation could lead in technological space exploration. The second area of major competition was the more ominous Nuclear Arms Race, in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in the stockpiling of nuclear arsenals. In these years the English Canadian curriculum followed the American lead and added more curricular emphasis on science and mathematics to reflect public opinion that remaining competitive with the Russians (who were thought to excel in these areas) was paramount.

The mid-1960s is associated with another major shift in curriculum across Canada. In English Canada, much pressure was put on the educational system to change in order to respond to the newer values and worldviews emerging at the time. In addition to less centralized control of schools and an increase in the regional specificities of courses of study, schools had to respond to demands from students and members of the public who had various concerns. Students wanted more “practical” knowledge that also reflected a more diverse (non-British) population. Advocacy groups cropped up in the form of federal agencies, consumer organizations, organized labour, and human rights organizations. These groups viewed classrooms as an ideal place to cultivate their desired social changes. Many rights movements also occurred in the 1960s—Aboriginal Civil Rights activism (as well as the Civil Rights movement in the United States) and the second wave of feminism across Canada, the UK, and the United States drew attention to racial and gender inequalities. During this period, advocacy groups representing Aboriginal and various minority groups moved to press for multicultural, non-sexist, and non-racist treatments of subject matter.

At the same time that pressures were being made to make the English Canadian curriculum more progressive, the Quiet Revolution was occurring in Quebec. Up to this point, the schools in Quebec were run by the Catholic Church. In the early 1960s, Quebec completely overhauled its education system, replacing Catholic Church leadership with government administration. The reasons for this change were manifold, but at the core was the desire of the leaders in French Canada to achieve a workforce that had the essential qualifications to modernize Quebec both economically and culturally. In the 1970s, Quebec introduced controversial legislation that required all new immigrant children (which included children from other Canadian provinces) to be educated in French rather than English. These school reforms were all considered essential by leaders who sought to overturn what they believed to be a francophone disadvantage resulting from of hundreds of years of marginalization under Church and British domination.

Since the 1970s, additional shifts have occurred in curriculum across Canada. The 1980s was marked by an increase in centralization (after decentralization in the 1960s) to create more accountability. Standardized testing was re-introduced (after having previously been abandoned) and more focus was again placed on skill performance in reading, writing, and mathematics. Teachers resisted these top-down demands and insisted on being included in decisions around curriculum reform. The inclusion of teachers in curriculum reform became accepted practice in the 1980s.

1990 to Present Day

The 1990s were again characterized by large reforms in several provinces that were in response to various factors including the perceived poor performance of Canadian students in international rankings as well as high dropout rates. Inclusiveness was also emphasized in the reforms, with efforts to engage and represent a wider diversity of perspectives. A basic core academic curriculum, to be completed by all, was supplemented with alternative subjects within which a student could pursue his or her own interests. This new curriculum was adopted with the mandate of responding to the diversity of the population and better preparing young people for the labour force. New high school curriculum emphasized career-related skills (e.g., skills in technology and communication) in addition to academic study, with the intention of preparing students to be productive future citizens with a variety of skill sets. An anticipated outcome of accommodating a more diverse student population was the retention of students who would otherwise be at high risk for dropping out.

While curriculum has historically been provincially specific to fit the needs of a diverse population, the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) was established in 1967 in order for provinces to collaborate on common curricular goals. The CMEC has, for example, coordinated a number of student assessments that are administered across the country (discussed in more detail below). The first development of CMEC was the Pan-Canadian Science Project (PCSP), which was aimed at producing a science curriculum with the same learning outcomes across all provinces and territories for kindergarten through to Grade 12. Science was chosen as the first area of cooperation due to the perceived importance of scientific literacy in wider scope of the economy, and in order to keep up with the American science curriculum reforms that had been underway since the early 1990s (Percy 1998). The materials on this project are available for individual provincial and territorial jurisdictions to incorporate into their science curricula (Dodd 2002). Many provinces have implemented the PCSP.

In 1995, a Pan-Canadian Protocol for Collaboration in School Curriculum was adopted in order to improve the overall education quality across provinces and territories and also to foster cooperation between the jurisdictions. In 1993, education ministers in the western provinces and the Yukon and Northwest Territories signed the Western Canadian Protocol for Collaboration in Basic Education (K–12), with Nunavut joining in 2000. A similar alliance was created among the Atlantic provinces in 1995 with the establishment of the Atlantic Provinces Education Foundation. The mandate of the Western Canadian Protocol and the Atlantic Provinces Education Foundation is to create common curriculum outcomes and methods of assessment between the jurisdictions (Dodd 2002).

Influences on Curriculum

While there is general consensus that it is of fundamental importance to educate children and young people, the specific content of that education is subject to debate. Parents are a major source of influence on the curriculum, as are political/cultural organizations and corporations.

Parental Influence on Curriculum

Parents, unsurprisingly, often exert influence on the content of children’s education. Most often this occurs when parents feel that what is being taught (or being proposed to be taught) contrasts sharply with the morals and worldviews that they wish to have instilled in their children. Parental influence can also be found in parent or school councils, which were discussed in Chapter 4 (Parker and Leithwood 2000).

While subjects like reading are regarded as essential skills, what children are permitted to read in class continues to be a topic that can create much debate. The Freedom of Expression Committee ( monitors censorship issues in Canada, including books that parents have made cases for removing from school curricula and libraries. Jenkinson (1986) indicates that most advocates of banning particular books in schools are individual parents. The annual lists compiled by the Freedom of Expression Committee reveal that in 2009 at least 74 “challenges” were received by the Canadian Library Association about library holdings that at least one person wished to have removed. In the previous year, this number was 139. For example, in 2008, a parental complaint in Toronto argued for the removal of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale from a Grade 12 English class on the grounds that it used profanity and described violent scenes involving sexual degradation. The school board retained the novel in the curriculum. In 2002, Black parents and teachers in Yarmouth, Digby, and Shelburne, Nova Scotia, challenged Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Barbara Smucker’s Underground to Canada on the grounds that they contained language that was derogatory to Black people. Parents expressed concern that it could lead to racial stereotyping and to their own children being mocked. Ultimately, these books were not removed from the school library.

Often, the challenges that parents have are rooted in religious beliefs that they feel are being undermined by curricular content. For example, in 2000, the Durham, Ontario, school board received many complaints that the popular Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling were being read in schools. An official from the school board said that the complaints were coming from fundamentalist Christian parents who were concerned that the wizardry and witchcraft that the main character practised was inappropriate for adolescents. In other jurisdictions across Canada, some teachers have been asked not to use these books in the classroom, and similar issues have arisen in 19 U.S. states. This is just one of many examples of parents and members of the public “challenging” books in schools.3

With regard to science, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory can be viewed as problematic by certain religious groups who believe that the universe and humankind was created by a supreme being. Many fundamentalist groups have opposed the teaching of these topics in the classroom, as they run counter to their own beliefs. They have also suggested that perspectives such as creationism and intelligent design, which support their views, also be taught alongside Darwinism and the Big Bang theory as legitimate alternatives. Many religious groups also oppose the exposure of their children to many topics including sexual health education and climate change. The curriculum varies widely by province, as does teachers’ knowledge of the topic (as well as their personal beliefs).

Political/Cultural Groups’ Influence on Curriculum

It is not exclusively individual parents who challenge curricular content; sometimes organizations representing political, religious, or cultural viewpoints also oppose curricular materials. In 2006, for example, the Canadian Jewish Congress challenged Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, by Deborah Ellis.4 They argued that this book should not be accessible to elementary school children because it presented a flawed and one-sided view of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. While the book was not removed from schools, five school boards in Canada set restrictions on its access (e.g., limiting its access to higher grade levels and requiring that the title be removed from shelves and available only by request).

In 2007, the Council of Turkish Canadians challenged Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide by Barbara Coloroso on the grounds that the deaths of millions of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire was described as genocide. (The Turkish government disagrees that this was genocide.5) This book was to be used in Toronto in a Grade 11 history class on genocide. A committee of the Toronto District School Board deemed the material to be an inappropriate depiction of factual history and it was removed from the reading list. This decision was met with much protest by writers, Canadian publishers, and the Book and Periodical Council, which led to it being put back on the reading list, but as a social psychological resource on genocide rather than a historical text. This reversal of the decision led the Turkish Embassy to complain to Premier Dalton McGuinty and the Ontario Ministry of Education. The book remains on the reading list at the time of writing.

Private-Sector Influence

Many corporations have free resources available for teachers that help with teaching specific topics (Robertson 2005). The corporations provide materials freely to teachers who can easily request them online. A few examples include the Canadian Nuclear Association, which provides “secondary school teachers with access to lesson plans about concepts, issues and people related to the nuclear industry.”6 The resources that are provided are vast and include full lesson plans, downloadable PowerPoint slides, and student assessment materials, all of which are customized to the curriculum requirements of particular jurisdictions. Kellogg’s also has nutrition-related educational resources on a special website called, which includes lesson plans and materials for children from kindergarten to Grade 8. Dove Canada offers a “Real Beauty School Program” for teachers that is aimed at improving children’s self-esteem. Kraft Canada and Sobeys are major sponsors of Prince Edward Island’s Healthy Eating Alliance, which provides several nutrition resources for teachers to use in the classroom.7 Procter & Gamble has partnered with government health agencies at the provincial and federal level to create a “user-friendly, state of the art, puberty education program” which they call the Always Changing and Vibrant Faces program. Procter & Gamble also offers teaching materials for nutrition education aimed at Grade 4 students and “nose-care” instructional materials geared toward Grade 1 students.

How do the Curricula of Different Provinces Compare on Controversial Subjects?

Because curriculum is a provincial matter in Canada, the subject content of courses and the grades at which certain topics are addressed vary widely. Table 5.1 illustrates by province the grades at which Darwin’s evolutionary theory and HIV/AIDS and homosexuality are discussed, according to provincial curriculum documents.8

It is important to note that because a topic is mentioned does not indicate that thorough attention is paid to it. For the most part, students are exposed to evolutionary theory for the first time in high school biology courses. Understanding evolutionary theory has wider implications for a student’s understanding of related issues, such as environmental studies, genetics, and viral mutations (e.g., why we need new flu inoculations every year). Most provinces introduce evolutionary theory in later high school years, although British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec begin talking about the topic markedly earlier. Additionally, Asghar, Wiles, and Alters (2007) found in a study of pre-service elementary teachers that most regarded evolutionary theory as scientific fact and that three-quarters of them intended to teach evolutionary theory in elementary school science. They did, however, raise concerns about the religious beliefs of students and their parents and also that they themselves did not receive adequate training on this topic in their own educational trajectories.


Table 5.1 Mention of Specific Topics in Curriculum Documents

As a public health issue, it is arguable that discussion of sexually transmitted diseases is very important, particularly incurable infections like HIV/AIDS. Table 5.2 shows that the first mention of this topic varies greatly by province, from Grade 3 in New Brunswick to Grade 8 in Prince Edward Island and Ontario. Many provincial curriculums have HIV discussions that occur in every year of sexual health education. Quebec does not have an official sexual health curriculum as it was discontinued in 2001 due to funding cuts. Teachers are encouraged to bring up such topics in informal discussions in class. Women’s groups and sexual health workers in Quebec have indicated that the sharp increases in STIs among young people are indicative of the harm caused by this reform in curriculum.9 Homosexuality is notably absent in many provincial curricula as well. Saskatchewan’s sexual health curriculum documents “warn” that the discussion of homosexuality may come up when HIV/AIDS is presented. See Box 5.2 for a discussion of changes to legislation in Alberta that enables parents to remove their children from school when topics that parents disapprove of are discussed in the classroom.

Box 5.2 – In the News: Parents Responding to Curriculum

In mid-2009, Alberta legislators passed Bill 44, a controversial piece of legislation that allows parents to pull their children out of class when religion, sexual orientation, or sexual health topics are going to be discussed. The bill is an amendment to the province’s human rights laws. It is now required that school boards give parents written notice when controversial topics are going to be discussed in the classroom. By giving such notice, parents are given the option to have their children excluded from such lessons. Casual conversations in the classroom around such topics are not covered by this bill.

The bill was protested by many, particularly by schools boards, teachers, and human rights groups, who argued that this legislation makes it possible for teachers and school districts to become the target of human rights complaints from parents. Such a pedagogical environment, they argue, is loaded with tensions for educators who understandably do not want to be the target of such complaints. It is argued that such legislation would have been better dealt with by the School Act, instead of being reconfigured as a human right. The School Act, according to the Alberta Education website, “describes the relationship of the Minister to students, parents and school jurisdictions and provides for the system of administration and financing of education in Alberta and generally deals with the ultimate authority of the Minister with respect to all constituents in the educational system.”10 Section 50 of Alberta’s School Act already permitted exemption of students from patriotic or religious instruction with parental written request.

The union representing Alberta teachers (the Alberta Teachers’ Association) has also expressed concern about “grey areas” of education—the case where sexuality and religion can come into discussion in other topics, such as social studies and literature.

A similar controversy emerged in Ontario in early 2010, when the province proposed to change the new sex education curriculum. The proposed revised curriculum, backed by the Liberal Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, was to expand to include Grade 3 students learning about sexual orientation, while Grade 6 students would learn about masturbation. The topics of anal and oral sex were proposed to be taught at the Grade 7 level. Much backlash was received from faith-based groups over the proposed changes to the sex education curriculum, arguing that young children would be exposed to inappropriate materials. The McGuinty government scrapped the proposed changes, arguing that it had not introduced the proposed changes with enough lead time to get feedback from groups and to prepare parents.


Curriculum Accountability

Given the considerable amount of decision making that goes into determining what should be included in the curriculum, it follows that provinces and school boards would want to ensure that teachers are following the curriculum and that students are learning its content. How do the provinces and school boards ensure that the curriculum is being followed? In other words, what measures of accountability are built into the school system to ensure that that curriculum is being followed? One formal tool of accountability is standardized testing procedures. Another informal technique is media pressure.

Evaluation and Assessment of Students

Evaluation and assessment of students is often done in the form of testing. In general, there are two ways that teachers can evaluate student work and understanding of materials: formative assessment and summative assessment. Formative assessment refers to ungraded feedback that teachers receive from students during the course of learning material that gives indication as to how the students understand the content. Such assessment tools take the form of drafts of essays or journal reflections (Volante and Beckett 2011). Summative assessment refers to tools used for evaluation at the end of a unit and take the form of quizzes, tests, essays, or projects. Both formative and summative assessments have different functions—the former is used during the learning process to ensure comprehension, while the latter is used at the end to evaluate performance. Formative assessment has been found to improve student learning and thereby enhance summative assessment, although the use of formative assessment practices varies greatly between teachers (Volante and Beckett 2011).

In addition to formative and summative assessment, standardized testing also occurs across Canada. Standardized testing is the process of giving the same curriculum-based test to all students at a particular level in a particular jurisdiction. Because each province and territory governs its own education system, these types of assessment exams—or large-scale assessments (LAS)—vary considerably across the country. The objective of assessment exams is to evaluate how well students are achieving according to the curriculum mandates of that particular province/territory. It is one way that accountability is maintained. If the curriculum is being followed, it is argued that the students should achieve well on tests that are developed according to the learning outcomes associated with the curriculum. While testing in most provinces and territories occurs across the spectrum of K–12, there are many different grades and subject areas that are focused on by the different provincial/territorial government departments.

One similarity that the majority of provinces and territories share is the assessment of Grade 12 subjects for graduation and diploma purposes. In such credentialing exams, the assessment is of the performance of the student. These exams serve to assess competency in subject areas and are used by post-secondary institutions to evaluate criteria for acceptance into programs of further study. The exceptions to Grade 12 diploma assessments are in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. In Ontario, a literacy test, which is required for graduation, is completed in Grade 10, while Grade 11 students are tested in English and mathematics in New Brunswick (in the English system). Many of these tests at the senior level are high-stakes exams because a percentage of the grade achieved on these tests goes into the calculation of the final grade. These values can vary between 30 percent of a final grade (e.g., Manitoba and Nova Scotia) and 50 percent (e.g., Alberta and Newfoundland). Exams at senior levels are high stakes for the students, but not for teachers or administrators; students must pass to graduate, but educators do not experience official sanctions if students perform poorly (Volante and Ben Jaafar 2008), although they may experience scrutiny in the media (discussed below).

Large-scale assessments also serve to evaluate the performance of programs. Tests are administered in math and English (as well as other subjects) in specific grades in order to evaluate how well students are demonstrating the curricular goals of the province. The grades achieved on these tests have no bearing on the formal assessment of the students’ performance. In Alberta, which arguably has the most extensive assessment procedures in Canada, students are assessed in math and English language arts in Grades 3, 6, and 9, as well as in science, social studies, and French language arts (where applicable) in Grades 6 and 9. There are 11 courses for which there are credentialing exams in Grade 12, and students must write and pass six of them to get a diploma. It should be noted that the high school diploma tests used in Alberta are also used in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. This is in stark contrast to Prince Edward Island, where students have assessment tests for reading in Grades 3 and 6 and for mathematics in Grades 6 and 9, and no diploma exams for high school graduation. British Columbia assesses reading, writing, and numeracy in Grades 4, 7, and 10 and has credentialing exams in Grade 12 in numerous subjects, while Nova Scotia assesses math in Grades 5 and 8, language arts in Grades 6 and 9, and has credentialing exams in English, science, and math in Grade 12. Saskatchewan, in contrast, assesses math, language arts, science, and writing in rotating years with different grades, based on samples of students (rather than all students across the province, like most assessment tests). For example, in 2011, 2013, and 2015, Grades 5, 8, and 11 will be assessed in mathematics and Grades 4, 7, and 10 in reading. In 2012 and 2014, Grades 7 and 10 will be assessed in science and Grades 5, 8, and 11 in writing. Appendix A at the end of this chapter has a detailed description of all the provincial and territorial assessments used in the Canadian school system.

Media Pressure

One outcome of large-scale assessments is that the results are usually made public. It is often the case that the media acquires the results of provincial, national, and international student assessments and reports the results. Some jurisdictions, or even particular schools (depending on the level of detail that is released), are celebrated as being the best schools, while others are noted for being at the bottom of the league tables (i.e., ranking chart).

The Fraser Institute in Vancouver (an independent conservative think tank) has been releasing “report cards” on elementary and secondary schools in selected provinces since 1998. These report cards rank schools according to how well students have done on the large-scale assessments done in these provinces. At the time of writing, the report cards are prepared for B.C., Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. The purpose of these rankings, according to the Fraser Institute, is that by “combining a variety of relevant, objective indicators of school performance into one easily accessible public document, the school report cards allow teachers, parents, school administrators, students, and taxpayers to analyze and compare the academic performance of individual schools.”11 Each report ranks schools across the province according the scores that children achieved on standardized tests. For each school, information is provided on percentage of ESL and special needs students, enrolment numbers at specific grade levels, parents’ average income, and the school’s overall rank out of all schools in the province. Average test marks are provided for prior years and the percentage of tests failed is also indicated. The schools are given ratings out of 10 on their performance. Any member of the public can download the reports from the Fraser Institute’s website to see how a specific school rates on these criteria.

These ratings are obviously controversial, not only because the measures on which they are based (i.e., large-scale assessments) are also controversial. The Fraser Institute argues that it fairly compares all schools against one another using uniform criteria, whereas critics say that these rankings greatly oversimplify the many factors that contribute to student achievement and pit schools against one another (Volante 2005).

National-level Assessments

With all the differences in assessments that occur across the country, policy-makers have been interested in developing ways to compare the achievement and learning of children across the country. The Council of Ministers of Education in Canada (CMEC) is an intergovernmental body that was created in 1967 by ministers of education across the country. The mandates of the CMEC include representing all the provinces and territories on educational matters as well as monitoring the achievement and skills of Canadian students. CMEC oversees the pan-Canadian assessment of student performance. In 1993, the Student Achievement Indicators Program (SAIP) was introduced, which assessed mathematics in 13- and 16-year-olds. The assessment was based on a random sample of more than 35 000 students across Canada. Reading (1994) and science (1996) assessments were administered in successive years to complete a three-subject cycle of assessments. A second cycle occurred from 1997–1999, and a third from 2001–2004. Information from these assessments is examined at a provincial and national level (i.e., not by municipality).

In 2007, the SAIP was replaced by the Pan Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) in order to “reflect changes in curriculum, integrate the increased jurisdictional emphasis on international assessments, and allow for the testing of the core subjects of mathematics, reading, and science.”12 The PCAP assesses 13-year-olds across Canada in science, mathematics, and reading. Each year of the assessment gathers information on all subjects, although the larger proportion of the assessment will shift among the three subject years in rotating cycles. In 2007, the focus was on reading, while in 2010 it was on mathematics, and in 2013 it will be on science. Over 30 000 students within 1500 schools were randomly selected from participating jurisdictions (the Northwest Territories and Nunavut did not participate). See Box 5.3 for a discussion of the 2007 results by jurisdiction.

Box 5.3 – Average Reading Scores from 2007 PCAP across Jurisdictions

The results from the PCAP allow the performance of students in each of the provinces to be compared to one another. In the first chart, the average (mean) reading scores of students by different provinces are represented, along with the pan-Canadian average (500). The middle of each box shows the provincial average, while the right- and left-hand sides of the box show what is known as the 95 percent confidence interval. The grades themselves do not report the raw average, but estimates of how the population of each province would have done if all students had participated. The confidence interval tells how much precision is associated with that estimate—the larger the interval, the less precise the measurement is. This confidence interval represents where the actual mean is estimated to fall 95 percent of the time.

Looking at the provinces compared to the overall Canadian average, one can say provinces are significantly (in a statistical sense) different only if the confidence intervals do not overlap with one another.


Quebec’s average, therefore, is significantly different (i.e., higher) than the Canadian average in reading. Ontario’s is not significantly different from the Canadian average, but is significantly different (lower) than Quebec. All provinces except Ontario and Quebec performed lower than the Canadian average on reading.

In terms of mathematics, Quebec students again scored significantly higher than the Canadian average, while Ontario and Alberta students were at the Canadian average. Students in the rest of the provinces had scores that were below the Canadian average.

The findings are slightly different for science, where Alberta students had the highest average score, followed by Quebec. Ontario students performed at the mean, while the rest of the provincial averages were significantly below the Canadian mean.


Other analyses of these data show that across Canada, females tended to perform better on the reading scores compared to males, while there were no differences in mathematics or science scores between the sexes.

Source: Council of Ministers of Education of Canada. 2008. PCAP 2007-13. Report on the Assessment of 13 Year Olds in Reading, Mathematics and Science. http://www.cmec. ca/Programs/assessment/pancan/pcap2007/Pages/default. aspx.

International-level Assessments

In addition to provincial/territorial and pan-Canadian assessments, CMEC also participates in three international assessments: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and the Programme for International Student Assessment.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is a reading test administered to 9- and 10-year-olds (Grade 4). Starting in 2001 and occurring every five years, it was most recently administered in 2011 to children in over 50 countries. All 10 Canadian provinces participated in the study, which is based upon a sample of children. The results from the tests are used only to compare children across Canada and across jurisdictional levels. The tests do not contribute to the students’ academic records at all and are strictly for research purposes. In the 2006 PIRLS, the Russian Federation, Hong Kong, and Singapore were the top scorers of the countries that participated. Within Canada, British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario also ranked among the highest achievers among all participating countries and jurisdictions. Nova Scotia and Quebec also participated in the assessment exercise and demonstrated above average performance.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is another international assessment of children, this time focusing at three different grade levels depending on the year of study. The study takes place every four years. In 2011, the study was on its fifth cycle and focused on Grade 4 and Grade 8 students in participating countries. More than 60 countries participate. The Canadian provinces of Ontario, Alberta, and Quebec participated in 2011.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the final international assessment that will be discussed here. The PISA is sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and tests math, reading, and science in 15-year-olds across OECD member countries. The PCAP test described above was created to largely emulate the PISA test in the sense that the PISA rotates its topics of assessment in each cycle. In 2009 PCAP focused on reading, as did the 2009 PISA. A sample of students from every province participated in PISA in 2009, along with students from over 65 other countries. Like the other international assessments described here, the PISA does not contribute to the students’ academic records and the results are used only to compare the results across provinces and across countries.

Results from the 2009 cycle of PISA show that Canadian students (on average) rank very high in comparison with other countries on overall reading scores. When examining scores by province, Ontario was ranked fifth overall, Alberta was seventh, and Quebec was tenth. Figure 5.2 shows the top 30 countries from PISA 2009 on overall reading ability. Students from Shanghai, Korea, Finland, and Hong Kong all placed above Canada. The middle of the bars shows the average score while the left- and right-hand sides of the bars shows the confidence interval, or the range within which the “true score” is estimated to exist. If bars overlap, there is no “significant” difference between the scores. Shanghai’s scores are clearly significantly higher than those of the rest of the countries in the study, while the overall Canadian average score is higher than those of all countries listed below Australia.

Controversies around Large-scale Assessment

Advocates of large-scale assessment tend to stress that these testing mechanisms have several advantages. The biggest advocates of large-scale assessment tend to represent the administration side of education. If the tests are based on curriculum, they allow administrators to examine how closely the curriculum is being followed. Some advocates have even argued that these assessments have the effect of making students try harder (Anderson 1990). The results of such tests can arguably point to the most effective teaching practices and direct attention to areas where more research and/or resources need to be targeted. If a new policy or program is implemented, the results of these assessments can also point to the success or failure in the adaptation to such changes. National assessments allow provincial governments and departments of education to evaluate how children outcomes vary by jurisdiction, while international assessments reveal where Canadian children rank on the global stage and allow educators to ensure that our practices are competitive and effective.

Here is a look at collated information on Canada’s achievement in reading from OCED | PISA 2015. Feel free to follow the links to dig deeper.

The mean score in reading performance is one of the highest among PISA-participating countries and economies. (527 PISA Score, rank 2/69 , 2015) Download Indicator

Boys’ performance in reading is one of the highest among PISA-participating countries and economies. (514 PISA Score, rank 3/69 , 2015) Download Indicator

Girls’ performance in reading is one of the highest among PISA-participating countries and economies. (540 PISA Score, rank 4/69 , 2015) Download Indicator

The percentage of low performers in reading (below proficiency Level 2) is one of the lowest among PISA-participating countries and economies. (10.7 %, rank 66/69 , 2015) Download Indicator

The percentage of top performers in reading (proficiency Level 5 or 6) is one of the highest among PISA-participating countries and economies. (14 %, rank 2/69 , 2015) Download Indicator

The percentage of low-performing boys in reading (below proficiency Level 2) is one of the lowest among PISA-participating countries and economies. (13.9 %, rank 66/69 , 2015) Download Indicator

The percentage of top-performing boys in reading (proficiency Level 5 or 6) is one of the highest among PISA-participating countries and economies. (11.3 %, rank 2/69 , 2015) Download Indicator

The percentage of low-performing girls in reading (below proficiency Level 2) is one of the lowest among PISA-participating countries and economies. (7.5 %, rank 65/69 , 2015) Download Indicator

The percentage of top-performing girls in reading (proficiency Level 5 or 6) is one of the highest among PISA-participating countries and economies. (16.8 %, rank 3/69 , 2015) Download Indicator

Critics of large-scale assessment see things quite a bit differently, however. Teachers and teachers’ unions have argued that the many advantages often associated with large-scale assessment are rarely supported by research (Covaleskie 2002). Many argue that the millions of dollars spent on these assessments should be re-invested directly into classrooms, where it is much more likely to have a positive impact (English Teachers Federation of Ontario 2001). Moreover, they argue that many of the disadvantages of these tests are overlooked. Many of the skills that are fostered by teachers in the classroom, such as creativity, are not measured by large-scale assessments. Many factors impact on how students do in such test situations, including socioeconomic background, immigrant status, and parental education (Willms 1999). Raw scores from such tests ignore how these and other factors influence how students do on the assessments, instead shifting the blame to teachers. The outcomes of tests also fail to take into consideration that many schools and classrooms are greatly under-resourced. Poor test scores may be attributable to this lack of resources experienced by many teachers.

Because their students’ outcomes on such tests are often interpreted as reflections on their teaching skills and efforts, teachers feel pressured by administrators and are therefore likely to participate in what is known as teaching to the test. This approach focuses on teaching materials similar to those found on upcoming assessments—rather than engaging in innovative pedagogical ways to deliver curriculum.13 Teaching to the test also weakens teacher morale and job satisfaction (Volante 2004). Critics argue that in addition to acting as a negative form of social control over teachers, these assessments also can actually act to harm the self-esteem and mental health of children by placing an enormous amount of stress upon them (Hartley-Brewer 2001).

Alberta, which has the most extensive assessment systems in the country, also has the lowest percentage of high school graduates progressing into post-secondary institutions. Critics such as the Alberta Teachers’ Association (2005) have suggested that this is a direct consequence of such heavy reliance on high-stakes testing and test scores (Volante 2007). A summary of the arguments for and against large-scale assessments can be found in Table 5.2. See Box 5.4 for a discussion of large-scale assessment controversies that have entered recent news.

Table 5.2 Summary of Arguments For and Against Large-Scale Assessment

Advocates of LSA

Critics of LSA

  • Can ensure curriculum is being followed
  • Ignores how other factors such as social class influence test outcomes
  • Makes students try harder
  • Encourages teaching to the test
  • Identifies best teaching practices
  • Acts as a form of control that undermines the profession of teaching
  • Provides schools with feedback about the effectiveness of programs that have been implemented
  • Blames teachers for poor results that actually may be the outcome of inadequate resources, not bad teaching
  • Encourages teachers to carefully plan their instruction
  • Values only certain types of knowledge
  • Stimulates research that leads to school
  • Negatively impacts on students’ classroom engagement and their self-esteem.
Source: Adapted from Volante 2006:7–8.

Box 5.4 – In the News: Recent Backlashes against Assessment Exercises

In January 2009, the Vancouver school board approved a letter to be sent to parents that instructed them on how to have their children voluntarily excluded from the Foundation Skills Assessment exams (issued in Grades 4 and 7). The B.C. Teachers’ Federation vehemently opposes the Foundation Skills Assessment exams, arguing that the tests neither help the children learn nor help the teachers teach. They also argue that the test results do not provide parents with any useful feedback about their children’s progress and that the assessments use a great deal of resources (they are very expensive to administer) that would be better used in directly funding schools. The move by the school board was admonished by the Education Minister, who indicated that these are not optional exams. In previous years, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation has taken out full-page ads in the Vancouver Sun explaining to parents how they could prevent their children from taking the exams.

In Ontario there was an increase in “cheating and irregularities” in 2010 reported by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO). The EQAO is an independent agency funded by the Ontario government which oversees province-wide testing. Ten Ontario schools were investigated by EQAO for breaking testing procedures by photocopying previous years’ tests, allowing unauthorized resource materials (i.e., dictionaries, calculators) to be used, revealing questions beforehand, or making hand gestures to students about which answers on the tests were correct. The EQAO was alerted to possible cheating and inadvertent breaking of rules by concerned parents and school officials. In the past, teachers and principals have been suspended when cheating has been established. The EQAO has stated that it plans to add a “checklist” for teachers that includes clearer instructions on how to administer the tests.

Hidden Curriculum

The content of textbooks from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries across Canada had a not-so-hidden message of trying to create a certain type of citizen. That citizen would not question the existing class system, would be loyal to the British Empire, and would uphold Christian values. The delivery of a “moral education” was a strong underlying assumption of educational practices of the time, which is very consistent with what Durkheim (Chapter 2) argued to be the fundamental objective of education.

The changes that have occurred in curriculum over the past several decades have been shaped by various forces. Early on, approaches were used to keep British Imperial culture front and centre so as to avoid the Americanization of the curriculum. In the 1960s and afterward, awareness about the importance of diversity and non-British perspectives were highlighted, with curricular practices changing to accommodate a wider range of perspectives. Other topics highlighted in this chapter so far have shown that education is contested territory. Particular groups oppose the inclusion of certain works of literature and topics (around evolutionary theory and discussions of sexuality) in the classroom because it contradicts what they believe and therefore what they think their children should learn.

Curriculum also develops uniquely in various jurisdictions due to their socio-historical specificity. Raptis and Baxter (2006), for example, note how mathematic curriculum developed differently in British Columbia and Quebec. British Columbia was far more influenced by American educational theorists than Quebec, exhibiting major differences that can be traced back to the mid-1800s. For example, mathematics curriculum in Quebec is focused heavily on mental calculations and developing mental automaticity for multiplication by 10, 100, and 1000. Quebec mathematics curriculum is also more unified, with a focus on conceptual understanding and “problem solving,” which refers to the pedagogical practice of demonstrating the relationship of new material to previously learned material and emphasis of the conceptual understanding of mathematical principles. In British Columbia, the curriculum exhibited a different teaching approach that required students to respond to focused and direct questions such as determining the percentage of a number. Problem solving, in contrast, was treated as a separate topic. Raptis and Baxter (2006) argue that these differences in curriculum are deeply ingrained in the socio-historical development of each province, with practices in Quebec resembling educational approaches from France (which emphasize intellectual development) and British Columbia being more influenced by American educational theorists, which favours a “socially utilitarian” curriculum.

The differences between American and French approaches can been explained by the different histories that each educational system had followed. The American educational system developed to educate and assimilate a growing immigrant population in the New World. The development of the education system in France began much earlier and was greatly shaped by Napoleon in order to train personnel to administer his empire. French education was modernized in the late nineteenth century, when public school became free, mandatory, and secular for children less than 15 years of age. France was not an immigrant-receiving country in the way that the United States (and Canada) were, and therefore the content of the curriculum is not as focused on “assimilation,” as the population at the time was relatively homogenous.

Multicultural Curriculum

Canada is a country with a diverse population. The official policy of multiculturalism was introduced in 1971 by the Trudeau government and the Multicultural Act, passed in 1988, further guaranteed cultural diversity to Canadians, allowing them to preserve and share their unique cultural heritages. While the founding immigrant groups of Canada were British and French, immigration to Canada after the World Wars resulted in a population that was much more diverse than simply English, French, and Aboriginal. The purpose of the multiculturalism policy was to legitimize the place of the various ethno-cultural groups in Canada. One of the objectives of this policy was to celebrate this diversity of ethno-cultural groups and their contributions to Canadian society. Another was to promote healthy relationships between and among these groups (Ghosh 2004).

Stages of Multicultural Education in Canada

Ghosh (2004) identifies five stages of the development of multicultural education in a Canadian context. The first is the assimilation stage. Until the adoption of the official policy of multiculturalism, assimilation into an Anglo-dominated culture was expected in English Canada. Differences from the dominant culture were seen as deficiencies that needed to be remedied. The next stage is referred to as the adaptation stage, which characterized the practices in education observed shortly after multiculturalism policy was introduced in Canada in the 1970s. Ghosh notes that in this stage, cultural differences were regarded as “exotic.” Attention to multicultural topics and cultural diversity was approached with a “museum view”: practices specific to particular ethnicities were regarded as romantic cultural artifacts. Sometimes known as the “saris, samosas and steel drums” approach, these first attempts at introducing multiculturalism into education largely failed at fostering integration and tolerance because non-dominant cultures were regarded as strange and exotic and associated only with specific foods, dances, and music.

The third stage of multicultural education in Canada is known as the accommodation stage. In this stage, attention shifted to promoting equality of opportunity. This was represented in education by the introduction of topics like ethnic studies, heritage language programs, and the inclusion of gender and ethnic representation in curricula. According to Ghosh (2004), this was realized through a variety of techniques, including removing ethnic and racial stereotypes from curriculum material, hiring minority teachers, and offering heritage-language courses in schools. Ghosh argues, however, that despite these efforts, the overall Eurocentric content of the curriculum and culture of the education system continued to marginalize ethnic minority students and discriminate against them in both overt and covert ways.

The fourth stage of multicultural education is called incorporation. In this stage, attention has shifted to promoting intergroup relations. Within education, this has meant the hiring of more teachers from ethno-cultural groups and the implementation of prejudice-reduction strategies. In this stage, attempts are made at creating alliances between different groups.

The fifth stage is referred to as the integration stage, which Ghosh notes is a “radical departure” from the previous stages. In this stage, world views are altogether different. Instead of a Eurocentric White cultural framework as the dominant world view, the orientation at this stage is much more global. Teachers using a critical race pedagogy focused on anti-racist education are characteristic of multicultural education in Canada at this stage. This approach to pedagogy in Canada, however, has been used in only a handful of cities and provinces, and usually on an experimental basis (Ghosh 2004).

How Successful Has Implementing a Multicultural Curriculum Been?

Like any other curricular reform, the success of multiculturalism in curriculum hinges on how well the topic is covered in teacher training. Failure to educate teachers on how to adopt reformed curriculum will often result in failed reform efforts (Lemisko and Clausen 2006).

Dunn et al. (2009) investigated how teacher education programs approached the topic of multicultural education, and found that most student teachers had very little experience with cultural and ethnic diversity. This led to feelings of anxiety about their ability to work in diverse classroom environments. While many student teachers indicated that they were open-minded, many also expressed some resistance to acquiring intercultural competence, or being able to successfully teach and communicate with students from other cultures. Dunn explains that teachers may feel that students should learn how to assimilate into their classrooms.

Bickmore (2006), in an examination of curriculum documents from Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Ontario, found that ideals of multiculturalism were pervasive in learning outcomes but that diversity is often represented as harmonious and conflict is regarded as minimal. There are few presentations of critical viewpoints. Historical injustices are often discussed as though they have been resolved or are nearly resolved. Bickmore argues that this can be confusing, particularly for students who are racialized and have had very different experiences of what is being discussed. Bickmore notes that “citizenship education that begins by marginalizing conflicting voices is unlikely to provide a solid foundation for more pluralistic democracy” and that these types of curricular practices are emphasizing assimilation more than democratic engagement. They act as a form of “implicit social control and homogenization through [the] inculcation of unproblematized values, silencing, or marginalization of dissenting viewpoints” (p. 382).

Across Canada, the implementation of multiculturalism into education varies considerably. One way that multiculturalism is promoted is through the teaching of heritage languages. Teaching of languages other than French and English expanded in schools across the country from the 1980s onwards. Table 5.3 summarizes the current offerings by province and territory, although the language offerings at any particular school would be reflected by the needs of a particular area. A large number of heritage languages are offered in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. None are offered in New Brunswick, Newfoundland, or Prince Edward Island, likely reflecting that these areas have seen less immigrant settlement than other parts of Canada. More recently, many provinces (and all the territories) have offered instruction in Aboriginal languages. Most, but not all, language instruction is offered from the kindergarten to Grade 12 levels, although this varies by province.

Quebec has not adopted multicultural education practices like the rest of the country. Because Quebec is interested in protecting its distinct society status and the French language, the language of instruction in Quebec schools is mandated to be French (although English school boards exist as well). Because Quebec also had (and continues to have) a large influx of immigrants, integrating different cultural groups was also regarded as necessary. Instead of multiculturalism, however, a policy of intercultural education was promoted. This means that Quebec schools will be pluralistic in their outlook, but that French will be relied upon as the language of instruction. Multiculturalism as a federal policy is fundamentally in ideological opposition to French-Quebecois nationalism (Ghosh 2004), and Quebec has been opposed to it since its inception in the late 1980s. It was believed that multiculturalism would erode Quebeckers’ autonomy and their linguistic culture (Talbani 1993). Policies and procedures associated with intercultural education have the goal of assimilating non-francophone students into Quebec linguistic and cultural practices. As explained by Talbani, “Quebec government addressed the issue of the cultural diversity by defining its priorities based on two factors: (1) controlling the selection of immigrants in response to the specific economic and cultural needs of Quebec society; and (2) the harmonious integration of new-comers of all origins with the French-speaking community” (1993:411, citing Quebec 1990).

Table 5.3 Heritage Language Courses Offered in the Provinces and Territories

Province | Territory Language Notes
British Columbia American Sign Language





Mandarin Chinese



First People’s Languages

Implemented 1998 to present, all K-12
Alberta First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) languages programs

Blackfoot and Cree offered at elementary, junior, and senior high









Implemented from the outcomes of the Western Canadian Protocol Aboriginal Languages Curriculum Framework (2000), which began in 1997 as a joint effort between educators in the western provinces and Aboriginal communities to achieve the goal of creating a suitable Aboriginal languages curriculum.

Most available K-12

Saskatchewan FIrst Nations and Metis languages


In place since 1994

Available K-12

Manitoba Aboriginal languages

American Sign Language (ASL)






Aboriginal languages in place since 2007 and available K-12

ASL since 1993

Other heritage languages available to begin at Grade 1, 4, 7 or Senior 1

Ontario Native languages
Classical languages
Numerous international languages In curriculum since 1999 for Native languages and offered from Grade 1

Classical and international languages offered from Grade 9

Numerous international and classical languages have been on offer since the Heritage Language Program began in Ontario in the late 1980s

Quebec Spanish


Spanish offered as a third language after French and English starting at beginning of Cycle II

Cree School Board created in Northern Quebec via the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (1975)

New Brunswick None
Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw | Miigmao language




Mi’kmaw | Miigmao implemented in 2003 and offered from Grade 1 onward

Gaelic instituted in 1997 and offered from Grade 10 onward

Newfoundland none
Prince Edward Island none
Yukon Aboriginal languages Often used as second language of instruction from Kindergarten onward
Nunavut Inuktitut Curriculum embedded in “Inuuqatigiit” which is a curriculum based on Inuit perspectives and implemented from Kindergarten onward
Northwest Territories Aboriginal languages Curriculum embedded in “Inuuqatigiit” which is a curriculum based on Inuit perspectives and implemented from Kindergarten to Grade 6

Canada’s Aboriginals and Curriculum

St. Denis (2007) has argued that Aboriginal students have been subjected to processes of racialization that have “historically, legally and politically” divided Aboriginal communities. Many critics such as Aikenhead (2006) have argued that school curriculum in Canada has prioritized a Western European scientific way of knowing. This way of knowing is so engrained and taken-for-granted in Western culture that it can be difficult to promote alternative viewpoints. This Western way of knowing tends to emphasize positivism and an ontology of objective reality (Chapter 2), particularly when it comes to science. However, there are other ways of knowing that do not value these particular orientations. As argued by Aikenhead, the Aboriginal way of knowing includes an “alternative notion of knowledge as action and wisdom, which combines the ontology of spirituality with holistic, relational, empirical practices in order to celebrate an ideology of harmony with nature for survival” (p. 387).

Teaching styles in the Canadian classroom are typically task-focused and rely on linear thinking and passive learning (or the idea that students are “banks”, discussed in Chapter 2). Teaching is based on conveying small units of information rather than on aiming for an understanding of the whole (Cherubini, Hodson, Manley-Casimir, and Muir 2010; Ghosh 2002). These practices are at odds with the Indigenous way of knowing. Critics argue that the Canadian school system has not nurtured Aboriginal students’ identities by recognizing their ways of knowing, which alienates students and makes them less inclined to want to participate in learning (Aikenhead 2006; Canadian Council on Learning 2007a; Carr 2008; Cherubini, Hodson, Manley-Casimir, and Muir 2010). Aikenhead (2006) calls this forcing of Eurocentric views on Aboriginal students, and the resulting delegitimization of their ways of knowing, cognitive imperialism. Many teachers, however, are not trained to deal with Aboriginal ways of knowing, as it is largely absent from teacher training practices across Canada—with some notable exceptions, such as Brock University’s specialized degree in Aboriginal Education (Redwing and Hill 2007).

Multicultural Curriculum and White Privilege

Many scholars, including Schick and St. Denis (2005), have argued that the current approaches to multicultural education have originated from a problematic starting point that views Canadian culture as “raceless, benevolent, and innocent” (p. 296). The authors argue that the common ways of talking about multiculturalism fail to acknowledge that privilege—particularly White privilege—vastly improves the likelihood of individuals overcoming disadvantage. In Canadian popular discourse, racism is thought of as something that occurred in the past—or that happens in the United States—and discussions of racism are considered taboo or ill-mannered. Schick and St. Denis argue that is imperative for teachers to recognize that White-skin privilege serves to advantage White students and teachers by allowing them to move with ease in a Eurocentric Western environment. For example, the racism that Aboriginal peoples faced limited their access to and success in education, but these same mechanisms served to assist White students. While such students may regard their success as solely the result of hard work, critical race theorists (Chapter 2) argue that it is necessary to recognize that the system is not as meritocratic as we might believe.

This myth of meritocracy—or the present-day belief that White success is due to hard work alone—is a subtle way that White domination is secured in today’s society. Critics (see the discussion of critical race theorists in Chapter 2) argue that White student success has been—and continues to be—at the cost of racism against Aboriginal and ethno-cultural minorities. The myth of meritocracy secures that belief by perpetuating the notion that people earn their place in society solely based upon how hard they work, regardless of their ascribed characteristics. There is, however, much evidence to the contrary suggesting that systematic racism exists in our society and that it makes it considerably more difficult for non-Whites to achieve to the same level as Whites.

Critical race theorists recognize that teachers may find it offensive to suggest that they may act in (unintentionally) racist ways that are driven by White privilege. They argue that the curriculum and teaching practices are inherently biased insofar as they hold “Whiteness” as the invisible norm against which ethnic and cultural minorities are compared. For example, the achievements of Aboriginals and minority students are compared to the achievements of White students—who have had access to and enjoyed the privileges associated with being members of the dominant culture—which Schick and St. Denis argue is an unfair benchmark from which to begin evaluations. According to Schick and St. Denis (2005), anti-racist pedagogy is a teaching approach that better promotes an effective multicultural curriculum because it requires that teachers and students recognize how White privilege has increased their life chances. Students and teachers are made aware of how one’s life chances are not solely determined by meritocracy and that there is evidence that subtle forms of racism have secured the benefits of White privilege (e.g., living in a “good neighbourhood” and attending a well-resourced school), although such conversations will naturally make them feel uncomfortable (and often defensive).

Addressing an Anti-Racist and Multicultural Curriculum

Carr (2008) documents how multicultural curriculum initiatives in Ontario have been strongly influenced by the provincial governments in power during their implementation. In 1993, the Ontario Ministry of Education under the NDP government of Bob Rae officially introduced plans and implementation strategies to address social justice concerns around racism. The ministry developed documents that addressed teacher training, curriculum, staff development, and the creation of linkages between schools and communities. Carr (2005) argues that this policy was particularly striking because it consisted of a plan of action (rather than just vague goals to be attained), focused attention on including marginalized voices in decision making, and consisted of accountability procedures (i.e., to make sure the plan was being successfully implemented). Documents formally recognized that a Eurocentric White bias existed in educational practices. Over the next two years, extensive resources focusing on anti-racist pedagogy were created for Ontario teachers. This approach changed markedly in 1995, when the Progressive Conservative government led by Premier Mike Harris took office and refocused attention away from anti-racism and onto the merit principle (Carr 2008). These shifts in policy reflect the ideological clashes between New Democrats, who view the government as instrumental in social change, and the Progressive Conservatives, who believe that social change comes from only truly egalitarian approaches to governing.

Dalton McGuinty, representing the Liberal Party, took office in 2003. The McGuinty government did not give much attention to multicultural education per se, but instead refocused its efforts toward creating a “character education” curriculum (in place from K–12 since 2007) that is oriented toward educating the “heart as well as the mind. . . . It means preparing students to be citizens who have empathy and respect for others within our increasingly diverse communities. It also means providing opportunities for students to understand deeply the importance of civic engagement and what it means to be productive citizens in an interdependent world” (Ontario Ministry of Education 2008:2). Character education may be viewed as an indirect way of promoting multiculturalism through the development of tolerance of citizenship among young people.

There have been some promising starts in fostering a truly multicultural curriculum that recognizes alternative ways of knowing. Alternative ways of knowing refers to worldviews that are different than the dominant Western scientific manner in which knowledge in acquired in Canada (and elsewhere). Aboriginal communities have argued that the contemporary classroom in Canada favours a Eurocentric view of the world that is strongly tied to the scientific method. Aboriginal ways of knowing are based often on oral history, tradition, and practical application. In British Columbia, the Ministry of Education has started to include Aboriginal knowledge in the kindergarten to Grade 12 science curricula. A guide for helping teachers bring Aboriginal knowledge into the classroom has also been developed in consultation with Aboriginal educators. In Saskatchewan, Aboriginal elders and other cultural advisers are brought into schools for the purpose of linking students to this knowledge. In consultation with Elders, researchers have developed teaching materials for science education for Grades 6 through 12 (Canadian Council on Learning 2007a).

Cherubini, Hodson, Manley-Casimir, and Muir (2010) have noted that part of the problem of addressing White privilege in the classroom has been the unpreparedness of teachers who have not had exposure and education in Aboriginal ways of knowing. They suggest that all pre-service teachers be familiar with Aboriginal education and have opportunities to participate in courses and activities that give them adequate exposure to these issues. They note that innovative programming in teacher education is occurring in Canada at some teacher training programs. One such program at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, partners with Aboriginal groups in an attempt to expand the number of Aboriginal educators who work within the community. Recently Brock entered an agreement with the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council to train and educate 100 new Nishnawbe teachers who will be qualified to teach both on- and off-reserve.

Another attempt to address problems perceived to be the outcome of White privilege is illustrated in the recent opening of Toronto’s first Africentric school. The school, which is part of Toronto’s public school system, has a Black-focused curriculum, but is not limited to Black students. It opened in 2009, amid considerable controversy, with critics arguing that such a school advocated racial segregation. Advocates of the school pointed to the fact that Black students in Toronto had a dropout rate of around 40 percent—substantially higher than for Whites and other racial minority students. They argued that the dropout rate was in part attributable to the inability of Black students to relate to the subject matter being taught in schools—and that mainstream curriculum viewed the world through European eyes. In the Africentric school, instead of learning about history from a European point of view, for example, the role that African history played in the creation of European history is covered. In literature, Black writers are studied, and in mathematics, pedagogical practices are used to make the subject matter more relevant to Black students, such as showing how African textile patterns exhibit key principles of geometry.18 The first three years of Toronto’s Africentric school (which can accommodate students up to Grade 7) have been considered so successful in improving Black student achievement and retention that plans are underway to begin Africentric education at the secondary level starting in September of 2012.

Chapter Summary

In this chapter, various aspects of school curriculum were discussed. First, major events in the history of curricular development in French and English Canada were highlighted from the pre-industrial and Victorian eras. Major developments in schooling at this point in time were not concerned with curriculum but with the development of a public schooling system in general. Mass immigration in between the 1890s and 1920 increased the perceived need for mass schooling, largely in part to assimilate newcomers to the desired British cultural beliefs of the ruling elite.

Curriculum changed in particular ways after 1920. In the period up to after the Second World War, reform efforts were made to expand education beyond the three Rs, while the progressive education movement took hold in the late 1930s and ’40s. After the Second World War, additional curricular changes occurred, reflecting various responses to wider global political circumstances. During the Cold War years, science and technology were emphasized, reflecting Western fears of Soviet dominance in this area. More recently, curricular reforms have reflected different political attitudes, particularly those around valuing diversity and successfully addressing the educational needs of a multicultural population.

Various stakeholders in Canadian curriculum development and accountability were also noted. Parents’ influence on the curriculum, as well as the influence exerted by political and cultural groups, was noted. The role of private-sector influence in the development of curriculum-related learning materials was also introduced.

Evaluating and assessing students is a major part of ensuring that the curriculum has been successfully delivered to students. In many jurisdictions, the practice of large-scale assessment is used to ensure accountability of schools and teachers. The positive and negative aspects of large-scale assessments were considered in detail.

In addition to the formal curriculum, it has been argued that a hidden curriculum also exists. This hidden curriculum is one that socializes students into becoming a particular type of citizen. The hidden curriculum is one aspect of the educational system that is argued to put minorities at a disadvantage because the dominant culture is always held up as the “standard” by which they are evaluated. The incorporation of multiculturalism into the curriculum and the various stages this has gone through was summarized, followed by discussion of problems that are associated with how multicultural curriculum is understood and implemented. A critical race perspective was offered, which suggests that White privilege must be recognized before multicultural curriculum and alternative ways of knowing can be realized.

Review Questions

1. Explain what curriculum is and why it is a topic of sociological interest.

2. What main contributions did Ryerson make to the development of curriculum in English Canada?

3. Explain how major historical events influenced the content of Canadian curriculum.

4. Describe how parents, cultural/religious organizations, and corporations can influence the curriculum.

5. What are large-scale assessments? What are three arguments in favour of large-scale assessments and three arguments opposed to them?

6. Define the hidden curriculum.

7. What were the stages of multicultural education in Canada?

8. What are challenges to multicultural education in Canada? How can they be addressed?

9. What is meant by White privilege and how does this tie into multicultural education?

10. Explain what is meant by anti-racist pedagogy.


  • Research value-added testing and criterion-referenced testing in relation to large-scale assessment. What do these terms mean? How do they differ from norm-referenced testing?
  • Compare and contrast the large-scale assessments in three provinces or territories by reviewing ministry websites.
  • Look at the websites of three teacher training programs at Canadian universities. Do any of them address the topic of multicultural and Aboriginal education? How?
  • Look at some of the private-sector websites that offer curriculum materials for teachers, such as Procter & Gamble (Canada) and Kraft Canada. What do they provide? For what topics and grade levels? What do you think is the motivation behind their provision of such materials?
  • Explore how Aboriginal ways of knowledge and Western ways of knowing can be used together to teach science. Examine science curriculum documents from Saskatchewan and New Brunswick for some ideas of how different jurisdictions are approaching this issue.

Key Terms

alternative ways of knowing

anti-racist pedagogy

formative assessment

high-stakes exams

intercultural competence

progressive education movement

standardized testing

summative assessment

teaching to the test

Appendix A: Provincial and Territorial Assessment Tests


Socialization in the Schooling Process


Source: “In the classroom” by US Dept of Education is licensed CC BY 2.0

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to

  1. Define socialization, primary socialization, and secondary socialization.
  2. Identify how the role of the family differs from the role of the school in the socialization process.
  3. Explain the dimensions of socialization.
  4. Describe the processes by which socialization occurs in schools.
  5. Summarize how streaming contributes to socialization in schools.
  6. Describe how school rules, codes of conduct, and dress codes impact on the socialization of students.
  7. Summarize how students learn about gender roles in school.
  8. Explain how relationships with teachers and the social climate of the school impact upon socialization.
  9. Illustrate how peer groups contribute to the social identity of students.
  10. Describe how peer victimization, peer rejection, and relational aggression impact on the socialization experiences of students.
  11. Differentiate between the home schooled experience and outcomes of socialization with those who attend school.

Schools and the Socializing Process

In Canada, children from elementary to high school levels spend about seven hours a day at school for about 200 days of the year. These 1400 hours in the school setting per year do not include extracurricular activities and school preparatory work, like homework. From an early age until adulthood, school is a place where children spend a large portion of their days—and, indeed, their lives. Prior to attending school, children’s main source of socialization comes from their families.

Socialization refers to the ongoing process of learning the expected behaviours, values, norms, and social skills of individuals who occupy particular roles in society. Agents of socialization are the social structures in which socialization occurs. Major agents of socialization include the family and school, but also the media, peer groups, and other major social institutions such as religion and the legal system. Furthermore, socialization can be divided into two types: primary socialization and secondary socialization. Primary socialization occurs within the family and is where children first learn their own individual identity, acquire language, and develop cognitive skills. Within the family, children are socialized into particular ways of thinking about morals, cultural values, and social roles. Of course, the socialization that results from primary socialization rests heavily upon the social class, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds and attitudes of the family.

Secondary socialization refers to the social learning that children undergo when they enter other social institutions, like school. Characteristics of the school, teachers, and the peer group all influence the socialization of children within school settings. The family still remains an important part of children’s socialization, even when they enter into school. Children, however, will now have other significant people in their lives from whom they will learn the skills of social interaction. In Chapter 2, Mead’s theory of development of the self was discussed. The development of the generalized other, where a child learns to adopt the attitudes of the wider society, occurs in secondary socialization.

The school setting is where the learning of the new role as a student occurs. When children start school, for example, they are socialized to obey authority (i.e., the teacher) and in how to be a student. The overall socialization of children, as theorized by Bronfenbrenner (see Chapter 2), is dispersed into various realms which focus on the different sites of social context that children experience in their lives. Families and schools are major contributors to socialization, but there are other systems of socialization within ecological systems theory. The child interacts with many features of his or her environment which all contribute to the child’s social development. And the grand outcome of socialization is also theorized to be the result of how all the systems interact with one another. In this chapter, however, the main focus is on how schools contribute to the socialization of children.

A major objective of socialization in the school setting is to make a child socially competent. A child must develop skills that allow him or her to function socially, emotionally, and intellectually within the school environment. Within the school setting, social competence is achieved when students embrace and achieve socially sanctioned goals. These goals (e.g., learning to share, participating in lessons, working in groups), when embraced, also serve to integrate the child into social groups at school. Social approval is obtained when children accept the sanctioned goals of the school setting and they are rewarded and reinforced on a consistent basis through social acceptance by teachers and other students (Wentzel and Looney 2006).

Schools versus Families

Schools become a significant social world for children to navigate. Unless a child attended preschool or nursery, the structure and routines of the school day and the social relationships within the school setting must be entirely learned. The school setting now begins to take on some of the roles that previously only family members fulfilled—but in markedly different ways. There are many new behaviours and experiences that children must adapt to when starting school for the first time. As noted by Wentzel and Looney (2006), there are several different social realities to which a child must adapt:

  • A teacher, for example, is largely in charge of the student, but the relationship that a child has with a teacher is far less intimate than the relationship a child shares with his or her parents;
  • A student must also adapt to spending a significant amount of time in large groups;
  • A child must learn to be independent to achieve the academic goals of school;
  • A child must also learn to form bonds and develop social bonds with other children in school; and
  • Children must learn the work ethic that goes along with school and understand the goals of learning as well as adjusting their efforts according to teacher feedback.

In addition to learning different behaviours that are appropriate for school, there are also structural features of school to which children must adapt. The structure of school and the structure of the family are obviously very different. Table 6.1 highlights some major structural differences between the school and family setting.

Table 6.1 Structural Differences between School and Family Settings

Schools Families
Yearly promotion No yearly promotion
Relatively large size Relatively small size
Heterogeneous composition Homogeneous composition
Relationships broken at end of school year Unbroken relationships
High child to adult ration Low child to adult ratio
Narrow, homogeneous age grouping Mixture of several ages
Narrow range of activities and events Wide range of activities and events
Little privacy Some privacy
Specific treatment of individuals Diffuse treatment of individuals

Adapted from Dreeben, Robert, 1968, On What is Learned in School, Percheron Press, A Division of Eliot Werner Publications, Inc., Used with permission.

As Table 6.1 illustrates, there are many new things for children to get used to in the school setting. Not only does a child’s behaviour have to be modified from a set of learned “family-appropriate” behaviours, but the setting itself has many new structural features to which a child must become accustomed. School settings often place children in heterogeneous classes with large groups of children of the same age, where they participate in very specific school-oriented activities and events. There is one teacher for a large group of children and the relationship with the teacher is less personal than a child–parent relationship. Learning the expected appropriate behaviours and values of the schools system is a complex ongoing process of socialization.

The Dimensions of Socialization

Brint (1998) identifies three major dimensions of socialization as it pertains to schooling, which are illustrated in Figure 6.1. All three dimensions refer to a type of conformity that identifies an ideal that students are expected to emulate. These ideals are normatively approved and accepted models of what a student should be like to fit into schooling contexts, not only in North America but in virtually all places where formal schooling occurs.

The first of these dimensions is behavioural conformity. Behavioural conformity refers to the types of self-regulations of the body that a student must control in order to fit into the school environment. He or she may have to raise a hand to ask questions. Students will be required to sit still during lessons. Students may not touch other students. Students may have to stand in orderly lines in order to have a drink of water. All of these examples require the student to self-regulate his or her body’s physical actions in ways that the child may not have had to do in a family setting.

The second dimension of socialization is moral conformity, which refers to the process of a student internalizing the preferred understanding of what is right and wrong. This type of socialization is accomplished through teachers emphasizing the desirability of certain virtues, such as hard work, equity, being “nice,” and so on. Brint (1998) notes that young children, for example, may be assigned reading material that warns of the consequences of not having such virtues.

Figure 6.1 The Three Dimensions of Socialization

The third dimension of socialization is cultural conformity. During the process of cultural conformity, children learn about accepted perspectives and “styles” of expression. These preferred styles reflect normative cultural values about what is valued cultural knowledge. Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital (see Cultural Reproduction in Chapter 2) addresses this type of acculturation, stating that teachers regard certain types of outlooks and student styles as more desirable than others and for students to succeed they need to conform to the cultural practices of the dominant social and cultural class.

The Processes by Which Socialization Occurs

So far, it has been argued that children must adapt to features of school that are much different from their family environments. The expected behaviours at school are much different from within the family, and the structural features of day-to-day life at school are in stark contrast to what was experienced in the family home. The next section addresses the techniques that are used within schools to socialize children into being desirable students.


Figure 6.2 Zones of Socialization in the Classroom
Source: Based on Steven Brint. 1998. Schools and Societies. Pine Forge Press, p. 161

Brint (1998) identifies three major zones of socialization within classrooms (see Figure 6.2). The first zone is called the core. The school rules, which must be followed by students, exist at the core. As discussed later in this chapter, school rules and school codes of conduct are essential features of schools that frame behaviours in a manner such that they produce obedience to authority. The core also consists of embedded practices, which are manners of behaving that are not explicit rules but routine practices within schools that appear to be very natural and taken for granted. Such embedded practices are lining up, doing homework, taking tests, and being evaluated. Many of these features of the core can be understood as not only socializing children into being students, but also preparing them for life as adults within bureaucracies.

Outside of the core are two rings of moral instruction. The inner ring is characterized by explicit moral instruction. In this instruction, children are taught desirable and undesirable virtues. Explicit moral instruction occurs in the elementary grades, when children are socialized to aspire to virtues such as kindness, generosity, courage, and hard work. The outer ring consists of implicit moral instruction, where students are provided with moral exemplars in more sophisticated ways, such as through the curriculum of history and literature. Within the outer ring, teachers are also included as exemplars of moral behaviour (see Box 6.1).

Box 6.1 – Teaching Morality through Example and through Curriculum

Do students look at teachers as moral exemplars? What happens if teachers behave in ways that violate norms of morality? Examples of teachers acting in morally suggestive ways occasionally make it into the mainstream media. For example, in 2010, two Winnipeg teachers were under investigation after performing a sexually suggestive “dirty dance” at a high school dance competition. Asked about the inappropriateness of their behaviour, one student was quoted as saying, “They’re not setting a good example if they’re going to be doing that. They tell us what to do, almost like what’s right and what’s wrong. If they’re breaking what they’re saying it means nothing to us then.”1 A student at the competition shot a video of the dance which quickly became an internet sensation accompanied by much public moral outrage. In April 2010, it was announced that the teachers would no longer be employed at the high school. One resigned and the other did not have his contract renewed.2

The outrage that followed the display by the Winnipeg teachers strongly supports the idea that teachers are implicit moral role models. Their role in guiding the moral development of children, however, is often not simply limited to setting a good example. “Character” education is part of the official curriculum in some parts of the country. “Moral education” is a subject taught at all cycles of school in Quebec. Since 2007 in Ontario and 2005 in Alberta, “character education” has been part of the official curriculum in public schools. As noted in an official Alberta Education document: “Whether they are conscious of it or not, schools are involved in teaching cultural and societal mores and values and in shaping students’ ideas about what constitutes good behaviour” (Alberta Education 2005:1). Dunstable School in Alberta, for example, has instituted policies that promote socially desirable behaviour. Their program, called the “Character Education and Virtues Program,” rewards students every time they are “caught” doing a selfless act in the school.3 The students receive a paper bear that is placed on a wall for all to see, and by collecting enough of these, the students receive prizes. The staff keep track of who is earning the bears, and perhaps more importantly, who is not.

Less overt ways of instilling values through curricular practices are also found in citizenship education, which teaches students about “being good citizens.” Citizenship education is present in the primary and secondary curricula of all Canadian provinces and territories (Evans 2006). An analysis of the relationship between character and citizenship education revealed that the overarching message was to promote assimilation into Canadian society (Winton 2007).4

Moral education extends into areas beyond the display of particular virtues. As more schools are trying to instill healthy eating habits and becoming more environmentally conscious, many have adopted rules that prohibit the bringing of certain products to school. In February of 2011, news broke that a six-year-old boy in Laval, Quebec, had been excluded from a school teddy bear contest because he had a plastic sandwich bag in his lunch, which violated the school rules on environmentally friendly lunch containers.5 Many environmental initiatives have been adopted by schools across Canada. Plastic water bottles are banned from sale in schools in Ontario, for example, but there are no cases of students being excluded from activities for having them. Such instances spark debate around the role of schools in promoting particular social values.

The previous chapter discussed curriculum and how the content of schooling is closely associated with the social construction of what various groups (teachers, school administrators, parents) think children should be taught. The topics that children learn about and how they are presented are just one way that school acts as a socializing agent. There is a certain body of knowledge that it is assumed children must know in order to be productive citizens and function in society. Being presented with that curriculum is one way that children are socialized into becoming desirable members of the public. Moral education and “character education” are even found in some provinces’ curricula (Box 6.1).

The role of teachers as a new authority figure in students’ lives was introduced earlier. Teachers are more than just a new person from whom the child must take direction; they influence the socialization of children in several ways. The influence teachers exert over students in their delivery of curriculum has been addressed above and in the previous chapter. Teachers, however, shape the socialization of students by other processes as well, which are discussed below.


How do children decide what courses they will take in secondary school? Students’ academic abilities are identified early in their academic career through the grades they receive. A significant part of a teacher’s job is to evaluate students and, often, to decide if a student is best suited for a particular “ability track.” Teacher education suggests that tailoring into ability groups allows for teachers to best match the learning needs of students. Increasing the homogeneity of ability within a classroom also promotes better classroom management (Barakett and Cleghorn 2008). Standardized tests (discussed in Chapter 5) often exert considerable influence in allocating children into specific streams.

When a student enters high school, the courses that he or she takes greatly influence the post-secondary options available to him or her upon graduation. Students who wish to attend university need to take a certain set of academic courses, for example. The term streaming (also known as tracking) refers to the series of courses a student should take that best matches his or her abilities and aptitudes.

The term “streaming” is typically used to apply to formal processes of splitting students into ability groupings and is usually discussed in a manner that focuses on the individual student. It should be noted that informal mechanisms of streaming, however, can also be understood as the outcomes of other schooling practices that occur at the level of the institution. In Chapter 4, for example, research by Willms (2008) was considered which argued that French immersion programs act as an informal streaming mechanism as French immersion students tend to be from significantly higher socio-economic backgrounds and less likely to have a learning disability. Charter schools (Chapter 4) can also be thought of as streaming children, but of instead of streaming them into ability groups, they are streamed into particular philosophical or religious orientations. Similarly, students who attend private schools can be conceptualized as having been “streamed” into elite classes that tend to reproduce social stratification in society.

Streaming is a topic that is hotly debated (Loveless 1999). Proponents of streaming argue that putting students in classes with others who have similar abilities creates a better learning environment. Students who exhibit higher academic aptitude are put with similar students into advanced courses where they will be challenged. Students who are less academically inclined are put into classes that better match their abilities and interests, like vocational training. As noted by Krahn and Taylor (2007), labour shortages in the area of skilled trades have also supported the arguments for streaming because such shortages point to a need for more vocational training opportunities in Canadian high schools, which of course are associated with the non-academic stream.

Opponents of streaming note that those from disadvantaged and working-class backgrounds are disproportionately found in the vocational stream (Cheung 2007; Davies and Guppy 2006). In addition to social class distinctions in streaming, racial minority students are also overrepresented in the bottom groups of streaming ability (Oakes 2005). Sweet et al. (2010) found that in Grade 9 streaming practices in Ontario, Black African and Caribbean students were disproportionately found in the lower streams. Recent immigrant youth may also be placed in lower tracks due to their English language skills, rather than their overall academic ability (Sweet et al. 2010). This may severely limit their future ability of getting admitted to post-secondary training that leads to higher paying jobs with high status (Krahn and Taylor 2001). As Krahn and Taylor (2007) argue, students from disadvantaged backgrounds may have the ability to succeed in advanced academic courses, but an assortment of other factors may be reducing their likelihood of taking these courses. Such factors include parental influence, lack of role models, and the lowered expectations of teachers. Recall from Chapter 2 that Boudon discussed how secondary effects—like the aforementioned characteristics—can impact on educational attainment because they influence the types of educational choices made by a student and his or her family. Streaming, seen this way, may therefore act to reproduce social inequalities by limiting post-secondary opportunities (Sweet et al. 2010).

In an analysis of streaming processes by province, Krahn and Taylor (2007) examined how course selection limited the post-secondary education options available to students in selected provinces. Subject options are often streamed into “applied” or “academic” streams. The latter is oriented for someone who wishes to achieve university or post-secondary prerequisites (see Box 6.2 for some comparisons of applied and academic trajectories in Canada). In many provinces, courses in math, science, and English are divided into those that lead to post-secondary education options (e.g., university) and those that do not. Krahn and Taylor (2007) found that a major influence on course selection was parental education and family income; students from families with lower incomes and in which neither parent had post-secondary qualifications were more likely to take lower-streamed courses. They also found significant differences by province: students from Saskatchewan were much more likely to have university options than those in British Columbia, Alberta, or Ontario. This finding points to important differences in provincial educational policies and practices with regard to streaming.

Box 6.2 – What Do Academic and Applied Streams Look Like?

Because each province in Canada handles its own curriculum, how streaming occurs in school varies greatly by jurisdiction. Manitoba, for example, has a highly tracked mathematics program (McFeetors and Mason 2005). An applied stream is called Consumer Mathematics, while the academic stream is called Pre-calculus Mathematics. The Manitoba Ministry of Education describes Consumer Mathematics in the following way:

The Consumer Mathematics curriculum emphasizes number sense, consumer problem solving, and decision making. Students develop valuable knowledge and skills that will allow them to make informed decisions as they become independent citizens. The Consumer Mathematics curriculum addresses financial management, career exploration, home ownership and maintenance, as well as more traditional topics such as trigonometry and statistics.

In contrast, Pre-calculus mathematics is described as “designed for students who will be continuing studies at the post-secondary level in fields related to mathematics and science. This curriculum is intended as preparation for calculus at the university level.”

Below are the topics covered by both streams at grades 10, 11, & 12.

Grade 10

Grade 11

Grade 12


Consumer Mathematics

Consumer Mathematics

Consumer Mathematics

Problem Analysis

Problem Analysis

Problem Analysis

Analysis of Games and Numbers

Analysis of Games and Numbers

Analysis of Games and Numbers

Wages and Salaries

Relations and Formulas

Personal Finance


Income and Debt

Design and Measurement


Data Analysis and

Government Finances

Spatial Geometry

Measurement Technology


Consumer Decisions

Owning and Operating a Vehicle

Investigative Project

Geometry Project

Personal Income Tax

Career/Life Project

Personal Banking

Applications of Probability


Probability and Sampling

Income Tax

Variation and Formulas Completing a Portfolio





Polynomials and Factoring

Quadratic Functions

Circular Functions

Analytic Geometry





Trigonometric Identities

Exponents and Radicals

Analytic Geometry

Exponents and Logarithms




Permutations, Combinations, and Binomial

Rational Expressions and Equations

Consumer Mathematics





Statistics and Probability


Geometric Sequences

Variation and Sequence

Quadratic Functions

Statistics (Optional)

English Language Arts Streaming in Alberta


Mathematics is not the only subject that is streamed. Language arts and science, as mentioned above, are also often divided into applied and academic trajectories. In Alberta, applied English language arts are designated the course abbreviation of ELA 10-2 (Grade 10), 20-2 (Grade 11), and 30-2 (Grade 12). Alberta Education explains that this

course sequence provides for the study of texts at a variety of different levels of sophistication, to meet the needs of a more diverse student population in terms of student aspirations and abilities, students who aspire to post-secondary education, but not necessarily to careers related to the English language arts, may register in this course sequence. Not all post-secondary institutions, however, accept ELA 30-2 for entry. In general, students who plan to attend a post-secondary institution, regardless of their specific career aspirations, need to familiarize themselves with the entry requirements of the institution and program the plan to enter.

In contrast, the English language arts academic trajectory in Alberta is ELA 10-1, 20-1, and 30-1 “[which] provides a more in-depth study of text in terms of textual analysis. [S]tudents who aspire to careers that involve the development, production, teaching and study of more complex texts need to register in this course sequence.” The table above shows the differences and similarities between the curricula of the two streams.

Sources: Manitoba Education Reproduced with permission from Manitoba Education.

©Alberta Education. “Senior High English Language Arts; Program of Study”. 2003. pp. 7 & 10(Accessed March 2012)

In What Ways Does Streaming Impact Students?

That streaming has a positive effect on the academic attainment of high-ability groups has been documented by Ansalone (2001, 2003), although these gains are arguably at the expense of students in the lower-ability tracks (Sweet et al. 2010). Studies have found that classrooms in the lower tracks have a variety of less desirable characteristics that undoubtedly impact on the learning of students such as less experienced teachers, less challenging coursework, and teachers with lower expectations of students (Katz 1999). Students in such tracks often indicate that they are bored and that they are not engaged with the course materials (Berends 1995). As noted by Sweet et al. (2010), such conditions can only negatively impact the achievements of these students and further constrain their post-secondary prospects.

As discussed in Chapter 2, while policymakers have made recent attempts to mix the vocational and academic trajectories together in high school in order to make them more comparable, students expressed that, based upon the feedback they received from teachers, academic trajectories were preferred and that vocational paths were stigmatized (Taylor 2010).

Streaming not only influences the course choices of students, but also contributes to the overall socialization of children and adolescents in schools. Students who are consistently placed in remedial classes may also start to view themselves as “slow” (Barakett and Cleghorn, 2008). Streaming not only serves to increase the efficiency of teaching and classroom management, but also results in social groupings of students that have significant social meaning within and outside of the school. Placing students in special education, for example, requires that students be “labelled” as formally needing specialized assistance in order to succeed with curricular expectations (Hibel, Farkas, and Morgan 2010). These labels are not easily shed and can have spillover effects into other areas of social interaction, such as peer relations and future teacher expectations (Jones 1972).

But curriculum is just one aspect. There are many agents of socialization within the school environment, as indicated by Brint’s (1998) zones of socialization. As noted earlier, at the core of these zones are school rules, to which we now turn.

School Rules and Codes of Conduct

Many schools across North America have official codes of conduct to be followed by teachers and students. The majority of these codes tend to focus on issues surrounding dress codes and behaviour toward other students, teachers, and staff, while some include zero tolerance policies. Zero tolerance policies refer to specific code infractions that result in immediate punishment, usually in the form of suspension or expulsion, and sometimes involving the police. See Box 6.3 for further discussion about zero tolerance policies in Canada.

Box 6.3 – Zero Tolerance Policies in Canadian Schools

The term zero tolerance first gained popularity in the area of law enforcement in the United States. The term became associated with school disciplinary procedures in 1994 when the Gun-Free Schools Act was passed in the United States, which required that students who possessed a firearm at school be expelled for no less than one year (Cerrone 1999). Infamous acts of school violence, such as the events at Columbine High School in 1999, led to increased concern about violence in schools, which resulted in the emergence of zero tolerance policies around school codes of conduct.

In 2001, the Ontario Ministry of Education instituted the Safe Schools Act, which was designed to address violence and behavioural problems in schools. This act supplanted the Education Act (Section 23), which previously allowed only principals to suspend students and school boards to expel students. The Safe Schools Act changed the policy to one of mandatory suspensions and expulsions and police involvement for particular rule infractions, provided that “mitigating factors” were taken into account. Such factors may include the ability of the student to control his or her own behaviour (Daniel and Bondy 2008).

While the initial appeal of zero tolerance policies is that they theoretically apply the same punishment for rule infractions uniformly to everyone, the actual application of the policy does not appear to be so equitable. In 2004, the Ontario Human Rights Commission provided evidence that since the adoption of the Safe Schools Act, a disproportionate number of students with various disabilities had been suspended or expelled (Bhattacharje 2003). Although the “mitigating factors” clause was supposed to protect such students, the statistics indicated otherwise. Schools were not equipped to deal with students with social and emotional disabilities, and it was these very students who were disproportionately punished through the Safe Schools Act.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission launched a complaint against the Toronto District School Board, indicating that students with certain types of disabilities were being discriminated against. The OHRC also found that racial minority students were also disproportionately represented among those who had been disciplined with suspensions and expulsions under the act. In April of 2007, zero tolerance policies were removed from Ontario schools.6

Elsewhere in Canada, zero tolerance policies are likely to be in place around specific actions. For example, in 2007 British Columbia passed a law require all schools to have codes of conduct and a zero tolerance policy toward bullying. Research in British Columbia around this policy has also found that those who are disciplined under zero tolerance policies are more likely to have disabilities or be racial minorities (Cassidy and Jackson 2005). Other research has suggested that cultural differences between children’s families and teachers result in the enforcement of zero tolerance policies for perceived minor infractions being viewed as excessive and impersonal by parents (Bernhard et al. 2004).

Codes of conduct are of particular interest because they have been created under the auspices of improving school safety. Obviously, students in schools are expected to follow the school codes or face some type of reprimand. Students usually have little or no say in how these rules are developed and are therefore on unequal social footing in the sense that the rules are presented to them to be followed as a condition of their participation in education. Creating and enforcing codes of conduct can therefore be viewed as a form of socialization whose objective it is to create the desirable student.

As noted by Raby (2005), the language of school codes of conduct suggests that “young people are seen to be incomplete, at risk, and in need of guidance, a position that legitimizes school rules and their enforcement” (p. 73).

Research in Canada suggests that non-White students perceive that school rules are unequally enforced (MacDonell and Martin 1986; Ruck and Wortley 2002). In other words, they felt that they were more likely to receive disciplinary action for a rule infraction than White students. Other research findings reveal that this is more than a perception and that abject racism has been detected in schools’ use of disciplinary procedures (Ferguson, Tilleczek, Boydell, and Rummens 2005).

Overall, Raby and Domitrek (2007) have found that Canadian youth seemed to be generally supportive of rules they regarded as protective (rules prohibiting fighting and bringing weapons to school, for example), as long as they were presented as logical and enforced fairly in practice. Rules that students opposed were those that seemed pointless and arbitrary, particularly those around dress codes (Raby 2005). Such rules were routinely broken and created resentment among students for what they perceived as ridiculous rules that teachers spent far too much time enforcing, and were often seen to enforce in targeted and unegalitarian ways.

Raby (2005, 2008) and Raby and Domitrek (2007) argue that the school is a place where young people are socialized, but that top-down rule making assumes passive citizenship where students are relatively powerless. This also has the effect of creating resentment and rule breaking among students, especially when they see the rules as pointless and arbitrary. Young people are more likely to agree with rules that they accept as offering them protection. Raby and Domitrek (2007) state that this kind of rule creation and enforcement creates a negative environment where teachers are involved in “petty policing” and frustrates students who would prefer to challenge the rules in more constructive ways than by breaking them. Raby (2005) further argues that school codes of conduct reflect middle-class, often White, and rather gendered values. Schools codes of conduct serve to penalize those who do not conform.

Raby (2005) suggests that students in such environments are not learning how to be active participatory citizens in a democracy, but instead learning how to cope with rules that have been imposed upon them. Current practices appear to reflect the desire to create obedient future employees or citizens (Raby 2005).

Researchers have suggested that codes of conduct may be more positively received when they are worded in a manner that includes

More participatory models of school rule enforcement and creation do exist, however, such as in alternative schools (see Box 6.4).

Box 6.4 – Alternative Approaches to School Rules

Not all schools in Canada have top-down rule making, as described above and criticized by Raby (2005). Some schools encourage active citizenship wherein students participate in creating and modifying schools’ codes of conduct, and other aspects of their schooling, including course content. Instead of passive citizens who are expected to follow rules handed down from positions of authority, students in these alternative schools are active citizens who participate in the democracy of the school structure. As noted earlier in this chapter, students with social and emotional disabilities are more likely to be punished under school disciplinary codes of conduct. Racialized students and those who have had previous conduct problems within schools are much more likely to drop out of school. Indeed, this is a problem facing a great deal of Aboriginal youth in Canada. Wotherspoon and Schissel (2001) give an account of an alternative education program in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan called the Won Ska Cultural School. This is a community-based school that offers mentoring to marginalized children and youth. The school is described as demo-cratic, as students have an active voice in their educational development. A major emphasis in the curriculum is learning practical life skills and how to develop trust for persons in authority. Personal histories of students are ignored and therefore students do not carry the stigma of past experiences with them in the school. Students are active in decisions surrounding the administration of the school, content of learning, and social events. This bottom-up approach to decision making has proven to be a very effective one for students who, for various reasons, were not successful in the mainstream system.

Beattie (2004) also did research on an alternative school in Toronto called the Corktown Community High School. The students of the school are typically those who have had little success at other high schools and are considered “at risk.” The school has only three major rules: (1) attendance is mandatory, (2) outreach work is mandatory, and (3) mind-altering substances are prohibited. In terms of outreach, students must participate weekly (Wednesdays between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.) in a community volunteer activity for which they receive no payment. School board rules also prohibit vandalism, aggression, and racist, homophobic, sexual, and gender-biased speech. It is explained that students’ voices are important and that individual voices are to be developed within the boundaries of the community, which upholds the three rules. An internal committee comprised of the principal, two students, and two teachers hear all infractions of the rules. As well, much flexibility exists in the structure and content of courses as they are shaped by student interest. The school, like Won Ska, has a high retention rate.

Dress Codes

Many codes of conduct in Canadian schools specify attire that is deemed unacceptable for wearing to school. School dress codes can be a particularly contentious topic, particularly when the dress code rules appear to be targeting particular groups and if they do not appear to be enforced fairly.

Pomerantz (2007) argues that dress codes work to “contain young women’s sexuality” (p. 383) through the reproduction of a specific type of femininity—one that is White, middle-class, and heterosexual. She notes that while dress code infractions for girls typically are focused on body containment (e.g., showing too much cleavage), for boys it is about containing ethnic or racial identities. For females, clothes that reveal too much of the body are explicitly banned, while for males, styles of dress associated with hip-hop music (i.e., being able to see boxer shorts above the waistband of a male’s jeans) are targeted. Pomerantz argues that dress codes are not simply neutral school policies; they also impact on the creation of gender, sexuality, and race. Girls who wear tank tops and are reprimanded are at risk of being deemed immoral or “slutty,” and boys who violate certain rules aimed at them may be labelled “gangsters.” Pomerantz argues that implicit in many of the dress code discourses is the message that it is a female’s moral duty to keep herself covered. If she shows too much of her body, males will become distracted (which is her fault). There is also the risk that she may develop a “reputation.” An inherent message in these codes of dress is that girls’ covering up keeps male students focused and protects girls’ personal safety.

Justifications for student dress codes often centre on arguments about maintaining a desirable school image, respect of one’s self and others, and preventing distractions (Raby 2010). In early 2011, eight female students at a Catholic high school in Windsor, Ontario were suspended for one day and faced not being able to go to their prom because they wore yellow and blue duct tape tops to a school hockey game in December. The girls argued that they were honouring a school tradition by wearing duct tape clothing to the game and that their attire was modest. School administrators argued that the girls were in violation of the school dress code and that the practice had been banned by school because the duct tape outfits had become “too racy” in previous years.7

Changes in specific school dress codes shift according to trends in popular fashion. In a study of secondary students’ responses to dress codes, Raby (2010) found that many girls regarded specific aspects of dress codes overly restrictive (such as the prohibition of tank tops with spaghetti straps) but were often quick to condemn girls who wore revealing clothing as “sluts.” While wanting to challenge gender inequalities, they were also active participants in reproducing them. Raby (2005) and Pomerantz (2007) also suggest that dress codes are more likely to be enforced on more physically developed females or those who belong to stigmatized subgroups (e.g., Goths).

School Uniforms

While school uniforms are standard attire in the United Kingdom, they have not been adopted in most North American schools until relatively recently. The exceptions, of course, are private schools and many Catholic schools, where uniforms are traditional. School uniforms became more widely implemented in the public school system in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s when school policies were put in place in an effort to control gang activities and increase safety at schools (Han 2010). The rationale behind introducing school uniforms was that standardizing wardrobes would make it impossible for students to wear clothes reflecting gang affiliation and the presence of intruders within schools would be easier to identify as they would stand out in a sea of uniforms. Other perceived benefits of school uniforms, such as improved student achievement, improved self-esteem (particularly if less well-off students cannot afford the latest fashions), and the overall improvement of the learning environment (Pate 2006), have also been touted as rationales for implementation. Opponents to uniforms argue that they impinge on students’ self-expression, create a disciplinarian environment, and do little to equalize social class differences among students.

The findings of research on the impact of school uniforms on school safety has, in general, not supported the premise of reduced behavioural problems in students (Han 2010) or school achievement (Yeung 2009). Brunsma (2005, 2006) argues that in the United States, school uniforms have not been effective in addressing any of the issues they were intended to resolve.

Learning Gender

While gender roles are learned in primary socialization in the family, they can become further enforced or challenged in the school environment (Leaper and Friedman 2007). How a teacher approaches the issue of gender can have a lasting impact on how children understand the perceived socially acceptable roles for males and females. Sex-typing of children’s play (e.g., specific activities for boys and others for girls) can also contribute to reinforcing gender differences in behaviour and the understanding that children have about the appropriate roles for males and females. Lamb, Bigler, Riben, and Green (2009) have also found that if teachers teach children to confront and challenge sexist stereotypes, the results can decrease gender stereotyping behaviour, particularly in girls.

Individual subjects in school also have a tendency to be sex-stereotyped. Mathematics and science, for example, are subjects in which males have historically outperformed females. The gender gap between males and females in these subjects has narrowed considerably in recent years, with boys and girls performing about the same in both Canada and the United States (Lauzon 2001). Internationally, girls have also been achieving higher standardized reading scores than males since the 1990s (see Box 6.5 for discussion).

Box 6.5 – Declining Male Performance in Reading—A Moral Panic?

Until the 1990s, males had been outperforming females on standardized testing in most countries around the world. Since the 1990s, however, this has reversed, with girls getting the higher scores, particularly in reading. Because reading is highly associated with overall academic achievement and later-life occupational attainment, this is a problem that has tremendous sociological implications. Such findings have resulted in mixed reactions. One reaction has been an outcry that educational standards are failing boys. The media, in particular, have been quick to endorse a position that suggests that the main problem can be found in the ongoing feminization of schooling. The main thrust of this argument is that teaching staff are disproportionately comprised of females who value certain behaviours (like passivity and obedience, which tend to be found more in girls) and subject matter (like reading, which does not appeal to males as much), and that to improve boys’ performance, more males must be brought into the profession (Skelton 2002; Titus 2004).

Many researchers have called the reaction to perceived underachievement by boys a global moral panic (see, for example, Griffin 2000; Smith 2003; Weaver-Hightower 2003). Stanley Cohen (1972) coined the term moral panic to refer to the social phenomenon of mass attention being given to topics that appear to threaten the established social order. According to Cohen (1972), individuals (or groups of individuals), events, or conditions are perceived as jeopardizing wider societal values and interests. Cohen’s examples of moral panics surrounded various youth cultures, particularly the “Mods” and “Rockers” of the early 1960s, and how the media portrayed them as a threat to established law and social order. The reading scores of boys have been framed by many as a global moral panic (because of the attention the issue is receiving around the world) because there is a perception that outperformance by girls threatens the established gendered social order.

In order to address the “boy problem,” the Ontario Ministry of Education has created guides for improving boys’ literacy.8 Booklets called Me Read? No Way! (Ontario Ministry of Education 2004) and Me Read? And How! (Ontario Ministry of Education 2009) were circulated to teachers in order to put creative strategies in place for improving boys’ literacy. One suggestion for improving boys’ literacy is to incorporate more “boy friendly” books into the curriculum.9 Books that are about adventure and those that are non-fiction are thought to appeal to young males, while novels are more appealing to young females. Blair and Sanford (2004) found in their study of boys in an elementary school in Alberta that boys strongly preferred reading materials that they could talk about with their friends. Such reading materials functioned as a type of social or cultural capital within their groups of friends. However, as Greig (2003) points out, this approach assumes that all boys like a particular type of book and that there is a standardized masculine identity that should be cultivated.

Incorporating technology into the classroom has also been suggested as a way to improve boys’ reading achievement, particularly through the use of the internet. Because computer use is seen as a masculine activity by both boys and girls (Sokal 2002, 2010), the use of computers in literacy teaching may “neutralize” the idea that reading is a feminine task. Critics argue, however, that further demarcating tasks as “masculine” and “feminine” continues to promote very narrow gender roles (Greig 2003). Sokal (2010) found no evidence that computer-assisted literacy programs had any influence on Canadian males from low socioeconomic backgrounds who struggled with reading.

Attempts to attract more males to the teaching profession have also been suggested as a solution to the “boy problem.” With school teachers being almost exclusively female, the feminization of schooling argument suggests that schools are a place where male interests are not cultivated. Few male role models exist to make young boys interested in subject matter because school subjects and the entirety of the schooling environment are “for girls.” Activities such as reading are considered “girl activities,” and behaviours that are valued in a classroom environment, like sitting still and paying attention, are more associated with the behaviours of young girls than boys.

Skelton (2001) has noted, however, that the predominance of female teachers is not a new thing but has been the status quo since the nineteenth century. What has changed, however, is the larger proportion of boys without male parents in the home. It is implied, however, that more male role models in the classroom would improve boys’ improvement—but critics again argue that this view relies on a single vision of masculinity that is assumed to be the same among all male teachers (Greig 2003). As well, in such discussions, the impact that this would have on female students is rarely considered (Greig 2003). No scientific evidence has been found that supports the idea that males perform better when taught by male teachers, either in Canada (Coulter and McNay 1993; Sokal et al. 2007; Sokal 2010) or other English-speaking nations (see Allan 1993; Butler and Christensen 2003; Carrington and Skelton 2003; Carrington, Tymms, and Merrell 2008; Martin 2003).

Martino and Kehler (2006, 2007) have argued that such demands for male teachers to “fix” the problem of boys’ “underachievement” is actually a subtle ploy to re-traditionalize schools using a strategy of normalizing hegemonic masculinities (discussed in Chapter 2). In other words, inherent to such arguments are notions that only men can teach to male students and that the loss of males from the profession and the subsequent lowering of boys’ scores relative to girls’ is evidence of how feminization of the school is harming boys (Froese-Germain 2006).

Single-sex schools have also been suggested as a solution to the “boy problem.” Greig (2003) argues that proponents of such arguments are engaged in a discussion that assumes that boys are in need of “gender repair” (Lingard and Douglas 1999). In other words, boys need to be in places where traditional expressions of masculinities can be fostered and nurtured because the current organization of school does not allow this. Critics such as Greig (2003) argue that single-sex settings reinforce traditional gender roles and stereotypes that encourage teachers to treat boys and girls differently.

Previous explanations of males’ outperformance of females in science and mathematics suggested that biological factors predisposed males to be better at more “technical” subjects than females. Some explanations of this biological destiny are based on evolutionary theory (Geary 1996), hormonal differences (Kimura and Hampson 1994), and brain physiology (Baron-Cohen 2003), all suggesting that the basis of differential performance by sex was based on some feature of the brain that was unchangeable. The narrowing of standardized test scores between males and females—and across countries—however, strongly points to the differences as being cultural constructions that are shifting as the result of changing norms of socialization (Penner 2008). Gender stereotypes, however, do exist in perceived competence and ability in subjects, with girls consistently indicating less confidence in their ability in science and math (see Simpkins, Davis-Deane, and Eccles 2006 for an overview). This is particularly striking because these differences in self-concept about abilities in math and science exist in studies even when there is no difference between the grades of males and females.

School sports are another area that can cultivate gender stereotypes. As discussed in Chapter 2, Millington, Vertinsky, Boyle, and Wilson (2008) studied physical education curriculum in a Vancouver high school. They found that Chinese boys were stereotyped as “unmanly” by White boys and that the White, middle-class definition of masculinity was realized through the rewarding of physically aggressive performances in PE class by these males and by their physical and verbal intimidation of the Chinese-Canadian males through the playing of football and dodgeball. Other researchers have found that school sports coaches create conformity among their players by using misogynistic and homophobic comments to criticize players (Schissel 2000), further contributing to stereotypes about what is considered appropriate male behaviour.

Relationships with Teachers

As discussed above, the teacher becomes an important new figure of authority for young children when they first begin formal schooling. In many ways, the teacher serves as a parental replacement during school hours, although this figure must be shared with many other children and the relationship is more emotionally distant. Especially in early grades, the relationship that a child has with his or her teacher has a very important impact on emotional, social, behavioural, and academic adjustment (Pianta 1999).

In addition to teaching student subject matter, teachers are often regarded as being responsible for managing the emotional lives of their students (Jennings and Greenberg 2009). Many children arrive at school with behavioural problems and emotional needs that are not met in the family environment. Students who have good relationships with their teacher are also likely to have better mental health, feel more connected to their school, and experience positive academic outcomes (Jennings and Greenberg 2009).

Because the school is such an important agent in the socialization of children, it can also have negative impacts on children who experience negative interactions with their teachers. Such negative relationships can put students at risk for social maladjustment as well as emotional and behavioural problems. Children who have negative relationships with teachers are also more likely to view school as an unpleasant place and be at a disadvantage in terms of learning.

Abuse of students by teachers is a rare occurrence, but when it does happen there are children who are at a greater risk of being victimized.10 In terms of victims of verbal abuse by teachers, these children are more likely to be boys and to display “at risk” characteristics early on (i.e., from kindergarten), such as antisocial behaviours, and have attention problems (particularly boys). It is not surprising that some teachers’ interactions with disruptive students can be hostile and critical. It can be difficult for teachers to be warm and supportive when behavioural disruptions from students make it challenging for the teacher to perform his or her instructional role (Jennings and Greenberg 2009). Characteristics of children that may be perceived to threaten classroom management may attract negative attention from teachers. However, Brendgen, Wanner, and Vitaro (2006) found that teacher verbal abuse actually contributed to future adolescent delinquent behaviour in their 17-year cohort study in Quebec, which tracked children from kindergarten to age 23. Verbal abuse by the teacher (which consisted of verbal humiliation, name-calling, and yelling) was also found to negatively impact on students’ academic achievement. The findings suggest that at-risk children may be socialized into a cycle of negative interactions with teachers, which may not only contribute to their future delinquency but also reduce their academic performance. In contrast, teachers who had high-quality relationships with their students also reported significantly fewer behavioural problems in their classrooms (Marzano et al. 2003).

The Quebec researchers also found that the likelihood of a child experiencing verbal abuse from a teacher is also fairly consistent across grades, such that when students start a new year with a new teacher, they are likely to encounter the same kind of interactions. A possible reason for this is that teachers may talk in staff meetings about students whom they perceive as problematic, which may influence future teachers’ interactions with those students. Teachers who hold negative stereotypes about low-achieving or minority students may also expect such students to consistently perform poorly. If students believe that their teacher has lower expectations of them, this can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy of low achievement. Jussim and Harber (2005) found that the expectations that teachers have about their students influenced how they behaved toward them. This, in turn, influenced students’ motivation and performance. The self-fulfilling prophecy is a term coined by sociologist Robert Merton in 1948 and refers to situations in which preconceived ideas about how someone will act cause that person to act in such a way, even if the belief about that person was initially incorrect.11 Riley and Ungerleider (2008) found that pre-service Canadian teachers rated the student records of those they were led to believe were Aboriginal less favourably compared to identical student records of those identified as non-Aboriginal, suggesting that teachers do alter their perceptions of students based on fixed characteristics. The disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal children in Canadian schools may be at least partially driven by the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Canadian researchers have found that verbal abuse by teachers in early childhood can have impacts on children not only during childhood and adolescence, but also into adulthood. Even when accounting for numerous childhood risk factors such as social class of origin, gender, and antisocial behaviour, having been verbally abused by a teacher in early childhood was associated with behavioural problems in adulthood. Girls who were verbally abused by teachers during childhood were also less likely to finish high school (Brendgen et al. 2007).

School Climate and School Bond

While the characteristics of teachers in the process of socialization have been discussed above, another related feature that has been found to be associated with behavioural outcomes in children is school climate. School climate refers to the sense of belonging to a school community. As noted by Reinke and Herman (2002), schools tend to have personalities of their own. Wentzel and Looney’s (2006) overview of previous research on school climate in the United States has shown that schools that are perceived to be caring communities by their students are associated with lower rates of delinquency and drug use. Effective school climates can positively influence students, despite their home conditions, race, gender, or social class (McEvoy and Welker 2000). Schools with the most severe discipline problems usually have the worst social climates as well. Schools which have vague and inconsistently enforced rules and ambiguous responses to rule-breaking, teachers and administration who do not agree on rules, and students who do not believe that the rules are legitimate are typically associated with higher discipline problems and have a poor school climate (Welsh et al. 2000). Such school environments have been found to breed delinquent behaviour and academic failure. Favourable school climates are characterized by non-arbitrary rule enforcement, rewarding of appropriate behaviour, and positive interactions between students and teachers (Reinke and Herman 2002).

In Canada, research using data from the Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth has found that the social climate within schools and classrooms has important effects on children who display early signs of behavioural problems. Specifically, Sprott (2004) found that emotional support in the classroom when children were between 10 and 13 years of age reduced violent behaviour in children two years later.

Other research using the same Canadian data sources has also found that a strong school bond, or commitment to one’s school and education, is associated with protecting children from the influence of delinquent peers and reducing early aggression in young students (Sprott, Jenkins, and Doob 2005). Therefore, social features of the school can serve to reverse delinquent behaviours. The delinquent behaviours are thought to merge a complex interaction of individual personal characteristics with properties of their environment and situations. Schools can be protective factors in children’s socialization if the right conditions are met. At-risk children who display early aggression and signs of early offending can have these risks reduced if the school environment is a supportive one. Often such students have difficult home lives and such supports may be lacking in the home environment. As noted by the authors of these studies, such findings also suggest that zero tolerance policies that result in the suspension of problem students may be doing additional damage as they serve to severely weaken the bond that a child has with his or her school (Sprott, Jenkins, and Doob 2005).

Peer Groups and Socialization

In addition to features of the school and teacher characteristics, a major part of socialization at school involves students’ interaction with their peer group. The peer group consists of individuals of a similar age and social identity. In school, the peer group is typically a child’s classmates in younger years and then becomes more specific to particular adolescent subgroups in the teenage years.

When peer group relationships are positive, it is reasonable to assume that the school environment is a supportive and potentially enjoyable one. Children who are accepted by their peers tend to have a more safe school environment, while those who have been rejected by their peers are at a greater risk of targeted harassment and bullying (Wentzel and Looney 2006).

The peer group becomes more important in adolescence as a source of emotional security and identity. Positive peer group support has been found to be associated with academic success and prosocial behaviours. Peer groups can also be thought of as a form of social capital (see Chapter 2). Social ties that students have among each other have been found to have effects on academic achievement (Broh 2002), such that positive social interactions in the school environment spill over into how well they do in their schoolwork. The influence of social capital, however, does not always work in a manner than enhances academic achievement and prosocial behaviours. Being the member of a peer group that engages in deviant or rebellious behaviour, for example, may increase the bond of students within those groups but also serve to reinforce related attitudes and behaviours that result in poor school performance. This phenomenon of a network of disadvantageous social ties has been called negative social capital (Portes 1998).

Social Identity

Smaller groups of friends exist within the school setting, and these peer groups often have names that suggest the lifestyle characteristics of the members (Sussman et al. 2007). The names given to peer groups usually correspond greatly to their style of dress (particularly in the case of girls) and tastes in leisure activities. The names given to such social groups change across time and cultural trends, although the labelling of “jocks” (students who participate in a lot of sports) and “brains” (students who excel academically) and “nerds” (socially excluded students) seem to span across generations. Goths, skaters, punks, headbangers, and emos are all names given to groups that have been found within adolescent peer groups in schools, all of which are oriented around particular tastes in music and fashion. Sussman et al. (2007) found that across numerous studies from the English-speaking world, peer groups generally fell into five very broad categories: elites, athletes, deviants, academics, and others.

While these groupings are very broad, they do point to the consistency of general groups over time and across English-speaking countries. They suggest, interestingly, that drinking and sexual behaviours of young people can be perceived as “festive social interactions and [a source of] popularity among teens and emerging adults, as well as representing a problem behaviour” (Sussman et al. 2007)—depending on who is doing them. Other research has found that individuals belonging to the “popular” and “jock” crowds were more likely to engage in relational aggression (discussed below), while those in high-risk peer groups (the “deviants”) were more prone to greater physical and relational aggression in the future (Pokhrel et al. 2010). In an overview of studies (Sussman et al. 2007), teens in the deviant groups tended to have lower self-esteem and life satisfaction compared to other groups, and also tended to have poor parenting. Deviants, elites, and to some extent jocks were more likely to drink, while deviants were the group most likely to use marijuana.

Pomerantz (2008) studied the school identities of girls at a high school on Vancouver’s east side. She notes that personal style is very much at the heart of social identities and how a girl presents her body is akin to her “social skin.” While Pomerantz was collecting her data between 2002 and 2003, there were two particular “uniforms” for girls at East Side High—the “Britney” look and the “JLo” look, named after pop music icons Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez, respectively. The styles were adopted by girls largely based on race, with White girls sporting the Britney look and the Asian and Hispanic girls wearing JLo styles. The Britney look consisted of tight jeans and midriff-baring tops, while the JLo look was characterized by figure-hugging velour track suits. Within these two generalizations, however, much differentiation existed regarding the amount of money spent on the clothing. In addition to the two dominant uniforms, Pomerantz (2008) noted that girls also described their styles as “comfortable, sporty, goth, punk, alternative, dressy, classy, preppy, regular, casual, weird, skater, random, hip hop” (p. 10) and various combinations.

Of course, popularity is a factor in social identity. Currie and Kelly (2006) found that the “popular” girls in their study tended to be slim, dress in a “sexy” manner, and wear “lots of makeup,” according to non-popular girls. The popular girls self-described their sense of fashion and interest in their appearance and popular culture. Their focus on fashion and popular music largely shaped the popular girls’ lives and friendships with one another, as well as their relationships with other peers inside and outside of the school. Popular girls and boys also tended to be part of high-status school-sponsored school activities, namely cheerleading (for girls) and team sports (for boys).

Peer Victimization and Rejection

Peer victimization refers to physical and emotional abuse experienced by children from other children—otherwise known as bullying. Researchers have determined that bully victims are weak in temperament (Hodges and Perry 1999; Smith and Myron-Wilson 1998), lack physical strength (Bernstein and Watson 1997; Hodges and Perry 1999; Smith and Myron-Wilson 1998), and are somehow different in terms of looks (including race), dress, or physical ability (Bernstein and Watson 1997; Fried 1997). As well, bully victims are often targeted for being “too smart” (Fried 1997) or below average intelligence (Olweus 1978) and being of a lower socioeconomic background (Bernstein and Watson 1997). Victim characteristics also differ by gender, as male victims are often not “tough” (Shakeshaft and Barber 1995). Girls are bullied for being unattractive, not being dressed fashionably, and being physically overdeveloped (Shakeshaft and Barber 1995).

Peer rejection refers to the failure of children to be socially accepted by their peers. Peer-rejected children often display social skills that make them undesirable playmates and friends to other children. Children that act in an aggressive or disruptive manner account for about one-third of children rejected by their peers (Crick and Dodge 1996). Peer-rejected children, however, are not only aggressive children. Children who withdraw from peer interactions also limit their ability to fit into their peer group (Coie and Kupersmidt 1983; Dodge 1983). Their inability to behave in ways that are socially acceptable can have many causes, such as parenting styles and disciplinary techniques in the home (Putallaz and Heflin 1990). As well, children who cannot engage themselves with the material being taught in the classroom may turn to disruption of peers due to boredom and frustration. Similar to peer victimized children, peer rejection may occur simply because a child is perceived as being different in some way from other members of the peer group. This difference may be due to ethnic group membership, disability, physical attractiveness, or being a newcomer to the classroom (Asher et al. 1982). It has been found that peer abuse results in low self-esteem and depression (Boulton and Underwood 1993; Rigby and Slee 1995; Salmon and James 1998; Slee 1995; Smith and Myron-Wilson 1998), feelings of insecurity (Slee 1995), anxiety (Slee 1994), and social withdrawal (McCarthy 1997). Victims also tend to experience irritability (Sharp 1995), anxiety (Olweus 1978; Salmon and James 1998; Sharp 1995; Slee 1994), and anger and self-pity (Borg 1998). Being bullied can also result in the victim becoming physically and/or mentally ill (Sharp 1995; Williams, Chambers, Logan, and Robinson 1996). Bully victims often report experiencing headaches, extreme sadness, insomnia, stomachaches, and suicidal thoughts (Kaltiala-Heino, Rimpelä, Marttunen, Rimpelä, and Rantanen 1999). Child victims also report having recurring memories of the abuse (Sharp 1995) and being afraid to seek help (Slee 1994; Smith and Myron- Wilson 1998). As well, previous research has shown that, like bully victims, rejected children report being lonely (Asher, Hymel, and Renshaw 1984) and are more likely to be depressed (Vosk, Forehand, Parker, and Rickard 1982) than integrated peers. Peer victimization and rejection have been found to be associated with psychological distress that carries over into adulthood (Ambert 1994; Bagwell, Newcomb, and Bukowski 1998; Roff 1990; Roth, Coles, and Heimberg 2002).

Recognizing that such negative peer interactions can have a profound impact on childhood socialization and later-life well-being (Canadian Council on Learning 2008), many schools have adopted strict anti-bullying policies that are incorporated into their school rules.

Not all school violence is overt. Peer aggression can also take the form of relational aggression, which has been identified as behaviour specific to girls (Artz 1998; Simmons 2002). Rather than committing acts of physical violence toward each other, girls are much more likely to participate in covert acts of aggression such as spreading rumours and excluding individuals from their social group. The goal of such acts is to damage others’ reputations and social standings within the peer group. This type of aggression is often simply referred to as meanness. Meanness also includes such behaviours as name-calling, ridicule, sarcasm, and giving other girls the “silent treatment.” Research on girls’ meanness has found that middle-class girls more frequently participate in this type of aggression because it is within this social class that the “rules of femininity” are the least flexible. According to Simmons (2002), there are rules for how “good girls” act, and participating in overt acts of violence does not conform to this role. Conflicts within relationships are dealt with in ways such that the relationship itself becomes the weapon.

Canadian researchers have examined the meanness of girls in relation to their popularity (Currie and Kelly 2006; Currie, Kelly, and Pomerantz 2007). They found that popular girls held the most power and displayed this power in their ability to police the adherence to numerous unspoken rules about other girls’ dress and behaviour. Currie and Kelly (2006) observed that a common yet particularly severe form of name-calling that resulted in the most reputational damage was being called a “slut,” which results from perceived inappropriate interactions with or seeking attention from boys. Meanness, on the one hand, is a trait that is spurned by girls, yet, on the other hand, is associated with popularity (Currie and Kelly 2006).

Youth Resistance

Resistance by youth to the socialization forces of the school and its inherent power relationships can be expressed in a variety of ways. Willis (1977; see Chapter 2) argued that working-class boys resisted the values and behaviours promoted in the school environment by acting in deviant ways: by fighting and skipping class. These behaviours, however, served only to reproduce their working-class membership. As noted by Sussman et al. (2007), many social identity groups among peers are still strongly associated with socioeconomic background (i.e., the popular kids and jocks often come from the higher social classes, while the deviants come from the lower social classes).

The “alternative” peer groups found in most middle and secondary schools can also be thought of as a form of youth resistance. Kelly, Pomerantz, and Currie (2005), for example, found that self-described “skater girls” (i.e., girls who associate with skateboard culture) were expressing their rejection of contemporary ideals of femininity. They rejected the image presented by the “preppy” and popular girls, who, according to the skater girls, spent their leisure time “shopping for fashionable, sexy clothing; applying makeup; flirting with boys; and talking about fashion and popular music” (p. 145). Both male and female skaters also widely rejected the values associated with the popular crowd.

Raby (2006) identifies several ways that youth express resistance to what they perceive as dominant forces of socialization. According to Raby, adolescent girls’ resistance is hard to characterize because it expresses itself within “local, micro-struggles” working in an “oppositional but sporadic, diffuse, and localized manner” (p. 148). Instead of occurring in the public sphere, girls’ resistance was contained to private spaces to avoid the risk of being criticized. She notes that “style” is perceived to be a voice of resistance among many girls, but also queries whether such an en masse expression of resistance through consumption of fashion and music can really be considered “resistance” if so many young people seem to be doing it—at least to some extent.

Socialization and the Home Schooled

So far, this chapter has described the various ways that teachers and school practices contribute to the socialization of children. There are, however, a significant number of children, not only in Canada but in the United States and beyond, that do not attend school in the way that has been described here. The number of children who are home schooled is on the rise in Canada. Children who are home schooled do not attend formal school and are taught usually by a parent in the home environment. Home schooled children typically follow the curriculum of their province of residence. The home schooled comprise about one percent of student population in Canada (Hepburn 2001).

Many critics of home schooling have argued that because school is such an important basis for socialization, this can only mean that children who are home schooled are going to be missing out on some very key aspects of socialization. If they do not go to school, how do they learn many of the basic skills that are engrained in the early years of the school experience? How will they learn to work in groups and socialize with other students in a learning environment and form co-operative relationships with their peers? Critics (see Apple 2000) also object to the presentation of the public schooling system as a “failure” and argue that the home schooling movement, particularly the neo-conservative home schooling movement in the United States, serves to segment and divide the population, essentially creating more problems than it actually solves. Apple (2000) argues that home schoolers not only remove children from school, but also have gone so far as to isolate themselves into separate factions.

There are various reasons that parents choose to home school their children. While the media may tend to overemphasize the home schooling practices of the religious right in Canada and the United States, many parents in Canada choose to home school not for religious reasons, but because they are dissatisfied with the curriculum and/or the social environment of schools. Arai (2000) found in a study of Canadian parents who home schooled their children that most indicated that they objected to specific parts of public education rather than the institution as a whole. Davies and Aurini (2003) argue that Canadian parents who home schooled advocated for pedagogical individualism—in other words, home schooling allowed them to cater to their child’s individual learning styles and interests—something that would not be possible in a classroom of 25 (or more) students. Research in Quebec has similarly found that when parents were asked why they home schooled, very rarely did they give reasons associated with religious or political beliefs (Brabant, Bourdon, and Jutras 2003). The most frequently mentioned motivations were the desire to bond the family through a common educational pursuit, objections to the organization of schools, and a desire to personally enrich the curriculum.

What are the outcomes of home schooling in terms of the socialization of children? American research has found that the home schooled tend to succeed when they attend university (Ray 2004) and were more likely to have at least some college education compared to the general American population. The same study of over 7000 American adults who had been home schooled also found a much greater rate of civic participation among the home schooled than in the general population. Canadian studies of the outcomes associated with home schooling are much less plentiful than in the United States, where the home schooling movement has been growing rapidly. Medlin (2000) has noted that research on whether or not home schooled children experience adequate socialization is sparse and that which does exist often has hallmarks of poor research design and biased samples. However, there is some evidence that home schooled children are “acquiring the rules of behavior and systems of beliefs and attitudes they need. They have good self-esteem and are likely to display fewer behavior problems than do other children. They may be more socially mature and have better leadership skills than other children as well. And they appear to be functioning effectively as members of adult society” (p. 119). But why would home schooled children be “better socialized,” as many American proponents have indicated? Home schooling advocates have argued that one reason might be that the school-based peer group is unnatural and that home schooling exposes young people to a wider variety of age groups, which makes them more socially mature (Smedley 1992).

Canadian research has produced similar results to its American counterpart. In a study of 226 Canadian adults who had been home schooled as children, Van Pelt, Allison, and Allison (2009) explored how these individuals compared to a more general population of adult Canadians. They found that the young adults who had been home schooled had higher academic attainment in young adulthood than the average population. They were more likely to be found in social service, health, and creative occupations, and were more likely to report participating in cultural and group activities than those who were not home schooled. The home schooled also tended to attach a great deal more importance to religious beliefs than the comparable population. They were also more likely to be married. Such outcomes suggest that the home schooled adults who answered the survey did not suffer from barriers due to socialization problems. Respondents did, however, report some negative aspects of home schooling, which included the social stigma attached to being home schooled, social challenges of not being around other children regularly, the limits of the curriculum covered in their schooling, and the challenges of integrating into classroom settings later in life.12

6.3 Major Forces of Socialization within Schools

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Chapter Summary

In this chapter, the complex role of socialization within schools was introduced. Figure 6.3 summarizes the major forces of socialization within schools that were discussed. The school as a site of secondary socialization was presented, with the differences between the family (primary socialization) environment and the school environment being highlighted. It was emphasized that children have to learn how to be students and that the teacher is largely in charge of not only subject-specific education, but also the teaching of morals and values.

Other agents of socialization within the school were also discussed. Streaming, as a way of dividing students into ability groupings, was described as creating internalized roles for students which may force them into social categories that are difficult to move out of. The socialization of students through the use of school rules, including dress codes and uniforms, was also addressed. The conflicts that students have with such rules were also highlighted.

Students also learn their gender at school. If activities and behaviours are “gendered” by teachers, this can have an impact on how children see appropriate female and male roles. Relationships with teachers are also central in the process of socialization. Warm and supportive teachers and a positive school climate are crucial for the positive social development of children, and the absence of such can have long-term detrimental effects on students, particularly if they have family problems.

The role of peer groups was also discussed. Young people tend to build their social identities around specific peer groups, particularly in adolescence. Failure to be accepted by peers can be devastating for children, especially when it is manifested in acts of peer victimization and peer rejection. Finally, the question of how home schooling affects the socialization of children was addressed.

Review Questions

1. In what major ways is the organization of the family different from the organization of the school?

2. What are Brint’s three zones of socialization? Give examples of how each works.

3. What is streaming? What are some examples of streaming?

4. What is the relationship between school rules and the socialization of students? What are some conflicts that arise around the topic of school rules?

5. What are the rationales given for dress codes and school uniforms? How do they contribute to student socialization?

6. How do students “learn gender” at school?

7. How do relationships with teachers influence the socialization of students?

8. What role does school climate play in student socialization?

9. What are peer groups and what does “social identity” mean?

10. Define peer victimization, peer rejection, and relational aggression. Describe how they all impact on student socialization.

11. What reasons have parents given for home schooling their children? What concerns do critics of home schooling have about the socialization of home schooled children?


  • Check provincial ministry of education websites for curriculum requirements and identify the differences between “streams.” Examine how official documents discuss the objectives of the different groups of courses.
  • Look on the internet for official curriculum documents about “moral education” in Canada. How are schools teaching morality? What kinds of lessons do they plan around the topic of morality?
  • Check Google News for recent news items of the underachievement of boys. What problems are being identified? What solutions are being offered? What are the rationales behind the proposed solutions?
  • Use Google to find home schooling advocacy groups in Canada. What kinds of topics do they discuss on their websites? What kinds of resources are available on their websites?
  • What kinds of peer groups existed in your high school? What group(s) were you in? How did you perceive other groups? Did you interact with people in other groups? What were the characteristics of popular students? What were the characteristics of unpopular students?

Key Terms

behavioural conformity

cultural conformity

feminization of schooling

moral conformity

moral panic

peer group

peer rejection

peer victimization

primary socialization

school bond

school climate

secondary socialization

self-fulfilling prophecy

social competence



zero tolerance policies


Structural and Social Inequalities in Schooling

Source: “Colored pencils 2” by Hobbies on a Budget is licensed CC BY 2.0

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to

  1. Describe how gender differences exist in educational outcomes.
  2. Explain how the socioeconomic status of a family can impact on a child’s educational outcomes.
  3. Identify how neighbourhoods, regions, and urban/rural location are associated with educational achievement and attainment.
  4. Summarize how different family structures are associated with educational outcomes.
  5. Define children in care and identify the reasons that such children may have educational disadvantages.
  6. Describe the educational outcomes of immigrant groups to Canada and define theories of assimilation.
  7. Summarize the educational barriers faced by undocumented immigrants.
  8. Explain what is meant by involuntary minority and how this concept relates to the educational outcomes of Aboriginals.
  9. Summarize how sexual orientation and heterosexism may impact on the education experiences of youth.
  10. Explain what is meant by special needs students and identify the major arguments in favour of inclusive education.
  11. Explain how early childhood interventions are meant to reduce inequality in educational outcomes.
  12. Describe how risk factors and protective factors are related to the concept of resilience.


There are many characteristics of children and their families that have been found to be strongly associated with children’s educational achievement and, eventually, educational attainment. Educational achievement refers to how well a student does in school and is often assessed in terms of grades or scores on standardized tests, while educational attainment refers to the highest level of education an individual acquires, and is often assessed in terms of whether or not a person goes on to post-secondary education.

The previous chapters have highlighted some key areas where structural inequalities in educational outcomes can be expected. There are some key areas where structural inequalities in educational outcomes can be expected. For example, in Chapter 6, the process of socialization was discussed. An example is the process of socialization. How girls and boys are socialized differently from one another can impact upon their educational outcomes in terms of their confidence, performance, and interests. There are many factors that can impact on how well a child does in school and whether he or she pursues post-secondary education. Many of these different factors—but certainly not all—will be discussed in this chapter.

Many characteristics people have that can impact on the opportunities they have in life (or their life chances) can be divided into ascribed and achieved characteristics. Ascribed characteristics are those features of individuals with which they are born, such as race, sex, and the social class of one’s family. Achieved characteristics, in contrast, are earned or chosen through individual effort, like personal skills and occupational designations. Most life chances are influenced by a combination of ascribed and achieved characteristics. For example, earning a doctorate requires a lot of effort on the part of the individual, but people from middle- and upper-class families are more likely to pursue post-graduate degrees. In this chapter, however, the focus is on ascribed characteristics.


Gender was discussed in the previous chapter as is a major contributing factor to socialization. The outperformance of boys by girls on recent standardized reading tests was also discussed, which suggests that gender is no longer a barrier to educational achievement for girls—although debates have arisen as to whether the school environment has become feminized to match the learning styles of girls, leaving boys at a disadvantage (see Chapter 6).

In terms of educational attainment, in 2010, 71 percent of all women aged 25 to 44 had post-secondary education, compared to 64 percent of males in the same age range. Gender is not a barrier to access to post-secondary education in Canada. Women, however, are sharply underrepresented in the natural sciences, applied sciences, engineering, and mathematics (Canadian Council on Learning 2007b). In contrast, women are over-represented in education, health sciences, and social sciences. Women have entered the workforce in increasing numbers over the last several decades, and the vast majority of this increase has been in the “caring professions” such as nursing and teaching. The relative proportion of women in the scientific and technical occupations has declined in relation to the number of women who have entered the workforce.

Male-dominated professions in disciplines such as mathematics and engineering enjoy higher wages than the disciplines that females are more likely to choose. This difference contributes to the persistent wage gap that exists between men and women. Women earn about 68 percent of similarly qualified males. The wage growth of female-dominated professions is also remarkably slower than those dominated by males (Canadian Council on Learning 2007b).

Why don’t women pursue careers in the sciences? Standardized testing results do not reveal great differences between males and females in terms of their abilities in mathematics and science. Simpkins, Davis-Deane, and Eccles (2006), however, have found evidence of girls being less confident in their perceived ability in math and science skills than boys. Such findings suggest that environmental factors perpetuating gender stereotyping are more likely to be the causes behind career choices rather than innate biological and cognitive reasons.

Efforts are being made to encourage girls to pursue further education in the sciences, however. One such effort is by the Canadian Association for Girls in Science, a science club for girls between the ages of 7 and 16. Several chapters exist across Canada in order to stimulate girls’ interest and confidence in science. The club usually meets at the workplace of a guest scientist. The girls are given the opportunity to learn about the guest’s education and job.1

Social Class and Socioeconomic Status

There is a tendency in Canada to downplay the importance of social class, evident in the popular discourse that everyone is “middle class” and that the same opportunities are available to everyone—that it is just a matter of trying. There is much evidence to the contrary, however. Canada does not have an official “poverty line”—or a predetermined household income that a family must earn below in order to be considered “poor.” Rather, Statistics Canada has developed low income cut-offs (LICOs) which, in addition to income, take rural/urban location, region, and family size into account in their calculation. LICOs are not intended to be a poverty measure, but instead are an indicator of the threshold beyond which a family will devote a significant proportion of its income to the necessities of life, such as food and shelter, compared to other families. In 2008, 9 percent of people under the age of 18 lived in households identified by the LICOs.2

The socioeconomic status of a child’s family has been shown repeatedly to be one of the strongest indicators of a child’s educational outcomes (Gorard, Fitz, and Taylor 2001; Ma and Klinger 2000). Socioeconomic status refers to the income of a family, but also to other factors that determine how much income a family can make, such as level of education of parents and their occupations. Indeed, low socioeconomic status not only is associated with poor grades, but also is a strong predictor of dropping out of school and skipping school. Research has shown that an achievement gap exists between children from low-income families and other families. In other words, children from poor families tend to do less well at school.

Socioeconomic Status, School Readiness, and School Achievement

One reason that children from less advantaged families do worse at school is because they often lack school readiness. School readiness refers to a child’s developmental stage at which he or she is able to participate in and benefit from early learning experiences. The reasons that low-income children may lack school-readiness have been attributed to inconsistencies in parenting, repeated changes in their primary caregiver, their lack of role models, their greater likelihood of being unsupervised, and the lack of social support received by parents (Ferguson, Bovaird, and Mueller 2007). Multiple studies from Canada have shown that children from low-income homes have decreased school readiness (Brownell et al. 2006; Janus et al. 2007; Thomas 2006; Willms 2003).

Being under-prepared for early education means that such children are at a major disadvantage in the classroom. Lack of school readiness is associated with poor educational attainment. For example, in a Manitoba study, Roos et al. (2006) found that among all children whose families had collected social assistance payments in the last two years, only 12 percent passed a standardized writing test, compared to 89 percent of all other children. Analyses of Canadian longitudinal data have shown that socioeconomic factors are strongly—and persistently over the life course—associated with achievement in school (Hoddinott, Phipps, and Lethbridge 2002; Phipps and Lethbridge 2006; Ryan and Adams 1998). The relationship between low socioeconomic status and school achievement is by no means unique to Canada, however. The results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) standardized tests discussed in Chapter 5 have demonstrated that in most countries, the socioeconomic status of families is a major factor in explaining the educational attainment of young people (Adams and Wu 2002).

Adult Educational Outcomes Associated with Low Socioeconomic Status of Family-of-Origin

The socioeconomic status of an individual’s family has been shown to impact on his or her overall educational attainment. In Chapter 2, theories of social mobility were presented that suggested various class-based reasons why such effects may occur. Theories of social mobility suggest various class-based reasons why such effects may occur. Statistics Canada data show that about 31 percent of youth from families in the lowest 25 percent of household income attended university, compared to just over 50 percent of youth from the highest 25 percent of household income (Frenette 2007). Other studies have found that socioeconomic status of families impacts the likelihood of youth going on to any form of post-secondary education (Finnie, Lascelles, and Sweetman 2005). It is possible that such youth, lacking the financial resources to pay for post-secondary education, find it difficult to secure loans to be able to attend, or find the negative aspects of carrying a large debt load to outweigh the potential benefits of going on with their education. Many may also have not had the influence in the home environment (i.e., emphasizing the benefits of further education) or have school performance (i.e., good enough grades) to make such choices possible (Usher 2005).

Neighbourhoods, Regions, and Location

Closely linked to socioeconomic status and social class are neighbourhood characteristics. Families with low socioeconomic status tend to live in areas with lower-cost housing. Sociologists and education researchers have recently become interested in how neighbourhood effects impact on school achievement and attainment. Living in areas with high concentrations of poverty is thought to negatively impact on children’s academic achievement, acting to keep children in cycles of poverty. Children in such neighbourhoods are more likely to have unemployed parents, low-quality schools staffed by discouraged teachers, and constrained social networks that do not give them much access to social contacts who reinforce the value of education (see the discussion of bridging social capital in Chapter 2). In other words, children living in such neighbourhoods may experience a lack of positive role models. Much research on neighbourhood effects has been based in the United States, however, where neighbourhoods characterized by high poverty are more numerous and have greater levels of crime and racial segregation (Oreopoulos 2008). Many low-income neighbourhoods in Canada are occupied temporarily by new immigrants who leave within five years. An overview of the research on neighbourhood effects on child outcomes in Canada suggests they may have somewhat of an effect on child educational attainment, but that the characteristics of the immediate family are likely to be of greater importance (Oreopoulous 2008).

Differences in standardized test scores by province were discussed in Chapter 5. Such discrepancies suggest that educational resources vary by what have come to be known as the “have” and “have not” provinces. “Have not” provinces are those that cannot cover the cost of their own federally mandated programs like social assistance, old age security, and employment insurance. Equalization or transfer payments are made from the federal government to the “have not” provinces in order for the province to be able to deliver services. For post-secondary education, the federal government does provide federal transfers to ensure high-quality education across the country. But because education from kindergarten to secondary school is under provincial jurisdiction, federal fiscal transfers are not received. Traditional “have” provinces such as Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario have larger budgets to spend on education. This money does not itself ensure better performance by students, but financial resources allow better funding to create educational environments that are more conducive to student learning and success (Davies 1999). PISA results consistently show students from British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario to be at the top of the league tables for Canada (Knighton, Brochu, and Gluszynski 2010).

Additional research has shown that along with regional disparities, there are also marked differences between levels of educational outcomes between urban and rural areas (Desjardins 2011). In rural areas, compared to urban areas, high school dropout rates are significantly higher and PISA scores are significantly lower (Canadian Council on Learning 2006). Reasons for this disparity have been suggested to lie with the difficulty in attracting teachers to rural schools. While rural schools tend to be small and to offer more personalized attention to students, many are faced with staffing problems. Often, they can only attract younger, less experienced teachers who may be burdened with heavy workloads and teaching courses outside their area of expertise (Canadian Council on Learning 2006). Rural schools are also more likely to face difficulties attracting teachers who can teach specialty science courses, many of which are required for admission to post-secondary programs. Also, because economic conditions are often more difficult in rural areas, students (particularly males) are frequently forced to leave school to pursue employment to make up for deficits in their families’ incomes (Looker 2002).

Family Structure

As discussed in Chapter 6, families and schools are two of the main socializing agents of children. Before children enter school, the family is where children are socialized into particular ways of thinking about the world, including social and moral values and gender roles. When children enter school, a new force of socialization comes into play. The family, however, still remains an important part of a child’s socialization even after the child enters school.

The way that a child is socialized depends on many characteristics of the family. As discussed above, social class has been shown to be an important factor in the educational outcomes of children. Children who come from families with higher incomes and who have parents who are highly educated have a definite advantage in how well they perform in school and how far they will go with their education. There are many characteristics of families that can influence their children’s educational outcomes. As a primary socialization agent, the influence of the family is manifold.

One basic family characteristic that has been shown to impact on a variety of life outcomes (including education) is the structure of the family. According to census data from 2006, of all families with children in Canada, about 63 percent are in married couples (including stepfamilies), 11 percent are in common-law unions, and almost 26 percent are in lone-parent families. These figures have greatly changed over 25 years, as displayed in Figure 7.1. The number of married unions has decreased, with a resulting increase in common-law (unmarried and cohabiting unions) and lone-parent-headed households. The rate of marriage (with or without children) varies considerably across the country, with Quebec having the lowest rate, at 37.5 percent of adults in a marriage, while the highest rate is in Newfoundland and Labrador at 54.3 percent. The national average is around 48 percent of all adults (Vanier Institute of the Family 2010). In Quebec, over half of births occur within couples who are not married.

Figure 7.1 Family Structures of Families with Children

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Family structure is often examined in terms of the “two-parent biological parent” or “intact” model versus all others. Much research from Canada and elsewhere has shown that compared to “intact” family structures, children from other family forms tend to do less well at school and to have lower educational outcomes. Such research findings suggest that such family forms may have fewer resources available for children (social, cultural, and economic) and have fewer role models, and may also be characterized by higher levels of stress, all of which can adversely affect educational outcomes (Frederick and Boyd 1998; Garasky 1995; Hango and de Broucker 2007).


Research has shown that experiencing the divorce of one’s parents can negatively impact on a child’s educational outcomes. In Canada, about 37 percent of marriages will end before the 30th anniversary (Ambert 2009). While there are no precise statistics available, it is estimated that between 20 and 30 percent of children born in the 2000s will experience the breakdown of their biological parents’ relationship.3 Strohschein, Roos, and Brownwell (2009) found in a Manitoba-based study that children who experienced a divorce of their biological parents before they were 18 were less likely to complete high school than children from intact families. Furthermore, younger children appeared to be more adversely affected than those who experienced a parental divorce in their adolescence. Other Canadian research (Evans, Kelley, and Wanner 2009; Martin, Mills, and Le Bourdais 2005) has also found that children of divorce often have lower educational levels. It should be noted that most children do not experience serious developmental or psychological problems as a result of divorce and that these lower educational outcomes do not apply to all children of divorce—they are just at a greater risk of having these outcomes than children from intact families (Corak 2001).

There are many potential reasons why some children of divorced parents tend to do less well than those from intact families. Such outcomes may be related to the lower levels of parental emotional support and supervision (and diminished parenting) available after a marital break-up. Others, particularly younger children, may not be able to cope with the emotional stress of the events. Also, going from a two-parent to a one-parent household is also often associated with a decrease in household income and therefore a decrease in a child’s standard of living. Going from an intact family to a one-parent family may constrain the quality of social, economic, and cultural capital (Chapter 2) available to children during their formative years (Corak 2001)—resources that have been found to be associated with later-life educational outcomes.

Lone-Parent Families

Much research has also demonstrated that children from single-mother families tend to do worse than children in intact families. There are two general pathways to single parenthood: (1) through marital dissolution, and (2) beginning as a single-parent. This is an important distinction to make, because single-parent households that are the result of marital dissolution are less likely to experience the persistent poverty that often characterizes never-married mother-headed households (Juby, Marcil-Gratton, and Le Bourdais 2005). In Canada in 2006, approximately 80 percent of lone-parent families were headed by females.4 Statistics Canada LICO rates for young people living in female lone-parent-headed households were 23.4 percent in 2008, compared to 6.5 percent of those living in two-parent families.5

Research has shown that children who grow up apart from their biological fathers tend to have lower school achievement, a higher tendency to drop out of school, and lower aspirations than children who are raised by both biological parents (Amato 2005; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan 2004). Canadian research has shown that compared to intact families, children from lone-parent families are more likely to drop out of high school and not pursue post-secondary education (Hango and de Broucker 2007). See Box 7.1 for a discussion of teen mothers and their children.

Box 7.1 – Teen Moms and Their Children

Teenage mothers have been a topic of considerable recent interest—particularly from the media. These mothers are characterized by having a birth during their teenage years and usually as being single parents. Studies have shown that teenage mothers tend to have low educational attainment and lower household incomes (Hobcraft and Kiernan 2001; Hofferth 1987; Hofferth, Reid, and Mott 2001; Robson and Berthoud 2003). Studies that have examined the children of teenage mothers have also noted that these children are at a higher risk for a range of adverse outcomes, including poorer cognitive development (Moore, Morrison, and Greene 1997), poorer health (Botting, Rosato, and Wood 1998; Peckham 1993; Wolfe and Perozek 1997), and worse educational outcomes (Jaffee, Moffit, Belsky, and Silva 2001; Moore et al. 1997).

In 2008, the average rate of teen births was 12 per 1000 teenage females in Canada. The rate varied considerably by province, from almost 95 in Nunavut to 8.5 in Quebec.6 In contrast, the average mother’s age at birth in Canada was 29.4 years. Canadian research has shown that, in terms of educational outcomes, the children of teenage mothers have a higher risk of not graduating from high school (Brownwell et al. 2010; Jutte et al. 2010) and poor performance in school (Dahinten, Shapka, and Willms 2007). The authors also found that children of teenage mothers were more likely to become teenage mothers themselves, be on social assistance in adulthood, and have experienced intervention by child protective services during their childhoods.

Many teen mothers have disadvantages that can be traced back to the socioeconomic status of their families of origin (Robson and Pevalin 2007). This cycle of economic disadvantage is often passed on to their offspring, as a teenage girl who becomes pregnant is unlikely to complete high school. Some high schools in Canada, however, have put supports in place especially for teenage mothers. The Louise Dean School in Calgary is a school for pregnant and parenting teenagers that has been operating as such for over 40 years. The school offers a wide range of supports for pregnant and parenting teens to allow them to complete secondary school and also to support and educate them in raising their children. They also offer help to access other supports—such as with career development and financial assistance. According to the school’s website:

‘[t]he school currently operates with a September to June traditional program along with a five week summer school component. There are multiple start points for students throughout the year to ensure ongoing accessibility for all students. Most of the students are residents of Calgary, although students throughout Alberta and other provinces also attend. The school is unique due to the ongoing and onsite collaboration with Catholic Family Service (social worker support), onsite childcare (Learning Centre), and Alberta Health Services. Students are really offered ‘wrap around’ support to assist them with education, housing, counselling and childcare support.

   To support the young women while they are at Louise Dean Centre, a team consisting of an educator, a social worker, an early childhood educator, and a health professional works with them to improve academic achievement, social/emotional concerns, and healthy lifestyle choices for themselves and their babies. The team also accesses other supports as needed such as medical care, career development, and financial assistance.

   Catholic Family Service provides counseling for the students and facilitates groups for parenting teens, teen fathers, grandparents, and young women considering adoption. In addition to counseling, Catholic Family Services provides the on-site licensed daycare facility, the Dr. Clara Christie Infant Learning Centre, which operates during the school week to provide care for infants under the age of eighteen months. The Centre is licensed for 40 babies. Trained staff also assist the young mothers with parenting skills and offer regular workshops on topics of interest to the students.”7

In a study of the life outcomes of former students of the Louise Dean School, researchers (Simpson and Charles 2008) found that students of this school tended to do better than the average teenage parent in terms of educational attainment and employment.

Source: Used with permission of the Calgary Board of Education and Catholic Family Service at Louise Dean School.


Stepfamilies include both married and unmarried (common-law) unions in Canada, with about half of stepfamilies in Canada being the result of remarriages (Ambert 2009). When a parent re-partners, it is indeed easy to imagine the great deal of adjustment that must be made by the child, which can be difficult, particularly if the child does not like the new partner. About 10 percent of Canadian children under 12 are living in a stepfamily (Ambert 2009). About 46 percent of stepfamilies have children of both adults, 43 percent contain the female’s children only, and 11 percent contain the male’s children only (Vanier Institute of the Family 2010). The addition of a stepparent can also mean the addition of stepsiblings to a household, resulting in blended families—which, according the figures above, is the case the majority of the time in such families.

The research on the effects of living in stepfamilies on children’s outcomes has rather mixed results (Ambert 2009). Remarriage often has the effect of raising the total household income of a parent, which can have positive effects on the socioeconomic status of a family (Morrison and Ritualo 2000). The age of a child when a parent remarries also appears to be an important factor in how well the child adjusts, with younger children being more likely to be supportive of the presence of a new parental figure (Bzostek 2008). If the new parent is accepted by the child and a bond forms, the presence of a stepparent can enhance the outcomes of a child, but if the child is hostile to the stepparent or abuse occurs the outcomes are obviously less favourable (Kirby 2006).

Research has also found that older adolescents are more likely to leave home earlier if their custodial parent remarries. Similarly, adolescents from stepfamilies have been found to delay their pursuit of post-secondary education (Hango and de Broucker 2007). And leaving home at an early age has the effect of lessening the likelihood that a young person will pursue post-secondary education at all (Boyd and Norris 1995). Canadian research has also found that children living in stepfamilies (as well as those raised by lone parents) are more likely to display hyperactivity (Kerr 2004; Kerr and Michalski 2007).

Same-Sex Parents

Same-sex marriage was legalized across Canada in 2005. Legal rights are also extended to common-law same-sex unions the same way that they are to common-law opposite-sex unions in Canada. The 2006 census indicated that there were about 45 000 same-sex couples living in Canada, of which almost 17 percent were married. Of these couples, 9 percent had children under the age of 24 living in the household. Lesbian couples were far more likely to report having resident children (16 percent) than gay male couples (3 percent).8

A Canadian governmental report commissioned by the Department of Justice (Hastings 2006) examined the findings of about 100 studies from around the world on the outcomes of children who were raised in various family structures, including same-sex parents. The report concluded that children raised by same-sex female parents had the same emotional and behavioural development as those living in “traditional” families. The findings were limited to female same-sex parents because of the lack of research on male same-sex parents.

In terms of educational outcomes, American researchers have found no difference in school achievement (Wainright, Russell, and Patterson 2004) and progress through school (Rosenfeld 2010) between children raised by same-sex and opposite-sex parents. No Canadian research on the educational outcomes of children raised by same-sex parents currently exists.

Children in Care

The term child in care refers to a minor who has been removed from his or her family by provincial child protective services. There is no national definition of a child in care because child welfare services are under provincial/territorial jurisdiction in Canada. In all cases, however, the provincial or territorial jurisdiction has removed a child from his or her home at least temporarily and has assumed responsibility for the minor. The reasons for removal usually pertain to neglect and maltreatment, with many having experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Children in care are also known as foster children, Crown wards (wards of the state), youth in care, or children in “out-of-home care.” Regardless of the term used, such children have experienced at least part of their childhood—and often the vast majority of it—being raised in foster families. Mitic and Rimer (2002) report that in British Columbia in 2001, for example, 10 000 children were in care at any one point in time, with half being in temporary care (i.e., returning to their families within six months) and the other half being in continuing custody. On the extreme end of the spectrum are children who are raised in “secure units,” which are highly supervised residential settings where children who are deemed to be a significant risk to themselves or others are placed.

Mulcahy and Trocmé (2010) report that in 2007, there were an estimated 67 000 children in care across Canada on any given day. This translates into a rate of just over 9 children in care per 1000. This number has steadily risen since the 1990s.

Children brought into care often come from families on social assistance and headed by a lone female parent (Mitic and Rimer 2002). Related research has found that a disproportionate number of children in care are Aboriginal. In 2007, about 27 000 Aboriginal minors were in out-of-home care. They comprise approximately 40 percent of the total in-care population. Within their age groups, however, they comprise only 5 percent of the total Canadian population (Gough, Trocmé, Brown, Knoke, and Blackstock 2005).

The handful of studies that have examined children in care and educational outcomes have found that these children face significantly more challenges in achieving basic literacy than other children. A review by Snow (2009), examining the educational supports and educational attainments of children in care in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, found that there are numerous barriers facing these children. Children in care often suffered from poverty, abuse, neglect, and malnutrition before “detection” by the state. Malnutrition affects developmental progress in children and can hamper proper growth of the brain. Abuse and maltreatment can also compromise a child’s emotional and cognitive development. Such children are at a higher risk of conduct disorders and are more likely to have to repeat grades. Numerous studies have also found that children in care are many times more likely to be in need of special education, compared to the general population (Flynn and Biro 1998; Janus and Offord 2007; Scherr 2007; Turpel-Laford and Kendall 2007).

Therefore, children enter care situations having experienced a range of abuse and maltreatment. Early experiences can impair learning and educational attainment throughout childhood and into adulthood. While placement into care is deemed necessary and oriented toward protecting children, much foster care is associated with multiple placements and separation from siblings (Snow 2009). Getting moved from placement to placement creates an unstable life for many children in care and is associated with behavioural problems in children.

Emotional challenges are also faced by children in care. The experience of leaving one’s family and being placed in care can result in low self-esteem and feelings of abandonment (Mitic and Rimer 2002). Even among children who are not in care, residential mobility (i.e., moving) has been found to be negatively associated with academic achievement (Pribesh and Downey 1999; Rumberger and Larson 1998). Moving from placement to placement further disrupts a child’s social circle and educational continuity. Cultural fragmentation and isolation may also be experienced by Aboriginal children in care if they are not connected to their culture during a placement (Mitic and Rimer 2002). Children in care also have significantly higher school absenteeism, grade repetition, lower scores on standardized tests, and lower graduation rates (Mitic and Rimer 2002; Snow 2009). These disadvantages often carry over into adulthood, with former children in care being disproportionately represented among the homeless, imprisoned, and social assistance populations (Snow 2009).

Programs Targeted at Children in Care

The previous research identified above has highlighted the problems faced by children in care. As a result, suggestions for enhancing and maximizing the opportunities for these children have been made by researchers and policy-makers. Moffat and Vincent (2009) have suggested that early interventions (between the ages of 1 and 4) with literacy-promoting activities for the in-care population within their foster placements is a start to narrowing the achievement gap. To further test whether educational interventions can help young people in foster care, Flynn et al. (2011) used an experimental design consisting of 77 children in care in Ontario, randomly assigning them to one of two groups. The first group received tutoring by the foster parent, while the second did not.9 Foster parents in the first group were trained in a six-hour workshop to use instructional training materials in order to tutor their foster child. The foster parents in the first group agreed to provide three hours of tutoring to their foster child for 30 consecutive weeks and were required to send data on the child’s performance to the research team on a weekly basis. The researchers found that students who had received the tutoring made much larger gains in the school year compared to those who did not, suggesting that the tutoring was effective. These findings suggest that such interventions can reduce the achievement gap between children in care and other students.

Mitic and Rimer (2002) have argued that a major missing piece in the pathways of children in care to educational success is the communication between child welfare agencies and schools. Of primary importance is also the limiting of relocation of children to maximize stability for children in care. The authors note that school may be the most consistent and stable aspect of a child in care’s life, particularly when the certainty of their home life is unclear. Where moves are necessary, policy-makers suggest that provisions are put into place to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Teachers are also important sources of guidance to children in care. Mitic and Rimer (2002) argue that to best help children in care, their teachers need to be kept informed about their living situations. Similarly, teachers need to be trained about how to be sensitized to the unique needs of this population. Mitic and Rimer (2002) argue that clear lines of communication and co-operation among social workers, foster parents, and schools are needed to enhance the school performance of children in care.

Immigrants and Visible Minorities

In addition to Canada’s Aboriginal groups, the population of Canada is also made up of many groups of immigrants. Canada has a lengthy history of being a major immigrant-receiving nation. Small amounts of immigration to New France (now Quebec) from France began in the 1600s, while the British began to immigrate to Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the late 1700s. More settlers, particularly from Britain and Ireland, arrived in Canada after the War of 1812. Settlers of varied European origin arrived prior to the First World War, settling in areas beyond Quebec and Ontario, most notably the Prairies. A large wave of immigration from these European groups also occurred in the late 1950s, including large numbers from the Ukraine and Russia. Since the 1970s, however, immigration to Canada has largely been comprised of visible minorities from developing countries. According to Statistics Canada, Canada admitted 252 179 immigrants in 2009.10 The largest groups were from China (11.5 percent), the Philippines (10.8 percent), and India (10.3 percent). The next largest groups were Americans (3.8 percent), British (3.8 percent), and French (2.9 percent).

Canada has the highest immigration rate in the world and this is expected to continue partly due to the low fertility rates in Canada. The main reasons that people immigrate to Canada are to be reunited with family members who already live here, humanitarian reasons (i.e., refugees fleeing dangerous situations in their countries of origin), and economic migration (highly skilled immigrants that are deemed to contribute to Canada’s workforce and economy).

There are many generations of immigrants in Canada. First generation immigrants are those who were born outside the country. The term second generation immigrant refers to someone who was born in Canada, but has at least one parent who was born outside of Canada (Kučera 2008). Technically, this popular term is incorrect; those deemed second generation immigrants are not actually immigrants because they were born in Canada. Sometimes researchers use the term 1.5 generation immigrant, which refers to those who immigrated to Canada when they were children (Kobayashi 2008) and had a substantial amount of their early schooling occurred while living in Canada. While not born here, a significant amount of their childhood was spent in Canada. Individuals with parents born in Canada are referred to as third-or-higher generation immigrants. In addition to immigrant status and generation, people also are distinguished by whether or not they are members of a visible minority. Visible minorities are groups of people who are visibly not of the same race as the “majority” of people in a country.11

Immigrants and Theories of Assimilation

There are two major approaches to understanding how immigrants integrate into their host society. The traditional approach of assimilation theory is that the adaptation of immigrants follows a linear trajectory. This model assumes that there is a fairly straightforward relationship between how long an immigrant group spends in the host country and the level of adaptation of its members—both within and between generations. This “straight-line approach” suggests, for example, that children who are young when they arrive in Canada will have more favourable academic outcomes than those who arrive at older ages. Additionally, successive generations should outperform their predecessors—second generation immigrants should do better than the first generation, and third generation immigrants should do better than the second generation (Anisef et al. 2010). An alternative theoretical approach called segmented assimilation theory differs from the linear trajectory approach because it assumes that different immigrant groups will have different paths to assimilation (Portes and Zhou 1993). The segmented assimilation approach emphasizes that some immigrant groups may experience downward mobility, experiencing poverty, while others may experience varying upward and downward mobility for each successive generation. Other groups may, in fact, follow the “straight line” trajectory suggested by the traditional approach, and the longer they are represented in the host society, the more their success may mimic the experiences of the White middle class.

Educational Achievements of Immigrant Groups

Standardized tests that are administered to some Canadian students were discussed in the previous chapter. Researchers have used these data sources to examine how immigrant children perform on a variety of educational outcomes compared to native-born children. For example, using data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Ma (2003) found that children born outside of Canada did worse on reading and science components of the test, compared to non-immigrant children. There were no differences, however, between the two groups of students on mathematics test scores.

Gluszynski and Dhawan-Biswal (2008) also examined the PISA data, but looked at those born outside Canada and first generation immigrants in more detail. Both foreign-born and first generation immigrant children performed worse in reading than those who were native-born with at least one Canadian-born parent. They found that this difference was even more pronounced for those who had been in Canada for less than five years and who spoke a different language at home than the test language (English or French). Immigrant boys also tended to do worse than immigrant girls. Gluszynski and Dhawan-Biswal (2008) also found that the longer an immigrant family had been in the country, the better the student did, indicating that the achievement score between immigrants and native-borns narrowed relatively quickly, suggesting rapid integration. Using the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) also discussed in Chapter 5, Sweetman (2010) compared immigrant children’s test scores to those of native-born children. Years in the school system narrowed the gap between immigrants and native-born, also suggesting that the longer a child has been in the school system in the host country, the more similar his or her performance is to that of a native-born child.

Language proficiency is another factor in how well children of immigrants—particularly young children—achieve at school. Worswick (2001) analyzed the school performance of children of first and second generation immigrants. In early school years (Grades 2 through 5), immigrant children whose parents’ first language was not the language of instruction at school were disadvantaged in terms of vocabulary and reading. However, evidence of rapid assimilation was found as by age 13, with these children performing at the same—or better—levels than their counterparts with Canadian-born parents. Further work by Worswick (2004) found that immigrant children whose parents’ mother tongue was not English or French had lower vocabulary scores than those with Canadian-born parents, although their reading and mathematics scores were no different. Thus, having neither parent speak English or French as a first language appears to account for much of the difference observed between immigrant children and their Canadian-born peers, at least in early schooling. Young children who enter school with little or no proficiency in either English or French have time to catch up, but similar adolescents entering school will be at a significant disadvantage because they have a very short time to become fluent in order to succeed in secondary school (Gunderson 2007).

Potential Reasons for Differences in Educational Outcomes between Immigrant Generations and the Native-Born

There are several reasons why immigrant children may face disadvantages related to their education. Rousseau and Drapeau (2000) found that traumas experienced in the homeland (due to war) before immigration, combined with cultural uprooting, can lead to emotional problems among refugees, which can in turn hinder educational achievement in refugee children. Their study involved looking at the scholastic achievement of immigrants from Cambodia and Central America who were attending six Montreal-area schools.

Many immigrants, however, do not arrive in Canada as refugees, and therefore other explanations for potential differences in their educational performance compared to native-borns must be examined. The role of socioeconomic status and social mobility were described above. These factors apply to immigrants as well—and many new immigrants live in impoverished communities and have below-average household incomes. Thiessen (2009) has shown that when socioeconomic characteristics of the family are taken into consideration, the gap between students of African and Latin American origin and native-born European Canadians narrows considerably. These findings suggest that much of the disadvantage experienced by some immigrant and Canadian-born ethnic groups is largely attributable to economic factors.

As noted in Chapter 6, students from disadvantaged backgrounds and racial minority students are more likely to be “streamed” into low-ability tracks or streams. While existing literature has found streaming had tended to place immigrants and visible minorities in higher ability streams (Krahn and Taylor 2007), many differences by origin group were noted. Specifically, those who had arrived to Canada during adolescence and those with poor official-language proficiency were more likely to be streamed into the lower ability groups.

Socio-cultural context must also be taken into consideration, such as the cultural definitions of success that characterize an ethnic group (Leung 2001). Some researchers argue that part of the answer to why different immigrant groups perform differently in school outcomes lies in the culturally specific expectations that exist within ethnic groups. Ethnic capital (Borjas 1992) refers to the overall educational and income levels of particular ethnic groups, which are thought to be able to enhance life outcomes of children of immigrants. For example, Chinese immigrants have very high levels of educational attainment, and this group characteristic may contribute to the performance of individual second-generation Chinese immigrants. Borjas (2000) argues that growing up in a culture in which high achievement is displayed as the norm of those in close social proximity makes individuals internalize such goals for themselves. In a study of the educational attainments of children of immigrants, Abada, Hou, and Ram (2008) found that children of Chinese, Indian, African, and West/Asian and Middle Eastern parents had higher ethnic capital. Differences in ethnic capital, however, explain only a part of the gap between the outcomes of different second generation ethnic groups.

Related to the idea of ethnic capital is the notion that children from particular ethnic backgrounds, particularly those of Asian descent, are strongly encouraged to pursue post-secondary education, especially university (Chow 2004; Finnie and Mueller 2010). Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco (2001) propose that the optimism of immigrant parents, particularly those who may have experienced disappointment at their own inability to succeed in their host country, may “will ambition” (p. 105) to their own children. Due to their own perceived post-immigration decline in status, they may push their children to succeed even more. Specifically, Chow (2004:321, citing Peng and Wright 1994) argues that “various characteristics of Asian culture such as docility, industriousness, respect for authority, and emphasis on learning are highly compatible with those required for academic success.” A summary of the possible reasons that explain the differences between immigrant and non-immigrant in terms of educational achievement is provided in Table 7.1.

Table 7.1 Potential Reasons for Educational Outcome Differences between Immigrants and Non-Immigrants

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Anisef et al. (2010) also found that a student’s place of origin was a strong predictor of whether or not a first generation student would drop out of high school, which supports the segmented assimilation hypothesis. The study was based on data from a Toronto cohort of Grade 9 students that was studied over a six-year period. Specifically, individuals born in the Caribbean were much more likely to drop out of school compared to native-born students. In contrast, this risk was much smaller among students who originated from Southern Asia, Eastern Asia, and Europe. Anisef et al. (2010) argue that much of the difference between those originating from the Caribbean and other groups can be better explained by the characteristics of the neighbourhoods in which youth are living, with many living in economically deprived areas—areas that tend to have cheaper housing and thus attract new immigrant groups. Canadian research has shown that neighbourhood poverty and schools that have a high proportion of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds contribute to student dropout rates in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal (McAndrew et al. 2009). Recent attention to the poor academic outcomes of Black youth, particularly in Toronto, have motivated the creation of an Africentric public school, which was discussed in Chapter 6. The curriculum of this school is modified to be more relevant to the lived experiences of Black students, with the intention of reducing the dropout rates among this population.

Other works by Anisef and associates (Anisef and Kilbride 2003) have found that first generation Caribbean youth often find themselves socially isolated, which is associated with their becoming frustrated and falling behind in school. As social capital theory points out (Chapter 2), the types of relationships and networks that individuals have contribute to their educational outcomes and later-life successes. Young people who live in poverty and experience social isolation will have compromised social capital because their bridging capital (the linkages between groups) will often be weak. Bridging capital is what would give youth access to the mainstream and opportunities not available in their immediate group. While they may have strong bonding capital (within their own ethnic group), this may not be enough to foster academic achievement. According to Anisef et al. (2010), because “residential segregation favors bonding over bridging [capital], immigrant youth who live in and attend schools in poor neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves are more likely to network or bond with peers of similar social, cultural and economic backgrounds. Opportunities for immigrant students to accrue bridging capital may therefore be limited, thereby increasing the probability of poor academic performance and leaving school early without graduating” (p. 108).

Another characteristic that may partially explain the achievement differences between immigrants and Canadian-born children is their own and their parents’ aspirations for their education. Research by Krahn and Taylor (2005) has found that visible minority youth in Canada have high aspirations toward post-secondary education. In fact, their aspirations are, in general, higher than those of Canadian-born not-visible-minority youth. Others have found that first generation immigrant parents have higher educational expectations of their children compared to those parents who were born in the country (Glick and White 2004; Smith, Schneider, and Ruck 2005). The heightened expectations of these groups may act as a “buffer” against economic disadvantages experienced by a family that may otherwise lessen the educational success of their children (Sweet et al. 2010).

Post-Secondary Educational Outcomes of Immigrants

Much recent research has shown that second generation immigrants to Canada have comparable (Worswick 2004) and often higher educational attainment than their peers who have domestic-born parents (Aydemir, Chen, and Corak 2005; Kučera 2008; Palameta 2007; Picot and Hou 2011). Boyd (2002) has shown that 1.5 generation and second generation immigrants in Canada have a strikingly different pattern of educational outcomes than in the United States. In Canada, their achievements often exceed those with domestically born parents, while in the United States, this same class of immigrants tends to lag behind their peers.

Much variation, however, exists when the educational outcomes of specific groups of second generation immigrants are examined (Boyd 2008; Rothon, Heath, and Lessard-Phillips 2009). For example, second generation children of immigrants from China, India, Pakistan, and Africa have been found to outperform children with native-born parents (Rothon et al. 2009). In fact, the researchers found that the educational accomplishments of all second generation groups were superior to the majority population with Canadian-born parents. The authors note that a similar pattern exists among second generation immigrants in the United Kingdom, but that in the United States, Black Caribbean and Mexican immigrant groups tend to lag well behind the majority population. Other recent evidence of the educational attainment among adult second generation immigrants by Statistics Canada shows that this group, regardless of parents’ country of origin, are more likely to finish high school than those with Canadian-born parents (see Figure 7.2). As well, compared to their counterparts with Canadian-born parents, many of these groups are significantly more likely to earn a university degree (see Figure 7.3).

Findings such as these naturally raise questions about why second generation immigrants appear to outperform those with native-born parents. The educational attainment of second generation immigrants, particularly visible minorities, has consistently been found to be higher than third-or-higher generations (Abada, Hou, and Ram 2008; Aydemir and Sweetman 2007; Bonikowska 2008; Boyd 2002; Finnie and Mueller 2010). As discussed above, studies in social mobility have demonstrated that the socioeconomic status of parents is highly predictive of their children’s educational attainment; those whose parents who have post-secondary education are more likely to themselves obtain such credentials. In the second generation immigrant population, however, this relationship is much weaker. Low credentials of parents are much less of an impediment to post-secondary educational attainment for second generation immigrants than for those with native-born parents (Bonikowska 2008; Picot and Hou 2011). Aydemir, Chen, and Corak (2008) found that among second-generation immigrants, the strength of the association between parental education and child education was one-third of what it was among those with Canadian-born parents. Similarly, income is also only a weak predictor of the success of second generation immigrants.


Figure 7.2 Educational Attainment of Second Generation Immigrants Aged 25–34 by Parental Country/Region of Origin—High School
Source: Statistics Canada, Ethnic Diversity Survey, Adapted from
Figure 7.3 Educational Attainment of Second Generation Immigrants Aged 25–34 by Parental Country/Region of Origin—University
Source: Statistics Canada, Ethnic Diversity Survey, Adapted from

Another factor that at least in part explains the achievements of the second generation immigrants is that they are much more likely to live in large urban areas (Bonikowska 2008). Also discussed above, living in large urban areas tends to be associated with higher educational attainment. Even after taking urban dwelling into account, however, a gap still remains between second generation and third-or-higher generation immigrants. Therefore, there are other factors at play in explaining why second generation immigrants are outperforming their third-and-higher generation counterparts, besides parental education, income, and size of municipality.

As mentioned above (and illustrated in Figures 7.2 and 7.3), differences in outcomes by country/region of origin exist among second generation immigrants. Even when income and educational attainment of parents are taken into account, significant differences persist. Like educational outcomes associated with children, researchers have suggested that differences in post-secondary participation can also be explained—at least partially—by ethnic capital. Many Canadian researchers have noted the high post-secondary participation rates of Chinese youth (Sweetman et al. 2010). For example, Canadian-born Chinese youth and Chinese immigrant youth were found to be about 50 percent more likely to attend university than third generation youth (Finnie and Meuller 2010). In fact, only one region of origin was found to have lower post-secondary attendance than third generation immigrants—those from Central and Latin America. Abada and Tenkorang (2009) have also found that that the type of post-secondary institution attended by those with immigrant parents also varies according to ethnic origins. Chinese and South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis) were far more likely to attend university compared to Whites and Blacks, but Blacks were more likely than other groups to complete vocational programs or attend college.

Such differences by country/region of origin by second generation immigrants spark the additional question of whether ethnic capital is dependent on the generation of immigrant. In other words, do visible minorities possess different stocks of ethnic capital that change depending on their length of stay in Canada? For example, do foreign-born Chinese immigrants have different ethnic capital than Chinese-Canadians born in Canada? Very little research has been done on this specific topic in Canada. Boyd (2002) found that, in general, second and 1.5 generation visible minority immigrants had superior outcomes to both third generation visible and non-visible minority groups. The finding that the outcomes of the 1.5 generation (those who arrived as children) are similar to those of second generation immigrants is largely attributable to language acquisition. Even if young children are foreign-born, spending a substantial amount of time in the Canadian school system as young children would greatly strengthen their English- or French-language abilities such that they are comparable to those of native speakers. Ravanera and Beaujot (2009) examine how post-secondary qualifications are different between native-born and foreign-born visible minorities on the one hand and those who are not visible minorities on the other hand. Figure 7.4 illustrates these differences. Many groups, particularly the Chinese, South Asian, Black, Filipino, and Japanese, have similar acquisition rates of post-secondary degrees regardless of immigrant status. The results are strikingly different for native-born and immigrants from Latin America, Arab countries, Korea, and to some extent southeast and west Asia. The higher acquisition rates of post-secondary degrees among Latin American and Arab immigrants can perhaps partly be explained by Canadian immigration policies.

Figure 7.4 Proportion of Population Aged 15–24 with University or College Degree by Visible Minority and College or University Degree by Ethnic Origin and Whether Native-Born or Immigrant

Country of Origin Native Born Immigrant
Chinese 18% 23%
South Asian 18% 18%
Black 14% 13.5%
Filipino 16.5% 15%
Latin American 9.5% 16%
Southeast Asian 14.5% 17.5%
Arab 18% 24%
West Asian 13.5% 16.5%
Korean 20% 15%
Japanese 17% 18.5%
Not Visible Minority 17% 20%

Many immigrants arrive in Canada as skilled workers and professionals who must achieve a number of “points” in order to have a qualifying application for immigration. Educational attainment is one major area in which points are awarded, as are language skills and occupation.12 This figure suggests that there is some evidence that ethnic capital is fairly consistent among ethnicities for many groups, regardless of location of birth (i.e., Canada or elsewhere) particularly among the Chinese, South Asian, Black, Filipino, and Japanese.

Undocumented Immigrants

In addition to immigrants who have the legal right to remain in Canada, there is also a largely unknown group of individuals and families who reside in Canada with precarious legal status. Those with precarious legal status do not have full legal entitlements to live in Canada, and are often driven into hiding due to fear of being deported. Because such people live with the fear of being deported, there is not much research done on this population as they are largely hidden in our society. There are several routes to experiencing precarious status. This group includes those who are on temporary work permits, those who have overstayed their visas, those awaiting outcomes of refugee claims, and those awaiting the outcomes of applications to Humanitarian and Compassionate applications (or appeals). The latter is an application for permanent residency for individuals who would face “excessive hardship” if they were to return to their home countries.13 Some with failed applications may have received deportation orders on which they did not act.

There are two major issues facing children of parents with precarious status when it comes to education: (1) the ability to be able to enrol in school at all, and (2) the fear of being caught by immigration officials because one is enrolled in school. It should be noted from the outset that examples discussed will focus on Ontario—not because there are not undocumented immigrants in other parts of the country, but because the entire body of research that exists on such matters in Canada comes from Ontario. As a major destination for immigrants and as one of the most multicultural cities in the world, it is therefore not surprising that a bulk of Canadian instances on undocumented immigrant children and education would emerge from Toronto.

Advocates for undocumented children point to the international legal rights for children which guarantee all access to education, and which are upheld in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.14 Advocates for children of adults with precarious legal status argue that Canada, as a signatory to this convention, is legally required to provide access to education for these children regardless of their (or their parents’) legal status. As noted by Bernhard et al. (2007), the UN Convention stipulates that in decisions that affect children, the interests that most favour the child must be placed front and centre.

Critics also point to Ontario’s Education Act, particularly Section 49.1, which explicitly states that a person “shall not be refused admission because the person or the person’s parent or guardian is unlawfully in Canada.”15 Regardless of this wording of the Education Act, many undocumented immigrants report their children being denied access to school because of the demands of administrators for documents that the parents simply cannot provide, such as evidence of application for immigration (Koehl 2007; Sidhu 2008). Thus, while children are deemed entitled to education through international and provincial law regardless of immigration status, there has been considerable evidence that these laws are not always upheld.

Even when children are granted access to education, many attend with a certain degree of fear of their status being revealed. In the spring of 2006, much media attention was given to cases of the Canadian Border Service agents entering Toronto schools and demanding that certain children be brought to the principal’s office. The children were part of families who had been denied refugee status and failed to be present for their deportation flight back to their country of origin. Canada Border Services agents held the children until the parents turned themselves in. When parents arrived, they were taken into custody and placed in a detention centre.16 Unsurprisingly, the case attracted much negative publicity (Koehl 2007), which eventually resulted in the federal department apologizing and stating that this was atypical practice for the Canadian Border Services Agency.The threat of being found out, and the requirements of many schools to provide official citizenship or immigration documents in order to become enrolled in school, mean that a large proportion of children of adults with precarious status are not in school. As a result of the incidents above, the Toronto District School Board unanimously passed an “Access Without Fear: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for children who do not have legal immigration status in May of 2007.17 Under this policy, children and their families are not required to reveal their legal status to schools and schools agree not to pass on any information to Canadian Immigration authorities.


The history of Aboriginal people with Canada’s education system—particularly residential schooling—was discussed in Chapter 3. Much Canadian research has shown that educational outcomes for Aboriginal youth are poor (Aman and Ungerleider 2008; Aydemir, Chen, and Corak 2008; Brunnen 2003; Finnie, Lascelles, and Sweetman 2005; Krahn and Hudson 2006; Thiessen 2009).

Ogbu (1992) has distinguished between two types of minorities: voluntary and involuntary. Immigrants are voluntary minorities because they usually immigrate to the host country with the intention of starting a better life or giving their children greater opportunities. Involuntary minorities are those who are minorities due to historical circumstances that they could not escape under which they were conquered and enslaved. Aboriginal people in Canada can be considered involuntary minorities in the sense that they were subjected to rule by colonial settlers. Specifically in the case of education, these involuntary minorities’ children were also forced into the residential schooling system (Thiessen 2009)—the purpose of which was to socialize them into British ways of living (and de-socialize them out of their Aboriginal culture). Because of these historical experiences, Aboriginals (and involuntary minorities in general) may be disconnected from the education system given its historical role in stripping children of their culture. Using Ogbu’s theoretical perspective, the superior academic performance of voluntary minorities (described in the previous section on immigrants) can be attributed to their ability as voluntary minorities to maintain a positive attitude toward the Canadian education system (Samuel, Krugly-Smolska, and Warren 2001).18

Directly related to the conditions of being involuntary minorities, other researchers have suggested that the poor educational performance of Aboriginals can be traced to several other root causes. As discussed in Chapter 5, many curricular practices are based on Western European models of learning, which do not take Aboriginal knowledge and “ways of knowing” into account (Aikenhead 2006). There is often a large divide between what Aboriginal children have been taught about their culture and traditions in the home and the content of curriculum that is taught in schools. Failure to integrate curricular materials that are relevant to Aboriginal cultures is argued to be symptomatic of persistent colonial educational practices (Pirbhai-Illich 2010) that perpetuate an internalized colonial ideology of Aboriginal cultural inferiority. The absence of culturally relevant curriculum, combined with the low expectations that teachers tend to have for Aboriginal students (Riley and Ungerleider 2008), have been argued as two significant disadvantages that Aboriginal children face before they even begin school.

In terms of academic achievement, the scores of Aboriginal students on standardized tests have been found to be consistently lower than those of other students (Ma and Klinger 2000; Richards, Vining, and Weimer 2010). British Columbia is the only Canadian province that publishes the results of standardized tests by various school and student characteristics, including “Aboriginal identity” (Aman 2009; Richards, Vining, and Weimer 2010). As discussed in Chapter 5, the Foundation Skills Assessment tests are administered in Grades 4 and 7. The British Columbia Ministry of Education (2010) reports a sizable gap between the performance of Aboriginal students and non-Aboriginal students in Grade 4 on all areas of assessment (reading, writing, and numeracy). This gap widens further by Grade 7. Aboriginal children are also overrepresented in special education programs and underrepresented in gifted programs (Government of British Columbia 2001).

Not doing well in school is strongly associated with school dropout. Aboriginal youth are also more likely not to complete high school compared to non-Aboriginals. These educational attainment differences between Aboriginals and all other Canadians are further accentuated when whether or not an Aboriginal person lives on a reserve is taken into consideration. Aboriginal youth who live on reserves (most who identify as First Nation) attend schools on the reserves that are run by the local band councils, but which are formally under federal jurisdiction. Research has shown that these schools are typically remote, very small, under-resourced, and underfunded (Rajekar and Mathilakath 2009). The remainder of Aboriginal children attend off-reserve schools that are under provincial jurisdiction. As illustrated in Figure 7.5, in 2006, 15 percent of all Canadians did not have a high school diploma, compared to 30 percent of Aboriginal people living off reserve and half of Aboriginals living on reserve.

There is some evidence that the educational attainment gap between Aboriginals and other Canadians has somewhat widened. In 2001, 6 percent of all Aboriginals had a university degree compared to 20 percent of all other Canadians—a 14-point difference, which has since grown slightly larger to 15 percent in 2006. Figure 7.6 shows the percentage of Aboriginals without high school certification, by age group (this time broken down into First Nations living on and off reserve, Métis, and non-Aboriginals who did not complete high school). It would be reasonable to expect that each successive generation of Canadians, regardless of ethnicity, would be more likely to get a high school diploma. If we look to trends across different generations, we can see that the overall educational attainments of Aboriginal groups (and non-Aboriginals) made considerable gains between the age 45 and older group and the next youngest group (35–44) as more and more people got their high school certification. But in the next youngest generation shown (age 25–34), there are noticeable reversals in the trend. Among on-reserve First Nations, almost 51 percent of the youngest cohort shown here did not complete high school. Similarly, the number crept up slightly to just over 28.3 percent of those living off reserve. The biggest decrease in high school dropouts between ages 35–44 and 25–34 was seen among Métis, although the lowest rate overall (10 percent) is observed in non-Aboriginals. And in the youngest generation, the result is even less encouraging, particularly for First Nations youth, whose levels of high school dropout are regressing to those of previous generations.


Figure 7.5 Did Not Complete High School, by Age Group and Aboriginal Status
Source: Census 2006, author’s own calculations,
Figure 7.6 Highest Educational Attainment of First Nations (Residing On and Off Reserve) and All Other Canadians, Aged 25–64 in 2006
Source: Statistics Canada 2006 Census online tables,

Educational attainment is a strong predictor of high school completion. As discussed above, Aboriginal children tend to do worse on standardized tests than other Canadian children—and this gap widens as children get older. The failure to succeed at school is strongly associated with dropping out, which strongly reduces the likelihood of an individual completing post-secondary education. Aboriginal participation in post-secondary education is substantially lower than for other groups (Finnie et al. 2005). About 23 percent of all Canadians have university degrees, compared to 9 percent of Aboriginals living off reserve and only 4 percent living on reserve. The figures for off-reserve Aboriginals and all Canadians are identical for college diplomas (20 percent) and having high school as the highest level of completion (24 percent)—but the comparable figures for on-reserve Aboriginals are 15 percent and 14 percent, respectively. The acquisition of trades certificates is about the same in all populations (see Figure 7.6). It should be noted, however, that among Aboriginals who do complete high school, about the same proportion go on to some form of post-secondary education as the general population.

The relatively low educational attainment of Aboriginals has far-reaching effects. Because educational attainment is strongly linked to economic outcomes, such as how much someone is able to earn in the labour market, failure to obtain even the most basic credentials such as a high school diploma puts many Aboriginals at a severe disadvantage in the workforce.

Sexual Orientation

While same-sex parenting was discussed briefly above, there still remains the issue of how the sexual orientation of youth affects their educational outcomes. High school can be a difficult time for individuals from sexual minorities for various reasons. They will likely encounter an absence of discussion in the classroom that is positive and relevant to non-heterosexual orientations. Previous analyses of Canadian high school textbooks have found, for example, that heterosexism—or bias toward heterosexuality (as well as failure to mention same-sex sexuality and tendency to approach the topic in a negative context) is heavily present in curricular texts (Temple 2005). Homophobic attitudes among teachers have decreased in Canada (Dowling, Rodger, and Cummings 2007), likely due to awareness campaigns made by the media and school boards about sexual minorities. While bullying behaviour is forbidden in most school codes of conduct, many adolescent youth who identify lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) often report being discriminated against. Canadian research has shown that sexual minority youth report being bullied more than their heterosexual peers (Williams, Connolly, Pepler, and Craig 2005). The results of a national survey of high school students (Taylor et al. 2011) revealed that 70 percent of LGBT students reported hearing homophobic or transphobic comments in school daily from other students (e.g., “That’s so gay”), while 10 percent indicated that they had heard such comments from teachers on a daily basis. One in five had reported being physically assaulted due to their sexual orientation.

Schools vary from having explicit anti-homophobia policies to having no anti-homophobia policies, and the study by Taylor et al. (2011) suggests that such policies make a difference in how safe schools are for LGBT youth in Canada. Students who attended a school with an explicit anti-homophobia policy were significantly less likely to report experiencing physical or verbal assault at school. Many LGBT youth also reported missing school due to fear of being bullied. LGBT youth have higher dropout rates and lower educational aspirations (Saewyc et al. 2006), as well as higher rates of depression and psychological problems, than “straight” youth (Savin-Williams 1999; Williams et al. 2005).

Student organizations called gay-straight alliances (GSAs) have become increasingly popular in North American schools (including universities), where they serve to create a positive environment for students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer. Various alliances exist in Canadian schools. The website provides a list of all gay-straight alliances in Canadian schools. The site is organized by Egale, a national LGBT human rights organization. At the time of writing, over 130 GSAs across Canada were listed on the website. Research has shown that GSAs can improve the psychological well-being and safety of sexual minorities in school (Goodenow, Szalacha, and Westheimer 2006).

The topic of gay-straight alliances made headlines in early 2011 when it was revealed that students trying to start a gay-straight alliance in an Ontario high school were not permitted to do so. Officials from the Ontario Catholic School Board stated that such clubs would run counter to the teachings of the church, which do not advocate homosexuality. Later, the Ontario Catholic School Board agreed to allow anti-bullying groups instead, under the condition that their club name had no obvious links to issues of sexual orientation.19 See Box 7.2 for a discussion of a Toronto alternative school that is focused on LGBT students.

Box 7.2 – The Triangle Program

Three classrooms within the Oasis Alternative Secondary School in downtown Toronto make up the Triangle Program. The Triangle Program is Canada’s only high school program especially created for LGBTQ20 youth. The goals of the program are to foster the success of students who are targets of homophobia and who are at a high risk of dropping out or committing suicide.

The classroom activities are designed to be particularly relevant to LGBTQ youth. Morning activities are oriented toward completing high school credits, either independently or in groups, with the assistance of teachers and volunteers. Partial credits are allowed for courses in the case that students register late in the year or leave the program. Afternoon activities involve the study of various subjects (science, social studies, and English) that have been redesigned to address the concerns of the LGBTQ communities. An attendance rate of at least 80 percent must be maintained in order to keep a student’s place in the Triangle Program. In the 2009–2010 school year, 63 students were registered in the Triangle Program.

Source: The Triangle Program home page: http://triangleprogram. ca/.

While the research above on sexual minority youth indicates that LGBT adolescents are more likely to drop out and less likely to have post-secondary aspirations, Canadian research has found that gay men and lesbian women typically have higher educational attainment than heterosexuals (Carpenter 2008). Almost 25 percent of gay males in Carpenter’s study had completed bachelor’s degrees, compared to 15 percent of heterosexual males. For women, the corresponding figures were 21 percent of lesbians and 17 percent of heterosexual females. The higher educational attainment of gays and lesbians has also been documented in the US population (Black et al. 2000). The disconnect between the low aspirations of sexual minority youth and later-life educational outcomes is difficult to reconcile, although it may be partially due to many young adults experiencing colleges and universities as more LGBT-friendly environments than high schools.

Students with Special Needs

Students with special needs include students who have physical, intellectual, and behavioural disabilities. The term intellectual disabilities is increasingly being used to replace “developmental disabilities,” “mental retardation,” and “learning disabilities” (Burge et al. 2008). Many special needs children have multiple disabilities (Lloyd, Irwin, and Hertzman 2009). In Canada in 2006, about 4.6 percent of all school-aged children had a disability.

Like other aspects of education discussed in previous chapters, special education policies and practices vary according to province and territory. There is no one Canadian model of special education; instead, there is a “kaleidoscope of leglislation, policy and practice that varies across the country” (Bachor 2007:351). Early special education programs at the end of the nineteenth century were characterized by large residential institutions and did not distinguish among the different physical and intellectual disabilities that the residents may have. Indeed, orphaned children were often included in such residences (Andrews and Lupart 1993). By the middle part of the twentieth century, parents were still being encouraged to institutionalize children with special needs, although by the late 1950s and 1960s, organized parents’ groups put pressure on local jurisdictions to keep their children at home and have them educated at local schools (Brown and Radford 2007).

Special education programs developed in the 1960s mostly in urban areas, with much variation in service provision. According to Hutchinson and Wong (1987), in 1969, half of all provinces provided special education and they serviced about 3 percent of the school-aged population. In the early 1970s, special education was introduced in most provinces in Canada. The education of special needs students was usually an approach that placed the students in separate schools or classrooms with specialized teachers. This approach is now often referred to as traditional special education, whereby the education of special needs students occurs away from the “regular classroom” by specialist teachers. The late 1960s and early 1970s also saw new discussions occurring about integrating special needs students into regular classrooms. This approach, often called inclusive education, involves placing children with disabilities or other special needs in the same classroom as their age-similar peers, often with additional supports (such as a teaching assistant).

The mid- to late 1980s also saw continued movements toward a shift from traditional special education to inclusive education, largely driven by the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which outlined the political and civil rights of all Canadians. The rights outlined in the Charter must be followed in provision of services to citizens at all levels of government. In 1985, Section 15 was added to the Charter, which specifically mentions the rights of the disabled:

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

Section 15 of the Charter challenged traditional special education programs which educated these children separately from their peers. During the 1980s, the structures of special education programs in other countries, most notably the United Kingdom and the United States, were adapted in Canadian schools. Many of the “specialized schools” for the disabled were closed, and the services moved to the regular schools. From the 1990s forward, inclusive schooling has been the most common practice of educating special needs students, with individual adjustments made to the curriculum where possible. A small proportion of students (approximately 1 to 3 percent) receive non-graded special education.

In 2007, Canada was one of 80 nations that signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. With specific reference to education, Article 24 of this convention requires signatory nations to provide inclusive education for students with disabilities (Porter 2008).21

In addition to being a legal human right (under both Canadian and international law), proponents of inclusive schooling argue that there are a host of benefits to such an approach to special education. While students with profound intellectual disabilities will be unlikely to attain the same educational outcomes as other children, there are other advantages to inclusive education. Research has shown that special needs students, when placed in an inclusive environment, are more likely to engage with learning, increase their academic skills, and communicate with teachers and the other students around them (Burge et al. 2008). Advocates also argue that integrating disabled students into the regular classroom gives them more of a chance that they will be able to gain the skills necessary to fully participate in adult life (Porter 2008). Having such students in the regular classroom can also foster awareness of disabilities among their classmates (Hunt et al. 2003), whereas segregated classrooms may foster stigma and even fear of such students.

Statistics Canada data show that in 2006, the majority of children with disabilities in Canada had—at least to some degree—their special needs accommodated in the classroom (Ministry of Industry 2008). The most common type of educational aid that disabled students use are tutors and teachers’ aides, which are used by just under half of disabled school-aged children. Note-takers and readers are the second biggest educational aid, but are used by only around 14 percent of such students. Other types of aids available are attendant care workers, talking books, recording equipment, voice-activated software, and computers with Braille and speech access.

Educational Outcomes of Children with Special Needs

Canadian research has shown that there are many differences in educational outcomes for special needs children that have much to do with the type of disability with which they are faced (Lloyd et al. 2009). Outcomes are also largely contingent on how well the students’ needs are met while in the education system, with those who report unmet needs performing not only much more poorly than those children without disabilities, but also significantly worse than students with disabilities who did not require special education. Children with learning disabilities in particular tend to take fewer classes, take longer to achieve their age-appropriate educational level, and perform less well in school (Hanes, Schwartz, and Werk 2011) than those without learning disabilities. Children with multiple disabilities are at a further disadvantage as they are more likely to have unmet special education needs (Ministry of Industry 2008).

In terms of the adult educational outcomes of individuals with disabilities, the educational attainment of those with a hearing disability exceeds those with other types of disabilities (Ministry of Industry 2008). See Box 7.3 for further discussion of the inclusion of hearing impaired students in regular classrooms. Individuals were likely to report having discontinued their education due to emotional and psychological disabilities, although learning disabilities were not a significant factor in curtailing educational pursuit (Hanes, Schwartz, and Werk 2011). This suggests that educational aids are allowing individuals with learning disabilities to succeed in education. In fact, people who have physical disabilities only (without the presence of intellectual disabilities) were just as likely to achieve higher educational attainment (e.g., a university degree) as those without disabilities (Hanes, Schwartz, and Werk 2011).

Box 7.3 – Debates Surround the Inclusion of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students in Mainstream Classrooms

While there is much support of inclusion models of special education, particularly by parents of disabled children, advocates of some disability groups argue that inclusive education is not the solution for all types of disability. The first school for the Deaf opened in the 1830s in Quebec, while the first Deaf school outside of Quebec opened in Upper Canada in Halifax in 1856. Specialized schools for the Deaf have existed across Canada in most provinces.

Integration of Deaf students into mainstream schools has been occurring in more recent years. This has resulted in the closing of schools for the Deaf, including in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Saskatchewan, and, most recently, Newfoundland.22 Sometimes, a student is given a sign language interpreter. When possible, technological accommodations are made so that hard of hearing students can combine these technologies with their hearing aids. Cochlear implants have also made it possible for many hard of hearing students to attend mainstream schools.

The inclusion model is not welcomed by all, however. Some Deaf advocates argue that the best education for Deaf students is with other Deaf students. Most teachers in regular schools do not know sign language, making it required that the student learn written and spoken English or French. Deaf advocacy groups also point to the unique culture of the Deaf, suggesting that mainstreaming students both devalues Deaf culture and prevents students from developing Deaf identity (see Nikolaraizi and Hadjikakou 2006). It is further argued that Deaf students will not share a common language with their peers and will be at risk for feeling isolated and being bullied (see Stinson and Antia 1999). The Canadian Association of the Deaf does not advocate outright for any particular side on the debate, but does state that it believes that Deaf children should receive, first and foremost, education in sign language. It also maintains that it is of great importance that separate Deaf schools remain an option for Deaf students. The association argues that the existing support systems available to Deaf students in mainstream schools are, in general, weak. It also cites evidence that Deaf children are socially isolated in schools and that they have little or no contact with other Deaf children.23

Efforts at Reducing Inequality

Several factors that are associated with educational outcomes have been presented above. Many characteristics have been presented as either being positively or negatively associated with educational outcomes. In other words, being from a poor family and being raised by a single mother both are associated with negative educational outcomes because people with these characteristics tend to have lower educational outcomes than those who were raised in wealthy two-parent families.

There are various risk factors that policy-makers have identified that make it more likely that a child will struggle in school. Risk factors are characteristics that have a tendency to be associated with poor school readiness and negative educational and developmental outcomes. Many of the characteristics discussed in this chapter can be considered risk factors, and there are many more that are beyond the scope of this chapter, such as parental mental health problems and addictions.

Programs known as early childhood interventions have been suggested as a possible solution for helping children who have a number of risk factors to become more school ready. In the United States, the Head Start program has been in operation since 1965. This federally funded program provides a range of services (education, nutrition, and social services) to low-income families. The aim of the program is to foster low-income children with the early socialization skills necessary to succeed in school. Health and dental check-ups are also offered, and nutrition information is given to parents to help ensure their children’s normal physical development. Recent research suggests that the positive effects of Head Start can last well into the early grades (Abbott-Shim, Lambert, and McCarty 2003; Barnett and Hustedt 2005).

In Canada, there are no federally funded early childhood interventions of a similar scale as Head Start. In 1995, Aboriginal Head Start began as a program to enhance the development and school readiness of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children who were living in urban centres or large Northern communities. In 2002, the program was expanded to include Aboriginal children who lived on reserve. The program is funded federally by Health Canada and has objectives that are very similar to the American Head Start program: “to provide Aboriginal preschool children with a positive sense of themselves; a desire for learning; increased confidence; improved family relationships; and opportunities to develop fully and successfully as young people.”24 Like their American counterpart, the Aboriginal Head Start program also involves the parents in many aspects of their strategy. The program services around 9000 children on reserve in about 400 communities and around 4500 off reserve at approximately 130 sites. Evidence of the effectiveness of the program has been demonstrated, with Aboriginal children who were involved in the program having a much lower rate of grade repetition than those who were not, as well as having higher grades on standardized tests (Leitch 2007).

There are other types of interventions with various at-risk groups that are operated at the local or provincial level. In Toronto, Pathways to Education is an organization whose mandate is to help low-income youth graduate from high school and go on to post-secondary education. The program began in 2001 in Regent Park, a low-income inner-city area in Toronto where around 70 percent of the households live below Statistics Canada low income cut-off rate. Residents of Regent Park live in social housing, the largest social housing project ever created in Canada. The program, aimed at high school youth, “provides a comprehensive set of academic, social, and financial supports to youth. Working alongside the school system, and through a force of volunteers, the program delivers after-school tutoring, mentoring and financial assistance to overcome the barriers that can stand in the way of education.”25 According to Pathways, the program has produced enormous change in their community, reducing dropout rates from 56 to 12 percent and increasing post-secondary enrolment from 20 percent to 80 percent. The program has recently expanded to Kingston, Ontario.


There are many children who have ascribed characteristics that are associated with low educational outcomes, yet they have average or even above-average outcomes. Children who possess features that put them “at risk” but who manage to succeed in terms of their educational achievement and attainment are often referred to as possessing resilience. Resilience refers to a person’s ability to exhibit positive adaptation to difficult life circumstances and achieve beyond what can typically be expected for children facing such adversities. Researchers argue that resilient children have the advantage of having protective factors that essentially mitigate the impact of the risk factors to which they are exposed (Rutter 2006; Schoon 2006). These protective factors can be characteristics of the family, the peer group, the school, or the wider community, among others. A child from a low-income family may be protected from such a risk factor, for example, by having attentive parents, interested teachers who foster an interest in learning, or a supportive wider community. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (Chapter 2) is often used to explain how protective factors work in various spheres to mitigate the impact of potential risks. In a sense, the protective factor acts to “cancel out” the risk factor to some extent. The early childhood intervention programs are part of a strategy to foster resilience in children so that they may “overcome” their risk factors.

Chapter Summary

In this chapter, several ascribed characteristics have been examined in terms of their associations with educational achievement and attainment. Gender was discussed first, acknowledging how the achievement gap on standardized tests between males and females has disappeared, or possibly reversed (in terms of boys doing worse on reading scores). The role of gender socialization was discussed in terms of how many women are still choosing traditionally female-dominated disciplines, which are associated with lower pay. Social class and the socioeconomic status of a child’s family were also discussed as influencing many aspects of education, particularly school readiness. Lower socioeconomic status was also found to be associated with lower school achievement and lower later-life educational attainment. Poverty is not only a characteristic of families, but can also can characterize neighbourhoods. Recent research has examined how neighbourhood effects can impact on children’s educational outcomes. Differences among the “have” and “have not” provinces were also mentioned, as provincial funding of education in the “have not” provinces may impact the learning outcomes of children. Major differences between children in urban and rural locations were also noted, with rural children having overall lower achievement and attainment compared to their urban peers.

The structure of children’s families has also been found to be associated with educational outcomes. In general, children in structures deviating from the “two-parent biological” (or intact) model tend, on average, to do less well. Recent research, however, has suggested that children raised by same-sex parents do just as well as those raised by opposite-sex parents. Children live in a variety of family structures, but living in one particular form does not guarantee any specific outcome. In the case of lone-parent families and stepfamilies, many additional factors associated with family-specific circumstances must also be taken into account.

Children are sometimes removed from their biological families, either temporarily or permanently, due to abuse and neglect. When children are put into the care of child welfare services, they are known as “children in care.” The unique challenges faced by these children due to their personal histories and often uncertain living situations were discussed in terms of how they impacted on their educational outcomes.

The discussion then moved to issues of race and immigrant status. Different generations of immigrants to Canada were identified, and two competing theories of assimilation were offered. Possible reasons for the often superior performance of second generation immigrants relative to those with Canadian-born parents were suggested. The unique case of children of undocumented immigrants was also explained. In particular, the precarious legal status of their parents often prevents them from enrolling their children in school or accessing services for their children. Next, issues pertaining to Aboriginals and education in Canada were discussed. The term involuntary minority was used to describe Aboriginals and to partly explain their poor educational performance.

The discrimination of LGBT youth was also described, as well as how bullying behaviours can impact on their educational outcomes. Gay-straight alliances were introduced as a way of reducing homophobic behaviours of peers toward LGBT youth.

Special needs education was described as being targeted toward a group of students with various disabilities. The history of special education was briefly covered, and the move toward inclusive education was discussed. Various benefits of inclusive education were described, particularly as they related to the improved social functioning of such individuals.

The chapter ended with a brief overview of what types of preventive measures educators and researchers have used to reduce inequality in education. Children who have “multiple risks” are more likely to face compromised educational outcomes. As such, early childhood intervention programs have been created to assist young children and their families to prepare a child developmentally and socially for the classroom. Other protective factors and how these foster resilience in children were also considered.

Review Questions

1. Explain how gender socialization can impact on the educational choices made by males and females.

2. Define school readiness. What are possible reasons that children from low-income families may lack school readiness?

3. Define neighbourhood effects. List three reasons why children living in poor neighbourhoods may have lower educational outcomes.

4. What is a “have not” province and why might this factor be associated with provincial differences in student achievement?

5. List three reasons why children in rural areas may have lower educational outcomes than children in urban areas.

6. List three reasons why children of divorced parents may do less well in school than children from intact families. List three possible reasons why children from lone-parent families may have worse educational outcomes than children from intact families.

7. Define the term children in care and explain five possible disadvantages that such children face in their educational outcomes.

8. Define what is meant by first, 1.5, second and third-or-higher generation immigrants as well as the term visible minority.

9. Describe how assimilation theory and segmented assimilations theory fundamentally differ from each other.

10. List six reasons why immigrant children may do worse than non-immigrant children in school and four reasons why they may do better.

11. Explain what is meant by undocumented immigrants and precarious legal status. What are two major issues facing the children of adults with precarious status when it comes to education?

12. Define involuntary minority and how this term can be associated with the poor educational outcomes of Aboriginals. Identify three additional factors that may help explain the lower educational outcomes of Aboriginals.

13. Define heterosexism. Explain three ways that LGBT youth can experience discrimination in school that may impact on their achievement and attainment.

14. Define special needs student. What is meant by intellectual disabilities? What is the difference between traditional special education and inclusive education

15. Describe the purpose of early childhood interventions. Define risk factors and protective factors and explain how they are associated with the term resilience.


  • In a four-column table, list all the characteristics of individuals discussed in this chapter that may have a positive or negative impact on these individuals’ educational achievement and their education attainment. In a separate column, place a “+” beside characteristics that may improve outcomes and a “–” beside characteristics that may worsen outcomes. In a third column, give a brief explanation of the “mechanism” at work—what are possible reasons for this relationship? In the fourth column, referring to Chapter 2, identify a theoretical perspective or theorist that may be drawn upon for additional explanation of this relationship. An example of the structure of the table is provided below.





Socioeconomic status


Wealthy families have better access to educational resources they can pass to children

Social mobility

Being female

+ to attainment,
– to wages

Gender socialization that leads girls to choose lower-paid disciplines

Feminist theories

  • Do an internet search to look for Canadian organizations that are trying to promote girls’ interest in science and science-related careers. What are these organizations? Where are they located? Who funds them? What kinds of activities are they involved in?
  • Using the internet, search for three charter or alternative schools in your province. Go to the schools’ websites and read their descriptions. What are their mandates? In particular, are they oriented toward students who often face structural inequalities in the regular school system? Find at least one that is explicitly oriented toward fostering achievement in marginalized groups. Describe the school, its target student population, and any curricular differences from mainstream schools.
  • Using the internet, look at the website for the provincial agency responsible for education in your province. Search its site for documents about special needs students. Examine the language of the documents. How do they address the issue of inclusive education?
  • Using Google, find find early childhood interventions that have occurred or are occurring in Canada. What children are being targeted? Is there evidence that the program is effective?
  • Use the internet to find policy documents for educators about how to foster resilience in students. What techniques do they recommend?

Film Recommendations

  • Undocumented Immigrants and the Right to Education: Education Not Deportation:

Key Terms

achieved characteristics

achievement gap

ascribed characteristics

assimilation theory

child in care

early childhood interventions

educational achievement

educational attainment

ethnic capital

first generation immigrants

gay-straight alliances


inclusive education

intellectual disabilities

involuntary minorities

low income cut-offs (LICOs)

1.5 generation immigrant

precarious legal status

risk factors

school readiness

second generation immigrant

segmented assimilation theory

socioeconomic status

third-or-higher generation immigrants

traditional special education

visible minority

voluntary minorities


School-to-Work Transitions


Source: “Graduation Caps” by John Walker is licensed CC BY 2.0

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to

  1. Define knowledge economy and how it is related to educational attainment in Canada.
  2. Explain what is meant by opportunity cost and human capital with regard to pursuing education.
  3. Identify how “gappers” and “second chancers” experience the transition from school to work.
  4. Explain what is meant by the “forgotten half.”
  5. Identify the strategies used by youth when trying to find a job after completing education.
  6. Describe how the transition to work varies by credentials and field of study.
  7. Define job–education mismatch and explain what is meant by vertical and horizontal mismatch.
  8. Summarize how experiential learning assists with school-to-work transitions.
  9. Describe the major stages in the transition to adulthood and how these have changed in recent generations in Canada.
  10. Describe the main differences in school-to-work transitions and explain how transition to adulthood varies between country typologies.


In previous chapters, the function of school as a socializing agent has been discussed. School also gives students skills and knowledge that they need to be successful citizens and provides the groundwork for any additional education or training that they may desire. The purpose of education is not only to socialize students and make them into knowledgeable and productive citizens, but also to prepare them for the labour market. In the past, a high school education has been the gateway to many desirable jobs, but this is less true in today’s economy. Vocational training, college, and university pathways are increasingly being chosen by youths after high school graduation due to the shifting demands of today’s job markets.

Education and the Canadian Work Force

A major reason why people pursue post-secondary education is so that they will attain marketable skills that will result in increased employment opportunities. The numbers of Canadians with post-secondary education have been increasing, as discussed in the previous chapter. For example, according to the Canadian census, about 13 percent of Canadians had university degrees in 1981, which more than doubled to around 28 percent in 2006. Similar increases in other forms of post-secondary education have occurred as well.

There are several reasons for the increase in post-secondary credentials. Since the 1950s, there has been an expansion of “white-collar” positions that target educated semi-professionals in administrative or office positions, for example (Owram 1996). The rise in white-collar positions coincided with a decrease in “blue-collar” work, which is characterized by manual labour in the service sector. The middle-class population began to view post-secondary education as a necessary stage for personal economic success. Recently, discussions about the knowledge economy have become commonplace in education policy and research. The knowledge economy refers to a continuously adapting society characterized by a large proportion of jobs based upon the skills of highly educated and technically proficient employees. Many Western governments use the term to talk about education, life-long learning, and employment and skills training programs (Gibb and Walker 2011). A key feature of such economies is that the workers must be able to continuously adapt to and learn new technologies. Workers in the knowledge economy are in the situation of having to update their skills in order to keep up with the changing demands of their jobs. Gibb and Walker (2011) point out that although many governments, including Canada’s, discuss Canada as being a knowledge economy, “knowledge workers” actually make up only a relatively small proportion of jobs in Canada.

The Cost of Education

Post-secondary education is costly in that it requires not only government expenditure, but also personal investments. In terms of government expenditure, in 2006 Canada devoted 6.1 percent of the GDP (gross domestic product) to educational institutions, and 2.6 percent of this to post-secondary institutions. Among the OECD countries,1 Canada and the USA allocate the largest share of education spending on post-secondary (Canadian Education Statistics Council 2010).


Figure 8.1 Average Undergraduate Tuition Fees by Province
Source: Adapted from various province-specific links on

Most students must pay tuition fees in order to attend a post-secondary institution. The tuition fees of post-secondary institutions have been steadily rising over the years. In terms of tuition, the national average university tuition was around $5100 a year in 2010/2011, although this varies considerably by program of study and region. In the same year, tuition fees at Ontario universities were the highest at $6307, followed by fees in New Brunswick, which were just over $5500. The lowest tuition fees in Canada were found in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, which had average fees of around $2500. Figure 8.1 shows the changes in average full-time university tuition fees at the undergraduate level by province from 2009–2010 to 2010–2011. Nearly all provinces experienced an increase except for Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick. Nova Scotia, in contrast, experienced an average decrease of around 4.5 percent. Unlike the situation in the United States, education is heavily funded by the territorial and provincial governments; tuition fees obtained from students account for around 20 percent of the total costs of education, while federal funding accounts for under 10 percent.

Table 8.1 shows that tuition has been steadily rising over the years and that there are stark differences in tuition rates based on program of study. For example, in 2010–2011, one year of dentistry tuition was $14 701, compared to $3859 for tuition in education fields. In fact, dentistry students pay the highest tuition across Canada, followed by students in medicine and pharmacy at the undergraduate level. At the post-graduate level, however, the most expensive programs in Canada are the master of business (MBA) programs. The “executive” MBA had an average tuition of nearly $29 000 in 2010–2011, while the regular MBA had an average tuition of just over $21 000.2 In contrast, graduate tuitions for most other disciplines such as agriculture, education, engineering, nursing, pharmacy, and the social sciences are around $4500 to $5500 per year. The average student finances his or her education through a combination of means, including employment, government loans, savings, family support, private loans, and grants (Berger, Motte and Parkin 2007).

In terms of personal costs, the pursuit of post-secondary education requires not only a tuition cost, but also the time devoted to studying, and potential forgone wages that could have been accrued had a person not been in education. Individuals making the choice to pursue post-secondary education must weigh the potential opportunity cost against the perceived benefits of the educational credential. An opportunity cost is a term borrowed from economists and refers to the benefits that have to be forgone in order to pursue the activity of choice. In the case of education, there is the opportunity cost of forgoing potential earnings from full-time work while pursuing educational credentials. It is anticipated that there will be future (often economic) benefits to pursuing the education in the long run that would make up for (and exceed) any lost earnings from a low-skilled and poorly paid job.

Related to the idea of opportunity costs is the theory of economic capital. In Chapter 2, the idea of economic capital was introduced. This consists of skills that individuals acquire that are quickly converted into money. Skills acquired through education are a typical example of this type of capital. A related theoretical perspective that is also borrowed from economists is the human capital argument. Human capital refers to personal characteristics that are possessed by the individuals that are transferable into economic reward (Becker 1964), such as education and work experience.

Common to both the idea of the opportunity cost and human capital theory is that individuals make a rational choice when they enter education and training. The choices they make are linked to future perceived economic benefits. Students are students because they hope that upon completion of their degrees, diplomas, or certificates they will enter the workforce into an occupation that economically rewards them more favourably than if they had not pursued the credential.

Table 8.1 Undergraduate Tuition Fees for Full-Time Canadian Students, by Discipline
Source: Statistics Canada,
Figure 8.2 The Various Pathways between High School and Work
Source: Statistics Canada,

There are many possible school-to-work pathways that a youth may follow. It may seem that the most promoted route is high school post-secondary studies job, but there are many young adults who have deviated from this set of stages.

The Canadian Policy Research Networks have identified 20 paths that can be taken on the journey from school to work, which are illustrated in Figure 8.2. As shown, there are two general sets of routes for youth: one for those who graduate high school and one for those who leave high school before completion.

  • Path 1 corresponds to high school leavers who go straight to permanent participation in the labour force without completing high school.

Paths 2 to 5 represent second chancers who have dropped out of high school, but returned to education at some later point in time (Hango and de Broucker 2007).

  • Path 2 members have spent some time in the labour force, followed by high school graduation, then a return to the labour force.
  • Path 3 members enter the labour force, finish high school, then pursue some education (without completing the credential), before returning to the labour force.
  • In Paths 4 and 5, dropouts spend time in the labour force and then return to high school, and proceed to university or college, or they enter college or university directly from the labour force. Those without high school diplomas can enter post-secondary institutions as mature students. Mature students are generally age 21 or older and are assessed for admission in a different manner than regular applicants, with work experience and academic potential taken into account.

In the remaining paths, youth have graduated high school. There are two general points of departure after graduating high school: (1) immediate transition to additional education and (2) entering the labour force.

  • In Path 6, high school graduates transition immediately to the labour market and remain there.
  • In Paths 7 to 10, the high school graduate moves into education of some sort, which eventually leads to the labour market. In Path 8, the high school graduate enters college and then transfers to a university program. Paths 11 and 12 involve starting with university immediately after high school, then getting a post-graduate degree (Path 11) or getting a college diploma after completing university (Path 12).
  • Path 13 involves going straight from high school into a trades program and then entering the labour market.

Paths 14 to 20 are characterized by a group of gappers who complete high school, and then enter the labour force for some time before continuing with their education.

  • Path 14 is characterized by going from high school to the labour force, and then returning for some studies (which do not lead to certificate/diploma or degree), and then returning to the labour market.
  • Paths 15 and 16 involve going from high school to the labour force, then to college, but in Path 15, the student moves from college to university and then into the labour force again.
  • In Paths 17 to 19, the initial time after high school is spent in the labour force and is followed by attending university. In Path 17, university is completed, followed by a return to the labour force. In Path 18, university is followed by a post-graduate degree, and in Path 19university is followed by a college designation.
  • In Path 20, an individual goes into a trades program after an initial stint in the labour force, returning to the labour force upon completion of the apprenticeship or program.

Given so many possible paths, it is natural to be curious about which ones are most often selected by Canadian youth. Detailed information about the life courses of youth over many years into adulthood would be necessary to answer such a question. While the vertical lines in Figure 8.1 are drawn as uniform, the actual time that each person takes to get from the top of the figure to the bottom (entering the labour force) can vary between an immediate transition (dropping out and entering the labour market permanently, as in Path 1), or literally take decades if an individual pursues Path 18 or 19. It is also important to recognize that although post-secondary education is stressed in secondary schools (and in society in general), around half of Canadian youth do not desire post-secondary education or do not finish programs that they begin. This half of the population that is rarely discussed has been dubbed the forgotten half. See Box 8.1 for a discussion of the forgotten half.

Box 8.1 – The Forgotten Half

Education researchers and policy-makers have argued that educational attainment in Canada is highly polarized. By this, they mean that there is an emphasis by secondary teachers to plan for academic education while failing to give equal consideration to other options. As argued by Schuetze (2003):

While there is a clearly defined and demarcated path to university and academic programs in colleges for students who are academically gifted and inclined, there is no equivalent pathway in Canada for those who are not interested in continuing formal academic education after compulsory schooling. This group is arguably, like that in the United States . . . “the forgotten half,” since almost half the youth cohort, who are either not college-bound or leave college without any formal qualification, are suffering from a lack of clear sign-posts and opportunities for a solid preparation for employment and working life. (p. 66)

This failure to give information about other options has the effect of having youth enrolling in high school courses that are not appropriate to their interests or skills, and can lead to youth getting poor grades and dropping out of school in frustration (Ontario Association of Youth Employment Centres 2005).

The Ontario Association of Youth Employment Centres (2005) has argued that there is a stigma against “non-academic” pathways in education, which results in a lack of information being provided to students about options that do not involve college or university. They suggest that Canadian schools need to be “re-cultured” so that college and university are not stressed as the “preferred” pathway and that the benchmark of the success of a school is not the proportion of students that are enrolled in university preparation courses. They argue that the emphasis must be placed on encouraging students in what they do well, not what teachers think they should do.

While some provinces have tried to integrate apprenticeship programs into their schools by linking students with employers, these programs are marginal. In Chapters 2 and 6, recent attempts to combine the vocational and academic trajectories together in high school were discussed. Students, however, expressed that, based upon the feedback they received from teachers, academic trajectories were preferred and that vocational paths were not desirable (Taylor 2010).

Alberta is unique in that it has been the most consistent in linking schools and industry through its youth apprenticeship program. This is likely due to Alberta’s generally industry-friendly policy environment (Taylor 2010), but also because there has traditionally been higher than average participation in apprenticeship training in this part of the country. As such, building such programs around existing infrastructure is a more straightforward process than completely inventing it (Lehmann 2005).

Lehmann (2005) found that Canadians in high school apprentice positions, however, appear to get considerably less training and have less knowledge about their trades than their counterparts in Germany, where the apprenticeship system is highly developed.


Figure 8.3 Education to Labour Market Pathway of Canadian Youth 22 to 24 Years Old in 2003
Source: Statistics Canada,

Of current students, 3 percent had dropped out of school at some point in the past and 7 percent of the sample were second-chancers, returning to school to earn their high school diplomas. The most popular pathway for those who were not currently students at the time of the study was to get a college diploma. This represented just over 8 percent of the sample. The pathway with the lowest uptake was gappers with a university degree. Also, about 10 percent of the cohort (gappers and non-gappers) had started, but left, a post-secondary education program.Hango and de Broucker (2007) have begun to look at the different school-to-work routes in recent generations of Canadian youth. Figure 8.3 summarizes findings of an analysis of the Youth in Transition Survey, a longitudinal study of Canadian youth in which the same group of people have been studied since 2000, and who were 22 to 24 years of age in 2003. Figure 8.3 reveals that the most frequent path at this point for almost 12 percent of this group was having only a high school diploma. However, this does not mean that students in Canada are most likely to stop their education at the high school level. Looking at Figure 8.3, it is important to recall that post-secondary schooling levels are divided into their own separate categories, which are further divided into gappers and non-gappers. And because the sample is relatively young, many members were still in education (about 33 percent of the sample) at the time that the data were collected. Also, as the pathways described earlier suggest, many who are not in school now will return for additional credentials later in life.

What kinds of demographic characteristics are associated with these different pathways? As suggested above, the research in this area is somewhat limited, but Hango and de Broucker (2007) show that females are more likely to be non-gappers and less likely to drop out of high school. Aboriginal youth, as suggested in the previous chapter, are more likely to drop out of high school and delay attending post-secondary education until later in life. As discussed in the previous chapter, youth whose parents have post-secondary education are more likely to themselves pursue it. In other words, the social class of one’s parents matters. (See Box 8.2 for a discussion of social class and pathways from school to work.) And those with high marks in school are more likely to go on, while those who have very low marks are more likely to drop out of high school and not return. Working over 20 hours a week in high school is also associated with a high risk of dropping out, as is having a child or entering a conjugal union during the teenage years.

There were no striking differences by province, although Quebeckers were less likely to be gappers, which is largely due to the CEGEP program in that province. Many of these factors associated with dropping out or, conversely, pursuing education have also been found in a longitudinal study of youth in Alberta (Krahn and Hudson 2006).

Box 8.2 – First Generation University Students: Class Matters

In Chapter 7, the relationship between social class and educational attainment and outcomes was discussed. Canadian research has repeatedly shown the socioeconomic status of a youth’s family to be one of the strongest indicators of a child’s educational outcomes, which are, of course, strongly tied to occupational outcomes (Gorard, Fitz, and Taylor 2001; Ma and Klinger 2000).

Canadian sociologist Wolfgang Lehmann has explored the issue of social class and school-to-work transitions extensively using qualitative interview techniques. He begins one research article with the following two quotations (Lehmann 2004:379):

I think if I did have a parent who went to university it’d be a lot more comfortable, because they’d know what you need to do. (Nadine, Edmonton high school student)

[M]y mom and dad both teach. . . . And my mom . . . by the time she retires, I’ll be pretty much into that field. I’d love to take over her class, maybe team-teach with her for a couple of years. . . . We were talking about that, my mom and I, and we thought that would be so neat. (Lisa, Edmonton high school student)

These quotations begin to illustrate what Lehmann (2004) goes on to describe as the class-specific orientations of youth and the habitus (see Chapter 2) with which they make decisions about education and the types of work they see themselves doing in the future. Lehmann (2004) illustrates that there is much social-class-specific thinking about what young people see themselves doing, which is largely contingent on the type of work their parents did. When youth are encouraged to transcend class and achieve higher than what their parents did, they are often uncertain and feel socially and culturally unprepared, as illustrated in the first quotation above. Decisions to free themselves of the manual labour experienced by their parents through university seem to be both liberating and burdensome at the same time.

Lehmann (2007) has also found that “first generation” university students may leave university early despite having solid academic performance in their degree programs thus far. They do not leave due to academic failure, but rather because they don’t feel they “fit in” or that they can relate to other students. Lehmann (2011) has also found that the social networks that working-class university students have can also severely limit their acquisition of “extra-credential experiences.” In order to differentiate themselves from others, university students have found that acquiring career-related work experience is a necessary investment that they must make in their social and economic capital in order to be more competitive in the job market. Working-class students are often at a disadvantage, however, because they have limited access to such networks. In fact, Lehmann (2011) found that working-class university students would rethink their entire career plans due to this lack of ability to find relevant internships or work experience. Instead of continuing on law, dentistry, and medical school trajectories, for example, they would switch to teaching or continue their studies into graduate school.

Transitioning into the Labour Market

Upon completion of education, most young adults transition into the labour market, seeking part-time or full-time employment. Unemployment rates among young adults, however, are much higher than in the average adult workforce—often double or even higher. Young adults may face difficulty finding a suitable job or even a job at all. The rate of unemployment among young people varies considerably according to level of education completed, however. Bayard and Greenlee (2009) demonstrated (Figure 8.4) that the unemployment rates of young adults who hold bachelor’s degrees is lower than the rates of those who have post-secondary diplomas or certificates. Individuals whose highest level of completed education is high school face the highest unemployment rates. These differences by educational attainment have remained rather steady over the years, even in times of economic downturn, such as the early 1990s and the period starting in late 2008.

There are many strategies that young adults use to find a job. The National Graduates Survey of 1995 revealed the many challenges that young adults faced when trying to find employment related to their education, indicating that finding a job with acceptable pay was a major difficulty (28 percent) followed by finding a job that was related to their education (25 percent) (Clark 1999). Nearly one-third of graduates found their job through “networking” through their contacts with family and friends, while a smaller number got jobs through former employers and by making “cold calls” to prospective employers. Individuals who had experience, such as through volunteer work or through co-operative education placements, had an easier time finding career-related work. These findings suggest that social capital (Chapter 2) was an important factor in finding a job.


Figure 8.4 Unemployment Rates by Level of Education
Source: Bayard, J., and Greenlee, E. (2009). Graduating in Canada: Profile, labour market outcomes and student debt of the class of 2005. Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 81-595-M, no. 074, p. 16

Outcomes, however, vary a lot by many of the factors discussed in the previous chapter. Region is one example of how school-to-work transitions vary across Canada. Analyzing the Youth in Transition Survey, researchers found that the number of university graduates varied significantly by province (Shaienks and Gluszunski 2009). For example, Alberta and Quebec had the lowest percentage of university graduates, while Ontario and Atlantic Canada had the highest. The researchers explain that this may be related to the economic conditions of the area where the individuals were living when they were making education choices. For instance, in recent years there have been many jobs relating to oil-patch work in Alberta.

Field of Study

What people study in their educational pursuits is also linked to their employment rates and earnings after they graduate. There are fields of study in which graduates are more likely to be employed. There are no definite rules about what areas and levels of study more directly lead to jobs, but there is some indication from the 2007 National Graduate Survey (a Canadian study of graduates from 2005, two years after graduation) that graduates in engineering and architecture have relatively high levels of full-time employment directly out of school, whether they obtained the qualification from college or university (Bayard and Greenlee 2009). However in some fields, employment favours those with university over college degrees. Nursing is an example of this distinction, where 86 percent of nurses with a bachelor’s degree are employed full-time compared to just 72 percent of nurses with a college credential.

Other findings reveal that college graduates in education have the lowest level of full-time employment, and that this has dropped markedly in recent years. In 2002, 75 percent of college graduates in education found full-time work; in 2007, this number dropped sharply to just 61 percent. Bachelor’s degree holders in education fared better, with full-time employment rates of 77 percent. In general, employment rates for university degree holders are higher than for the college graduates in the same fields of study.

Post-Graduate Education

Just as more young adults of recent generations are pursuing post-secondary education, so too are more graduates pursuing additional degrees and diplomas. Instead of going directly into the workforce, around one-third of graduates go on to further education (Bayard and Greenlee 2009) and this figure has increased gradually over recent years. Many graduates from undergraduate degrees go on to master’s degrees, which are typically one- or two-year programs. Graduates of master’s degrees may also continue on to doctoral studies, which can take an additional four to seven years of study. Occasionally, doctoral graduates pursue an additional doctoral degree, although this is relatively rare. The largest proportion of those pursuing additional education are graduates of university programs, followed by graduates of master’s degree programs.

The proportion of graduates who pursued further education varies by field of study. College graduates in the humanities were found to be the most likely to pursue additional education, while at the bachelor and master’s levels, natural sciences and technologies graduates were most likely to continue. College graduates in health sciences as well as education degree holders at the undergraduate and master levels were the least likely to pursue additional qualifications.

In terms of employment prospects after pursuing additional qualifications, the highest proportions of graduates working were those who had recently completed a master’s program. In fact, the percentage of master’s degree holders who were in employment (about 97 percent) was higher than for college, bachelor, or doctoral graduates. Of particular note is that the employment gap between males and females at the master’s level has almost disappeared (Bayard and Greenlee 2009).

Earnings after Graduation

One reason that young people pursue post-secondary education is because most jobs that require no additional education are low-skilled and low-paying. Across Canada, the average (median) annual earnings of graduates from 2005 who were working in 2007 were $35 000 for college graduates, $45 000 for bachelor’s graduates, $60 000 for master’s graduates, and $65 000 for doctoral graduates. Earnings of graduates varied considerably by field of study, however. At the bachelor level, those in the legal professions average $65 000 per year, while those in the visual and performing arts had an annual average income of $33 000. Education graduates at the bachelor level had average earnings at $45 000, while college education graduates earned substantially less at around $32 000 (Bayard and Greenlee 2009).

Differences in earnings also vary by sex. Females tend to study in areas that are associated with lower pay, like social sciences and humanities. Across all levels of education, however, males typically earn more than females.

In general, among college graduates, earnings are the highest for those who graduate from engineering and architecture college degrees and lowest for social and behavioural sciences. For graduates with bachelor degrees, the lowest earnings were associated with visual and performing arts and communications, while the highest earnings were among graduates in parks and recreation, fitness, and health degrees (Bayard and Greenlee 2009).

Job–Education Mismatch

Most post-secondary educational pursuits come with no guarantee of employment at their completion. Ideally, graduates find work in their area of study, but this is not always the case. Jobeducation mismatch refers to employment situations where the education and training of the employee do not match his or her qualifications. Researchers investigating this phenomenon have often focused on the case of overqualification, or cases where the educational attainment of the employee exceeds that required for the job. When an individual’s skills exceed those needed for the job, his or her education may not be fully used. In such cases, the employee may be overskilled for the particular position.

Researchers have looked at the issue of job–education mismatch in two ways. One is by examining years of education needed for a job relative to years of education possessed by the employee, also known as vertical mismatch. Another way is by looking at field of study and inappropriate matching that may occur at a horizontal level (Robst 2007). Horizontal mismatch refers to a situation in which an employee’s field of study and job do not match.

Job–Education Mismatch in Canada

Boudarbat and Chernoff (2010) estimate that approximately one in three Canadians are in jobs that are not matched to their educational training. In terms of what factors predict having a close education–job fit, being in the health and natural sciences and engineering predicted greater likelihood of having a job–education match. Fields of study that had rather low matches to employment were the humanities and arts. Having good grades also improved the odds of having a job that matched one’s education. Sex and parental class background had no effect on the matching of education to job.

Yeun (2010) found that 23 percent of Canadians indicated that there was no relationship between their education and job, while 19 percent indicated it was somewhat related and 58 percent indicated a close fit. One consequence of having a poor fit with one’s education and job was that it tended to be represented in terms of a wage gap. People with no match between their education and job had much lower wages than those who had a close or somewhat related fit, particularly in the case of university graduates. See Box 8.3 for a discussion of education–job mismatch among Canadian immigrants.

Box 8.3 – Is the Taxi-Driving Doctor a Canadian Myth?

Many newcomers have trouble finding work that allows them to fully use their skills and experience. Their unemployment and underemployment represent more than just a drag on Canada’s productivity. It is a human tragedy, and basic decency dictates that it not be allowed to continue.

—Monte Solberg, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, 20 March 20063

Much media attention has been given to the difficulty that new immigrants to Canada have obtaining work that is related to their training. The underutilization of their skills has also become an important public policy topic (Wald and Fang 2008). Under the “skilled workers and professional” class of immigration, applicants must have work experience and training in a managerial, professional occupation or technical/skilled trade to be eligible to apply.4 While under the Point System points are awarded for those who have arranged an offer of employment in advance of arriving, there is no requirement for having prearranged employment. Often, immigrants arrive to Canada and find it difficult to find employment that relates to their training. Often this is because they have no “Canadian experience” or because their credentials are simply not recognized here (Reitz 2005).

The 2006 Canadian census reported that recent immigrants are twice as likely as native-born Canadians to have a university degree. Their rates of employment and underemployment, however, are substantially higher (Frenette and Morissette 2003). Underemployment refers to the situation where someone is employed for fewer hours than he or she desires. For example, a person may be working part-time but really desires full-time work.

The failure of immigrants’ credentials to be recognized is demonstrated in the large proportion of immigrants working in jobs with low educational requirement, like driving taxis, working in retail, and driving trucks (Galarneau and Morissette 2008). This underutilization of the skill sets of new immigrants is sometimes referred to as brain waste. Other related terms are brain drain and brain gain. Brain drain refers to the phenomenon of highly educated graduates leaving and emigrating from their countries of origin elsewhere, whereas brain gain refers to an immigrant-receiving country benefiting from the entry of highly educated immigrants. Canadian policy-makers suggest that not recognizing the credentials of new immigrants puts us in a position of “brain waste” while we could be enjoying the benefits of “brain gain.”

A wide variety of studies have in fact confirmed that there is a greater proportion of job–education mismatch among immigrants than among the native-born (Wald and Fang 2008). In addition to potential employers failing to recognize their credentials, immigrant underemployment has also been attributed to their lack of understanding of the Canadian labour market and lack of social capital and networks. If that were true, however, we would expect to see that the longer the immigrants were in Canada, the better their education–job match (see assimilation theory in the previous chapter).

This is, however, not the case. In fact, the education–job mismatch gap between established immigrants and native-born Canadians has increased over time. According to Galarneau and Morissette, in 2006, the percentage of males who had arrived in Canada between 1990 and 1994 with university degrees and were working in low-skill jobs was 21 percent—compared to 11 percent for native-born Canadians. In previous cohorts such as those that arrived between the mid and late 1970s, the rate was 12 percent versus 8 percent for native-born Canadians.

But why is this occurring? Galarneau and Morissette (2008) suggest that these shifts to higher rates of education–job mismatch for immigrants are due to the changing face of immigration. Compared to earlier cohorts, newer cohorts of immigrants are more likely not to speak English or French as a first language, are older on average than previous generations of immigrants, and are more likely to be members of visible minorities. All of these characteristics work against immigrants in terms of the likelihood that their job will match their education. In addition to Asian credentials being viewed with trepidation by prospective employers who are not familiar with the educational quality of such countries (Green and Worswick 2004), work experience in other countries is not always recognized in the Canadian labour market (Aydemir and Skuterud 2005). Older immigrants who have a considerable amount of work experience in their countries of origin, have foreign credentials, and do not speak an official language as a mother tongue may potentially have a host of factors working against them in terms of their appeal to potential employers.

In terms of the outcomes of education–job mismatch, it is not surprising that overqualification has been shown to lead to job dissatisfaction and turnover (Wolbers 2003). Overqualification is also associated with a lower wage-return to education. In other words, people who are overqualified for their jobs often make less money than people of similar education in jobs that are appropriately matched to their level and area of education (Boudarbat and Montmarquette 2009).

A Mismatch between Education and Employer Expectations?

An underlying assumption in the “knowledge economy” is that the more education a person has, the more competitive he or she will be in the labour market. As such, a much greater proportion of individuals have a university degree than in previous generations—in 2010, for example, 31 percent of 25- to 44-year-olds had a university degree compared to 22 percent of 45- to 64-year-olds. While the general perception may exist that a baccalaureate degree is the “new high school diploma,” policy-makers have expressed concern over the need for more graduates from business and engineering (Government of Canada 2001). Others (Canadian Council on Learning 2008a) have argued that the skills acquired in many post-secondary programs, particularly university degrees, bear little resemblance to the types of skills required by employers. It has also been argued that the requirement for applicants to have the minimum of a baccalaureate degree is a current instance of credentialism (see Collins in Chapter 2), wherein the credential itself gives status although it is only loosely linked to the actual skills required to perform the job. Credentialism is the means by which employers stratify access to jobs by requiring certain academic designations prior to entry.

Liberal arts education in particular has received recent attention because of its perceived poor fit with the demands of employers in a knowledge economy (Walters and Frank 2010). Instead of teaching highly specialized skills, it is argued that students in liberal arts programs are not given enough, if any, marketable technical skills. If the goal of education is to prepare future workers for the labour market, liberal arts programs can be viewed as severely deficient in preparing new workers for jobs requiring highly specialized skills. Others argue, however, that liberal arts programs provide students with a different skill set that precisely makes them more adaptable to the changing needs of a knowledge economy (Axelrod, Anisef, and Lin 2001). Strictly training students in technical skills may actually make student skill sets obsolete quicker when technology changes. Liberal arts programs, it is argued, may give students the problem-solving skills they need to adapt to changes in the work environment (Walters 2004). Others, in contrast, argue that it is vocational education that better prepares students for employment and offers the best match of skills to potential employers (Finnie 2001).

Canadian researchers have found that employers desire not only academic and job-specific skills in their employees, but also a set of occupational skills known as soft skills (Canadian Council on Learning 2008a). Soft skills refer to skills in communication, leadership, teamwork, interpersonal skills, and problem solving. Some programs of study allow occupational skills, including soft skills, to be developed through experience in the workplace. In the training of teachers, for example, there are mandatory teacher-education programs that require the student to complete a teacher practicum. The most “hands-on” learning programs are found within the trades, where apprenticeships include some in-class learning but are dominated by on-the-job training.

One way of preparing graduates with occupational skills that cannot be easily taught in the classroom is through experiential learning. Experiential learning is a term given to a set of educational practices that involve work placements that allow the student to obtain a set of skills that can be acquired only through exposure to the work environment. Often such programs of study are referred to as co-operative education.

The Canadian Association for Co-operative Education is a national organization whose mission is to promote co-operative education at the post-secondary level ( There are 77 post-secondary institutions in Canada that are members of CAFCE. According to the Association:

Co-operative Education Program means a program which alternates periods of academic study with periods of work experience in appropriate fields of business, industry, government, social services and the professions in accordance with the following criteria: (i) each work situation is developed and/or approved by the co-operative educational institution as a suitable learning situation; (ii) the co-operative student is engaged in productive work rather than merely observing; (iii) the co-operative student receives remuneration for the work performed; (iv) the co-operative student’s progress on the job is monitored by the co-operative educational institution; (v) the co-operative student’s performance on the job is supervised and evaluated by the student’s co-operative employer; (vi) the time spent in periods of work experience must be at least thirty per cent of the time spent in academic study.5

Despite the wide range of co-operative education that is available in Canada, data indicate that only a small percentage of post-secondary students—particularly university students—are enrolled in any form of co-operative education. Of about one million undergraduate students, only about 80 000 are enrolled in this form of experiential learning (Canadian Council on Learning 2008a).

Research on co-operative education has shown that students who participate in it generally rate their experiences as favourable. Data from recent New Brunswick graduates, for example, indicate that co-operative work placements allowed them to develop occupational and job-related skills that they found valuable in future employment (Canadian Council on Learning 2008a). See Box 8.4 for examples of experiential learning opportunities at Canadian post-secondary institutions.

Box 8.4 – Experiential Learning in Canadian Institutions

The University of Waterloo in Ontario not only has the largest co-operative education program in Canada, but is home to the largest post-secondary co-operative program in the world.6 About 14 000 students are enrolled in co-operative education programs that partner with around 3500 employers. Enrolment into the co-operative education program requires students to have 16 months of relevant work experience in order to complete their academic program, which means that the length of the undergraduate program is just under five years. Their program has led the way for the creation of around 100 other co-operative education programs at colleges and universities across the country.

In addition to colleges and universities using co-operative education, “technical universities” have also recently been created that combine the theoretical education of the university with the applied education of colleges. Walters and Zarifa (2008) have shown that co-op programs, particularly at the university level, significantly enhance the earnings and employment prospects of Canadian graduates. One particular program is at the University of Guelph–Humber, which has a combined curriculum of the University of Guelph and the Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. The four-year programs are in a range of subjects from business, computer, media studies, and childhood studies. Evers and Wolstenholme (2007) explain that

the joint diploma-degree programs match complementary strengths at Humber and Guelph. The programs are specifically designed to compress the time for students to graduate with diplomas and degrees so that the programs can be completed in four years. . . . The programs seamlessly integrate the diploma and degree experience. Students save time and money through tuition and living costs, and employers can hire uniquely skilled graduates sooner. (pp. 83–84)

What is the Value of a Liberal Arts Degree?

Above, the debates around the skills offered by liberal arts degrees were discussed. In general, critics argue that liberal arts degrees do not provide students with the technical skills required by employers in today’s knowledge economy. Proponents, in contrast, argue that liberal arts degrees prepare students in other ways, making them into employees equipped with critical thinking and problem-solving skills who actually may be more flexible in terms of the changing needs of the knowledge economy, and therefore more desirable. Still, others argue that the objective of a liberal arts degree is not to train future workers per se, but to foster the intellectual growth and social awareness of citizens.

Looking at the employment transitions of liberal arts graduates, many studies have demonstrated that students in such programs face the largest earnings disadvantage compared to students in other fields of study (Walters and Frank 2010). Recent liberal arts graduates have been found to earn less than graduates in technical and applied fields. These findings suggest that the “knowledge economy” does favour those with technical skills over those with soft skills (Walters and Frank 2010). University liberal arts graduates, however, tend to earn more than their counterparts from college programs as well as some college graduates in the business and health fields. Therefore, investing in the more costly university route (in terms of tuition fees) may have benefits in terms of employability for liberal arts graduates (Walters and Frank 2010). Related research has found that while liberal arts graduates earn less during the initial transition to the labour market, there is evidence that they eventually “catch up” and even surpass the earnings of their counterparts from more “applied” fields (Adamuti-Trache et al. 2006; Giles and Drewes 2001). These gains in earning over time have been attributed to the flexible skill set of liberal arts graduates and their greater likelihood of pursuing additional education (Walters and Frank 2010).

Student Employment

Many students work during the school year in addition to attending high school or post-secondary school, and the numbers of students working throughout the year have risen steadily over the past decades (Marshall 2010). Researchers have been interested in how in-school employment, or employment that students juggle with their academic schedules, impacts on academic performance. Much research suggests that long hours of work can interfere with student academic performance and increase stress levels (see, for example, DeSimone 2008; Motte and Schwartz 2009). In 2009–2010 the in-school employment rate of full-time post-secondary students was around 45 percent, compared to 39 percent 20 years earlier. The rates tend to be higher for women than men—51 percent for women in 2009–2010 compared to 41 percent of men in the same year. Students tend to work 16 hours per week on average, a figure that has remained fairly steady since the late 1990s (Marshall 2010). In 2009–2010, the average weekly earnings of full-time post-secondary students were around $200.

Tuition fees have increased at a faster rate than inflation during the last 20 years (Marshall 2010), creating a greater need for students to work in order to cover the costs of attending post-secondary education. Larger economic forces influence the employment patterns of students, however. Economic downturns result in higher youth unemployment rates, which researchers have linked to increases in student loan borrowing (Usher and Dunn 2009). Specifically, previous recessions in Canada have translated to an additional 6 percent in student loan borrowing per one percent increase in youth unemployment rates. The latest major economic downturn in late 2008 corresponded to a significant drop—around two and a half percent—in student employment in between the academic years 2007–2008 and 2009–2010 (Marshall 2010), although each successive term has seen small gains in employment of full-time students since.

Summer time has typically been a period when students work to earn money toward their continuing education. The three-month period from June to August is often planned out well in advance of the end of the school term by students who begin looking for prospective work during the winter term. The summer employment rate for students was also affected by the economic downturn of 2008, falling from 70 percent to 63 percent, although like the in-school employment rate, recent figures suggest a slow but steady recovery. Although specific figures are not available, the majority of summer jobs taken by post-secondary students are considered low-skilled and not career-related.

The Youth Employment Strategy (YES) was created in 1997 by the Canadian federal government to assist youth in finding employment. The Summer Work Experience program provides subsidies to employers for hiring students who are returning to full-time education in the fall. The Career Focus program, in contrast, is aimed at new graduates who require assistance in finding their first career-related work experience. The program links new graduates to potential “contributors” (those who will provide the work experience), who receive financial assistance from the government for supporting a portion of the salary costs for employing a new graduate for periods of six months to one year.7

The Transition to Adulthood

The shift from education to work is one major step in a larger process of youth development known as the transition to adulthood. The trajectory from childhood to adulthood makes an individual progressively more autonomous. Children are entirely dependent upon adults; youths move into a state of semi-autonomy, and eventually transition into fully autonomous adults. Youths are semi-autonomous and gradually develop their own independence through experiences in various social situations, fluctuating backwards and forwards in this trajectory (Franke 2010). Transitions during youth are also regarded as potentially impermanent and reversible (Mitchell 2006).

There are various aspects of life that the transition to adulthood can be focused upon, including those relating to leaving the home of their family of origin, those that focus on their integrating into the labour force, and those that correspond to financial independence. Of course, all of these aspects of life are intricately woven together. Having financial independence depends heavily on completing education and finding employment. Leaving the family home to live independently (or with a partner) also depends on having financial security. And the points at which these transitions occur are not “clean.” While leaving the home of the family of origin is associated with completing education and new career-related employment as well as forming partnerships with spouses, not leaving the parental home can also reflect economic challenges faced by young adults, or even the need to provide care for aging parents.

Researchers have found that the transition from adolescence to adulthood has lengthened in recent years. Compared to their parents, young adults today stay in the parental home longer and spend more years in education. (See Box 8.5 for a discussion of the terminology used to describe different generations.) This results in a later age of marriage and first birth. Demographers often look at five key transitions (Clark 2007) that are made by young people:

  • completing education
  • leaving the parental home
  • completing one year of full-time employment
  • entering a spousal or “conjugal” partnership; and
  • having children.

Box 8.5 – Generations of Birth Cohorts

Much discussion around today’s young adults involves comparing them with previous generations. As such, it is useful to define what is meant by these different age cohorts. An age cohort is a group of people in society who were born at around the same time.

  • Generation Y is the name that is given to people born between 1977 and 1986. Sometimes this cohort is also referred to as Echo-boomers (the children of Boomers) or Millennials
  • Generation X refers to individuals born between 1967 and 1976
  • Wave 2 Boomerswere born between 1957 and 1966
  • Wave 1 Boomerswere born right after the end of the Second World War, between 1947 and 1956
  • The War/Depression Cohort was born during the Great Depression and the Second World War, which stretched from 1932 to 1946

But what about people born after 1986? There is no commonly agreed-upon name that has been coined for this generation as of yet, although the terms Generation Next, Generation Z, and the Internet Generation are sometimes used to refer to young adults born in the 1990s and early 2000s. Only time will tell what “catches on.”

These five “markers” represent entry points into adulthood (Clark 2007) and often occur in the order in which they have been represented in Figure 8.5. Figure 8.6 shows the movement through the different makers by age group. As expected, the 18- to 20-year-old group has a relatively low percentage of completing many of these milestones, particularly leaving home, being in a relationship, or having children. Progressively through the different age bands, however, we can see that as more young adults finish their education, experiencing other life transitions occurs as well.

Previous generations, however, moved through these five milestones at a faster pace than more recent ones. For example in 2001, a 25-year-old had gone through as many transitions (about two) as a 22-year-old in 1981 and a 21-year-old in 1971. These changes are largely attributable to the extended time that young adults now spend in education compared to previous cohorts. Young adults typically graduate from a bachelor’s degree at age 23, for example. By the mid-30s, however, the gap between the generations in number of transitions completed closes. Figure 8.7 illustrates the different cohorts and the number of transitions completed between the ages of 18 and 34.

Figure 8.6 Transitions to Adulthood in Current Canadian Society
Source: Shaienks, D., and Gluszynski, T. (2009). Education and Labour Market Transitions. In Young Adulthood. Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 81-595-M, no. 075, p. 22.
Figure 8.7 Average Number of Transitions to Adulthood by Age, by Different Birth Cohorts
Source: Taken from Chart 2 in
Figure 8.8 Percentage of Young Adults Living with Parents, 1981 and 2006
Source: Data from

According to the 2006 Canadian census, 43.5 percent of adults aged 20 to 29 lived with their parents. Twenty-five years previous (1981), this figure was much lower at 27.5 percent. Figure 8.8 shows the differences in adult children living with their parents from 1981–2006, broken down by age groups and sex. As illustrated in the figure, the proportion of young people still living at home is much larger for the younger (20–24) age group. The proportions of males living at home into adulthood is also larger than the corresponding figures for females across the time and age cohorts, indicating that women generally tend to establish their independence at a younger age than men. See Box 8.6 for a discussion of adult children returning to the parental home.

Box 8.6 – Kidults, Adultescents, and Boomerangers

Much research and media attention has been given to the lengthier transition to adulthood experienced by recent generations compared to the life trajectory of earlier cohorts. New terms, such as kidults, adultescents, and Boomerangers have emerged to describe these new trends. Kidulthood and adultescence are words that have been coined by the media to describe the blurring of the boundaries between adolescence and adulthood and the extended time that young people live in the parental home and otherwise depend on their parents.

While more young adults are staying in the parental home longer, many are returning after having left home for a period of time. These returners to the parental home have been referred to as Boomerangers, or the Boomerang Generation. In 2001, about a quarter of adult children living with their parents were Boomerang kids.8 There are many reasons for this growing trend of returning to the parental home. One reason has been suggested in this chapter already: the pursuit of higher education is taking up more time in a young adult’s life than ever before. Strapped with the financial burden of student debt and the difficulty of finding desirable work after graduation, young people are moving back home when it makes economic sense. Financial difficulties were given as a reason for why a quarter of Boomerangers moved back home. Canadian data have shown that 19 percent of Boomerang kids indicated they had finished school for the academic year, while 8 percent moved back home after they had finished (or dropped out of) their schooling. Another reason is that there has been an increase in the acceptance of common-law relationships. These relationships are more likely to break up than marriages, and when they do, one response by adult children is to move back home. This was the reason that 10 percent of Boomerangers indicated that they had returned home (Beaupré, Turcotte, and Milan 2006).

Other countries have also joined in the creation of new terms to refer to the changing path to adulthood. In Japan, the term Freeter is used to describe young adults who do not have full-time work. In Italy, the term Mammoni is used to describe adult men who do not leave the family home and are cared for by their mothers. In Germany, an adult who takes a longer-than-usual time to leave the parental home is called a Nesthocker. In the United Kingdom, much attention has also been given to KIPPERS (Kids in Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings), as research has shown that adult children, either living “at home” or not, place a remarkable financial strain on their parents, ranging from tuitions costs to down payments on their first homes.

The reasons why young adults leave the parental home for the first time have also changed over the generations. Figure 8.9 shows the reasons for leaving home broken down by birth cohort. As shown in the figure, the biggest reason for leaving home in earlier generations was to get married, but this eventually became replaced with wanting to be independent and to attend school in successive generations.

For example, as discussed earlier, youth do not typically wait until they finish their education to enter the labour market. A large proportion of high school (and some middle school) and post-secondary students work while in school. Most of this work is in low-paying and low-skilled jobs, but co-operative education and internships make it possible for some post-secondary students to pursue career-related training while in school.

Arnett (2000, 2004; Arnett and Tanner 2005) has suggested that the transition to adulthood in today’s society is better understood as emerging adulthood. Unlike past generations, youth has been extended into a particular lifestyle within which individuals explore their identities, focus on themselves, and experience much instability in their lives. This stage is essentially “in between” being an adolescent and an adult. Emerging adulthood, according to Arnett, is a lifestyle that has evolved due to the erosion of previously rigid social and institutional structures that characterized adulthood. Nowadays, youth are able to explore different lifestyles over an extended period of time.


Figure 8.9 Reasons for Leaving Home by Generation
Sources: From Beaupré, Pascale; Pierre Turcotte and Anne Milan. 2006. Junior comes back home : trends and predictors of returning to the parental home. Canadian Social Trends, 82: 28-34, chart 2, page. 30.

Canadian sociologist James Côté (2002) has argued that rather than an “emerging adulthood” understanding of how today’s youth experience the transition to adulthood, an identity capital model better explains the changing social and economic conditions to which young people must adapt. At the centre of the identity capital theory is that the transition to adulthood is now a very individualized experience. In past generations, a more standardized set of transitions was experienced by the majority of the population. Côté attributes these changes to larger social changes that are characteristic of late-Modern Westernized societies in which old norms have become obsolete and society is in a stage of reorganization. Transitions to adulthood therefore become characterized by a series of personal preferences and choices.

There are also ways for youth to “repair” deficiencies that they may have in their stocks of social and economic capital (see Chapter 2) by making “identity investments.” Identity capital is focused on the sense of self that individuals construct from their technical and social skills, behaviours, networks, and personality traits.

There are two general paths that individuals may follow in their individualized life course: default individualization or developmental individualization. Default individualization results when individuals are passive about decisions made about their life trajectories and allow others (possibly parents) to make decisions for them. In contrast, developmental individualization is a path characterized by active and strategic pursuit of individual adult identity.

According to Côté, the most successful individuals have portfolios of identity capital that comprise tangible and intangible assets. Tangible assets are those that are socially visible for all to see, like credentials, network memberships, and “personal deportment”—that is, how a people carry themselves, how they dress, and the manner in which they speak. These tangible assets work as “passports” into the worlds of various groups with whom a person desires membership. In contrast, intangible assets within identity capital largely relate to psychological factors, such as the ability to self-regulate, strength of ego, and critical thinking skills. These assets allow individuals to understand and negotiate the various circumstances with which they will be presented in their occupational, social, and personal lives. For example, a young person may feel that his or her social networks are weak and may therefore invest in joining groups such as sororities or fraternities in order to invest in identity capital. This ability to address deficiencies, however, will be linked to the individual’s tangible and intangible assets, such as the social class of his or her parents and the psychological characteristics that the individual has to impress the gatekeepers of such membership groups.

Researchers have also identified a youth divide in the transition to adulthood. There are those who make the successful transition to adulthood, and there are those who have a series of risk factors (such as those discussed in Chapter 7) who are more likely to drop out of school, engage in crime, and experience chronic unemployment. The youth divide therefore describes the polarization of “successful transitioners” and those who transition into lives characterized by social exclusion (Bynner 2007). The majority of youth experience the typical delayed transition to adulthood characterized by later leaving of the parental home and integrating into full-time employment, while a minority of youth who have limited access to key resources transition to adulthood earlier by leaving the parental home at an early age and dropping out of school. This latter group, having transitioned earlier (and atypically) is less likely to succeed in the labour market due to their limited set of skills (Beaujot and Kerr 2007). See Box 8.7 for a discussion of the transitions to adulthood for marginalized youth.

It should be noted that while researchers tend to agree that there is a sharp difference between the school-to-work transitions of young people today compared to previous years, Goodwin and O’Connor (2005) have argued that current researchers have tended to oversimplify how transitions occurred in earlier generations. They argue that this “golden age” of straightforward transitions into the labour market by earlier generations has been assumed although there is much evidence that young people in those days also were faced with many choices and periods of uncertainty. Thus, this comparison to earlier generations who experienced a smooth and linear transition may be exaggerated, particularly when so many transitions today are predictable by factors of gender, race, and social class. Critics argue that while young people may feel they are in control of choosing their individualized transitions, they are still heavily constrained by social structures (Furlong and Cartmel 2007; Raffe 2011), whether they recognize it or not.

Box 8.7 – Marginalized Youth and the Transition to Adulthood

In Chapter 7, many factors associated with stratification in educational outcomes were discussed. Children in care were one of the groups that were discussed for the numerous challenges they faced. Many factors are associated with stratification in educational outcomes. Children in care are one of the groups that face numerous challenges compared to children raised in stable families. As discussed in this chapter, the transitions from school to work and to other markers of adulthood are taking longer they have in the past, with most adult children living with their parents into their mid-20s. Children in foster care, however, “age out” of the foster care system at 18 and must live independently from that point forward.9 Research from Canada and from many other countries has shown that youth moving out of the child welfare system face a wide variety of problems: they are more likely to drop out of secondary school, be unemployed, have mental health problems, be on social assistance, and be in trouble with the law (Reid 2007).

Reid (2007:33–34) explains that “[f]or the majority of youth, the transition to adulthood represents a process that takes place over a period of time with the support of family and friends. In Canada and around the rest of the world, it is becoming commonplace for youth to depend on their parents well into their twenties. . . . Youth in state care are considered at risk, yet they are the ones most unlikely to be receiving support from family or the state. They do not have a sturdy safety net to catch them as they waiver on the brink of adulthood.”

Tweddle (2007) has examined initiatives in Canada that have been targeted at improving the outlook for youth moving out of the child welfare system. For example, Alberta has created a Youth in Transition initiative targeted at youth who “do not have all of the necessary supports, skills or developmental abilities to manage transition toward healthy adulthood.”10

In Ontario, “transition year” programs at University of Toronto and York University assist youth who have experienced social and financial barriers by giving them academic and non-academic skills they need to be prepared for university.

Many Aboriginal youth also face particular difficulty in the transition from school to work. The unemployment rates for Aboriginals across Canada are much higher than the national average, and this has become even more pronounced since the economic crisis of 2008. Aboriginal unemployment increased to 13.9 percent in 2009 from 10.4 percent in 2008, while the corresponding rates for non-Aboriginal people were 8.1 and 6.0 percent.11

The difficulty for Aboriginals in obtaining work is closely tied to their lower levels of educational attainment and higher rates of high school dropout, which were discussed in Chapter 7. Because trades careers have been a major school-to-work transition path for Aboriginal youth, many provinces have established apprenticeship programs specifically targeted at Aboriginal youth (e.g., The Aboriginal Youth Initiative in Alberta, The Aboriginal Apprenticeship Board of Ontario, and The Manitoba Aboriginal Apprenticeship Trades Strategy). These apprenticeship programs are argued to reduce the disadvantages faced by Aboriginal people in the labour market, particularly given the current need for skilled labour in the trades (Brigham and Taylor 2006). It is also argued that such training is “culturally appropriate” because apprenticeship training—or learning skills from elders—has been a historically important part of educating people in Aboriginal cultures and that it matches the preferred learning styles of many Aboriginal youth.

Transition from School to Work in Other Countries

The transition to adulthood is dependent on many economic, cultural, and historical factors in a society, and therefore it varies considerably from culture to culture. Before discussing differences between countries, it is useful to begin by addressing the common features of school-to-work transitions across countries. Raffe (2011) suggests that there are some common features of the school to work transition that many developed countries around the world share.12

The first similarity is that young people, compared to older established workers, have a considerably more difficult time entering the labour market. The unemployment rate of youth in OECD countries is often double that of the adult rate and has become even more pronounced in recent years. In the period between 2007 and 2010, unemployment of youths (age 16 to 24) has increased on average by 5.5 percentage points across the OECD countries (Sonnet and OECD 2010). Across Europe, the unemployment rate for youths was 21.1 percent, compared to 7.1 percent for those aged 25 and over. The corresponding figures for the United States were 18.2 percent and 8.1 percent. For Japan, youth unemployment was at 8.8 percent compared to just 4.7 percent in the 25-plus age group. Figure 8.10 illustrates these rates (denoted by the triangle marker) and their changes from earlier years (denoted by the end of the bar). See also Box 8.8 on “NEETs.”

Jobs into which youth transition are generally less stable and are poorly paid compared to those occupied by older workers. And young people often move between periods of employment and unemployment and between similar-level jobs. According to Raffe (2011), one reason for this gap between the younger workers and more established workers is due to the higher employment risks perceived by employers when contemplating hiring a younger worker. Older workers often require less training and are less likely to change jobs as quickly as younger workers.

The second commonality across countries is that education systems play an important role in preparing individuals for the labour market. While the processes themselves vary widely between different countries, there is a general pattern that education systems in each country are vital to worker preparation.

The third feature of school-to-work transitions that is common to all countries is that the transition process itself varies widely among individuals. There are many different trajectories that individuals may take that are based upon many factors, but they mostly relate to the education choices made by the individual. Like in Canada, educational levels of young people have grown across all OECD countries. This has resulted in a “downgrading of educational credentials” (Raffe 2011:314) wherein the same diploma or degree leads to less desirable jobs than it did in earlier generations. The OECD countries all share the common feature that university graduates tend to do better than those who terminate their education at high school (or the country equivalent).


Figure 8.10 Youth and Adult Unemployment Rates, 2007–2010
Source: OECD (2010), Off to a Good Start? Jobs for Youth, OECD Publishing. en

Box 8.8 – Who Are the NEETs?

The initialism NEET stands for Not in Education, Employment, or Training. This label has been used in recent years, particularly in the EU countries, to describe economically inactive youth and young adults. Economically inactive means that the person is not in employment, nor does he or she have any other economic activity, like being a student. In 2010, across the OECD nations, around 12.5 percent of young people (or 16.7 million) between the ages of 15 and 24 were NEETs, which had increased from 10.8 percent just two years earlier. This group of young people is of particular concern to policy-makers because this low-skilled and poorly educated group faces very limited employment prospects. The recognition that spending time as a NEET can damage future employment prospects has been dubbed scarring by some experts. There is concern that a scarred generation may jeopardize the economic recovery of many nations if governments do not take action to improve the employment outlook for today’s young people.

Related to the previous point is the fact that, in all OECD countries, education-to-work transitions vary widely by sex. Despite the rising educational qualifications of females, the processes that shape the work transitions for women operate much differently for them than for men. The nature of the differences varies from country to country, but the commonality among countries is that gender matters in influencing school-to-work transitions.

The final similarity in school to work transitions shared by countries is that there is a consensus that we are observing “new” pathways being followed by young people that differ from the experiences of previous generations. The transition period, usually considered to be between the ages of 15 and 25—beginning when a young person is no longer in “compulsory” schooling and ending when he or she finds relatively stable employment—is generally taking a much longer time than it has in the past. The “emerging adult” and “identity capital” theories discussed earlier in this chapter are being used in discussions of school-to-work transitions around the world.

Differences among Countries in School-to-Work Transitions

One way of assessing how successful a country is at school-to-work transitions is to examine its youth unemployment rates; the higher the unemployment rate, the more difficulty youth face when trying to enter the labour market. These rates, however, do not help when trying to figure out why such differences exist among countries. Explaining these differences is not easy as there are many factors at play that are closely tied to the cultural, social, historical, and institutional characteristics of each country.

Many transition typologies have been offered by sociologists. Transition typologies refer to the ways of organizing or dividing up countries by particular features that may help in explaining the different process of school-to-work transitions. These typologies are generally ideal typesthey make sense theoretically but in practice rarely work to explain things so tidily. Explaining country differences is a complex problem that is assisted by typologies but not completely solved by them. Raffe (2008) explains that most transition typologies focus on three dimensions of the school-to-work transition: (1) how closely “coupled” the links are between education and employment, (2) the extent to which educational pathways are standardized, and (3) the degree of stratification and diversity of outcomes.

One family of typologies focuses on the differences among countries in terms of how education and employment are linked together (Raffe 2011). In some countries, such as Germany, there is a very strong linkage between education and employment, and employers and schools both participate in the delivery of training. In countries with a strong linkage between education and employment, there tends to be established apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeship programs are oriented toward training people in the skills of a trade, and in such programs a young person works for an employer while being taught the skills of the trade on the job. On the other end of the spectrum are countries like the United States and Canada where there is a “decoupled” system with few formal ties between industry and education. Then there are countries in the middle, like the Netherlands, where employers play a strong role in shaping vocational education curriculum, but have no part in the delivery of education. Other countries, such as the UK and France, are characterized by responding quickly to market forces in deciding what types of courses to offer, while Japan has a strong tradition of school placements that foster ties between employers and education institutions.

Marsden (1990) identified two major transition systems that are also based on the linkages between education and employment. Occupational labour markets (OLM), as the name suggests, are organized around occupations. In OLMs, there are clear occupational requirements and training schemes that are largely regulated by the occupations themselves, with extensive “coupling” between education and employment. Apprenticeship systems are an example of such an arrangement. Countries characterized by internal labour markets (ILM) are rather different because instead of education being occupation-specific, the labour market is organized around enterprises where occupational boundaries are more fluid and where more general sets of skills are required. Countries with strong apprenticeship traditions, such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, are usually associated with OLMs, whereas France, the United States, Canada, and the UK typify the ILM category.

Kerckhoff (2000) has also suggested that countries can generally be split into two general types based on the linkages between school and work. Type 1 countries are those that are characterized by highly structured and standardized education systems that stream individuals into specific occupations. In contrast, Type 2 countries are characterized by less standardization and more flexibility, with looser connections between education and employers.

Interestingly, the Type 1 and Type 2 classification scheme highly overlaps with the other transition typologies discussed above. In Type 1 countries, there are strong connections to the labour market and training, whereas in Type 2 countries, this linkage is weak. In Type 1 countries, completing education is associated with a quick integration into a job and a low risk of being unemployed. The highly structured nature of Type 1 systems means that trajectories are very predictable and seemingly guaranteed. The downside, however, is that the educational streaming system (Chapter 5) in such countries is very strong as well, and once you are on a specific pathway, it is difficult to change directions. Type 1 countries are usually OLMs, while Type 2 countries are almost always ILMs. When youth in Type 1 countries complete their education, they can move into higher-level skill-based occupations, but there will be little upward mobility in their jobs over their lives.

In contrast, Type 2 countries have less standardized education systems, with weak tracking that focus more on general skills rather than those that are occupation specific. As such, there is a weak linkage to the labour market. Upon completing education, young people have more difficulty integrating into the labour markets of Type 2 countries and face a high risk of unemployment. They typically start at low-level jobs, but have more flexibility in choosing their work and have a high possibility for career mobility. Table 8.2 summarizes the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 transition systems and the relationships with characteristics of the other typologies discussed above.


Table 8.2 Differences between Type 1 and Type 2 Transition Systems
Source: From Table 22.4, p. 321 Raffe, D. (2011) Cross-national differences in education-work transitions, in London, M. (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of lifelong Learning. New York: Oxford University Press. Used with permission.

Differences among Countries in the Transition to Adulthood

In most cultures, there is a general consensus that the transition to adulthood, like school-to-work transitions, is taking longer than in previous generations. Recent research has examined how processes of globalization are influencing the transitions to adulthood in modern societies. Globalization refers to the increasing economic, technological, cultural, and migratory linkages of countries throughout the world.

Esping-Andersen (1990) was one of the first sociologists to suggest a multi-country classification system of “welfare regimes,” which generally classifies countries into those with similar models of social policy (which are characterized by specific social, political, and economic arrangements). Since then, many researchers (including Esping-Andersen) have critiqued the model and adapted it to examine specific outcomes, such as transitions to adulthood.

In a detailed overview of globalization processes and how these factors contributed to social inequalities in OECD countries, a group of researchers at the University of Bamberg (Germany) identified five regime types that have similar cultural and institutional characteristics (Buchholz et al. 2009). These researchers modified Esping-Andersen’s (1990) regimes with a perspective that also accounts for the varying family formation patterns found in different countries (Ferrera 1996) as well as for the situation of more recent post-socialist states. The resulting five regimes are:

  • Liberal (e.g., Canada, the UK, the United States);
  • Conservative (e.g., Germany, France);
  • Social Democratic (e.g., Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland);
  • Family-oriented (e.g., Italy, Spain, Mexico); and
  • Post-socialist (e.g., Estonia, Hungary, Poland).

The regimes differ in many ways, including how strong the social welfare systems are in each. For example, countries in the Social Democratic regime are known for their generous welfare systems and strong social safety nets. In the Family-oriented regime, more responsibility is placed on extended families and networks for economic and social support. In the Liberal regime, the welfare systems are weaker, with existing safety nets being subject to means-testing (although this varies considerably among “member countries,” with Canada and the UK having more generous safety nets than the United States). Conservative regime countries have “transfer-oriented” welfare support that are focused on protecting the living standards of those not in the labour force, largely based on employee contributions. Unlike the Social Democratic regimes, however, this welfare support in Conservative regimes is limited to specific spheres that do not extend, for example, to child-care provisions. In the Post-socialist regime, much transformation is still occurring.

In terms of leaving home, youth in Social Democratic countries have typically been “early departers,” while members of the Family-oriented regimes tend to stay at home the longest (Iacovou 2002). For example, recent data have shown the average age of leaving the parental home to be 20 for Finnish females and 30 for Italian men (Newman and Aptekar 2007). In Social Democratic countries, there is a pattern of early home-leaving as well as non-traditional family formation (entering into common-law unions and not marrying). The strong support of the welfare state encourages early autonomy and experimentation (Buchmann and Kriesi 2011). In contrast, the longest home-leaving ages are observed in the Family-oriented countries, where weak state support necessitates stronger reliance on families.

Table 8.3 summarizes some key differences among the welfare regimes. (Note: Active labour-market policies are characterized by government interventions that are used to help the unemployed find work such as through training schemes or employment services, whereas passive policies do not have as many of these features.)

Buchholz et al. (2009) note that what all youth in all countries share in common is that there is increased uncertainty around employment, which has resulted in the postponement of family formation. Because there are fewer guarantees of employment after completion of education, youth in many countries experience precarious (temporary) bouts of employment. This leads to instability, which the authors indicate has knock-on effects for other adult transitions, like getting married and having children, which are occurring at an increasingly later average age. Buchmann and Kriesi (2011) also note that country differences tend to be the greatest at around age 25, but they are quite small before 20 and after 35.

Table 8.3 Highlights of Major Differences Tied to Transition to Adulthood, by Regime
Source: Adapted from Buchholz et al. (2009)

Liberal Conservative Social Democratic Family-oriented Post-socialist
School-work linkages Weakly regualted Strongly regulated Moderately regulated Strongly regulated Transitioning to market economy
Labour market policies Passive

Moderate support for those outsidemeans-tested benefits


Strongly oriented to those already “inside”


High taxes, generous social security sytem


Reliance on family and networks


Moving in different directions

Gender High integration of women Lack of benefits can require women to stay home to care for children High rate of female employment Occupational career perceived as conflicting with family tasks for women, which has led to bery low rates of fertility Has become more of an issue after fall of Communism
Age at leaving home Increasing Increasing Youngest Oldest Increasing

Chapter Summary

This chapter began by discussing how education serves many purposes in society and noting that one of the major purposes it serves is to prepare youth for the labour market. The Canadian workforce is more highly educated than it ever has been and Canada has one of the highest rates of post-secondary education, particularly university degrees, among the OECD nations. The costs of education were also discussed in terms of tuition and the investment that an individual must make in himself or herself, at the cost of potentially lost earnings.

After completing education, most young adults transition into the workforce. The path from education to work, however, can take many forms. Numerous pathways were described and the paths which a recent cohort of Canadian youth had taken (or were currently on) were described. While there appears to be a preference in high schools for promoting university and college paths, the reality that around half of high school students pursue vocational or other careers was discussed. This group is referred to as the “forgotten half,” as much research in education tends to focus only on young adults who go on to college or university. Important social class backgrounds that factor into such decisions were revisited.

The transition to the labour market can be difficult, and the increasing youth unemployment rates in recent years have increased the challenges that new graduates face when trying to find work. Research was reviewed that has highlighted how field of study and college/university program are strongly linked to the ease at which new graduates find work. Continuing on in post-secondary studies to the post-graduate level was also discussed. Earnings and how they are associated with field of study, college diploma or university degree, and post-graduate education were also reviewed. The “fit” between the jobs that graduates get and their actual education was next explored. Potential mismatches can be in terms of level of education or in field of study. The concern that employers have different expectations of the skills sets of recent graduates was also addressed.

One possible way of giving students more occupation-specific skills has been through involving them in experiential learning. Often regarded as limited to trades and apprenticeship career-paths, experiential and “co-operative” learning has been expanded to many colleges and universities across Canada. Next, the debate around the actual “value” of a liberal arts degree was explored. Trends in student in-school and summer employment were also discussed.

School-to-work transitions were conceptualized as being one part of the larger experience of transitioning to adulthood, of which there are five general “stages.” Theorists have argued that recent generations are experiencing a different transition to adulthood compared to older cohorts. The experience now has lengthened considerably, largely due to the higher levels of education acquired by younger generations. The pursuit of these qualifications has the effect of lengthening the time they stay in the parental home, increases the age at which they get their first career-related job, and delays marriage and childbearing. The additional difficulties experienced by children in care and Aboriginal youth were also discussed.

At the end of the chapter, the similarities and differences in the school-to-work transitions among other countries were examined. Different transition typologies were suggested for assisting in understanding why youths in certain groups of countries have similar experiences to one another. Finally, country similarities and differences in the larger experience of transitioning to adulthood were explored, using regime theory to assist in grouping together similar country-types.

Review Questions

1. Define knowledge economy. How is the knowledge economy related to levels of educational attainment in Canada?

2. Define gappers and second chancers.

3. Explain what is meant by the “forgotten half.”

4. Explain three main ways that the transition to work varies by credential (e.g., college diploma or university degree) and field of study.

5. What is meant by job–education mismatch? Explain the two types of mismatch described in the chapter.

6. Define experiential learning and explain how it assists with school-to-work transitions. Identify two types of experiential learning techniques used in education.

7. Describe current Canadian trends in in-school and summer employment;

8. Explain the five major stages in the transition to adulthood.

9. Explain what is meant by Boomerangers and kidults.

10. Compare and contrast emerging adulthood and identity capital.

11. Identify three reasons why the transition to adulthood can be more difficult for marginalized youth.

12. Identify three different transitions typologies and explain how they understand work-to-school transition differences by country.

13. Identify the five different regimes and explain how two major factors characterize transition to adulthood in each regime.


  • Does your college or university offer co-operative education? If so, explain how co-operative education works within the degree or diploma program and in what fields of study it is offered. If your college or university does not offer co-operative education, look at the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education website ( and find a nearby school that does offer co-operative education and answer the previous questions.
  • Interview a parent and a grandparent (or a senior citizen) about the different stages in their transition to adulthood. For example, at what age did they leave home? At what age did they get their first job? How does this compare to your own experiences?
  • Referring to Figure 8.1, identify the current “path” that you are on. Think of friends or relatives of yours who have taken different paths. What were they? What were the life circumstances that surrounded their decisions to take these paths? How were their circumstances similar or different from yours?
  • What kind of job do you see yourself in when you complete your education? What skills have you acquired (or do you hope to acquire) during your education that will help you in your desired job? Identify the different skills as being soft skills, academic skills, and job-specific skills.
  • If you are reading this textbook, it is likely that you are a social science or education student. Have you ever thought of having a vocational career? If so, what kind? If not, why not?

Film Recommendation

  • Wards of the Crown, 2005, National Film Board of Canada, Directed by Andrée Cazubon.
    Documentary about four youth in foster care transitioning out of the system and the difficulties that they face.

Key Terms

age cohort

apprenticeship programs

brain drain

brain gain

brain waste

default individualization

developmental individualization

emerging adulthood

experiential learning

forgotten half



horizontal mismatch

identity capital theory

in-school employment

intangible assets

job–education mismatch

knowledge economy

mature students

opportunity cost

second chancers

soft skills

tangible assets

transition typologies

vertical mismatch


Challenges to Educational Practice


Source: “Education is not a business – Student protests” by Bob Bob is licensed CC BY 2.0

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to

  1. Define global education.
  2. Explain if and how global education is being realized at the secondary and post-secondary levels of education in Canada.
  3. Explain how the global economic crisis is related to education-related matters in Canada and around the world.
  4. Define neoliberalism.
  5. Identify the ways in which neoliberalism has influenced education at both the K–12 and post-secondary levels.
  6. Explain what is meant by globalization and internationalization and how the two terms are different.
  7. Explain the various strategies post-secondary institutions are using to internationalize their campuses.
  8. Identify the four models used by different countries to fund tertiary education.
  9. Describe current perceived challenges in the instruction of post-secondary students.


The previous chapters have laid the foundation for understanding the sociology of education within a mostly Canadian context. Increasingly, however, forces of globalization are creating networks of interconnectedness between people, businesses, markets, and educational institutions. The trends in Canada’s educational practices are greatly linked to occurrences in other countries. In this chapter, the focus will be on how educational practices in Canada are linked to larger global trends—particularly to the trend of neoliberalism. The chapter will examine how economic markets are linked to educational trends and changes over time. Attitudinal shifts that are influenced by the close relationship between such economic approaches and related orientations toward education and job training will also be considered.

Global Education

The term global education is one that is cropping up more and more in education-oriented literature. There is not a single definition of global education that is agreed upon by all users of the term, however. In general, global education refers to the delivery of education in a way that recognizes the context of subjects in a broader geographical framework than simply the one in which the students and teachers live. It is the recognition that topics should be taught from a perspective that acknowledges alternative approaches and promotes intercultural understandings. Sometimes global education may be referred to as development education, intercultural education, or world studies (Pike 2000).

While the goals of global education may be viewed as admirable, they are indeed difficult to put into practice and evaluate. This is due to many factors, not least because of the vagueness of the goals themselves and the uncertainty of how to put goals of global education into any meaningful sort of practice (Pike 2000). The idea of what global education entails differs between countries as well. For example, Canadian and British teachers are more likely to regard it as meaning the understanding of how people are connected to the global system, while American teachers are more likely to state that global education refers to learning about different countries and cultures (Pike 2000).

Citizenship Education in the Canadian Curriculum

One strategy of promoting global education is to augment civic education, social studies, and/or history (depending on the jurisdiction) with aspects of global citizenship education in the Grades 1 to 12 curricula. As noted by Richardson and Abbott (2009), it is more difficult to talk about global education in Canada than in countries like France and the UK, where national curricula exist. Curricula across Canada vary considerably. We can, however, examine how the different curricula respond to concerns over global citizenship.

Richardson and Abbott (2009) remind us that global citizenship is not a concept that is new to Canadian curricula and that the preferred relationship between students and the larger outside world is one that has changed over time due to various shifts in political outlooks of wider society. Richardson and Abbott (2009) identify five different major imaginaries in the approach of global citizenship education in Canada over time. Imaginaries are ways of understanding the nature of global citizenship and provide a rationale for promoting such a world view. Imaginaries do not necessarily follow a linear sequence, and elements of more than one may be found overlapping within the same curriculum in a province at any given time.

The first major imaginary is imperialism. In much of the twentieth century, emphasis was placed on teaching children about how to be proper moral citizens and to uphold allegiance to the British Empire. National identity as Canadians was largely framed in terms of imperialist connections to Britain. The world was essentially divided into recognized colonies of the Crown and “other” (Richardson and Abbott 2009), Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth, or “West” and non-West.

The next major imaginary was the Cold War, which refers to the period immediately following the Second World War (1945). Global citizenship education then focused on a different kind of “other.” The world was no longer was perceived to be divided into Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth, but was split into communist and non-communist. Much social studies curricula was focused on understanding the differences between the two worlds.

After the focus on the Cold War came the multipolar imaginary, which began in the 1960s. This understanding of the world was framed by the creation of the United Nations and the shift of Canada as a “rising middle power.” The multipolar phase switched the international discourse in curricula to one that focused on international co-operation and interdependence. These changing world views were also embedded in a changed technological landscape in which air travel and advances in telecommunication were contributing to a new “world culture” (Richardson and Abbott 2009:383). The view is also characterized as the “global village” understanding of the world, wherein the mandate of global civic education was to enlighten students as to the interdependent nature of global politics and the great inequalities that existed between nations, with the underlying objective to raise the standard of living in developing countries. While perhaps a noble ambition on the surface, critics (see Merryfield 2001) argue that such a world view is fundamentally the same as that found during the imperialism phase, when it was assumed that the West was a model for all others to follow, ignoring important cultural and historical differences.

The late 1980s saw the emergence of the ecological imaginary, which emphasized environmental concerns about the survival of the planet along with an understanding of cultural diversity and a respect for a variety of world views. Educational approaches focused on getting the student to see the world through the eyes of those from other cultures and nations. The ecological phase was a transformative approach to global citizenship education (Richardson and Abbott 2009) because its focus was on changing the world views of students and getting them to reexamine their own biases and beliefs, rather than changing other cultures.

The most current imaginary of global citizenship education is one that is characterized as monopolar. The prevailing approach that is taught is one rooted in economic neoliberalism, which emphasizes the understanding of the world as a vast market. The emphasis has shifted to the international competitiveness of markets, with consumerism as the core organizing principle. This imaginary, according to Richardson and Abbott (2009), is largely a step backwards in the evolution of such approaches to global citizenship education because it somewhat resembles the previous phases, which stress individualism and competitiveness rather that interdependence and empathy.

Richardson and Abbott (2009) argue that Canadian curriculum currently tends to exhibit characteristics of both the ecological and monopolar imaginaries, which is inherently problematic because of the opposing world views that they occupy. The ecological imaginary emphasizes an empathetic world view, while the monopolar focuses on competitiveness. For example, recent planning documents from the Ontario Ministry of Education state that “[t]he overall skill and knowledge level of Ontario’s students must continue to rise to remain competitive in a global economy. At the same time, the achievement gap must continue to be closed between students who excel and students who struggle because of personal, cultural or academic barriers.”1

Global Economic Crisis

Markets that are linked across borders are a key feature of the current world in which we live. The economic situation of a country determines many practices of its government and market behaviours of its citizens. The recent global economic crisis was a major event that had numerous knock-on effects in various aspects of social life, including work and education. Therefore, the global economic crisis is directly connected to the current state of education in Canada and around the world.

The global economic crisis began in 2008 and is much attributed to lending practices in the United States, characterized by an abundance of subprime mortgages. Subprime mortgages are loans for purchasing a home that are given to individuals who have higher credit risks and may have more difficulty meeting the repayment schedule. The price of houses at this time was also artificially high, meaning that a great number of large mortgages were given to individuals at a high risk of defaulting. These loans were bundled together and sold as securities to investors. When defaulting on the mortgages occurred in large numbers, many foreclosures occurred and the banks took over ownership of the houses. The foreclosures, however, became so numerous that housing prices dropped, affecting the prices of houses owned even by people with a low risk of defaulting. With the values of houses dropping around them, low-risk borrowers found that the houses they originally bought for higher prices were valued at only a fraction of what they paid, and the changing terms of their mortgages caused them to default as well. The banks were left holding properties that were nearly worthless and the investors owned securities with no value.

Because the banking and investments systems are linked throughout the world, it was not long before the crash in the US banking system was felt in other countries. Many banks were “bailed out” by federal governments, causing the governments to borrow money to rescue the established financial system. High government debts have many different ramifications for citizens, including higher unemployment and decreased spending on social programs.

More recently, the European debt crisis has been at the forefront of current affairs. Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain are four European Union member states that are heavily indebted due to borrowing from other countries. In many instances, the national debt of these countries can be linked to the financial crisis that began in the United States. These countries all faced the inability to pay back their debts, and so the European Union and the International Monetary Fund had to make a decision as to whether to bail them out and thus increase the debt for other EU member states. In the case of the European Union, the value of the common currency (the euro) is at stake in dealing with debt at the country level.

Economic Crises and Education

These economic crises are not simply problems with banking and trading stocks, limited to the realm of the financial sector. These problems spill over rather quickly into everyday aspects of citizens’ lives, particularly when governments declare austerity measures in which public spending is severely cut in order to pay back federal debt. These spending cuts can affect education systems because education systems are funded in part by these governments. In Canada, this has resulted in reductions in funding to higher education and research as well as hiring freezes at many universities and colleges. Many universities and colleges have also responded to funding cuts by increasing reliance on fixed-term and temporary contract faculty, which are less expensive to employ as they are paid lower wages and have little or no job security (Education International 2009; Rajagopal 2002; Webber 2008).

University budgets are also strongly tied to endowment funds, which are donations given to the university that are invested in the stock market. The university is allowed to use a percentage of the investment earnings from the endowment fund in its operating budget.

When the financial crisis began in late 2008, many stocks dropped in value, which also meant that the size of the university endowment funds also shrank. For example, in 2008 McGill University had $928 million in endowments, which lost 20 percent of their value (about $185 million).2 Endowment fund losses of similar proportions were seen at universities all across the country.

Usher and Dunn (2009) predicted that the economic downturn in Canada would present a number of challenges to post-secondary institutions, including decreased revenue combined with increased costs, increasing enrolments, and increasing costs associated with student financial assistance. These predictions paint a bleak picture for students competing to be enrolled in programs at post-secondary institutions, with a greater reliance on financial aid and questionable employment prospects upon graduation. Usher and Dunn (2009) indicate that economic recessions historically result in increased post-secondary enrolment due to limited employment opportunities in a difficult economy. Many such students favour short-term courses, like master’s degrees and college programs. Usher and Dunn (2009) predict that master’s-level programs will be characterized not by the seminar style of learning, but larger lecture-style arrangements that will be used to accommodate increasing class sizes.

Increasing tuition fees may be a necessary source of revenue for universities (Usher and Dunn 2009) as rates of federal and provincial funding for post-secondary institutions decreases. The Canadian Federation of Students (2008) reported that tuition comprised about 21 percent of university revenue in 1995, while it is currently around 32 percent.

Neoliberalism in Canadian Education

Many researchers argue that there has been a marked shift in the orientations of students toward education in the last generation, which is largely due to the increasing popularity of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the ideological belief in the reduction of public spending and the promotion of reliance on private enterprise within a global economy. This term comes from the classical definition of liberalism originating with the work of Adam Smith. Neoliberalism should not be confused with political liberalism, which generally reflects a progressive approach to social and fiscal policy that focuses on the community and is more closely related to social democracy or socialism. In terms of how neoliberal ideas relate to education, fiscally conservative governments will often cut funding to education, which results in increases to tuition fees.

Davidson-Harden et al. (2009) argue that neoliberal social policy started in Canada in the late 1990s—a bit later than in England and the United States—with massive cuts in federal transfers to the provinces by the federal Liberal Party, rationalized as part of a larger-scale deficit reduction program. These budget cuts affected many social welfare programs across the country and were framed as an attempt to “trim” the welfare state. These cuts in federal transfers resulted in reduced funding to all levels of education.

Neoliberal Practices in K–12 Education

In terms of K–12 education in Canada, some notable markers of neoliberalism have already been discussed in previous chapters. For example, in Chapter 4, the creation of “charter” schools in Alberta under the fiscally conservative Ralph Klein government of the 1990s was rationalized as a way to provide “choice” and “alternatives” to parents in terms of public education. It was also suggested that such alternatives put pressure on public schools to perform better so that they can still be seen as attractive to prospective students’ parents. The public funding of private education, which was also discussed in Chapter 4, and which varies from province to province, is also indicative of this understanding of education as a product that can be subject to comparison shopping.

As described in Chapter 5, many provinces are relying on standardized testing of children. Rezai-Rashti (2009) notes that standardized testing and evaluation systems were brought into Ontario during the Premier Mike Harris years, which were characterized by massive structural changes in governance, curriculum, and evaluation procedures. The structural changes were argued to reduce “waste,” while the evaluation and curriculum changes were adopted to increase accountability of teachers and to have precise records of students’ achievement.

Weiner (2003) indicates that public schools are increasingly relying on fundraising in order to meet the gaps left by provincial funding cuts. In affluent neighbourhoods, fundraising by students and parents can be quite successful and garner substantial donations, but schools in economically disadvantaged areas do not have this kind of success in fundraising initiatives. Davidson-Harden et al. (2009) suggest that this increased reliance on fundraising in K–12 is indicative of privatization in public schooling. People for Education (2011), an advocacy group for Ontario public schooling, found in a recent survey of parents of students in public schools and their principals that nearly all public schools in Ontario were involved in some form of fundraising that, per school, funds raised by such efforts varied from zero dollars to $275 000. Additionally, over two-thirds of secondary schools were found to charge fees for courses. New guidelines from the Ontario Ministry of Education are expanding allowable fundraising efforts to enable outdoor structures, renovations to auditoriums and science labs, upgrades to sports facilities, and investments in technology (Ontario Ministry of Education 2011). Such additional allowances on the spectrum of targets for fundraising suggest that the gap between the richer and poorer schools will expand further (People for Education 2011).

For-profit offshore schools were also discussed in Chapter 4 and can be conceptualized as another attempt to “sell” education. Offshore schools are, at the time of writing, an educational product that is permitted only by the Government of British Columbia in the form of “School District Business Companies” since 2002—when the idea was marketed to school boards as an entrepreneurial opportunity to make money abroad.3 Fifteen school boards acted on this opportunity, resulting in offshore schools around the world, but mostly in Asia.

Another example of the private market creeping into K–12 public education is illustrated in the creation of publicprivate partnerships, also known as P3s. P3s refer to contracts between the public and private sectors in which skills or investments are made by the private sector into a good that will be offered to the public. The private sector will recoup its investment through various means. For example, a private company may build a structure to be used by a school and then rent that property to the school. Perhaps the most “infamous” case of P3 schools occurred in the 1990s in Nova Scotia, when the Liberal government declared in 1997 that all new schools would be P3 schools—in other words, private companies would be used to build the schools and private companies would retain ownership over the buildings and the province would lease the buildings. A new Conservative government took office in 1999 and investigated the premises behind the new P3 decision. An auditor found that the proposed 38 schools that had been built the P3 way actually ended up costing the province $32 million more than if they had been built by the province. Additionally, the costs of repairs and upgrades to the leased buildings are often the responsibility of the public partner—not the private partner. After a lease of the property expires (typically 25–30 years), the province has the option to buy the building back from the private holder, thus assuming ownership of a 25- to 30-year-old building. P3s have been experimented with in many provinces, with varying degrees of success.

The final, and perhaps most obvious, example of neoliberal practices in K–12 education is advertising in schools. Like fundraising efforts, schools and school boards are frequently seeking additional ways to increase revenue to support programs and equipment that government funding does not cover. In a study of commercialism in Canadian public schools, the Canadian Federation of Teachers (Froese-Germain 2005) found that 28 percent of elementary schools reported advertising for corporations or businesses in or on the school. The respective figure for secondary schools was nearly doubled at 54 percent. According to results, “[m]ost advertising in elementary schools was found on school supplies (11.4%) and in hallways, cafeterias and other school areas (11.1%). In secondary schools, most advertising was found in school areas such as halls and cafeterias (31.5%) and to a lesser extent on school supplies (12.2%) and team uniforms (8.1%)” (Froese-Germain 2005:5). The most frequent corporate advertisers were identified as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. In addition to advertising, many schools were reported to have “exclusive contracts” with either Coke or Pepsi such that only one of these brands would be sold on school property. Advertising in schools is a particularly contentious issue because while it may be a source of much-needed funding, critics argue that it is inappropriate to advertise products to children who are a captive audience inside an institution of learning. Froese-Germain (2005) states that there are at least three concerns that they have about advertising in schools. The first is that supporting unhealthy choices like sugary soft drinks may have health impacts on students, such as putting them at a higher risk of diabetes and promoting childhood obesity. The second reason is about equity—not all schools will be able to attract the same calibre and number of corporate sponsors, giving those schools that are already desirable to advertisers an even greater advantage. The final concern is one that questions the ethics of allowing corporate advertising in schools in the respect that the lessons that they learn in schools about good health and citizenship may be compromised by the very presence of corporate messages in the school corridors.

Neoliberal Practices in Post-Secondary Education

In terms of post-secondary education, there are also many indicators of neoliberal policy implicit in new trends on campuses. The most obvious shift in recent years is the decrease of government funding to post-secondary education and the increased reliance on tuition fees as a source of revenue, which is discussed elsewhere in this chapter. Another effect of neoliberalism, however, is the movement of provinces to approve the development of private, for-profit universities. The law permitting the establishment of private universities was passed in Ontario in 2002 (Postsecondary Student Opportunity Act), in British Columbia in 1985 (first the Trinity Western University Act in 1985, then the Sea to Sky University Act for Quest University in 2002),4 in New Brunswick in 2001 (Degree Granting Act), and most recently in Saskatchewan in 2012 (Saskatchewan’s Degree Authorization Act).5

Metcalfe (2010) argues that although Canadian governments have traditionally distanced themselves from outrightly favouring high-technology programs and promoting partnerships with industry (at least more so than their counterparts in other English-speaking countries), this is becoming more favoured as a source of revenue. The term academic capitalism has been used to describe national-level policies that favour industrial research collaborations, while often undertaken at the cost of revenues directed toward undergraduate education (Slaughter and Leslie 1997). Such targeted partnerships with industry are regarded by some Canadian professors as a threat to academic autonomy (Newson and Polster 2008) because the implications of such alliances will require researchers to pursue topics that are of interest only to businesses, marginalizing many of the research topics that are of interest (and concern) to faculty members. As pointed out by Metcalfe (2010), however, other researchers such as Pries and Guild (2007) are far more enthusiastic about the increasing role of commercialization within the university, understanding them as economically viable opportunities for learning. In addition to industry-funded research in the university, there has also been a noticeable increase in the presence of corporate members on university governance boards.

For example, the board of governors at the University of Calgary in the academic year 2011–2012 included the vice-president and chief financial officer of Shaw Communications and the former vice chair of Enbridge,6 while the board of governors in the same academic year at University of New Brunswick included the chair of BMO Asset Management and the former vice-president of finance for NB Power.7 Table 9.1 provides a list of corporate members of boards of government for a selection of Canadian universities in the academic year 2011–2012. Research by Carroll and Beaton (2000) has found that members of boards of governors at Canadian universities are increasingly from high-tech industry, signalling more reliance on technology-intensive production in global markets and neoliberal approaches to higher education that value such linkages between industry and universities.

Education researchers and commentators have also argued that another outcome of neoliberalism is that the fundamental purpose of higher education has also undergone an important (and undesirable) shift from education to training (Côté and Allahar 2011; Keeney 2007). The objective of education, as understood from a traditional “liberal education” perspective, is to cultivate the mind of individuals. The neoliberal agenda, however, has shifted this orientation of creating well-informed citizens to a framework of training students for jobs, which focuses on developing a narrow range of skills or specialization in particular tasks. Côté and Allahar explain that “one can only be educated in the liberal arts and sciences: education and training are not inimical to one another; they merely speak to different moments in the complex process of teaching, learning, and sharing information” (2011:15). This shift from universities providing a liberal education to a focus on marketable skills and training is referred to as vocationalism.

Table 9.1 Corporate Board Members at Selected Universities across Canada, 2011-2012

UBC University of Calgary Queen’s University Dalhousie University McMaster University
Western Corporate Enterprises Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP Keystone Property Management Inc Southwest Properties Research in Motion (RIM)
Pushor Mitchell Enbridge Granite Microsystems Doctors Nova Scotia CIBC
Salient Group Salman Partners Black and Associates Stewart McKelvey Trivaris
Timber West Forest Corp Western Financial Group Bell Canada Enterprises Canada Direct Trading Ltd. Westbury International
Royal Bank River Ridge Financial Management McInnes Cooper Gowlings Hamilton
Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan Bennett Jones LLP Intelivote Systems Inc. OMERS
Russel Metals Age Care Investments Ltd. Halifax International Airport Authority Craig Wireless Systems
Borden Ladner Gervais Canadian Energy Pipeline Association M. Fares Group Xerox Canada
Canfor Shaw Communications Dofasco

Evidence of vocationalism can be observed in the increased offering of diplomas and certificates (rather than degrees) in various fields that presumably signal training in a particular set of skills. Applied degrees are also fairly new arrivals to the university scene, with an “explosion of activity” around the creation of such degrees in Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta (Dunlop 2004). Such degrees are different from the baccalaureate degrees traditionally awarded at universities and are similar in training to what used to be only conventionally available at community colleges (Dunlop 2004)—specific training in skills that are meant to lead directly to jobs. Community colleges in the same provinces also were given the authority to award baccalaureate degrees between the early 1990s and 2000, with New Brunswick and Manitoba following suit in 2008 and 2009, respectively (Jones 2009). Such changes in provincial legislation were often rationalized by provincial leaders as a way of making post-secondary education more market driven by increasing post-secondary competition and emphasizing individual choice (Skolnik 2008). It is also interesting to note that vocationalism of universities is also highly associated with the lessening prestige and emphasis placed on actual vocational training in the skilled trades at the secondary level, as discussed in Chapter 8 (Taylor 2005, 2010). Table 9.2 summarizes the different indicators of neoliberalism in Canadian education.

Table 9.2 Indicators of Neoliberalism in Canadian Education

K-12 Post-secondary
Decreased provincial funding Decreased federal transfers
Increase in standardized testing Increased tuition
Increase in private education Increased reliance on part-time and contract faculty
Increase in alternative to public school (e.g., charter schools) Increase in private universities
Increased reliance on fundraising by schools Branding and marketing of post-secondary institutions domestically and abroad
Advertising in schools Increase in corporate partnerships
High fees for international students Increase in corporate membership to university governance
Offshore, for-profit schools Increased reliance on international students as a source of revenue
P3 initiatives (public-private partnerships) Vocationalism and “applied” degrees

There is a great deal of controversy around the place of applied degrees, certificates, and diplomas within the university system. Traditionally, universities were places of “higher learning” and sites of liberal education, while colleges were places where students went for job training. Increasingly, however, this distinction is being blurred. Dunlop (2004) suggests that because many university graduates went on to “top up” their degrees with training at colleges after graduation, the university has found an opportunity to fulfill a market need. Others, such as Côté and Allahar (2011), find fundamental intellectual flaws in confusing the original mandates of universities and colleges:

. . . to dismiss this distinction and embrace the confusion between education and training is analogous to confusing an apple with an orange. Both apples and oranges are good in their right. But to shift a liberal education system to a vocational one, and then claim the benefits of the liberal education for pseudo-vocational training is not only mistaken, it is dishonest. If we continue to delude ourselves about this, not only will the system degrade further, but also the mixed system we are developing will diminish further the overall legitimacy of the system in the eyes of stakeholders who count on the quality of liberal arts and sciences graduates and the roles for which they are ostensibly certified. (Cote and Allahar 2011:103)

Students as Consumers?

Under neoliberalism, education is seen as a means toward getting a job at an increasing rate of tuition. Education then becomes reframed as a product that is purchased rather than a public good to which all citizens should have access. This has led to a view that students are “consumers” in post-secondary institutions, trying to get undergraduate degrees that are increasingly regarded as the minimum education required to enter the corporate world. As argued by Côté and Allahar (2007), the university in particular has shifted from a place of “elite education” to that of mass education. Participation rates in post-secondary education have increased greatly over the past 20 years, as detailed in Chapter 8. The decreasing per-student amount that is government-funded and the increased number of students has forced post-secondary institutions to find other sources of revenue, including increased tuition fees. Students are more likely now than in the past to perceive a university degree as the necessary minimum credential for getting a good job—a credential that comes with an increasingly hefty price tag. See Box 9.1 for a discussion of universities competing for students.

This view of students as consumers who must be satisfied with the product they have purchased stands in stark contrast to traditional models where teachers and professors are the authority figures in charge of the learning. Such orientations can (and do) result in a clash between teaching staff and students. Newson (2004:231), for example, argues that students who view themselves as consumers may argue that they should not have to participate in class (showing up should be enough) and that their tuition entitles them to a “decent” grade. Wellen (2005) argues that the frustrated responses of teaching staff can play themselves out in the form of “arrogance and condescension,” or professors may instead change the course style and delivery to one that is more entertaining and practical, thereby marginalizing academic values while prioritizing ones that will appease students. This is particularly poignant given that student evaluations of teaching are often used as part of the tenure and promotion process of professors (Lindahl and Unger 2010). Junior faculty members are more likely to feel pressured to please their students, even at the cost of their course content.

Box 9.1 – Universities Competing for Students

The annual rankings of universities in Maclean’s magazine has been a popular benchmark by which to judge universities since they were launched in 1991. The rankings are broken down into a variety of areas, including classes, student–teacher ratio, grants and awards received by faculty members, resources, student support, library facilities, and overall reputation. The ranking exercise has not been welcomed by all university administrators, who have argued that past ranking methodologies are flawed. In 2006, 25 Canadian universities refused to participate in providing Maclean’s with the data they requested to do the rankings. Such universities included the University of Alberta, Dalhousie, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Toronto (Samarasekera 2007). Maclean’s has bypassed this obstacle in successive years by not requiring the universities to provide data, instead getting it from public sources, such as Statistics Canada and university websites.

But how important are these rankings? Do they influence students’ decisions when selecting a university? Mueller and Rockerbie (2005) find that a university’s Maclean’s ranking can significantly impact upon the number of applications that it receives. In terms of how the universities themselves respond, the evidence is less clear.

Senior administrators at UBC were very concerned about their Maclean’s ranking on class size in 2003 and they “pressured faculty members to manipulate course enrolments and even cap class sizes in an effort to improve the school’s standing in the Maclean’s ranking—despite warnings from professors that this could actually hurt students. Internal documents revealed that the administration suggested using sessionals to teach classes, lying to students about room capacity even if it meant denying students the opportunity to major in a discipline or graduate on time. UBC actually designed an enrolment software program to help department chairs cap enrolment at the numbers set by Maclean’s” (McMurtry 2004:20).8

Another way that universities are competing for students is through branding. Branding refers to the process of creating a public image that is advertised and associated with a specific product or service. Varsity clothing lines are a traditional style of higher education branding, but in more recent years, full-blown ad campaigns for universities have been rolled out, ranging from movie trailers, billboards, and ads on public transportation, to banner ads on websites and direct marketing. Many larger universities in Canada spend $1 million or more on advertising per year.9 It is difficult to assess how successful such ad campaigns are, and critics argue that such large expenditures on advertising are drawing precious resources away from current students. This, in turn, creates a vicious circle of having to recruit even more students to fill this revenue gap.

While the figures for Canada are not easily aggregated, in the United States, the amount of money spent on marketing of universities and colleges went up by 50 percent between 2000 and 2008 (Hearn 2010). Hearn argues that university branding campaigns “replace traditional mottos with pithy slogans. Some of these include ‘A Legacy of Leading’ (University of Idaho); ‘Redefine the Possible’ (York University); ‘Inspiring Minds’ (Dalhousie University); ‘Inspiring Innovation and Discovery’ (McMaster University); ‘Open Minds, Creating Futures’ (Ohio Dominican University); ‘Grasp the Forces Driving the Change’ (Stanford University); ‘Knowledge to Go Places’ (Colorado State University); ‘Investing in Knowledge’ (University of Liverpool); and ‘Wisdom. Applied.’” (Ryerson University)” (2010:210). A recent rebranding of the motto of Trent University from “Canada’s outstanding small university” to “The world belongs to those who understand it” resulted in a backlash from some students who regarded the new slogan as elitist. The new slogan was also marketed just before tuition hikes, resulting in one sign being vandalized to read “The world belongs to those who can afford it.”10

Globalization and Internationalization

In a previous chapter, globalization was defined as the increasing economic, technological, cultural, and migratory linkages of countries throughout the world.

The discourse of globalization favours the view that knowledge and knowledge workers will make positive contributions to the economy and that education is the vehicle by which such gains will be made. Education, however, is also becoming a lucrative business opportunity for many countries. The growth of private education, offshore education, and other for-profit education services has been noted by scholars of global education (Heyneman 2001) as well as elsewhere in this book. See Box 9.2 for a discussion of how the European Union member states are using globalization strategies in their restructuring of tertiary education.

Box 9.2 – The Bologna Declaration

The Bologna declaration is an example of a globalization strategy for education of residents of the European Union member states. In 1999, a declaration was made by EU leaders to increase the comparability of post-secondary education and credentials across Europe. These policies were adopted in order to increase the mobility, employability, and competitiveness of higher education in the European Union (Bologna Declaration 1999). Reforms at the national level are envisaged to promote mobility for students and academic workers within the European Union (Pechar 2007), thereby creating more fluidity between national systems and bypassing traditional barriers of fragmentation between education systems in the individual member states. Such a vision for large-scale mobility is thought to be largely influenced by the model in the United States (Pechar 2007). One major outcome of this agreement is rooted in the very organization of degrees in member states; restructuring to the Bologna standards requires institutions to adopt the “Anglo-Saxon” arrangement in which an undergraduate degree is followed by a master’s degree and then a doctorate. Prior to this, the systems in each member country had been a “mishmash” of different degree structures, often with first degrees equivalent to master’s degrees which required six to seven years of study (Pechar 2007). Under the Bologna declaration, the first “cycle” (undergraduate) lasts three years at minimum, although no length is set for the second cycle (master’s). Additionally, the comparability of national systems is further facilitated by the European Credit Transfer System, which permits students to accumulate credits while transferring to universities in different member states, further promoting European mobility of students.

In the