Canada loses ground on literacy
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Literacy advocates demoralized by global survey that shows Canada regressing.
Dec 17 2013. By: Carol Goar Star Columnist
The word “depressing” pops up three times on the first page of the Toronto Dominion Bank’s latestreport on Canadian literacy. Troubling, worrying, alarming and abysmal also figure prominently in the nine-page analysis.
What prompted this unbanker-like outpouring from TD Economics was a survey of essential skills by the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) ranking 24 industrial countries on basic literacy and numeracy. Canada’s literacy score was a mediocre 11th. Its numeracy score was a below-average 4th. The most disheartening thing of all was that both scores had dropped since the OECD’s last survey in 2003.
“I waited 10 years for the new numbers and I was really hoping we would see progress,” said Craig Alexander, the bank’s chief economist. “It turns out we are losing ground. We desperately need to do better.”
Seven years ago, the bank issued a national call for action, urging policy-makers and corporate leaders to make literacy a national priority. “It is critical that everyone understands the writing is on the wall,” the bank’s deputy chairman, Frank McKenna, said at the time. “Improving literacy outcomes must be a national priority.”
With a rare singleness of purpose, Ottawa and the provinces responded. They invested money and effort in raising literacy levels. The private sector likewise rallied to the cause.
Net impact: Less than zero.
The national score was weighed down by the performances of two groups: immigrants and the Aboriginal Peoples. To economists, this is a red flag. They are the two fastest-growing segments of the workforce.
There was one bright spot in the survey. Canada outperformed most of its peers in “problem solving in a technology rich environment.”
“The need to right this ship is more pressing than ever,” Alexander said. “Without getting the basics right, Canadians cannot build the more advanced skills the economy and the labour force require.”
He can’t explain why Canada is doing so badly. He doesn’t think the problem is underfunding (except in aboriginal schools) or a lack of commitment. Both levels of government maintained their literacy spending through the recession and the subsequent austerity drive, he points out. A “plethora” of programs exists, within government and in the non-profit sector. Many are targeted toward high-risk groups.
“That said, the numbers literally speak for themselves. Canada needs to channel its resources toward essential skills development more effectively.”
First, policy-makers and educators will have to figure out what they’ve been doing wrong. The OECD, assisted by StatsCan researchers, is about to embark on six follow-up studies which will dive deeper into the results. That may provide clues.
But numbers won’t tell the whole story. Rather than wait, Ottawa and the provinces need to ask some searching questions right now:
- Is Canada’s failure to implement a national early learning program a factor in its stalled progress? All of the high-scoring countries have well-established preschool programs.
- Do primary and secondary curriculums and teaching methods need rethinking? Canada’s most serious underperformance occurs between the ages of 15 and 24.
- Are governments concentrating too heavily on post-secondary education at the expense of basic skills?
- Is Canada’s rigid pedagogic system a barrier to people who need help with reading, writing and arithmetic?
- Could local volunteers in libraries and community centres do a better job of reaching marginalized Canadians?
- What are the leading provinces (Alberta and P.E.I. in literacy; Alberta, B.C. and Ontario in numeracy) doing right?
For Alexander this issue has become personal. He believes so firmly that literacy and numeracy are the keys to a strong economy and a healthy society that he volunteers with literacy groups, speaks out on the issue and serves on the boards of both ABC Literacy Canada and Frontier College.
Under his leadership, the bank’s 15-member economics team has produced at least one literacy report a year (two this year). TD has invested $30 million in literacy initiatives since 2000 — $1.3 million this year alone.
“TD will continue to support the literacy field and personally I will continue to be a volunteer in supporting this cause,” Alexander vowed.
As an economist, he is bewildered by Canada’s poor return on investment. As an advocate, he is determined to keep trying.
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