Put education focus on ABC not PhD
TheStar.com – Opinion – Put education focus on ABC not PhD
February 09, 2009. Carol Goar
Before Premier Dalton McGuinty pours billions of dollars into post-secondary education in his quest to transform Ontario into a “creativity-driven” powerhouse, there is a low-cost possibility he might want to consider.
Studies have repeatedly shown that the single most effective thing a government can do to strengthen the economy is invest in basic literacy.
Roughly 5 million Ontarians don’t have the literacy skills to cope with the demands of a typical workplace. They have trouble understanding the manual for a new piece of equipment, navigating the Internet or writing a straightforward report.
Approximately 2 million Ontarians are truly illiterate. They can’t read the label on a pill bottle, fill out a job application or decipher a bus schedule.
Using either standard, a large chunk of the population is shut out of the future McGuinty envisions. These people are neither stupid nor lazy, but they’re trapped in menial jobs, if they’re working at all.
They don’t need university degrees. They wouldn’t even qualify for vocational training. They need night-school classes, lunchroom courses and neighbourhood reading programs.
Their children need teachers who can turn them on to books, make up for lost time and provide extra help if necessary.
None of this would be terribly expensive. Yet literacy is seldom mentioned in budgets or economic blueprints.
That is not to say Ontario is doing nothing. The province does have educators, school board officials and consultants who design and deliver literacy programs. But their efforts are fragmented and underfunded.
Nor is it any criticism of advocacy groups such as the ABC Canada Literacy Foundation, the Movement for Canadian Literacy and Frontier College, which work tirelessly to promote their cause. But they can’t compete with university presidents and prominent economic theorists.
To complicate matters, literacy is an area of split jurisdiction. Ottawa (which has chopped literacy funding by $17.7 million) pays for adult learning. Queen’s Park handles literacy up to age 16.
The public is, by and large, disengaged. Most Ontarians have no idea how many of their fellow citizens struggle with everyday tasks. When told the number, they are skeptical. They fail to see any connection between upgrading literacy and bolstering the economy. Statistics don’t sway them.
But every economist who takes a hard look at the issue finds that investing in literacy pays big returns.
The C.D. Howe Institute, a business-funded think-tank, commissioned a study in 2005 to ascertain whether Canada was investing enough in skills.
Its authors, Jean-François Tremblay and Serge Coulombe of the University of Ottawa, concluded that Canada does have a good education system with a high level of public funding. But it doesn’t score well in international literacy rankings.
Their research showed that investing in adult learning “at the bottom end of the economic spectrum” would have a much larger payoff than putting more tax dollars into post-secondary education.
Two years later, Craig Alexander, deputy chief economist of TD Bank Financial Group, examined the same issue.
He likewise concluded that literacy training – for both young people and adults – was the best investment Canada could make.
“Canadians should be worried about the state of literacy,” Alexander wrote. “They should be taking a stand since policy-makers generally do not lead. They follow public opinion.”
A handful of companies, including TD Bank, Honda and Starbucks, have become literacy champions. Several private foundations have also played a leading role.
But governments seem to prefer splashier economic prescriptions.
McGuinty likes to think of himself as the “education premier.” He might want to add “literacy premier” to his job title.
Millions of Ontarians, whose creativity is being wasted, would thank him.