The kids are all right, but we could be doing better

Posted on January 13, 2011 in Education Debates

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Published Jan. 11, 2011.   By Brian MacLeod

Wasn’t it nice to learn back in December that Canada’s 15-yearolds ranked sixth in the world in overall learning? After years of being told we were in trouble — that the rest of the world is beating us — it turns out we’re doing OK. We were behind only Shanghai, South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Now, a report by the C.D. Howe Institute is sounding the alarm about the “unacceptably high” drop-out rate among some demographic groups. What’s a country to do? The problem areas aren’t surprising and resources need to be focused appropriately.

Late last year The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released its results for its Program for International Student Assessment. It measures the performance 15-year-old students in 65 countries every three years. Canadian students placed eighth in math, seventh in science and fifth in reading. We bested the United States, Sweden, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

That means our efforts in education — through at-risk programs and early childhood initiatives — are paying off. We’re not getting ahead, but we’re not falling behind, either. But now comes the C.D. Howe Institute’s warning that dropout rates for boys, students in poverty and aboriginals, are too high.

And they are. Still, this must be measured against the overall result. The drop-out rate in 2009/10 was 8.5%, down from 16.6% in 1990/91.

Is this success or failure? It’s indeed a success. The Institute notes that in 2008, only 8.1% of 25-34 year olds didn’t have a high-school diploma, which placed us sixth in the OECD.

The Institute is right to point out problem areas. Five boys are now dropping out for every three girls. The drop-out rate also remains higher among what the Institute calls marginal cultural groups — immigrant communities, rural students and aboriginals. As of 2008, up to half of on-reserve adults aged 25-34 did not have a high-school diploma, while that number was less than 30% for off-reserve students, the Institute’s study shows.

The report makes four recommendations: Improved early childhood educations; greater emphasis on sports and tutoring (because they help to engage at-risk students); a focus on aboriginal students’ education (rather than the current focus on treaty rights); and better measurement of outcomes and demographics, which, lamentably, will be damaged by the elimination of the long-form census.

These are reasonable initiatives. Canada has done fairly well by the majority of students. It’s time to help out the rest

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