When Johnny can’t read, we all suffer

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Some in New Brunswick (mostly politicians) will characterize rising or stable grade school enrolments in the province’s urban south in the vaguely encouraging ways one does when happy appearances mask troubling truths.

Is it heartening that, in a jurisdiction where outmigration among the young threatens to rend the social and economic fabric, classroom head counts are up, especially in the Francophone system?

Do we care that they come at the expense of the rural north, where communities are steadily emptying? At least, the number of bums in seats from Moncton to Fredericton to Saint John, is increasing. That ought to count for something. Oughtn’t it?

Of course, apart from this statistical shuffling of human capital from one region of the province to the other, what matters most is the education of these fresh-faced scholars during their academic sojourn. And in this regard, alone, no one in New Brunswick has cause for any degree of sanguinity.

The news from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) most recent study on literacy, numeracy and skills is in. And, for New Brunswick, the news is not good. In fact, it’s plain awful.

Though Canada, overall, scored just above the OECD mean for 22 countries in reading ability (and just below in problem solving), New Brunswick ranked below in both categories. What’s more, the think tank observes a widening gap between those who can and those who cannot read in this country:

“Canada has a higher proportion of its population at the highest and lowest levels in literacy. Fourteen percent of Canadians score at Level 4 or 5, meaning that they can undertake tasks that involve integrating information across multiple dense texts and reasoning by inference. This places Canada above the OECD average of 12 per cent, along with Japan (23 per cent), Finland (22 per cent), the Netherlands (19 per cent), Australia (17 per cent), and Sweden (16 per cent).

“At the other end of the scale, 17 per cent of Canadians score at Level 1 or below. Of these, 13 per cent score at Level 1: These individuals have skills that enable them to undertake tasks of limited complexity, such as locating single pieces of information in short texts in the absence of other distracting information. The remaining 4 per cent, categorized as ‘below Level 1,’ do not command these skills. They demonstrate only basic vocabulary, as well as the ability to read brief texts on familiar topics to locate a single piece of specific information. The OECD average for Level 1 or below is 15 per cent.”

As New Brunswick hovers near the bottom of the Canadian results, the literacy gap in this province is, presumably, more pronounced than in many other parts of the country.

All of which has rung the alarm bell for educators and literacy workers here.

“We continue to have over 50 per cent of the New Brunswick population below a Level 3 literacy level, which we consider to be a high school equivalency,” the Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick’s Natasha Bozek told the Telegraph-Journal on Tuesday.

Added Patrick Lacroix of Elementary Literacy Inc. in the same article, “There is a huge amount of work ahead of us. Yes, the schools are making a lot of effort focused on literacy. But it takes the community to stress the importance of tackling the problem and to get as many people as possible involved in this movement for change.”

He’s right. The figurative village that raises the child must also teach him how to read and do math both in and out of the classroom. This requires a cultural shift in attitudes about learning – a basic acknowledgement that these hard skills are simply and permanently fundamental to a prosperous economy and effective labour force.

Is it a coincidence that nations, such as Japan and Finland, which boast comparatively high literacy and numeracy rates are also among the world’s most innovative (if not always the most economically robust).

In the end, it’s not the number of heads in New Brunswick schools that matter.

It’s what’s in them.

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