Tag Archives: John Manley

Building a skilled workforce begins with early education

 

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When an organization dedicated to fluffing the pillows of the country’s most pampered calls for a trans-Canada strategy for improving public education and skills training for the comparably disadvantaged, then, gentle reader, you know the worm has turned.

The barbarian one-percenters have crashed the gates that keep the remaining 99 per cent effectively penned and let slipped the dogs of democracy.     

The Canadian Council of Chief Executives is not normally prone to outbreaks of egalitarianism, but it is doing a fair job of public scolding on behalf of the working stiff these days, as its president and CEO John Manley (he of former federal, Liberal government fame) ably demonstrated in a statement earlier this week.

“As Canada’s economy evolves and grows, employers face an increasing need for highly skilled and qualified workers,” he wrote. “What is required is a broad national effort to strengthen our country’s education and training systems. Canada’s business leaders encourage the federal, provincial and territorial governments to find creative solutions to the labour market challenges that confront employers, employees, students and future generations.”

Indeed, in places, Mr. Manley sounded almost quaintly optimistic: “We urge all levels of government to work together to expand and align our country’s labour-market information systems in ways that will help more people find rewarding and fulfilling careers. Equally important is the need to harmonize apprenticeship programs, a key step in building a more balanced, highly qualified Canadian workforce.

“To ensure a high quality of life for all citizens, it’s time for a new approach and an honest conversation about what’s working and what isn’t working in Canadian education and skills training.”

He’s not wrong, of course. But neither is he original. For such a putatively great country, Canada’s various education systems and skills development programs (which are, incidentally, almost accidentally coincidental) are a national disgrace. Everybody knows it; nobody does anything about it.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has even made a institutional project of clucking its tongue over this country’s incomprehensible approach to education. “In 2010, only one per cent of three year-olds and 48 per cent of four year-olds were enrolled in early childhood education programmes (OECD average in 2011: 67 per cent and 82 per cent, respectively),” it recently reported.

That’s only one finding of many that leads to the inescapable conclusion that almost everybody else in the developed world does a better job educating its young people. Certainly, Sweden does.

“The system of pre-school education is outstanding: (a) in its fidelity to societal values and in its attendant commitment to and respect for children; (b) in its systemic approach while respecting programmatic integrity and diversity; and (c) in its respect for teachers, parents, and the public,” the OECD declares in one of its frequent country reports.  

Then, there’s Finland, about which the OECD observes: “The early childhood education workforce has several strengths, such as a high qualification level of staff with teaching responsibilities, advanced professional development opportunities and favourable working environments. 

“Staff with teaching responsibilities are well educated and trained with high initial qualification requirements. There is broad provision of initial education, with full-time and parttime programmes provided publicly and privately. Professional development is mandatory for all staff; and training costs are shared between individual staff members, the government and employers. Working conditions in terms of staff-child ratio are among the best of OECD countries.”

Note the emphasis on “early childhood education” as opposed to primary, secondary or post-secondary schooling. That’s because almost everywhere in the OECD, except Canada, a national strategy exists to inform public policy on pre-school. Take care of that, in a structured and play-based fashion, and all the research says the rest takes care of itself. 

Some programs are are better than others, of course, but few countries limp along utterly devoid of a plan, let alone a system, for their children.

Mr. Manley and his privileged ilk are right to sound the alarm. 

But if they want real results, they ought to marshall whatever influence they possess and entreat this country’s political class to establish a trans-Canada network of early childhood education centers that integrate seamlessly into existing public school systems.  

That’s how you begin to build a truly skilled, job-ready workforce.

 

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Stupid is what stupid does

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John Manley, the former federal cabinet minister and current president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, does not overstate the problem of falling math scores in this country by likening it to a national emergency.

In fact, he’s utterly correct when he tells The Globe and Mail, “we need skills, we need knowledge-workers to really improve our prosperity and build our society (because) having the skills becomes a very important element to attracting investment and creating jobs.”

But apart from sounding the alarm bell (again), there’s not much he or anyone else is doing about what is clearly becoming a structurally deficient system of public education – one that routinely emphasizes social integration over actual learning.

These days, schools are virtual trauma centers. Teachers are overwhelmed patching up kids who are injured by exposure to all the rank perfidies this linked-in, hooked-up, texting, sexting world has to offer, 24 hours a day, every day. They’re too busy wondering whether little Johnny had a bagel or bupkis for breakfast.

The stark fact is that, relative to their peers in other developed countries, Canadian children are falling behind in every subject that matters to a so-called knowledge-loving global marketplace, especially math.

The most recent results are in and they are not encouraging. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Canadian 15-year-olds plunged to 13th place, overall, in the global rankings of math proficiency. That was down from 10th in 2009 and seventh in 2006. If this trend holds up, three years from now, Vanuatu will be wiping the floor with us.

Why is this troubling?

“Nearly all adults, not just those with technical or scientific careers, now need to have adequate proficiency in mathematics – as well as reading and science – for personal fulfillment, employment and full participation in society,” the PISA executive summary states. “Literacy in mathematics . . .is not an attribute that an individual has or does not have; rather, it is a skill that can be acquired and used, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout a lifetime.”

Despite these rather obvious facts, however, we continue to enlist teachers with liberal arts backgrounds to instruct their charges on functions, fractions and decimals, because, we have been told, actual expertise scares kids silly. Indeed, the problem, many experts say, is cultural.

“Parents with school-aged children will be familiar with the rhetoric surrounding math education today,” observed Anna Stokke, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Winnipeg, in a piece she penned for The Globe in October. (The good professor is also co-founder of the non-profit organization Archimedes Math Schools and of WISE Math).

“Children are to discover their own techniques, pencil and paper math and extended practice are kept at a minimum and conventional math techniques are discouraged in favour of using objects like blocks and fraction strips. Teachers are told to encourage children to create their own math questions instead of assigning prescribed problems. It is argued that children will then feel successful even if their math skills are lacking. Much time is devoted to projects intended to keep children engaged in math, such as building gardens or creating posters that list examples of uses of math. Parents are told that these teaching methods have been well researched and will benefit their children in the long run.”

That’s the theory, at any rate. But if this approach works, then why, asks Prof. Stokke “are parents across Canada concerned about their children being unable to carry out the simplest mathematical calculations? Why are business owners, tradespeople, university and college professors and scientists concerned about the lack of skills in high school graduates? Why could only 28 per cent of eighth graders in one of our highest performing province – Alberta – correctly subtract two simple fractions on the 2011 international TIMSS exam, compared with 86 per cent in Korea?”

John Manley shrewdly alludes to Canada’s natural resource sector as key to the country’s competitiveness. It “pays the rent,” he says, “but that just keeps us in the house.”

What will keep us in the global game of productivity and innovation are strategic investments in that other, far more necessary, natural resource: the human intellect.

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