Tag Archives: OECD

Building a skilled workforce begins with early education



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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To reduce poverty, improve education



Any political regime, regardless of ideological bent, that claims the high ground in the perennial war on poverty rallies the faithful with empty rhetoric and promises it knows it can’t possibly keep.

So it was last week when New Brunswick’s Conservative government laid out a plan to reduce penury in the province – one that looked very much like a version its predecessors in Shawn Graham’s Liberal administration introduced five years ago. 

How did that one work out for us?

“New Brunswickers want to know the results of the last plan,” Grit MLA Don Arsenault observed earlier this week. “Where do we stand now in making sure that we are heading in the right direction? The government is hiding those numbers, hiding those results, because we are just a couple of months away from the election.”

As for the new plan, Mr. Arsenault said, “There are 28 actions with no deadlines. How can the government measure whether the plan meets its objectives?”

To which Education Minister Marie-Claude Blais sneered, “It (criticism of the plan) is for political gain. That is what the members opposite want to do. That is what they like to do. There are measurables, and the measurables are being attained right now. . .We are doing all of that, and we will continue to do that.”

In fact, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have the foggiest notions for reducing poverty in New Brunswick. They trot out the few remaining numbers the gutted  Statistics Canada can provide and arbitrarily decide to chop income disparity by between 20 and 50 per cent over, say, five years. All of which are nice, round numbers that signify precisely nothing.  

Politicians play the poverty card because they think it makes them appear virtuous. But as they stop chasing their opponents’ tails, they merely set their sites on their own.

Poverty is one of those social bedevilments, like illiteracy, that’s impregnable to partisan maledictions or entreaties. It does not recognize doctrinal superiority. In fact, you best attack it by throwing politics out the window, joining hands across party lines and drinking deeply from the wishing well of good public intentions. 

Once that’s done, you spend a whole bunch of money literally reinventing pre-school and primary education systems in this province.

Progressive think tanks, university educators, child advocates – even the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – have all come to the same conclusion: Early Childhood Education, or ECE, plays a vital role in ameliorating the effects of poverty on families and provides disadvantaged kids with a leg up and out of their impoverished circumstances.

The Carolina Abecedarian Project conceived 30 years ago at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina ay Chapel Hill remains one of the best-known and persuasive longitudinal studies in the field of early development. The initiative, a controlled experiment, was designed to ferret out the  benefits for poor children, if any, of early childhood education. 

According to its findings, “Children who participated in the early intervention program had higher cognitive test scores from the toddler years to age 21. Academic achievement in both reading and math was higher from the primary grades through young adulthood. Intervention children completed more years of education and were more likely to attend a four-year college. Mothers whose children participated in the program achieved higher educational and employment status than mothers whose children were not in the program.”

Even some economists now believe that ECE is a formidable weapon in the public-policy arsenal for combatting poverty. 

In a paper he published last October, Craig Alexander, senior vice-president of TD Bank Group, wrote that “more access to affordable and high quality pre-school education could help to boost literacy and numeracy skills and would help to reduce income inequality in the long run. . .Most studies show that a one dollar investment reaps a long-term return of 1.5-to-3 dollars, and the return on investment for children from low income households can be in the double digits.”

ECE will not eliminate poverty right away; it efficacious effects are generational. And it does cost money – a commodity that’s in short supply in these parts these days.

But collaborating to find a funding solution is a far nobler way for our elected Grits and Tories to pass the time than is sniping at each other over poverty reduction policies and programs that won’t work anyway.


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Stupid is what stupid does


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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When Johnny can’t read, we all suffer


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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Good teachers are society’s golden geese


In school, everything came easily to me. Everything, I  should say, except math, a subject at which I was utterly hopeless. In this, I was in good family company. One of my forbears failed algebra so many times, he abandoned any thought of attending an Ontario university.

My Waterloo arrived in Grade Eight when, having scored a two out of a possible 100 on a quiz, my teacher – a woman who seemed to my 12-year-old eyes to be as old as Methuselah, but who was probably only as wizened as I am now – openly wondered whether some administrator had committed a grievous error by placing me in her class.

“What are you?” she squinted at me. “Stupid?”

She genuinely wanted to know. She had never before detected such an obvious and spectacular deficiency in any of her pupils. My mere presence vexed her almost viscerally, like a foul odor.

In those days – the early 1970s – Canadian public schools were not well equipped to manage problems like mine. The phrase, “learning disability”, had not yet entered the academic lexicon. And since no authority seemed inclined either to mitigate my circumstances or, in the alternative, prevent me from matriculating, I carried my handicap – mysterious, undiagnosed – into high school.

Some weeks into my first term, my freshman year trigonometry teacher turned to me and queried, “You’re not really getting any of this, are you?” With a palpable sense of relief, I admitted, “No, I’m not into math.” He grinned: “Sure you are. You just don’t know it yet. See me after class.”

With that, he embarked on what was, for the day, an unprecedented course of personal tutelage. And when he was done with me, not only did I get it; I loved it. He had identified the glitch in my software and repaired it. Thanks to him, I spent the next three years actually enjoying myself.

All of which, it seems to me, underscores the enormous importance of the one academic resource many members of the public – and, to their eternal shame, some politicians – routinely vituperate: the teacher.

For every hellion who calls a kid a dummy (not something any pedagogue is likely to get away with these days), there are at least two who know better and do better.  In fact, the role that good teachers play in the lives of their charges is almost immeasurable.

Writing for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) a couple of years ago educator Brian Keeley declared, “It’s hard to overstate the importance of teachers. Strip away the other things that determine how well students do – such as social background and individual capacity – and you’re pretty much left with teaching as the major factor that can be shaped by education policy.”

And, around the world, the happiest results correlate with the earliest starts.

A recent OECD report states that in Sweden “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. In each of these categories, the word ‘respect’ appears. There was trust in children and in their abilities, trust in the adults who work with them, trust in decentralised governmental processes, and trust in the state’s commitment to respect the rights of children and to do right by them.”

In Finland, the OECD concludes, “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. 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.”

In international surveys, Canada ranks reasonably well in the quality of its teachers and in the support it provides to them. But if the benefit of a good education is a tolerant, literate, productive, innovative and just citizenry, then the return on investing in teachers is priceless.

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