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A call for K-12 education reform: The province needs to prepare Alberta students for citizenship and the workforce

Michael Van PeltIt’s everyone’s favourite time of year in Alberta: not only was there a recent provincial budget, but we’re also just three months out from the spring election. So naturally, keyboards are clacking away in corporate boardrooms and C-suites across the province, happily churning out spending recommendations and policy proposals.

We’ve heard lots of discussion about education, but almost no discussion about education at a K-12 level. Why?

Today’s students are tomorrow’s plumbers, personal support workers, servers, accountants, and nurses, who make Alberta the economic powerhouse it is. And they are also the bank CEO, Member of Parliament, tech billionaires, and inventors of 20 years from now. These are the people with capital “I” influence.

Alberta’s top economic problem is a shortage of labour. It’s happening across the country but is especially severe in Alberta. The province’s main industries, like forestry, energy, hospitality, and agriculture, can’t find enough new workers. Coupled with upcoming mass retirements of older workers, employers are facing a crisis.

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The election priorities of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce focused on the labour shortage, but its proposed solutions were further investments in post-secondary education and easing immigration pathways. While these are good moves, aren’t they missing a big piece of the puzzle?

A recent report from The Macdonald-Laurier Institute proposes expanding “work-integrated learning “to 100 percent of post-secondary students. But why not start younger? High school students could also benefit from hands-on opportunities to learn about different types of careers and industries in Alberta before committing to a post-secondary path.

Investments need to start in the K-12 years. We also need to welcome the full range of schooling options – including independent schools with their track record of addressing real needs – to start exposing students to existing jobs and the depth and breadth of choices available to them.

What about today’s third graders’ long-term impact on the economy? A Canadian Federation of Independent Business survey last year found that almost half of employers having trouble finding employees said that candidates lacked a work ethic, while 63 percent complained that candidates didn’t have the necessary skills and experience.

A huge proportion of small businesses said even increased wages weren’t helping attract staff because applicant expectations were still too high. Considering that the hospitality sector had a staff vacancy rate of over 14 percent, that means a significant number of employers are looking for candidates with basic service skills and attitudes – reliable people who can make change and solve problems quickly and efficiently. It is precisely these types of habits that are formed in the years between kindergarten and grade 12.

Now let’s look at Alberta Education’s annual satisfaction survey from 2021. Less than two-thirds of the public thinks students are graduating high school ready for post-secondary education or the workforce. Less than half believe that students have been taught the attitudes necessary to be successful at work. Half of the public doesn’t think students can take responsibility for their own learning.

To think and solve problems? Only 49 percent see that happening. Is school preparing students to transition to work or post-secondary studies? Only 60 percent would agree, which would be an unimpressive C grade in Alberta. When it comes to schools preparing students to be punctual and finish work on time, a full 43 percent don’t see it happening. And only 28 percent believe schools are teaching students how to manage money, credit, and personal finances.

This is not to say parents are bystanders: they certainly play a role in teaching their children basic skills, attitudes, and values.

Similarly, education isn’t just about training future employees; it’s about “preparing the next generation to join the community of citizens,” as a recent Cardus Education report details. But no one denies that education should also teach children the realities of the world, preparing them for adulthood. Schools claim to be providing these lessons – yet they’re not.

So why isn’t the business community connecting the dots? The closest thing has been the acknowledgement that Albertan K-12 students are comparatively weak in math, so the curriculum needs some work. But if employees also lack a service-oriented attitude, the ability to show up on time, and demonstrate little understanding of the realities of Alberta’s economy, then the problem goes deeper than just curriculum.

The current education ecosystem in Alberta offers a lot of space for creativity, new approaches, and future-ready teaching philosophies across our many different learning options. The province needs even greater innovation and effective reform to ensure students are graduating ready for citizenship and the workforce.

Michael Van Pelt is president and CEO of the Cardus think tank.

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The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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