Let’s fix our broken education system

How to go from B-roken to A-wesome while there’s still time

CALGARY, AB, Jun 27, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Canada was recently ranked against 15 other countries around the world for the quality of its education. How did we do? We achieved a B.

Only Finland and Japan got As in the report card compiled by the Conference Board of Canada. Those countries’ top ranking is not a surprise; their educational systems have been regarded as exemplars of excellence year after year.

In Canada, parents, educators and policy makers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador want to be asking themselves some tough questions right now, since those provinces earned Ds overall. In P.E.I. the situation is even worse, with a D- grade. On the flip side, Alberta, B.C. and Ontario were the top performers, with an average grade of B.

The territories seem to have been left out of the picture entirely, which means we’re not really getting a valid picture of the whole country. So at best, we have a picture of Canada’s more affluent provinces.

The report notes that Canada’s performance is on the decline. Since 2009, we’ve gone down, not up.

Why are we slipping? Is it that our peer nations are improving faster than us? Are we asking the wrong questions? The only thing for certain is we need to be concerned.

The report shows that five provinces scored D or lower in the areas of adult problem-solving and numeracy skills and four provinces bombed in terms of general adult literacy skills. So, let’s do some basic logical analysis here.

Before 2009, Canada’s international education rankings were better. Despite that, today four of our 10 provinces have dismal rankings for adult literacy. This tells us that not all adults of today were served adequately by our education system of yesterday. So we have to ask ourselves, what will be the impact on the adults of 2020 and beyond? As our educational performance declines, so too will our skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving.

We have a chance to fix that, but the window is closing fast. Most of us spend about 12 years in school, from ages six to 18. Since we’ve spent the last five years with declining performance in our educational system compared to our global peers, there’s no time to waste. If we want the current generation of children to have the skills they need not only to survive, but to thrive in the global market place of tomorrow, we have to act now.

While a grade of B may seem acceptable, it’s not. We used to be among the global leaders. There’s no good reason why we should be slipping.

For Canada to be competitive as a nation, it’s reasonable to engage policy makers, educators and yes, even parents, in nationwide conversations about education. It’s not that we are failing across the board. It’s that as a country we are all over the map in terms of our results.

If we keep asking ourselves, “What’s wrong?” we’ll only ever learn to dwell on the deficits. So, we need some new ways of thinking about how and what we are teaching and learning. Instead of just complaining, how about starting with a radical new question: “What’s right?”

Since B.C. stands out when it comes to high school attainment, we want to find out what they’re doing to achieve that result. Since Ontario and P.E.I. both shine in how many of their high school graduates make it to post-secondary (college attainment), what are they doing right?

We have examples of brilliant success in specific areas. Education will always be provincially managed, but there’s no good reason we can’t have a national dialogue about what’s working in some jurisdictions and why. (And while we’re at it, let’s invite the territories into the conversation). Then, we can use what we learn to build better educational systems from coast to coast.

So let’s start figuring out how we can go from B-roken to A-wesome while we still have time.

Sarah Elaine Eaton is an adjunct assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts and also teaches in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. She holds a PhD in education.

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