High School

Adding up the ways we’re falling behind in education

A new study shows Canadians may be handy with computers, but we’re terrible at math

Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star / GetStock

Learning is tricky. On Tuesday the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a global report on adult skills based on surveys of 166,000 people in 23 countries.

The results showed that Canada scores below the average of those countries in numeracy, or mathematical skill.

The first sentence of the Sun newspapers’ story that afternoon said, “Canadians are at or above average when it comes to math, reading and problem-solving, a new global study has found.” Well, no it didn’t, not when it comes to math. But perhaps it’s too much to hope a mere Canadian could read statistics more accurately.

The OECD’s survey, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), is the first of its kind. National authorities in every country administered tests to at least 5,000 people aged 16 to 65. So the PIAAC doesn’t measure how kids are doing in school, it measures how well people are doing later in life with the knowledge and skills they accumulated in school and after.

It’s an overstatement to say that in the modern world, knowledge is everything. Oil, armies and the not-yet-entirely-squandered inheritance from past glories still counts for a lot. The U.K., Germany and the U.S. score below the average of PIAAC countries on literacy, but they still carry clout. But if you compare the countries at the bottom of that list (Italy, Spain, France and Ireland) to the countries at the top (Japan, Finland, Netherlands and Australia), it seems likely that the top of the list can look forward to a brighter 10 or 15 years than the ones pulling up the rear.

A well-educated population is more adaptable, more resilient in the face of challenge, and maybe even wiser. Japanese participants with only a high school education scored at the same level as university graduates from Italy. That’s a solid advantage. In France, where the value of a good education is constantly trumpeted, the consistently lousy results posted in this and other surveys feels like a betrayal of a national ideal. France scored 21st in number skills, 22nd in literacy. “Dunce cap for French adults,” the headline in Le Figaro said.

But at least younger French adults outperform their elders; in Britain and the United States, there’s no such improvement from generation to generation, and former advantages are in danger of being lost.

The picture for Canada is less worrisome. But in important ways, it’s not much to write home about. Canada ranked at the OECD average in literacy and comfortably ahead in computer skills, but it ranked below the average in math. And Canadian women consistently scored lower than Canadian men on math.

Statistics Canada surveyed large samples in every province and territory, and among immigrant and off-reserve Aboriginal populations, to get a clear look at regional and demographic variations within Canada. More prosperous provinces generally posted better results. On literacy, Alberta and Ontario scored above the OECD average, ranking just behind Sweden and Norway. New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador scored below average, down near Poland and Ireland. Remote Nunavut was, on every measure, by far the lowest-performing Canadian jurisdiction, well below any European country.

But Nunavut aside, the differences between Canadian regions are smaller than the differences within populations. Canadian adults aren’t all average. They tend to extremes. More Canadians scored at both the highest levels and the lowest levels on literacy than in most other participating countries.

How is it that Canadians manage both to lag badly in some cases, and to beat the world in others? The answer seems to lie in the Canadian school, which emerges from this report as an unusually powerful mechanism for correcting for sociological differences. It’s actually truer in Canada than in many other countries that the longer you stayed in school, the better you performed on this international test.

Here are two heartening examples.

Aboriginal participants living off-reserve did score lower, on average, than non-Aboriginal populations. But in one of the survey’s most striking results, Aboriginal participants who completed a given level of formal education scored as high as non-Aboriginal participants with the same education.

Then there’s the gap between participants with highly educated parents and those with less-educated parents. In some countries, if neither of your parents finished high school you will probably score a lot worse on the literacy test than someone who had at least one parent finish university. Those countries include Germany and the United States. But that gap is one-third smaller in Canada, which means parents’ education is much less likely to seal the next generation’s fate here.

Taken together, these results suggest Canadian schools are a strong force for equalizing opportunity, but that they could still stand to pick up their game. In an interview, Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson recognized as much.

Johnson is the chair of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada, which administered the PIAAC survey in Canada with help from Statistics Canada. He was, understandably, eager to look on the bright side: “I was personally very encouraged to see how well we’ve done on problem-solving in a digital environment,” which is the fancy term PIAAC uses for computer literacy. He also noted that Canada has one of the smallest gaps between the scores of immigrant and native-born test-takers.

But he did recognize Canada’s shaky performance on math, as well as the persistent gender gap on the same subject. “Numeracy has been a topic of conversation around the table among ministers for a while,” he said. One possible remedy: specialized teachers who, unlike some of their generalist colleagues, will actually be comfortable with math and can share their fluency with students. As for the gender gap, “We need to make sure girls are inspired and excited by how they’re taught science and math,” Johnson said.

Easier said than done, perhaps, especially in an environment of coast-to-coast budget restraint. Together, health and education costs comprise a majority of every province’s budget, Johnson said. “If you need to find cuts, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where it’s going to come from.” But he noted that internationally there’s not much correlation between the cost of an education system and the results it produces. That’s reassuring, if true, because even with limited resources, Canada’s education system needs to post better results. Pretty good won’t always be good enough.

On the web: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at macleans.ca/inklesswells

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