By Kate Hammar, Globe and Mail, October 11, 2011
As it prepares to close this spring, the Canadian Council on Learning, a non-profit that aimed to be Canada’s federal education watchdog, leaves a dark prognosis for Canadian students. Emerging economies are surging ahead, and Canada’s ministries of education are ignoring valuable lessons from other countries, the organization concludes in a final report that will be released Tuesday.
Paul Cappon, the council’s outspoken president, says Canada’s disadvantage against education powerhouses such as China and South Korea boils down to a lack of federal oversight. “Canada is the only country in the developed world that has no stated national goals for education,” he said.
The federal government cut funding for the council early last year. The non-profit was established by the Liberals in 2004 with a five-year grant of $85-million. The organization fought to stay alive, but found fundraising efforts ate into time for research.
Over the last decade, Canada’s scores on the OECD’s tests have slipped very slightly. The drop is small, and would matter less if countries such as South Korea and Singapore weren’t surging ahead.
Also troubling is the fact that the proportion of students achieving top-tier scores is slipping: Canada is producing fewer high-achievers.
“In a global economy, this type of slippage may be one indication of a loss of future competitiveness,” the council says.
The report also raises concerns about the desirability of the teaching profession, and whether limited employment opportunities and constant reforms are scaring away the best candidates for teachers college.
This raises alarm bells because research has shown that teachers are the single biggest in-school influence on learning.
“Teachers are a fundamental question for Canadian education – how we train, assess and pay them,” said Peter Cowley, an education policy researcher at the Fraser Institute.
He believes Canada should be working to elevate the profile of the teaching profession, by incorporating an apprenticeship element into training, introducing qualifying exams and pay scales that take performance into account.
Canada also has the weakest record on teaching national history that the council could find it its review of school curricula in other countries. Most Canadian provinces require only one high school course in Canadian history, and they tend to put a very regional lens on the material.
Canadian schools are doing an especially poor job of history education when compared to American ones, said Jeremy Diamond, a director for the Historica-Dominion Institute.
“We don’t start young enough, we don’t make it a priority, and we have a generation of young people who don’t know the essential things we as Canadians should know about our history,” he said.
A national perspective on the history of the country, where the constitution allocates "education" to the provinces, because of the deep divisions among the various provinces in religion, and language and culture is likely to be a hard sell especially when there is a global spotlight on technology, on getting employment, on accounting and money.
There is a public disconnect between the country's history and the country's present and future. Not only are we slipping in comparative scores from our students, the country is slipping into a "me-first" and "me-now" mentality that will quickly overcome any serious look at our capacity and political willingness to teach our country's honourable, and sometimes dishonourable past, without imbuing it with the prevailing political ideology of the time, capitalism.
There is record of a memo allegedly forwarded from the then Premier's office in Ontario (Mr. Harris) to the then curriculum designer of Grades 9 and 10 Canadian History. It allegedly read: There must be no reference to the accomplishments and contributions from women, labour and First Nations people in the curriculum.
That is just one example of the kind of core manipulation of the potential curriculum that, one has to assume, would and certainly could come from various provincial capitals.
Not only that, but in the last decade or two, there has been a significant swing away from a strong central government, vis a vis the provinces, leading to something theoretically called "asymmetrical federalism" which is really another euphemism for federal abdication to provincial political pressure. If such pressure is to shape the country's future, it's past becomes even more distant and irrelevant, especially to those political leaders at the federal provincial conference table.
As for the "status" of the teaching profession, it has certainly slipped dramatically, as it has been not only subject to innovation, but also subject to politically correct bureaucratization. Only the most anal would seek cover from the raging outside economy and culture, and that leaves many original thinkers, and eccentrics finding other places to work.
Our best and brightest often seek the big law firms, the large universities and the big accounting firms where they can make the highest incomes, live in the largest dwellings and drive the latest BMW...or Maserotti.
That is not a recipe for either a sound education or a thriving culture in Canada or elsewhere.