Two years ago, when Melanie Wilson walked out of Nelson High School in Burlington, Ont., life seemed full of promise. The Grade 11 student was engaged to be married, and was expecting her first baby. But Wilson, now 20, says that she soon realized that she had shortchanged herself and within a year was registered at a new high school—and enjoying it. Despite her change of heart, Wilson would have been tallied into Canada’s dropout rate, which is widely accepted to be a national embarrassment at 32 per cent. That figure has been a major weapon in the arsenal of angry parents, businessmen and politicians, who are all demanding major reform of Canada’s education system. But according to several new studies, the actual dropout rate is nowhere near the accepted rate—calling into question the urgent and costly focus on the dropout issue. In its new School Leavers Survey, scheduled for release in a few months, Statistics Canada tracks for the first time those students who transfer schools or merely “stop out” for a limited period. Their conclusion: a national dropout rate of 18 per cent. That is still far from what many critics say is acceptable—but represents a 45 per cent cut, and 90,000 fewer dropouts each year. Said Richard Dodds, past-president of the Canadian Education Association, a group representing educators across the country: “I think we all bought into the 32-per-cent figure too quickly.” For many educators, the new dropout report represents a rare victory in an increasingly vocal and public battle. Although few would see the new figure as a vindication of the system, it challenges one major premise of the system’s critics. Powerful business-supported groups, such as the Conference Board of Canada and the Corporate-Higher Education Forum, a Montreal-based business lobby group, have repeatedly used the 32-per-cent figure as proof that the education system is in complete shambles. Other business groups, including the newly formed Metropolitan Toronto Learning Partnership, which hopes to create working partnerships between businessmen and educators, argue that unless Canada dramatically reduces the 32-per-cent figure, the country’s ability to compete internationally will deteriorate.
Canadian politicians have been equally determined to attack the 32-per-cent figure. Last year, Barbara McDougall, then minister for Employment and Immigration, announced a $300-million, three-year campaign aimed at convincing students to stay in school. The campaign included a national TV advertising drive, inviting students to call a 1-800 number for information on the advantages of completing high school. And last week, the government screened the first of a series of ads that will run on 610 Cineplex Odeon movie screens across Canada.
Even at 18 per cent, the dropout rate deserves attention. But, the new figures challenge political priorities. Many feel that the issue may eclipse other serious and fundamental flaws in the educational system. Said Robert Nicoll, director of Labor Market Research with Alberta Advanced Education: “We run the risk of making mistakes at the political level by not understanding the numbers.”
The previous numbers, also collected by Statistics Canada, reflected a rigid and unrealistic definition of “dropout.” Simply put, any student who did not enter and graduate from the same high school within four years was given that label. The School Leavers Study, compiled on the basis of interviews with 9,460 18to 20-year-olds, addresses issues of mobility and stopping out. And according to Doug Higgins, chief of projections and analy-
sis in Statistics Canada’s education, culture and tourism division, its conclusions are buttressed by those in the 1991 Labor Force Survey. That study, which asked 200,000 Canadians a variety of questions about education, employment and in-
come, also concluded that only 18 per cent of respondents had not finished high school or received some other formal training.
Indeed, according to studies in some regions of the country, the 18-per-cent figure may even be too high. Dean Fink, superintendent of instructional services for the suburban Toronto Halton Board of Educa-
tion, says that his board began tracking its incoming students by computer in 1989. By following the students over four years, Halton officials determined that 95 per cent completed high school—although some switched schools or provinces in the process. And Fink added that in 1989, 92 per cent of Halton graduates went on to some form of postsecondary education: 53 per cent to university, 35 per cent to community colleges and 4 per cent to apprenticeship programs.
Studies in several other provinces also reflect an impressive determination to finish high school. Officials in Alberta insist that their dropout rate is considerably lower than their reported 14 per cent. According to Nicoll, about half of all dropouts are in fact stopouts who eventually return to school. Although he acknowledged that he has no solid figures, Nicoll predicted that the dropout rate in the province’s
urban centres was probably comparable to Halton’s—and higher than average in economically impoverished areas, such as native reserves and remote villages. Vancouver education officials also believe that their dropout rate is even lower than the new numbers indicate. Said Robert Pearmain, an assistant superintendent with the Vancouver Board of Education, and head of a task force investigating Vancouver’s dropout rate:
“We’re looking at a single digit dropout rate and one well below nine per cent.”
Even the more traditional methods of measuring high-school completion showed marked regional variations. One obvious factor is economic disparity, with generally higher figures reported for the comparatively impoverished Atlantic provinces. “Students tend to stay in school,” noted Nicoll, “when they know that they will have a chance to work.” Immigration patterns also seem to play an important role. According to
Canada’s school system may be in crisis, but a new study reveals a dramatic cut in the dropout rate
Michael Sullivan, a senior vice-president of the Toronto-based polling firm Decima Research: “Groups like the Chinese and the Jewish community tend to place a great deal of importance on education as a way of achieving success.” Still, there has been an almost constant, countrywide, decline in dropout rates since the Second World War, when only one-quarter of Canadians completed high school. “We’re keeping so many more students in school today,” said Dodds. “Perhaps even some that shouldn’t be there.”
For many critics, keeping students in school is not the main issue. Increasingly, educators, politicians and parents are convinced that Canada’s educational system is failing even those who graduate. In April,
high schools across the country launched an annual mathematics test of 13and 16year-old students in an effort to determine nationwide levels of numeracy. In May, Ottawa quietly floated a “federal learning strategy,” designed to set national education goals at the elementary and highschool level. And in Ontario, Premier Bob Rae’s NDP government introduced new guidelines in April to measure the progress of students at various grade levels, as well as appointing a five-member commis-
sion to investigate the state of education. In the fall, the province will begin testing all Grade 9 students.
Private individuals are also jumping into the fray, and one of the most vocal is Dr. Joseph Freedman of Red Deer, Alta. The father of two school-age daughters, Freed-
man has launched a one-man crusade to reform the educational system. Last year, he founded The Society for Advancing Educational Research, and in March produced Failing Grades, a video in which he calls for a back-to-basics approach to education. Priced at $19.95, the video has sold an impressive 3,200 copies across Canada. Said Freedman:
“Employers simply can’t rely on a high-school diploma. We have to have a system that focuses on academic achievement.”
The battle over academic excellence shows no sign of abating. But by crediting the determination of Melanie Wilson, who is now completing Grade 12, the School Leavers Study finally acknowledges the achievements of those who are willing to give school a chance. Now separated and the mother of two-year-old Erin, Wilson has set her sights on a profession she once blamed for her disaffection with school: teaching. And she says that returning to high school has given her both the education and the confidence to pursue that dream. Said Wilson: “I believe in myself now.” For those determined to fix the system, that kind of turnaround is exactly what is needed to ensure Canada’s future success. Gordon Cressy, who is leaving his job as an administrator at the University of Toronto to become the founding president of
the Metro Toronto Learning Partnership, said, “We have to have some victories, or we will have a growing underclass.” Despite the growing concern over the state of Canadian education, the new dropout figures provide fresh hope that improving the system may not require a full-scale return to the drawing board.
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