Education

The roots of failure

Two new studies link poverty and illiteracy

VICTOR DWYER September 22 1997
Education

The roots of failure

Two new studies link poverty and illiteracy

VICTOR DWYER September 22 1997

The roots of failure

Education

Two new studies link poverty and illiteracy

VICTOR DWYER

They are both, broadly speaking, report cards on the state of public education. One, released last week by Statistics Canada, provides a survey of literacy skills among young Canadian adults.

The other, issued two days later by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is an international study of why kids fail at school. And both draw remarkably similar conclusions. Among them: children from poor families have much higher illiteracy and failure rates than their middle-class peers; parents play a critical role in producing literate children; and governments, communities and teachers need to take a stronger hand in promoting the goals of public education.

“One central conclusion is that we have to stop pointing fingers,” says Doug Willms, author of the Canadian study and a professor of education at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. “Making public education work requires a comprehensive, co-ordinated strategy among many players.”

While both studies focused on the obstacles to educational success, their findings were not entirely grim.

The StatsCan survey, which examined how well people are able to use written information when solving problems and making decisions, found 16-to-25-year-olds to be 30 per cent more proficient at such tasks than older Canadians. And the OECD survey showed that literacy rates among young adults in Canada are roughly on par with those in such countries as Germany and Switzerland, and significantly higher than those in the United States.

But the reports also added to a growing mountain of evidence that, in Canada and elsewhere, children of poor—and poorly educated—parents, are often caught in a vicious circle of educational failure and illiteracy. In all 19 countries in the OECD survey, a disproportionate number of students who failed came from economically disadvantaged families. In the Canadian survey, young adults from poorer backgrounds in the Prairie provinces and Quebec scored as though they

had two fewer years of schooling than those from middle-class homes. In Ontario, British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces, the gap was between four and five years.

The authors of both surveys seized on those findings to call for more consistent investment in universal preschool programs.

In fact, the OECD report quoted the 1995 Ontario Royal Commission on Learning’s “excellent analysis of the need for policy intervention at this level”—and then noted that the province has not acted on it. Instead, as Willms and others point out, Ontario gave public schools the green light last year to eliminate junior kindergarten as a means to deal with provincial cuts. By contrast, Quebec’s pledge to invest up to $1 billion to integrate universal day care into the public education system over the next five to seven

years is seen by many as an important step forward for less advantaged children.

Last week’s studies also reinforced the critical role parents play in bolstering school performance. ‘Time and again, studies show that being ready to learn before school begins is the best predictor of educational success,” says Dan Keating, director of the Human Development Program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. But when one in five Canadian children lives in poverty, he adds, “we cannot simply offload the problem onto parents” who may have few resources, a minimum of time and energy, and marginal literacy skills of their own. It is imperative, says Keating, “that community groups, governments and schools share the burden, and create the resources and policies to help break the circle.” While last week’s studies echoed that notion—what the OECD authors describe as “a holistic approach” to education—both stressed that teachers and schools obviously have a crucial role to play in producing successful, literate graduates. Taking a stance that is bound to be controversial, Willms told Maclean’s that he sees harm in policies that segregate, or “stream,” weaker students from the influence of their stronger— and often more affluent—peers. He also took aim at schools and districts that offer optional French immersion programs, which he says tend to attract students from middle-class backgrounds.

The OECD study, meanwhile, found some evidence that the most successful schools are those where “principals set out clear standards I [and] teachers enforce them consistently,” and where students are regularly assessed by external agents cies. And it called for a stronger role for professional organizations to enforce standards, citing as an example the newly formed Ontario College of Teachers.

Whatever the potential solutions to school failure and illiteracy, both reports noted that the cost of ignoring such problems are immense, for individuals and society. In fact, a report released last week by the Conference Board of Canada predicts that men with high literacy skills will earn an extra $585,000 over their lifetimes, while women will earn an extra $683,000. The OECD authors, meanwhile, calculate that over time Canada will lose $4 billion, in taxes and social expenditures, to the 137,000 youths who dropped out of Canadian high schools in 1994 alone. “Facing this problem,” they add, “has become an economic and social necessity”—and for parents, governments and educators, an object lesson in the complexity of successful education. □