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The race to global excellence starts in the classroom (iStockPhoto/iStockPhoto)
The race to global excellence starts in the classroom (iStockPhoto/iStockPhoto)

Race to global excellence starts in the classroom Add to ...

“The government proposal represents an unprecedented attack on [teachers’]rights and the process of free collective bargaining.”

“A math teacher should have an edge over a social studies teacher in competition for a job teaching high-school math. That’s common sense.”

“The teachers’ unions have resolutely opposed efforts to pay good teachers more than mediocre ones [and]to fire the worst performers … too many of those who go through its schools are incapable of earning a decent living in an increasingly competitive global economy.”

More from Gwyn Morgan

Ontario residents might identify the first quote as the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation response to the provincial government’s recently tabled bargaining position.

British Columbians might recognize the second quote as Education Minister George Abbott’s defence of a key government demand in its contract dispute with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

The third quote may be less familiar to Canadians. It comes from the Sept. 30 2010, edition of The Economist; the topic was “Education in America.”

All three exemplify the escalating international battle over entrenched union roadblocks to students gaining the knowledge needed for them, and their countries, to succeed. Countries that fail this challenge are doomed to high unemployment and steadily declining living standards.

The focus on skilled labour is occurring around the world. Last week, Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank Research issued a report about the global race for excellence and skilled labour. “Without … skilled labour, companies cannot produce intelligent, innovative products,” it said. “This is why countries worldwide are now fully engaged in a race for … excellence in education systems.”

A basic requirement for producing “intelligent, innovative products” is workers who have strong math and science skills. Yet in British Columbia, where the Education Minister is fighting the teachers’ union to make sure math teachers actually know math, the statistics are not encouraging. Only 42 per cent of Grade 12 students take math, 27 per cent study chemistry, and only 17 per cent take physics classes. I suspect those tallies don’t vary much across the country.

There are a host of reasons, including parents who don’t encourage their children to study science, and teachers who are fail to turn kids on to science by bringing alive the fascinating facts about the world around us. Every day, young students use the most advanced technology in history yet have little understanding of the scientific principles that make it work.

In December, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released a study (“Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising”) showing that income inequality among industrialized countries is at a record high. Chile ranked highest in income inequality, followed by Mexico and Turkey. Fourth-place United States came in almost 20 per cent the average of 34 other OECD countries, while Canada’s 12th-place standing was 6 per cent above the average.

This income gap is expected to widen in almost every country surveyed, thanks in part to the shortage of highly skilled workers (driven by rapid technology progress) and a surplus of low-skilled workers. The report notes the worrying implications: “Greater inequality raises economic, political and ethical challenges as it risks leaving a growing number of people behind in an ever-changing economy.”

The growing global gap between those with the most employable skills and those who are least employable that is the real driver of inequality (not the “1 per cent vs. 99 per cent” argument touted by the Occupy movement).

This story doesn’t have to end badly for Canadians if young people are given the parental encouragement and quality teaching needed to achieve their full potential. The biggest threat to improving teaching quality is the short-sightedness of unions representing secondary school and university teachers.

We need decisive counter-action by the too-silent majority of teachers and professors, the ones who understand that unless their graduates have crucial skills, both their students and Canada’s economy will fall further behind in the global race to excellence.

In the know

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