Skip to main content

If you really want to know how Canadians stack up in the global skills sweepstakes, don't ask the education establishment. They tend to cherry-pick the data to highlight our relative strengths, but dance around the elephants in the room that threaten to trample our economic future.

That was clear this month when the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released the results of its debut ranking of adult competencies, measuring the literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving skills of people between 16 and 65 in 24 OECD countries.

The 466-page report contains enough slaps on Canada's wrists to rid us of the illusion that the kids (if we can call our 16- to 24-year-olds that) are all right. While they're pretty good with computers, they're behind most of their peers in math skills. And despite having gone much further in school, they're only somewhat more literate and numerate than their grandparents.

Story continues below advertisement

This is the opposite of what's happened in countries such as South Korea, Germany and Finland. Older South Koreans are at the bottom of the skills heap, while their children and grandchildren are at or near the top, miles ahead of Canadians. South Korea's transformation in little more than a generation contrasts with Canada's stagnation. It may be why they've got Samsung and we've got BlackBerry.

So, how did the Canada's Council of Ministers of Education greet the results? With a rosy press release trumpeting our computer prowess. The OECD report, the council boasted, "shows that Canadians are increasingly embracing information and communications technologies and are well positioned for the society and economy of the 21st century."

That, quite frankly, is spin. The computer skills measured by the OECD were fairly basic. And while it's good that at least half of young Canadian adults can navigate websites, it's small consolation for the fact that so few of them rank at the top in math and literacy skills.

What's more, the literacy and math skills of Canada's 16- to 24-year-olds are well below those of the age cohort that preceded them in school. Combined with other recent evidence showing slippage in math scores, Canadians should be questioning whether our children are getting the educations they need and deserve.

One of the most eye-opening findings was that a university degree is no ticket to skillsdom. In Japan and the Netherlands, twentysomethings with only high-school diplomas "easily outperform" university-educated Spaniards. And while Canada has among the highest proportion of citizens with a tertiary education, they mostly underperform their peers elsewhere.

The OECD also singled out Canada for its weak performance in adult education. Continuous training is the norm in the Nordic countries. But in Canada, low-skilled adults tend to stay that way, "trapped in a situation where they rarely benefit from adult education and [where] their skills remain weak or deteriorate."

And it's not just older workers. More than 40 per cent of Canadians between 16 and 24 scored at the lowest levels of digital problem-solving.

Story continues below advertisement

On average, Canada outperforms the United States, where the polarization between the most- and least-skilled adults is glaring. But given its size, the U.S. still has tens of millions more high-skilled workers. To compete, Canada can't simply content itself with beating the U.S. average.

The fallout from the OECD report has been at the top of the political agenda in Britain. That's mainly because the OECD labelled England as the only jurisdiction where people on the cusp of retirement display outright higher math and literacy skills than those just entering the work force. Could there be a greater harbinger of economic decline?

Understandably, the report was a grenade in the lap of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government swiftly heaped the blame for young Englanders' substandard skills on predecessor Tony Blair. "These are Labour's children," Tory skills minister Matthew Hancock insisted, "educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing-down and low expectations."

At least the Brits are talking about it. Not so in Canada, where the OECD report came and went with little notice. That's too bad, because we need to have this debate.

Canada's education system has successfully grappled with big challenges, accommodating a high proportion of immigrants and offering a chance at social mobility to the least-advantaged students. But the truth is, we're falling behind in a world that's racing rapidly ahead.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter