Spend a lot but get modest results. That's what three international reports from the same organization have recently said about Canada's efforts in health care, education and adult skills.
The reports come from the estimable, indeed indispensable, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a Paris-based club of affluent countries set up to research and compare results among them across a wide range of issues.
A few weeks ago, the OECD reported on health-care systems. In general, Canadians spend a lot on health care but get just average results.
A little earlier, another OECD report examined adult skills. It didn't get much attention in Canada, which was too bad, because the results were disquieting. The overall results for working-age Canadians, age 16 to 65: average in literacy, below-average in numbers, above-average in use of technology to solve problems.
More disturbing, Canadians between the ages of 16 and 24 – the most recent graduates – ranked 14th of 21 in literacy and 15th of 21 in numeracy. Worse still – alarm bells, please! – Canadians with postsecondary education were way down the tables.
"The genie is now out of the bottle," said Paul Cappon, a former head of the Canadian Council on Learning who is now with the University of Ottawa. "Not only is Canada mediocre at best, we now know that our future in learning, and therefore our prosperity, is more clouded than ever."
Canadian educational systems, he said, refuse to measure and report against each other inside Canada, allowing us to "ignore – or worse – pretend that we are world beaters. Why bother with evidence? Complacency is sufficient unto itself." Sounds like the way things used to be with health care.
Now we have the latest OECD report on testing of 15-year-olds.
Before everyone goes off half-cocked, as a few commentators already have, the OECD report contains both good news and bad. The bad shows that Canadian results on math tests have fallen, despite an upsurge in the amount of time Canadian students are required to study the subject.
But some of the top "countries" are not countries at all, as in the cities of Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong. Put all of China together, including impoverished rural areas, and China would likely slide down the table. Most Western countries slid because of improvements in these non-countries (and some real Asian countries, such as South Korea).
Canada remains in the top five Western countries for math, reading and science, but that's no reason for complacency, since some Asian countries are obviously not standing still. Even some Western countries, such as Germany, are improving, although others, such as Sweden, are sliding fast and the United Kingdom and the United States are treading water far below Canadian levels.
By international standards, Canada pays its teachers well. Canada is one of the countries where teachers can go fastest from starting salaries to the top of the salary grid (11 years in Canada compared to 28 in Germany, 37 in Korea, 34 in Japan, 34 in France, but eight in Australia and 12 in England).
Canadian students are very close to the top in "creative extracurricular activities" at school and are above the OECD average in time spent doing homework. Clearly, though, the slight slide in the OECD comparative test tables for 15-year-olds should embolden educators to think about what is going on and make improvements.
Given this need, everyone in British Columbia should grab pitchforks and stick them in the educational "reform" proposals now on the table. The educational theorists are busy again, this time in B.C., ready to return to the "child-centred," less structured way of learning that drove Ontario's system into the ditch in the 1970s after governments followed the Hall-Dennis report.
It took a generation for Ontario's system to recover from that misconceived report, which reflected all the fashionable theories of the time and then became entrenched wisdom within the Ministry of Education.
Eventually, parents and students who had come through those years rebelled and demanded some return to intelligible report cards, measurable tests and more standardized curriculum.
B.C. parents: Grab those pitchforks. Don't let the theorists and bureaucrats make the same mistakes again.