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For many years, governments in Canada have parroted to a willingly believing public that we were global leaders in Education.

The genie is now out of the bottle. Not only is Canada mediocre at best; we now know that our future in learning – and therefore out prosperity – is more clouded than ever.

The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has released results of its triennial standardized tests (PISA), with emphasis this time on mathematics skills of 15-year-olds. Compared with previous tests and with other countries, Canadian scores continue to decline.

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Last month, OECD announced results of member country scores on adult competencies, including numeracy, literacy and problem-solving (PIAAC). PIAAC test outcomes are even more important than PISA scores because they reflect the real-world competencies of all working age Canadians from 16 to 65.

The cohort of Canadian 16-24 year olds – those who make up most students and recent graduates at our postsecondary institutions – performs uniformly below the mean for that same group in other developed countries. In literacy, Canadian young adults rank 14 of 21; in numeracy 15 of 21.

What is more worrying is that Canadians with postsecondary education also underperform their peers in Europe, the United States and East Asia. In literacy skills, Canadians with tertiary education rank 18 of 21 countries; in numeracy 19 of 21. And, only 21.9 per cent of Canadian tertiary education participants and graduates display top literacy skills. That is less than the OECD average, less than the United States. Compare Canada's 21.9 per cent to the 36.3 per cent in Finland. Our future highest-skilled compatriots trail those of partner nationals who are also our international competition.

Hardly the "Canadian advantage"' touted by federal and provincial governments in denial.

What should be done? Countries successful in education and training show that "think nationally, act provincially and locally" will give us the best outcomes. Canada must emulate those genuinely leading countries that have a national education strategy.

Canada is a land of not a single measurable national goal for any stage of learning or training; a country where there is no serious continuing communication, let alone co-ordination, between provincial governments collectively and the federal government on learning issues; and a country in which there is no public reporting of national learning outcomes. We learn of our progress only through international tests like PISA and PIAAC.

What we refuse to measure and report, we can ignore – or worst, pretend that we are world beaters. Why bother with the evidence? Complacent is sufficient unto itself. Canada is like a school that never issues report cards.

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A coherent national education strategy for Canada does not require constitutional change. However, it would require innovations. First, we must establish a continuing federal-provincial table of ministers who would undertake national co-ordination and planning for all aspects of education and training. This is the intergovernmental mechanism required for a trans-Canadian learning architecture.

Secondly, there must be pan-Canadian goals for learning at all levels – set by the FPT table – publicly announced and whose results are transparently reported.

For K-13 education in particular, there should be nationally agreed learning outcomes for every age and grade level, i.e. the things that each student should know or know how to do, in every province and territory. These expectations should be set at an internationally competitive level.

The curriculum needed to meet these expectations should be decided by provinces, but there should be intensive sharing of curricular materials among all provinces and territories, systematically learning from each other and using best practices.

Thirdly, there must be a national information platform on education and training. Currently in Canada, information is collected in different ways, using different definitions and diverse schedules in various parts of the country. It is often not comparable from one province to another, and sometimes not even within a province. No wonder that it is easier to transfer from Portugal to the Netherlands than from Nova Scotia to Alberta.

In such a vacuum as ours, how can learners and skilled people be as mobile and effective as they could wish?

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Political realists decry that some provinces will refuse to join a national effort. That is, of course, true of two provinces at the outset. The strategy should be, as for the financial regulatory framework: "build it and they will come".

Conditions will never be perfect for a national strategy. So we must construct it now with the materials and co-operative spirit that does exist in most of the country.

The alternatives are only two: we can collaborate fully across provincial borders and with the federal government, and create a learning society. Or, we can cling to our fiefdoms and local power, sacrificing thereby the future opportunities, prospects and prosperity of Canadians.

Paul Cappon is senior fellow at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of International and Public Policy. He is a former CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning and former director general of the Council of Canadian Ministers of Education

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