Rhiannon Traill is president and chief executive officer of the Economic Club of Canada.
The year 2012 was eventful. Research In Motion suffered big blows, the National Hockey League lockout left fans reeling and Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe was the song we all pretended to hate.
Another Canadian story that seemed to get lost among those flashier headlines was our tumble out of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's top 10 countries for reading, math and science skills. But this was alarming, even shocking news. These core skills are fundamental to our long-term prosperity and our ability to innovate in an advanced technological society.
Having personally dedicated much of my time to teaching financial literacy skills to young people, I'm particularly concerned by this "numeracy gap." How can we expect to have a financially savvy citizenry when close to half our population lacks basic numeracy skills? What are we doing wrong and how do we fix it?
It's been suggested that our lack of basic numeracy skills has become acceptable, to a certain extent. We allow ourselves to believe that some people just aren't great with numbers, and that's okay. This is what York University professor emeritus Graham Orpwood calls the "perception gap" – the idea that mathematical skills and good numeracy are attainable only for some Canadians, rather than all of us.
Another part of this problem, which it seems we're finally waking up to, is born in the confines of our primary classrooms. Earlier this month, the Ontario government announced a $60-million investment in a renewed math strategy for elementary school students, a welcome proposal, given the magnitude of the problem. But while it's a great start, is it enough?
I recently hosted a panel discussion at the Economic Club of Canada on this very issue and an interesting point emerged: the idea that poor numeracy is actually a social justice issue.
Aboriginal, recent immigrant and low-income children score lower on literacy and numeracy tests than their higher-income, Canadian-born peers. Low numeracy levels are linked to lower wages, lower grades and lower confidence, which can perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
With limited resources, time and funding, many teachers look to parents to help bridge this gap and lay the foundation for better math and reading skills. Indeed, just the other week, I received a letter from our son's school, letting me know that it is our parental responsibility to ensure that he is learning basic reading, writing and mathematics skills at home.
The time and budget pressures teachers face are very real, but parents shouldn't be expected to bridge this gap. In fact, asking this of them contributes to inequality in the classroom.
As public-education advocate Egerton Ryerson suggested more than a century ago, a public-education system is designed to provide equal opportunities to all learners and ensure democratic social order. The wealthy already have the advantage of better learning outcomes for their children, in that they can pay to send them to private schools. The expectation that parents fill the "teaching gap" will only create further imbalance for students in the public system.
A low-income family with parents working two jobs can't be expected to bridge this gap. A new immigrant family with economic and language barriers can't be expected to do it. A single-parent household, a family with substance-abuse issues, a parent with disabilities, a critical illness or a lack of formal education often can't do it. The list goes on.
Even middle class dual-income earners can't always do it. Most Canadian families do everything they can to give their kids all the advantages they can, but some households just can't offer their little learners the kind of guidance and support their peers get at home. Inevitably, a difference emerges between those who get that support and those who don't. The ones who get it will likely be better off and the ones who don't will slip through the cracks.
I am absolutely not saying that parents don't want to make time for these at-home learning sessions – just that it often isn't possible. I know this all too well myself – I was raised by a single mother who worked several jobs to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. She didn't have the time to pore over my algebra homework after working back-to-back shifts. I often felt left behind in the classroom and eventually lost confidence in my academic abilities. But through the unconditional support of outstanding teachers, I was able to turn things around and realize my potential. Without them, I would never be in the position I am now.
There are so many bright and talented Canadian children who hold infinite potential. No child should receive less opportunity or education because of their unique family circumstances – especially not in a prosperous and progressive country like ours.
A strong academic foundation, equal learning opportunities and a solution to falling numeracy scores begins with great teachers. Theirs is one of the most important jobs – they deserve our respect, support and investment because they hold the key to our children's success.