Monday, October 17, 2005

In the News Today...

Hi everyone,

Happy Monday. Quite a bit in the news today about literacy. The article below particularly peaked my interest. Also a reminder that today is International Day for the Eradication of Poverty - ending child poverty in Canada - National Day of Action (look a few posts down for information on that). This week is also Citizenship Week. For more info on that, you can visit the Government's Citizenship and Immigration website HERE. But in short, Canada’s Citizenship Week is celebrated each year during the third week of October. This celebration is an opportunity to recognize the value of citizenship and immigration. During this week we focus on the privileges, rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Finally, one of our uOttawa volunteers sent the following information on an event regarding helping children in war-torn areas:

On October 22, 2005, people in 32 cities around the world will take to the streets for the children of northern Uganda. Every night and every morning, up to 40,000 children walk for their lives to avoid abduction by rebels.

Join us in Ottawa as we walk to tell their story. See for more details, or email
for more details, or email



PUBLICATION: The Toronto Star
DATE: 2005.10.17
BYLINE: Carol Goar

Economist prefers ABC to PhD

As a university professor, Jean-Francois Tremblay is pleased to see Ottawa and the provinces investing in post-secondary education after a 10-year hiatus.

But as an economist, he is not convinced that pouring more public money into universities and colleges is the best way to boost Canada's economic growth.

Tremblay and his colleague, Serge Coulombe, who teach economics at the University of Ottawa, have just completed a study for the C.D. Howe Institute, which shows that improving literacy among lower-income citizens would have a greater impact on Canada's standard of living than producing more highly educated graduates.

"While increasing resources in the education system would undoubtedly improve outcomes to some extent, it is not clear that it would be the most cost-effective strategy to generate more skills," the authors conclude. "Our research - novel because it is based on direct measures of skills rather than the usual crude proxies of educational attainment - strongly suggests that there are potentially large payoffs from investment in less glamorous sectors."

By most international measures, Canada has a high-quality education system. Yet Canadians do not perform particularly well in standardized tests of literacy and numeracy. In a 14-nation survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada ranked a less-than-impressive eighth, behind the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. What's more, Canada's score peaked in 1975, then began a long decline.

A mediocre literacy rating drags down a country's productivity more than a mid-place ranking in university enrolment, Tremblay explained. Conversely, an increase in average literacy produces a greater economic benefit than an upswing in university degrees.

He and Coulombe demonstrate in their paper that a 1 per cent jump in Canada's literacy score, relative to the international average, would boost national productivity by 2.5 per cent and raise per capita gross domestic product by 1.5 per cent. (Details of their methodology can be found at

Economists have never managed to draw such a strong empirical link between years of schooling and labour productivity. "The big surprise in our research was that literacy scores were such a clear indicator of growth," Tremblay said. "We also found that skills at the bottom of the economic spectrum matter most."

Their findings have important policy implications.

First, governments can't afford to treat adult learning as an afterthought. The single most effective step policy-makers could take to improve the country's economic performance would be to help those trapped in low-skill jobs or unable to find work.

One way to do it would be to offer employers tax incentives to provide workplace training. A second possibility would be to provide school boards with more resources for basic literacy programs. A third option would be to make skill acquisition a central component of Canada's employment insurance and welfare programs.

Next, elementary and secondary schools have to do a better job of equipping students to read, write, comprehend and use information.

Tremblay is not sure whether the problem stems from teaching practices or levels of classroom funding. That is why he thinks it is essential for all schools to conduct comparable literacy tests and make their results publicly available. Once educators know what works, they'll be able to refine their methods to raise performance levels.

Third, Canada needs to rethink its immigrant selection criteria.

Rather than recruiting highly educated newcomers who may take years to find a job in their field, Ottawa should be looking for applicants with the skills the country needs. "Schooling is not the same as skills," Tremblay pointed out.

Finally, Ottawa and the provinces have to set aside their jurisdictional battles over education and training.

Under the current arrangements, elementary and secondary schooling are a provincial responsibility, post-secondary education is managed by the provinces but jointly funded and both levels of government deliver job training. This has led to balkanization, wasted resources and debilitating friction.

Tremblay wishes he knew how to solve this problem. "It's a sensitive issue, for sure."

Ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum will find some of Coulombe and Tremblay's prescriptions hard to swallow.

The economists call for subsidized child care - considered an unaffordable frill by many right wingers - on the grounds that raising women's literacy is one of the smartest investments a society can make. At the same time, they advocate school choice - anathema to many left wingers - on the grounds that increased competition among educators would improve literacy levels.

They are guided by what works, not what is politically fashionable.

Canada needs more of this kind of open-minded research.

Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.


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