23 August 2010

The value of education

Talk about putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable.

The provincial government thinks innovation is about how much money it spends on something. Take this quote from Danny Williams as being just one of many:
That is an area [innovation] we are now moving in. It is a very, very important area that we have to address and this government is committed to putting that money into that research. That is why the experience that I had yesterday was an incredible experience, but it goes to show the importance of using those monies in the proper areas so that we can prepare for the future at a time when the oil and gas is gone.
That event, incidentally happened actually two days before he made those remarks.  The province’s new research and development corporation announced $775,000 in funding for different research projects.

This emphasis on cash is not surprising. The crowd currently running the place seem to think that everything can be reduced to how much money government spends

But as good as it is to fund research and development, when it comes to innovation, education is the key.
When you look at education in the province, though, you don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Reading and writing is a challenge.

Almost half the adult population of Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t have a literacy level that would allow them to “function well in Canadian society.”

Basic math skills are an even bigger problem.

Almost two out of every three adult Newfoundlanders and Labradorians don’t have the skill with numbers and mathematics – they call it numeracy – to function well in Canadian society.

Numeracy is actually a far greater problem because it involves not just an ability to add, subtract, multiple and divide.  Numeracy also involves logic and reasoning, probability, and statistics.  That's basically the ability to solve problems using  - for example - an }if this, then that" way of thinking.

The only place worse off than this one?  Nunavut.  New Brunswick is tied with Newfoundland and Labrador with low numeracy and literacy levels among adults.

Just think about it for a second:  half the workforce of the province lacks the ability to function adequately in modern society. It’s not their fault, mind you, and it certainly doesn’t mean they are stupid.  These figures tell you that the province’s education system failed them, not just in the past but in the present day.

The problem, you see, isn’t confined to adults. Student literacy is about the same as the adult scores, while student numeracy is nothing to write home about either. 

Now on the other hand, the drop-out rate has plummeted in the past 20 years. But as CBC Radio noted late last December, high school graduates in the eastern part of the province are more likely to graduate with a general pass than with the results needed to carry on to university or trades training.

You can see the consequences in the completion and participation rates. University participation is among the best in the country even if the completion rate is one of the worst. College and trade school education has a relatively low participation rate but a decent completion level.

It’s not like the connection between education and prosperity isn’t well known.  The 1992 Strategic Economic Plan included a section specifically on education reform. The premise was simple enough:
Education is the key to economic development. Studies have shown conclusively that skills, qualifications, innovation and the adaptability of individuals are critical determinants of economic performance and the success of enterprises.
The 1995 Strategic Social Plan, while never implemented, included significant reforms in our education system.

The answer to the education problem in the province is not merely about spending money, as much as the Premier likes to talk about how much cash winds up going out the door.  Nor is the answer found in issuing nonsensical news releases that claim the education department scored a goal when it didn’t.

The first step is to realise there is a problem.

And with half the work force unable to function adequately in modern society, there’s a pretty big problem going unrecognized.

- srbp-