By Paul Cappon: 

Heading into the Sochi Olympics, the home team from Russia appeared to be the favourites.

They failed badly, humiliated because the team played less well than the sum of its parts. The Canadians, on the other hand, had both magnificent players and an outstanding structure and system. They needed both to show definitively that they were the best in the world.

In education, alas, we resemble the Russian Olympic team, not the Canadian. We have a strong education ethos and outstanding educators at every level from primary through post-secondary. Yet, our results are now mediocre and our future clouded. It appears that any success our educators have occurs despite our systems, not because of them.

Canadians seem to be aware of this paradox: even though national learning performance is increasingly uncompetitive internationally, research from the Canadian Council on Learning found that most residents are satisfied with their schools, their teachers and their post-secondary institutions. We are being held back systematically, not by individual educators or their institutions.

How did this come about and what can be done about it?

First, a few data points that drive home the nature of our challenge. We are one of the few countries whose absolute scores as well as relative placing in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have shown slippage.

In the OECD Programme for Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC), released in 2013, the skills of our PSE participants in all three domains were shown to be near the foot of the OECD table. This finding is more significant and worrying for two reasons: the PIAAC test was of adults and therefore assessed outcomes from both initial education and PSE; and the PIAAC review deals with actual real world skills of working-age Canadians in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving.

Is it relevant to boast that we have the highest rates of tertiary education in the OECD when our graduates lack necessary competencies in comparison with partner countries? Should we boast about spending among the highest per capita amounts on PSE when much smaller countries have more universities whose reputations place them in the top 100 globally; when the unemployment rate among recent graduates is high; when we are among the least performing countries in graduation rates in the key disciplines of science, engineering, mathematics and computer science?

The responsibility for Canada’s mediocre and worsening outcomes in education does not rest with educators but with the absence of structures appropriate to the modern world. Students, workers and educational institutions now just stubbornly refuse to stop at provincial borders. Yet Canada has no national plan, no shared measurable objectives for any aspect of education, from early childhood care and education to postgraduate work. Worse, it does not possess the necessary information, nor any evidence on which to base decisions about policy and resource allocation.

Let’s cite just two among a myriad of examples. OECD shows that, in 2010, Canada ranked 36th out of 37 countries in access to early childhood education. What is far worse is that Canada was the only country unable to report either the ratio of children to teachers in ECEC or the national per capita expenditure on ECEC. Without that requisite information, it is not possible to make policy and allocation decisions that might lead to improvement.

With respect to PSE, students and potential learners lack information that is crucial to informed choice, for example how many graduates there are in Canada in any year in a particular discipline; or how many left a study area prior to completion – and where did they go?

The OECD recommends three essential levers for policy making: countries must articulate a vision for tertiary education that harmonises with national social and economic objectives; they must establish sound instruments for steering towards and implementing that vision; and they must strengthen the ability of institutions to align with the national tertiary education strategy.

Canada has no national vision. We have no measurable goals with which PSE might harmonise. We have no steering instruments, merely a confused and confusing hodgepodge of provincial norms and institutions. Institutions are left without a strategy with which to align. Bereft of that, they muddle along and are then criticised for not doing better.

The essence of Canada’s educational conundrum, then, is lack of coherence, collaboration and coordination. What can be done about this?

Constitutional change to enact a federal ministry of education is a non-starter and the Council of Ministers of Education is impotent.

Australia is a country similar to Canada in constitution, population and population density. Although education falls under State jurisdiction, the federal and State governments work together to set goals, monitor results, and report publicly on outcomes. Together they attempt to meet national standards upon which they have agreed. They provide for coherence and smoothness in transition between learning stages. Together they seek to engage industry and governments in common projects.

In Australia, there are joint mechanisms to monitor learning results and to improve them. By no means is Australia an educational utopia – but it gives itself at least the prerequisites for future success.

By contrast, Canada is a land without a single measurable national goal for any stage of education or training. If we refuse to set goals, we need not achieve them. If we refuse to measure, we can ignore outcomes – or worse, pretend that we are world beaters.

If all else fails, we can blame it on the educators.

The European Union is not a country. Yet, its member states establish goals for all and individual country results are released publicly and regularly. If we in Canada could reach that first step, we would create the possibility of some collaboration and coherence in education that would lead to improved results over time.

For ECEC we would be able to decide what resources to allocate to this priority. For K-12 education we could have shared national learning outcomes for every age and grade level. For PSE, we would articulate clear expectations for institutions according to their remit and within an agreed framework.

In the language of the 1960s and 70s, we were urged to “think globally, act locally.” For 21st century Canadian education, we must “think nationally – and that will permit us more successfully to act locally.”

Paul Cappon is the former CEO Canadian Council on Learning; former CEO Council of Ministers of Education; Canada Fellow, Graduate School of International and Public Policy, University of Ottawa.