The Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce has given the province’s educational system a failing grade.
According to the business group, students who are making the transition to the workforce lack basic math and language skills. Chamber president Quinton Bevan, along with directors Rory Francis and Steve Loggie, made a presentation recently to the Standing Committee on Education and Innovation.
The committee was mandated to review why P.E.I. consistently finishes last in the country in an international test that compares students in countries belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in reading, science and math.
To use a sports analogy, P.E.I. is the team that always finishes out of the playoffs. The team that always falls just short and frustrates its fans, but that is just who they are and that is the price you pay for cheering for them.
If his public statements are any indication, Education Minister Alan McIssaac has bought into that line of thinking. The state of education was one of the major issues in the spring legislative session, and McIsaac said being at the bottom in Canada is not actually so bad because Canada ranks higher than most other countries. That is the kind of thinking that has to change.
The chamber members suggested an end to the practice of what is called “social promotion.” Basically, that means the student is moved on to the next grade, even if they have not satisfactorily completed the work, so they can keep up with their peers.
This practice is not unique to P.E.I. and many other jurisdictions are also looking at whether to retain the practice. It is a fine line. Obviously, teenagers shouldn’t still be in elementary school, but social promotion definitely has social costs. Poor students have no incentive to do better because they know they are going to be moved up the ladder anyway. It also offers little reward for students who perform at a high level if everybody moves on.
That is the mindset students are carrying into the workforce—a sense they will be rewarded whether or not they complete the work. The chamber representatives told the committee the failure to prepare students for the workforce limits the career potential of the students and the economic growth of the province. They also point out having a school system that ranks last in the country makes it harder to attract new immigrants and professionals from other parts of Canada.
The chamber makes some excellent points, especially showing how shortcomings in the classroom do have an impact on all aspects of Island society. While changing the mindset is important, it is not the only obstacle – like virtually every other government department, education is facing budgetary restraints.
Schools in urban areas are now dealing with growing classroom sizes, while many rural schools are facing a battle for survival in the wake of declining enrolment. There are no easy answers but change must happen—finishing last every year is not OK.
Andy Walker is an Island-based freelance writer and commentator.