Canada's Adult Literacy "Problem" and What to Do About It - C.D. Howe Institute

TORONTO, Sept. 16, 2015 /CNW/ - Canada's lacklustre performance on the OECD's test of adult literacy, numeracy and problem solving has raised questions about the quality of provincial education systems, but the explanation for the poor scores lies elsewhere, according to a new C.D. Howe Institute report. In "Underperforming Adults? The Paradox of Skills Development in Canada," author Andrew Parkin determines the real reason for the lackluster performance of Canada's adults and makes recommendations on how to address skills deficits.

Parkin notes that a cursory review of Canada's adult test scores seems to contradict the prevailing notion that Canada's education systems are among the best on world, which is based on international tests of students. "The contrast between adult- and student-level scores is a puzzle that has unfortunately led some opinion leaders to question the quality of Canada's education systems," he says.

But a closer analysis of the survey results reveals the unique ways in which Canada's skills profile is shaped not only by the experiences of those born and educated in the country but also by those of its sizeable immigrant population. Parkin finds that Canadian adults, both immigrant and non-immigrant, score well above average compared to counterparts in other OECD countries.

"Most people will not be surprised to learn that Canadian immigrants perform much better than immigrants in most other countries. What may surprise them, however, is that the results of non-immigrants in Canada are also above the international average," comments Parkin.

The paradox is evident: Canada's two above-average scores—immigrant and non-immigrant—are combining to equal an average score. Out of 23 countries, Canada ranks sixth in terms of the literacy scores of immigrants and seventh in terms of the scores of non-immigrants; the scores of the two groups combined nonetheless are at or below the overall average.  "So why do Canadian adults as a whole not out-perform the international norm? The answer to the riddle, of course, lies in the relatively high proportion of immigrants in the Canadian population compared to other OECD countries," says Parkin.

Parkin points to the importance of building on Canada's success to date in both education and immigration by targeting skills development and language training to the groups who need it most, including older workers, Canadians with less formal education, and immigrants, especially those whose first language is neither English nor French. The author recommends that the government do the following:

  • While continuing to prioritize the recruitment of highly educated immigrants, also be attentive to proficiency in the official language, and provide more support in terms of language training;
  • Increase efforts aimed at recruiting foreign students in greater numbers and encouraging them to stay in Canada after graduation; and
  • Offer older workers more opportunities for training and continuing education in order to boost their skills. "The largest age cohort of workers in the Canadian labour force currently is those aged 45 to 54. These workers have seen their basic literacy and numeracy skills decline over time. Yet we will be reliant on them to drive our economic output for years to come," says Parkin.

The author argues that boosting the performance of Canadian adults on international assessments requires us to move beyond the knee-jerk tendency to place blame with our higher education institutions and focus on those Canadians whose performance on these assessments is well below average. Parkin concludes: "These are not today's graduates from our universities, but rather those groups for whom success in the labour market has been, and continues to be, more challenging."

The C.D. Howe Institute is an independent not-for-profit research institute whose mission is to raise living standards by fostering economically sound public policies. It is Canada's trusted source of essential policy intelligence, distinguished by research that is nonpartisan, evidence-based and subject to definitive expert review. It is considered by many to be Canada's most influential think tank.

For the report go to:

SOURCE C.D. Howe Institute

For further information: Andrew Parkin, former Director General of the Council of Ministers of Education.; 416-865-1904, or email:


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