How Increasing Graduation Rates and Reducing Achievement Gaps Help Canada

by Lee Taal on 16 Nov, 2017

Canada has a problem: we need more workers. Consider the following challenges:

We need to help encourage immigration to Canada, and make it easier for employers to connect with potential employees. We also need to continue the momentum growing across Canada on a focus on preparing more high school students for college and university, since research shows post-secondary education leads to better jobs and better salaries.

However, there are two other important strategies for increasing the number of skilled workers Canada so desperately needs: improving graduation rates and reducing the “achievement gap.”


Why Canada’s High School Graduation Rate Matters

According to Statistics Canada, in 2014, 90 percent of Canadians aged 25 to 64 had completed at least high school, well above the OECD average of 76 percent. Only the Czech Republic (93 percent), Estonia (91 percent), the Slovak Republic (91 percent) and Poland (91 percent) reported higher high school graduation rates. The United States also has a 90 percent high school graduation rate.

While 90 percent is high and is something all Canadians should be proud of, that’s still 10 percent of young people in Canada who effectively have diminished opportunities in the workforce, likely will be underemployed or stuck in low-wage occupations.

Improving the high school graduation rate will not only increase the number of workers and help address the skills shortage in Canada, it will also make a difference in these people’s lives.

Increasing Canada’s high school graduation rate is also linked to reducing what educators call achievement gaps. This is a challenge that educators all over the world have struggled with, not just in Canada.


What Is the “Achievement Gap”?

According to educators, the achievement gap is the disparity in academic achievement and graduation rates between different groups, such as minority and/or disadvantaged students and their counterparts.

The achievement gap can also exist between boys and girls and can be felt in many ways, from low test scores, to poor graduation rates and an inability to participate in the skilled workforce.

Researchers agree that in the “nature versus nurture” argument that tends to dominate the discussion, the classroom environment is key when it comes to improving student performance in high school.

“In my view, it is not innate ability but rather the opportunity to learn — an artifact of environment — that underlies the achievement gap,” says US education researcher Andy Porter. The US, like Canada, has also struggled to address the achievement gap over the past fifty years.


The Human and Economic Cost of the Achievement Gap

In Canada, the achievement gap has serious implications for our future workforce, as well as the quality of life of traditionally marginalized ethnic groups.

For example, the high school dropout rate for aboriginals in Canada is four times the national average at 41 per cent, and when looked at as a group, aboriginals have vastly lower test scores. On reserves, nearly six out of ten aboriginal students do not finish high school.

Besides improving the quality of life for these Canadians, it’s estimated that closing the education attainment gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians would generate a cumulative GDP gain of up to $261-billion (2010 dollars) between 2011 and 2031 and generate substantial savings for governments.


Strategies for Addressing the “Wicked Problem” of Closing the Achievement Gap in Canada

Educators in Canada have described the challenge of closing the achievement gap as a “wicked problem” — a problem that is difficult to define, defies easy or routine solutions mutates over time, and re-emerges after they have been put to rest.

As in other nations facing imminent labour shortages, a variety of strategies are being employed by Canadian educators for closing the gaps, including:


1) Enhance Teachers’ Cultural Competence

Consider students’ diversity to be an asset, while increasing the cultural awareness of educators and school staff.


2) Provide Students With Comprehensive Support

Identify students who need additional instructional support, and support students via mentors, tutoring, peer support networks, and role models.


3) Reach Out to Families

Schools need to engage and reach out to students’ families. They can do this by establishing family centers at schools and other community locations, or hiring staff from the community who speak families’ home languages.


4) Make Sure Classrooms Support Learning

Use varied, effective strategies to instruct diverse learners, while targeting literacy and math instruction, if needed.


5) Strong District Support

Make closing achievement gaps a district priority, while providing additional resources and support for students experiencing achievement gaps.


How Are You Closing the Achievement Gap?

Schools that close achievement gaps and improve graduation rates typically focus on improving learning for all students, maintain a “no excuses” attitude. However, in an era of constrained budgets, this can be a “wicked problem” indeed.

How is your school working to close the achievement gap? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

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