Atlantic Canada’s K-12 Education Crisis: How to Prepare Students for What Lies Ahead

By Ainslie Pierrynowski (AIMS on Campus Student Fellow) 

In recent years characterized by economic stagnation, political discourse in Atlantic Canada has emphasized the importance of enhancing the region’s human capital—referring to assets, like health, training, creativity, and knowledge, which enable individuals to perform valuable labour. Atlantic Canada not only needs to combat outmigration and the decline of several once-prominent industrial sectors, but to ensure that its labour population is capable of creating and filling productive jobs.

K-12 education in particular has become central to the discussion surrounding human capital. Policymakers, educators, and commentators debate whether Atlantic Canadian students attain sufficient skills to compete in a changing global economy. Indeed, statistics suggest that these concerns regarding the region’s schools are well-founded. The 2015 results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures student achievement at the national and sub-national level, showed that all four Atlantic provinces ranked below the Canada average when it came to students’ reading comprehension, mathematics abilities, and understanding of science. Likewise, a 2014 Conference Board of Canada ranking of the Canadian provinces’ academic performance not only placed all the Atlantic provinces below the Canadian average, but situated New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador at the bottom of the list.

Faced with this achievement gap, a decreasing tax base to support public education, and a shrinking, aging population that puts the future of some schools into jeopardy, Atlantic Canada is confronting an education crisis. Yet, what kinds of human capital enhancements are needed to combat the region’s economic difficulties? How must K-12 education in Atlantic Canada evolve in order to meet these needs?

When it comes to the state of the region’s economy, much of Atlantic Canada is termed post-industrial. Essentially, the area’s primary resource and manufacturing industries have significantly declined in profitability. This shift stems from a number of factors, notably the growing economic importance of services and the information technology sector. Despite several success stories, Atlantic Canada has nonetheless struggled to adapt to these economic transformations. Limited access to the capital necessary to compete with larger rivals, outmigration, and, in particular, a need for new, relevant educational and training programs, coupled with other challenges have stymied post-industrial economic growth. The increasing automation of production represents a pressing need to provide students with skills that will be profitable in the long term. Yet, the solution to this problem may not lie in forgoing the region’s continued dependence on sectors like tourism, fishing and agriculture, and resource development, but rather reconfiguring our approach to these key areas.

School curricula that emphasize innovation—referring here to the ability to problem solve, anticipate and meet market needs, and conceive of new, more effective ways to approach tasks—would provide the human capital needed to gain an edge in this new economy. Moreover, production chains have become fragmented, with various stages of manufacturing take place in around the globe in order to gain from different locations’ competitive advantages. Thus, post-industrial growth relies not in rejecting industry but in finding a new niche in existing production chains. Graduates with these key innovative skills can fit into the research and development stage, devising new products or ways to produce. Nevertheless, in order to achieve this goal, the region also needs the financial infrastructure—hubs of banks and loan providers—needed to facilitate investment.

As well, the public debate on education in Atlantic Canada has seen the launch of a coding program in Nova Scotia and a call for more school choice. Such initiatives, however, rely on specialized, trained teachers and, in the case of the latter, access for students in isolated, rural areas that struggle to support a single school. E-learning could bring these niche programs and educational opportunities to students in small communities, especially when travel time or the weather make attending distant schools impossible. With expanded e-learning, students’ human capital—and the opportunities associated with it—would no longer by dictated by their location.

A 2016 AIMS report cited the advantages of e-learning, noting e-learning’s potential for higher student engagement and the need for students familiarize themselves with information technology given its crucial role in the current economy. Despite these merits of e-learning, the report revealed that online education has yet to see widespread adoption in Atlantic Canada, in sharp contrast to education powerhouses like Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. Skepticism of this new educational trend and structural barriers like regulations regarding online class sizes and teaching times have impeded e-learning’s potential in Atlantic Canada.

Recent initiatives in St. John’s and Summerside, however, hint at a growing acceptance of e-learning as a valuable educational tool. Therefore, as the AIMS report suggests, provincial education departments need to support educators who actively adopt e-learning and provide administrators with online education training so they can foster e-learning programs within their schools. They must likewise monitor the effectiveness of e-learning programs and restructure school boards that adopt e-learning to further the wide variety of course and program offerings made possible by distance education.

It is also important to note that the educational challenges recounted here are not confined to any one location or province. Rather, the far-ranging nature of these difficulties makes coordination among Atlantic Canada’s provincial and local government essential. That is, these groups can work to overcome the region’s educational crisis more effectively by building on their shared experiences and best practices and by avoiding policies with potential negative externalities for other locations. They can likewise devise clear equivalencies between their respective curricula, thus making their educational credentials more transferable and facilitating intraregional labour migration.

Ultimately, Atlantic Canada cannot afford to lose a generation. Students need the knowledge, tools, and capabilities that will allow them to make a home in the region, rather than being pushed away by financial circumstances, as many young people are. Atlantic Canada’s survival in the world’s rapidly changing economy starts in our schools.

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