By Janet Lane and Scott Murray
Published in the Leader-Post, Star Phoenix, London Free Press, Montreal Gazette and The Province

January 3, 2020

Once again, Canadian secondary students are among the best in the world, according to the most recent round of PISA, the OECD’s 2018 assessment of the reading, mathematics and science proficiency of 15-year-old students, in 65 countries.

Canada’s students placed fourth overall in average scores, a strong endorsement of the quality of Canada’s public education system.

But a further look at the data shows Canada’s reading scores on the 800-point PISA proficiency scale have dropped by 14 points since 2000.

A slightly less than two per cent drop in the average scores of 15-year-olds might not seem like much, but for the good of the workforce and Canada’s future economic performance we need to move in the other direction.

Reading is the learning-to-learn skill. It’s the cornerstone of every other job skill — communication, collaboration, problem-solving and being able to learn and adapt all depend on reading. As work changes and jobs demand higher level skills, people without good reading skills are most at risk of being left behind. People gain and lose reading skill over the course of their lifetimes, but the people entering the workforce over the last few years, are, on average, finishing high school with less skill to begin with.

Adults with higher literacy skills earn more for their employers and so are, on average, paid more. Analysis of wage differences by DataAngel shows that after controlling for a large number of other variables known to influence earnings, every point of literacy on the PISA scale is worth about $38 per year for employees. As the importance of literacy skill grows, this value will persist. It doesn’t seem like much, but the math reveals that over their lifetime, 2018’s 15-year-olds could collectively earn as much as $7.5 billion less, in 2018 dollars, than those who were 15 in 2000, due to this 14-point PISA score decline.

Another troubling result from the recent PISA is that a larger proportion of students are now at the lowest end of the scale in all three subjects (6.4 per cent compared to 5.9 percent in 2015). Canada does better than its peers in this area, but long term growth rates, in GDP per capita and productivity, are directly related to average levels of literacy skill, and improve most when the proportion of people with the lowest literacy skills is reduced.

The PISA study also found that the way young people read is changing. Half of 15-year-olds around the world read only when they have to, and rarely from printed text. Only 30 per cent read novels, and about 20 per cent read newspapers or magazines. The overwhelming majority read predominantly online. The change from 2009 has been, predictably, away from print.

This too is a problem. Reading printed long-form text has been shown by researchers Anne Mangen and Naomi Baron to increase comprehension and ultimately, empathy. Both make life easier and are highly sought after in the workplace.

Poor readers have difficulty learning throughout life. To find good jobs and stay employed in ever-changing, increasingly high skill-demand workplaces, the 15-year-olds with the lowest reading skills will most likely have to upgrade within the next few years. It would be less costly for them if they had received appropriate support when they first started to demonstrate that they were not reading at grade level.

Canada has some of the best education systems in the world, but the world is changing rapidly. How education systems deal with struggling readers needs to change too. The PISA scores reveal that more Canadian students will become adults who experience difficulty finding and keeping good jobs, too many will have difficulty with learning new and different skills and on average, they will earn less over their lifetimes than they would if they had been in school a decade earlier.

Janet Lane is the director of the Human Capital Centre at the Canada West Foundation. Scott Murray is Principal, DataAngel Policy Research Inc.