Why every Albertan needs to graduate high school
Smarter. Richer. Safer. Better. Alberta can be all of these things. All it needs to do is get every kid in the province through high school
by Marzena Czarnecka
Imagine a province with civic participation rates of upwards of 90 per cent, one in which almost every single adult makes it to the polls to cast their votes in every election. Imagine a province with crime rates so low municipal police forces never agitate for higher budgets, one in which gangs don’t gain a foothold in urban areas and youth vandalism in rural areas is a rare and downright weird thing. Imagine a province with a workforce that’s skilled at acquiring new skills, whenever they’re needed, one that adapts to change as soon as the economy demands it. Imagine a province that’s rich beyond the wildest dreams of even the most avaricious capitalist. You think we’re wealthy now? Imagine a province that’s richer than the Alberta of even the boomiest boom. It could happen. It will happen. And all we have to do to get there is graduate every single Albertan from high school.
Illustration Michael Byers
Lucy Miller, president and CEO of the Calgary United Way and former superintendent of the Calgary Catholic Board of Education, has a dream. Listen. “Let’s envision a community where all of our kids coming out of high school, and while they were in high school, had a clear vision of where they were going and were committed to getting there,” she says. “Imagine a society where kids in high school are really focused on where they’re going, on their future, and there’s a culture in the school and the community around it of supporting each other’s success.”
What happens in such a society, in such a high school? Well, Miller bets that teen suicide rates drop. So does drug use. Vandalism. Bullying. And dropping out of high school, either because it’s an unbearable place to be or an irrelevant waste of time? That ends too. Everyone gets to that Grade 12 finish line, and everyone gets that diploma. “Can we imagine this place?” Miller asks. “A place where kids support each other’s success, and aren’t getting into things they shouldn’t be involved in, because they’re focused on where they’re going? And, a place where, when these kids come out of school they are right away contributing to society and the world, and they are starting to build their life.”
We’re a long way away from that place right now, though. At 74 per cent, Alberta’s high-school completion rate is still among the lowest in the country, and while the figure is trending in the right direction it still leaves much to be desired. Meanwhile, those that don’t get their high school diploma are, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of screwed.
When the bottom fell out of the Alberta economy in 2008, one in 10 high school graduates aged 20-24 was unemployed. Bad enough, surely, but not as bad as the situation that their dropout counterparts faced, of whom one in four was out of a job. Conrad Murphy, the director of Bow Valley College’s TOWES/Centre for Career Advancement, says that wasn’t an anomaly. “What happens in a place like Alberta is that there is this lucrative job market and people can find themselves employed even if they have no skills,” he says. “But they are the first ones out during a downturn. They are vulnerable.”
Not surprisingly, they earn less – the most conservative earnings gap puts this at $3,000 a year less than their counterparts with a high school education (and no other post-secondary training), while other studies put their earnings loss at anywhere from $200 to $700 a week. That means, incidentally, they pay less in tax. They also vote less, contribute less to charities and are less likely to participate in the cultural and recreational activities of their communities. And, perhaps most significantly, they’re more likely to raise children who drop out and repeat the cycle anew.
So, again – imagine if we broke the cycle. Just imagine.
Economist T. Scott Murray has done more than imagine. He’s a senior advisor on Human Resources in Science and Technology at Statistics Canada and the driving force behind DataAngel.ca, an analysis, research design and management service, and he’s put a solid figure on the return on investment associated with getting every Albertan through high-school. Are you ready? It’s 1,500 per cent, a third of which would come from savings on government program spending alone. “Our numbers on this are pretty solid,” he says. “The savings in health, employment insurance, social assistance and workers compensation for this sort of investment in workforce education will be huge.”
Oh, and the gain in productivity and efficiency in the workplace? Twice as big as the government’s share. “Employers would see increased efficiency and productivity,” he says. Their workforce would make fewer errors. They’d find it easier to implement new technologies. Above all, it would be easier to change, adapt, learn, and up-skill and re-skill as needed. It would be a workforce the likes of which we’ve never seen in Canada.
And that’s just the beginning, according to Stephen Murgatroyd. He’s the author of Rethinking Education: Learning and the New Renaissance, the first book in the “Creating a Learning Alberta” series that’s a partnership between leading public policy thinkers and the Alberta Teachers’ Association, and he thinks the payoffs of a more educated province would be profound. “It would mean more people doing more diverse things and being more entrepreneurial and creative in the workplace,” he says. “We would be a more creative, innovative and fun community – our cities and our communities throughout the province would be places in which young Albertans had a sense of a sense of ownership and belonging.” Our province would be a better place to live – across the board, and without qualification.
So why aren’t we that richer, healthier, safer, more productive – and more fun – province? There are four barriers standing in our way. The first is good old inertia. “We’re complacent and until we stop being complacent, things will not change very much,” Murray says. “Canada, and Alberta in particular, has had one of the longest sustained periods of economic growth anywhere, ever. So when people are confronted with the idea that they might be at risk economically in that environment, they don’t accept it, they don’t apprehend they may have a problem, because they have kids and a mortgage and a boat and all those trappings. They don’t realize the world has changed.”
The second barrier is a job market that, in the short term, does not reward education. When a 2008 Statistics Canada release pegged Alberta’s high school completion rates at a dismal 67.9 per cent, national media had a heyday with headlines such as “Dropping out for oil.” The oil patch and its well-paying, no-education required jobs that lure young males out of high school and onto rigs have long been identified as the culprit behind Alberta’s higher-than-average dropout rate. “If you’re a dissatisfied student in Grade 11, you don’t see a lot of relevance in what you’re learning, and you’ve got friends making a living in the oil patch – that’s a powerful lure,” says Conrad Murphy.
But that lure is accentuated by the fact that most of the employers in the industry don’t value you any more if you’ve got a diploma. “They say they don’t see a difference between a Grade 11 dropout and a Grade 12 graduate,” Murphy says. The employer gets a young, healthy employee. The dropout gets a nice paycheque. Neither one is thinking of their long-term trade-offs.
The third barrier is an education system that isn’t responsive to the realities of life in the 21st century. As Murgatroyd sees it, the attractiveness of oil patch jobs is not a cause of high dropout rates, but a symptom of a secondary school system doesn’t meet the needs of the students – especially the male students – who leave. “The reason kids leave is that the curriculum in schools is irrelevant to most kids,” the self-described “recovering academic” says. “It’s designed for the kids who are going to go on to university. Designing a curriculum with the needs of the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary in mind is ridiculous. What we need is a curriculum that allows all your people to be recognized for what their talents are, so they would not be bored to death in school.”
After all, a community needs everyone. Doctors, engineers and bankers, sure, but just as badly – more so, right now, in fact – welders, plumbers, electricians, hairstylists, gas station owners and mechanics. That’s why we need to put a value on apprenticeships, trades and other paths to success in life. Only 23 per cent of parents and 43 per cent of teachers encourage high school students to consider skilled trades as a career path. But Alberta desperately needs skilled trades. Encouraging students to complete high school while getting real-life job training is one of the ways Norway got its non-completion rates down to under three per cent. Norway, incidentally, did this by partnering with the private sector. The private sector provides the training, and the government pays a bonus to both employers and students when the student successfully completes the program.
The last barrier might be the most difficult to overcome, because when it comes to Alberta’s most vulnerable children, success in school isn’t about education at all. For a good percentage of high-school dropouts, it’s not about what the education system does or not deliver. The deck got shuffled and stacked against them before they even showed up to kindergarten.“I’m not saying socio-economic status is destiny, but it does put up some substantial barriers and gives substantial boosts,” says Larry Booi, a former Edmonton-area teacher and administrator and the president of Public Interest Alberta, a public-policy advocacy group. He notes that kids from poorer households are more likely to drop out than kids from affluent households, as are kids from families with substance abuse problems and those in the foster care system. “When I look at the research and my own experience in schools and why kids are unsuccessful, in most cases it has nothing to do with the education they’re getting, but with other aspects of their lives that are getting in the way,” Booi says.
But guess what? We can demolish every single one of those barriers. We can get this new Alberta – this rich-beyond-the-dreams-of-avarice, and healthy and safe to boot Alberta – that’s going to kick global ass in productivity, efficiency, and innovation. Here’s how. First, we’ve got to get a little bit scared. “I’m pessimistic about the future of the country when we fall behind in an area so important for productivity and prosperity,” says Paul Cappon, the former president of the Canadian Council of Learning. “That’s frightening and what worries me for my grandchildren. We’ve got to do better or someone else will eat our lunch.”
Fear’s a good motivator. Terrified people change faster than complacent people. But we’re ornery Albertans who hate doing anything by the book. Tell us we’re too complacent to change, and we just might surprise you. Especially if you tell us that here’s our chance to shame the rest of Canada into action: “Alberta is key strategically,” Cappon says. “Because it’s an innovative jurisdiction in education – it’s already done a lot of things well and creatively. Because it has so much political stability it can take risks and has done so in the past.” And if Alberta does it, well, then Ontario and the rest of the country won’t want to lag behind.
If we want to get anywhere, we’ve got to set “concrete, tangible goals,” Cappon says. “Do we want to decrease our dropout rate from 15 per cent to 5 per cent? And over what time?” We should be ambitious when setting those goals, too. “Does a dropout rate of 15 per cent mean that it’s acceptable to us as a society that 3,000 kids in your city don’t graduate each year?” the United Way’s Lucy Miller says. It’s not acceptable to her, and Calgary school superintendent Naomi Johnson agrees. “There are no throw-away children. This should be our goal: each child will complete high school and thrive.”
So we’re agreed, then. A 100 per cent target rate it is. Now, how do we get there?
First, the good news: according to JC Couture, the associate coordinator of research with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, it doesn’t have to involve more money. “Alberta’s problem isn’t a lack of money. It’s never been a lack of money. It’s about coordinating and making sure that what communities see as priorities get the support that’s needed.” Instead, Couture says, we need to re-think how we deploy those resources. There is a mounting body of evidence that centralized, bureaucratic systems of education – like Alberta’s, for example – tend to fail, while decentralized, community-anchored and responsive systems – like Finland, where high school students may spend as much time working in the community as they do sitting in a classroom – graduate thriving, learning citizens. “Any big organization, whether it’s the ATA or the provincial or federal government, tends to think more policy is going to help them get where they want to be. Actually, the reverse is true.”
We also need to stop looking for a quick fix. “Education is a complex system with lots of variables,” Cappon says. That means smaller class sizes will not fix Alberta’s dropout rate. Neither will more standardized testing – or less standardized testing, for that matter. A return to the basics, a focus on competencies rather than skills, more outcomes, fewer outcomes: none of these quick fixes are the answer, and we need to stop wasting time agitating for one or the other. Oh, and while we’re at it, we have to stop blaming children for their lack of success, and instead help them succeed. “No child wakes up in the morning and says ‘I hope I ruin my life today,’” Miller says.
Now, the most important question: can we do it? Damn straight – and we’re already doing some of it. “Alberta is having the conversation about transforming our system, our curriculum,” Murgatroyd says. It’s a tough slog because when it comes to education, everyone’s a stakeholder and everyone’s been through the system, which means everyone has an idea of how it should work and a reluctance to change that which worked for them.
But change we must, because we’re not going to be allowed to stay complacent forever. If we don’t set ambitious goals for the education and skill level of Alberta’s population, we will be left in the dust. “If we don’t maximize the development of educational potential of every child,” Booi says, “we’re going to fall behind in a planet that is increasingly competitive and knowledge-based.”
Alberta doesn’t do falling behind very well. So let’s not, okay? Think about how far we’ve come even with inertia, and a dropout rate higher than that of Italy and Slovakia. Imagine how far we could go with a dropout rate of zero. Imagine what it would mean if the minimum standard set and met for Alberta youth was a meaningful Grade 12 education, one that prepared them for success and a habit of life learning.
Imagine. And then, go out and do something about it. Because as Lucy Miller says, “Everybody owns this problem. We’ve been complaining about high school completion rates in this province for years. The government and the schools can’t do it alone. They need all of us to step up to the plate. We’ve got to stop just talking about it, blaming other people, and own it: what’s my role in supporting this? We all have a role.” What’s yours?
Yes, all this is going to cost money. But, no matter how libertarian your politics, you should be rushing to help pay for it. The reality is that every kid who doesn’t make it through high-school costs you money – yes, you. Every kid you get to Grade 12 saves society – and you – $26,000 in crime-related costs. That’s because the lifetime cost to a society for every person who spends their life in and out of prison getting busted for crimes of varying degrees of seriousness has been calculated as being as high as $1.7 to $2.3 million, and approximately 70 per cent of the inmates of Alberta prisons are high school drop-outs. Meanwhile, before the average high-school dropout dies –and they die much younger than someone who finished high-school – they take about $8,000 a year more from the healthcare system than their better educated peers. Want to pay fewer taxes for policing, health care and social welfare purposes? Then help a high school drop-out cross the finish line. A good education is the best investment you can make – even when it belongs to someone else.