School dropouts: a Canadian--not just Quebec--scandal.

Author:Richards, John
Position:EDUCATION
 
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Last September, former premier Jacques Parizeau issued a cri d'alarme about the high dropout rate among francophone students in Quebec--boys in particular (see page 74). To maximize impact, he published his warning neither in the respectable La Presse nor in the sophisticated Le Devoir, but in the downmarket popular tabloid Le Journal de Montreal.

Maybe his article is no more than acknowledgement of a widely known malaise that few expect to change. Or maybe, in due course, Parizeau will be seen as prophet of a cultural change in attitudes among Quebecois. Six months after his cri d'alarme, interesting Quebec initiatives are underway that may have an impact (admittedly they may not). Jacques Menard, a leading figure among Canada's financial elite, has brought together a 27-member Groupe d'Action sur la Perseverance et la Reussite Scolaires (action group on school continuation and success). As title for their report, they chose Savoir pour pouvoir (knowledge for power), a paraphrase of a famous aphorism by the 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon who, by the way, wrote it in neither English nor French but in Latin. (1)

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If Quebec elites are distressed over dropout rates in their province, so too should be the elites in several other provinces. Once every five years, the census provides a snapshot of the state of educational achievement among Canadians aged 15 and over. Among those who drop out as teenagers, some return to school and obtain secondary school certification at an older age. As of the 2006 census, the lowest dropout rates are among those ages 25-34. Figure 1 on page 92 shows census data on people in that age range without high school certification by sex, by province and, in the case of Quebec, by English and French mother tongue. (2) Four provinces recorded higher dropout rates than Quebec francophones: Manitoba the highest, followed by Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Alberta.

Sceptics point to the impressive scores of Canada's provincial school systems relative to other countries participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a major international exercise in assessment of 15-year-old secondary school students conducted every three years by the OECD. Among 57 participating countries in the latest round, in 2006, Canada ranked third on the key measure, the "combined science" index. If we rank the ten provinces among the 57 participating countries via this index, the top ten become Finland (1), Alberta (2), Hong Kong (3), British Columbia (4), Ontario (5), Canada overall (6), Taiwan (7), Estonia (8), Japan (9) and Quebec (10).

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The problem with any comparison based on averages is that we learn very little about those likely to drop out of school. Potential dropouts tend to turn up in the bottom tail of test score distributions--if they turn up at all. Their school attendance is often erratic and schools may be less than diligent in ensuring that such students actually write a PISA test.

To return to the question, concern about dropouts is merited. First, because very high dropout rates among significant minority groups- such as Aboriginal men in the Prairies (figure 2)--destroy any sense of community. And second, because failing to complete high school has dire economic and social consequences for those who drop out.

Once in the labour force, school dropouts experience much lower employment rates and earn less than students with higher education levels. In 2006, the employment rate among those whose highest education level was high school certification was 64 per cent, compared to only 38 per cent among those who had not completed high school. And while the average income reported by people whose highest educational level was high school certification was $24,200 in 2006, the comparable average among those without certification was $18,700--a difference of nearly 30 per cent. (3) The probability of someone between the ages

of 25 and 64 without high school certification reporting an income below the 2005 after-tax low-income cutoff (LICO) is nearly a third. (4) This is double the rate for those with a trades certificate, and nearly three times the rate for those with a university degree.

In sum, high school completion may be a low rung on the educational ladder, given that some...

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