Pass or Fail: Canadian Education in the 21st Century (2008)
Videos in this documentary
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Poll: Canadian schools make the grade – but only just
Parents give education a B or B-minus, survey done for CBC suggests
Last Updated: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 | 6:07 AM ET Comments167Recommend57
Canadian schools get a passing grade for quality of education but there's plenty of room for improvement, a survey of parents and former students commissioned by the CBC and done by the polling firm Environics suggests. Of the poll respondents, 49 per cent described the quality of education in their province as good, with 28 per cent opting for adequate. Eight per cent described it as excellent.
How the poll was conducted
The results are based on telephone interviews with 803 people conducted from Aug. 1-13. The sample included households from all 10 provinces and a representative variety of ethnic, linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds.
The sample was comprised of 479 parents of students attending a publicly funded primary or high school and 168 whose offspring graduated within the past five years. As well, 156 people 18 years of age and older were interviewed, all of whom had graduated from a public high school within the past 10 years.
Given the size of the sample, the survey results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
Just 13 per cent of respondents said education quality was poor (11 per cent) or very poor (two per cent). The poll also suggests that more than half the people in the country feel schools do a better job today than 10 years ago. A little more than 60 per cent of Canadians think both elementary and secondary schools are as good or better than in the 1990s, according to the survey. The percentage of parents who rated schools as poor or very poor has also dropped by nearly half from 1995, when a quarter held such opinions. Now, just 14 per cent of Canadian parents are that dismayed at the quality of public education in the country.
Canadians 'want more'
On the surface, this appears to be a vote of confidence in the school system. But when asked whether "schools could be teaching students much more than they currently do," 69 per cent said yes, they could. In other words, says Environics senior vice-president Donna Dasko, Canadians expect a lot more from the education system, even though they feel it's doing an adequate job.
"What I would conclude is that we are giving schools a B or maybe a B minus, but we think they should be much better, given the resources they have," Dasko told CBCNews.ca. "Schools should be teaching more, imparting more knowledge, more of the essential core knowledge required for life," she said. "That's what Canadians feel."
A related question asked whether schools are teaching students "the right things in the right way for the times that we live in." According to Dasko, this was particularly aimed at parents of school-age children. Fifty-six per cent of them answered in the affirmative. That, she pointed out, is barely a passing grade. "Canadians are disappointed," Dasko said. "They want more from schools."
No single pressing issue
Asked what was the most important issue in the country's public education system today, respondents could not point to a dominant problem, instead giving a wide variety of answers.
Most important challenges facing education system:
Lack of funding 12%
Large class sizes 12%
Poor quality of teaching 6%
Need more fundamentals (math etc.) 6%
Curriculum issues 6%
General poor quality 5%
Discipline issues 4%
Motivating students 3%
Literacy/reading/writing/lack of phonics 3%
Lack of teachers/staff 3%
Special needs students 2%
Values/morals/character issues 2%
All others 18%
Don't know/NA 15%
source: Environics/CBC poll
Shortfalls in funding, cutbacks, large class sizes and lack of individual attention to students were key concerns. But some felt teaching quality needed to improve and there needed to be greater stress on basic skills in math and other subjects. Half of those surveyed thought it is "very important" for students to learn the official language that wasn't their mother tongue. A third also strongly favoured teaching another language, other than English or French, to students.
That recognition of globalization, the role of immigration in Canadian society and multiculturalism is also reflected in other findings of the survey. Eighty-four per cent of respondents felt it's "very important" or "somewhat important" to study the religious beliefs and social customs of countries around the world.
At the same time, Canadians are keen that their country's story be told as well — 69 per cent said it's "very important" to teach Canadian history in schools. As well as languages, other cultures and history, an interesting mix of practical and academic ideas came out of survey questions about what students should learn. Managing a household budget is the top choice of respondents who were asked what children should be learning in school. Significant numbers also opted for learning the definition of a recession and learning how to cook a meal.
Reading a novel such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird didn't rate that highly with those surveyed. Just 22 per cent called it very important.
Learning to get along with others
'Very important' for students to learn:
How to manage a household budget 82%
Canadian history 68%
How to cook a meal 59%
The definition of a recession 56%
Second World War history 50%
The other official language (French for English speakers, English for French speakers) 50%
The difference between a molecule and a cell 48%
How to calculate the survey area of a patio 45%
About beliefs and customs from around the world 36%
Learn a language other than English or French
How to write computer code 33%
How to play a musical instrument 31%
Read To Kill a Mockingbird 22%
How to fix a car 18%
Source: Environics/CBC poll
Asked what goals schools should set for the education process, the survey found Canadians are keen on students picking up moral values in the classroom. Fully 93 per cent felt it's very important or somewhat important for schools to stress a child's moral development. Not surprisingly, almost all parents want their children learning things that are useful in their future careers or occupation, particularly honing social skills, including the ability to get along and work with others.
Ninety-nine per cent of those surveyed thought it's "important" or "very important" for schools to stress the importance of social skills. To Dasko, that's a reflection of the fact that Canadian workplaces have changed and parents want their children equipped for them. "There is a true consensus across all groups on this," Dasko said. "What's important is being able to work with people, all kinds of people, in working environments that are more social and less hierarchical than they were in the past. This is hugely important to Canadians."
Despite wanting more from schools than students are currently getting, people in Canada also seem willing to accept their share of blame for problems in the school system. Sixty-four per cent of respondents said such problems can be traced to problems in students' homes, with just 20 per cent blaming teachers.