The ones that count the most

This article is an edited excerpt from his book Pour une gauche efficace (Montreal: Boréal, 2008). It was translated by Bob Chodos.

Despite the strong negative influence of social origins, in Quebec as everywhere else, equality of opportunity can be promoted at two key points early in life. The first is early childhood and entry into school, while the second is adolescence and the early high school year when young people choose their future.

The springboard: Early childhood education

The statistics hit you over the head. While 39 per cent of children from well-off families – a high enough figure – begin Grade 1 with a weak command of language, and therefore limited ability to understand, for poor children the figure is 72 per cent. Elementary schools do what they can with the means at their disposal, but when students finish elementary school, three times as many poor children (11 per cent) as children from well-off families (3.5 per cent) have fallen behind in acquiring knowledge.

While the low-cost daycare program introduced in 1997 was undoubtedly aimed at offering daycare to the middle class, Premier Lucien Bouchard’s political decision to get involved in this area – in the midst of the push for zero deficit and against the wishes of his finance minister – hinged primarily on his wish to provide a springboard for disadvantaged children. Affordable, convenient, high-quality daycare cannot make up for all the deficiencies in an impoverished child’s human and economic environment. But eight hours a day, five days a week, of socialization, stimulation and preparation for reading and writing represent a massive investment in early childhood. With this instrument, society can partly correct through the educational environment what it has not been able to change in the economic environment.

Daycare does more than offer a foundation for learning. It can also screen for health problems, which appear more often in poor children. And by providing breakfast and lunch, it can make up for the nutritional deficiencies that affect 13 per cent of children and have an impact on their development. It can contribute to preventing obesity, which is more prevalent in this group of children. The list is long. If mothers want to concentrate on their own education and looking for a job, daycare allows them to do so, and contact with educators helps break parents’ isolation.

In light of all this, it is shocking that ten years after the program was introduced in Montreal, there are on average fewer than 50 daycare spaces (childcare centres, home daycare and private daycare) for every 100 children aged four and under. A study published in January 2008 by the Montreal Public Health Department noted that the Sud-Ouest–Verdun district, where 40.5 per cent of children are at risk in terms of readiness for school, has the lowest number of available daycare spaces in proportion to population – 42 per 100 children. By contrast, the Jeanne-Mance district, where the percentage of at-risk children is low (29.1 per cent), has the highest number of daycare spaces – nearly 75 per 100 children.

But that’s not the worst. A study carried out in 2003 showed that the quality of daycare services was significantly lower in disadvantaged areas, where the level of support offered should have been higher. While the quality of service in CPEs (community childcare centres) is uniform across the socioeconomic spectrum, this is not true of home daycare providers.

The problem of supply is compounded by a problem of demand. The team of Université du Québec à Montréal researchers (including the future MNA Camil Bouchard) that – along with Centraide (the Montreal equivalent of the United Way) – developed the excellent 1,2,3 Go! program that helps poor children get a good start in life, came to this sad conclusion:

Families with the most social and economic risk factors are the ones that report greatest use of resources that provide material assistance (food banks, clothing exchanges, housing assistance, thrift stores, etc.) but least use of those that provide help with education or social integration (recreation services, toy libraries, learning centres, etc.). They are also the ones that resort most frequently to negative educational practices.

This simple conclusion indicates the need for a major reorientation of our efforts and massive investment in daycare services in disadvantaged areas. This would mean a plan of action aiming to reach 25 per cent of poor children in five years, 50 per cent in ten years, and 75 per cent and more after that. No social program – that’s right, no social program – would offer as great a human and economic return, in the short, medium and long term, as this direct, tangible support for the roughly 120,000 poor children in Quebec, this pathway toward higher quality of life.

And any program involving direct payments to parents (like the one instituted by the Harper government or the one proposed by the Action Démocratique du Québec) would only counteract this massive effort, as it would provide an incentive for disadvantaged families to save their pennies rather than take their child to daycare.

How can it be done? When Pauline Marois, then Minister of Education, wanted to make kindergarten universal for five-year-olds in Quebec, she encountered stiff resistance, even in her own Parti Québécois caucus. Kindergarten still isn’t compulsory, even if more than 97 per cent of Quebec children are registered for it. In France, the school system offers early childhood education at the ages of two, three, four and five. (This is why French children can write at the age of five, rather than six as happens here.) While enrolment is legally optional, in practice early childhood education is almost universal for French children. At the age of three, 95 per cent attend classes, while at four and five, it’s almost 100 per cent. And the French are aware of the importance of early schooling in disadvantaged areas. They have arranged it so that more poor children (40 per cent) than others (26 per cent) are enrolled in early education programs from the age of two.

Universal junior kindergarten for four-year-olds was also originally Pauline Marois’s idea. In 1997, she opted to facilitate its implementation in schools in disadvantaged areas. The Montreal Public Health Department study cited earlier measured the results 11 years later, and they are eye-opening:

We see that in some areas where children are less at risk in terms of school readiness, some schools that are not disadvantaged offer the junior kindergarten program. Conversely, in some areas where children are at especially high risk in terms of readiness for school, highly disadvantaged schools do not offer junior kindergarten.

Clearly, the status quo is not a viable option. A proactive approach in Quebec would involve moving on three fronts:

  • First of all, more active work with parents themselves to help them stimulate their children, on the model of the 1,2,3 Go! program.
  • Next, increased daycare services in disadvantaged areas, provided by CPE childcare centres and with flexible schedules. (Employment Assistance recipients already have the right to 23 hours a week of free daycare.) A free transportation service for children is essential.
  • Finally, a “readiness/early education” program for three- and four-year-olds, with low student/staff ratios (10 to 1, as in the CPEs), developed on a collaborative basis by the Ministry of Education and the CPEs. This quasi-school program would be introduced first in schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. It would, of course, be free, and it would be linked to the neighbourhood school but not necessarily on school premises. This structure would give the program the desired legitimacy so that large numbers of disadvantaged parents would agree to send their children there. It would be available on a full-time or part-time basis. The quality of the program would be ensured by providing bonuses for staff working in difficult areas.

How would parents – essentially mothers – be convinced to enrol their children in the program? Through active recruitment and, if necessary, with the help of targeted incentives, conditional on the presence of the child.

Let’s get serious about secondary education

Think about the following scenario: You have to stand in front of 30 or so twelve- to sixteen-year-olds for 30 hours a week, and teach them both a subject area and some values. You have to be a performer (at least as entertaining as MuchMusic) and a disciplinarian. Some members of the class have learning problems; others have behaviour problems; still others are dealing drugs, listening to their iPods, sending text messages. You may be the target of verbal abuse, even sometimes physical abuse, from the young people you are trying to help. And on top of that, you are required to implement a complex educational reform, and deal with dissatisfied parents. For all this, you get paid an average salary, as of 2007, of $54,000, with a maximum of $68,700 after 20 years. What would you say to such a proposition?

And then there is the person in charge: the high school principal. This person is responsible for everything from the school’s educational mission through all the programs and resources down to administrative details – all with the goal of making it possible for all of the school’s students to succeed. His or her job description includes personnel management; needs assessment; development, implementation and evaluation of the educational plan; and managing the budget (according to strict standards imposed from above). She or he needs to do all this with insufficient support staff, while maintaining good relations with the teachers, the school board, parents and the community. Along with the teachers, the principal is among those who will have the greatest influence on the future of our young people. In 2008, a principal’s salary was between $78,500 and $111,000 a year – with an extra $2,500 for the principal of a school in a disadvantaged area. Is it worth the aggravation?

It’s not only the salaries and status of high school teachers and principals that need to be reexamined, but also the way schools are organized. The future young adult will decide which route to take: the school dropout route or the route to success. What kind of support this young person receives from teachers and the school team is a determining factor in this decision. I don’t think we have made the intellectual and economic effort that is needed to give our schools, and hence our young adults, every possible chance of success.

I’m not saying that Quebec is at the bottom of the class or that principals and teachers have not done a lot with the means at their disposal – far from it. Contrary to the prevailing impression, figures show that Quebec has caught up significantly in terms of educational attainment and secondary school graduation in the last 40 years. The most recent international comparisons, for 2005, rank Quebec eighth among industrialized societies in terms of percentage of young people obtaining a secondary school diploma. At 89 per cent, it’s behind countries like Germany (100 per cent), Finland (95 per cent) and Japan (93 per cent), but it’s ahead of Britain (86 per cent) and Sweden (80 per cent), and far ahead of the United States (76 per cent). (To be fair, we need to add that Quebecers get their diplomas after only 11 years of schooling.)

What about the school dropout rate? It’s a significant phenomenon, and while it fell from a high level of 47 per cent in 1976 to 26 per cent in 1995, after that it started to climb again, reaching 31 per cent in 2007. But that’s no longer the whole story. The reason Quebec did so well in the global rankings is that adults in their twenties and beyond, after an excursion into the world of work or elsewhere, are going back to school to obtain their high school diplomas. While only 3.4 per cent took this route in 1976, this figure had climbed to 16 per cent by 2007. In other words, while 31 per cent of young Quebecers were school dropouts in 2007, it’s also true that 16 per cent were drop-ins.

Disaggregating the figures, as Jacques Parizeau did in a highly provocative open letter in September 2008 (see page 74), reveals a large gap in success between students who go to private secondary schools and students who go to public ones – and, within the public sector, between students in English-language schools and students in French-language ones. In a normal time span of five years for secondary studies, 67 per cent of anglophone boys obtain their diplomas, while only 36 per cent of francophone boys do the same. This gap applies both within Montreal and in 13 school boards outside Montreal. If the time span is extended to seven years, the proportion of anglophone boys obtaining their diplomas rises to 79 per cent, while for francophone boys, it’s 49 per cent – still less than a passing grade. For girls, in a seven-year period, the figures are 86 per cent for anglophones and 63 per cent for francophones. These figures are not new, and they don’t indicate that the situation is getting worse. However, they starkly illuminate a situation – especially among francophones – that is cause for concern. Significant action is called for.

Before we get to the solutions that an effective Left can offer, we need to look at one of the consequences of the weaknesses of our system: the low literacy rate in Quebec.

Quebec’s (and the world’s) low literacy levels

First of all, some very bad news: 800,000 Quebecers can be considered illiterate, in the sense that they don’t have the ability to read a simple sentence. And it gets worse: 49 per cent of Quebecers have difficulty understanding a paragraph. Are these figures cause for incredulity and despair? Yes, a little. But they don’t mean that 49 per cent of Quebecers are incapable of functioning in everyday life. While the written word is essentially foreign to them, with a good memory and a mastery of oral language they have developed their own guideposts and methods of finding their way in the world.

Now let’s put these figures in perspective, so that the picture doesn’t look darker than it really is. First of all, things are getting better. Between 1994 and 2003, the average level of text comprehension among Quebec adults has been clearly on the rise. But to what point? The International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey measures prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy and problem-solving. On the basis of a maximum score of 500 (no country reaches that level – in fact no country is higher than 300 on average), the “desired” level of proficiency is between 275 and 325. In 2003, the average level for Quebecers between the ages of 16 and 65 was 275 – right on the line. Poor? Mediocre? I leave it to you to judge. But, in any case, not as bad as Switzerland (!) with 272, the United States with 269 or Italy with 229. On the other hand, Norway (290), Canada as a whole (281) and, for some strange reason, Saskatchewan in particular (296) do better.

These average figures conceal significant differences. Among young people between the ages of 16 and 25 who have not completed secondary school, 70 per cent do not have a high enough level of reading comprehension to be able to participate fully in society, read instructions or notices at work, or learn on their own. The same is true for 33 per cent of those who have completed secondary school and – I’m ashamed to admit it – 20 per cent of those who have completed college or university!

This situation is not unique to or particularly acute in Quebec, but it requires energetic action on two fronts: a major literacy and academic upgrading program for adults and, at the same time, a massive reform of the most important instrument: the secondary school.

A plan for secondary schools

It all needs to start with the team that’s in charge of the school – the principal and his or her teaching staff. They are the ones who will determine whether the students they are responsible for will succeed or fail. They need to be given autonomy in managing the school, establishing budgets and assigning responsibilities – under the supervision of the school council, which also includes parents. This means that the Ministry of Education needs to substantially loosen its control over all aspects of school management, while maintaining oversight of results.

Reform can and must shake up settled practices, but it should not claim victims. Let us begin by guaranteeing the jobs and salaries of all current secondary school principals and teachers.

Then let us establish a differential pay scale. The principal of a public primary or secondary school in a well-off part of Montreal such as Outremont, insulated from the problems that affect other neighbourhoods in the city, should receive a base salary. The principal of a school in one of those other neighbourhoods, such as Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Montreal North or Côte-des-Neiges, or of a school in a rural area such as Saint-Martin-de-Beauce, should receive 50 per cent more. These should be the most coveted positions. And to make them even more desirable, standards should be set for improvement in students’ performance in these schools, and any principal who achieves those standards should be eligible for an additional 25 per cent top-up.

The principal should be given the means to reach these goals, starting with human resources. The principal should choose the school team, recruiting the people he or she regards as the most competent, the most daring, the most effective in working in a school with multiple problems. Teachers should also receive higher salaries for working in such schools, and their pay, like the principal’s, should be linked to their students’ success in their subject areas.

“There’s no reason why an experienced, highly qualified, and effective teacher shouldn’t earn $100,000 annually at the peak of his or her career. Highly skilled teachers in such critical fields as math and science – as well as those willing to teach in the toughest urban schools – should be paid even more.” Who wrote these words? Barack Obama, in his campaign book The Audacity of Hope. He has my vote.

Raising the status of teachers and principals and giving them the means and the motivation to accomplish the great purpose that led them to get involved in education – making a real difference in the lives of adolescents – there lies the key to change. And it implies a series of other changes.

Allowing the principal to choose the staff presupposes a new flexibility on the part of teachers’ unions, in exchange for higher salaries as well as a strengthening of performance reviews. These evaluation instruments should be negotiated with the unions in a spirit of improving the system. Teaching is a very demanding, draining profession, with an abnormally (or should I say normally) high rate of burnout and resignation. Safety valves need to be created for people who find the pressure cooker intolerable. A teacher or administrator should be able to switch, temporarily or permanently, to an administrative job elsewhere in the civil service. In the same way, a teacher who has spent more than five years in a high-stress neighbourhood could be offered an easier assignment or a paid professional development leave.

These changes could be introduced right away, but another key element of this reform would be a reorganized, more stringent training program for teachers and principals. If secondary school is to become the essential pathway for Quebec’s youth and be given budgets to match, requirements at the point of entry need to be consistent with this mission. Ongoing professional development and evaluation for administrators and teachers throughout their careers also need to be part of the package.

In terms of results, these changes should lead to a domino effect. The massive effort I outlined earlier to improve daycare services for poor children should lead to better performance in school, fewer school dropouts and a higher literacy rate. The revolution in secondary education that I am proposing here would add to these outcomes. It should allow students to finish secondary school with more skills and higher levels of success, and lead to a significant reduction in illiteracy among Quebecers between the ages of 16 and 25. As a result, students will be better prepared for Cégep and then for university studies. Cégep and university teachers often complain about having to reteach material that should have been acquired at earlier levels. This complaint is structural and will persist, but the real level of competence will be higher.

More emphasis on adult education

Quebec adults also deserve broader access to knowledge. This is true especially, although not exclusively, of those who suffer from very low levels of literacy (45 per cent of Quebecers between the ages of 26 and 45; 59 per cent between the ages of 46 and 65).

Do they want this access? Every year, more than 40 per cent of Quebec adults without secondary school diplomas participate in some kind of educational activity, and 52 per cent say that they would have wanted to participate but couldn’t because of time constraints (73 per cent), cost (30 per cent) or lack of self-confidence (11 per cent). The desire for adult education is tangible, however weak the effort to implement it may be. In retrospect, the way employers succeeded in getting an enthusiastically compliant Charest government to dismantle the legislation that required them to devote 1 per cent of their total payroll to employee training was nothing short of indecent.

It stands in stark contrast to the major effort to implement adult education undertaken in the G7 country that has experienced the strongest growth in this decade – Britain. There have been white papers, pilot projects, mobilization of employers, unions and local authorities. The result has been substantial investment. All interested adults in Britain will be able to open Skills Accounts, allowing them to determine the level of training, financial aid and indirect support they need to learn – or learn again – to read, or to upgrade their technical or vocational qualifications. Since the program was launched in 2001, two million previously illiterate adults have learned to read and another 1.8 million have completed a technical training course. Nearly 50,000 employers participate actively in the system.

In 2004, the French government launched the droit individuel à la formation (individual right to training), giving each wage-earner the right to 20 hours of training a year. This training can take place either during working hours, in which case the employee is paid, or externally, in which case the employer pays 50 per cent of the employee’s hourly wage during the training period. Being closer to the worker’s immediate needs, on-the-job training is the most effective method both for the employee’s future and for productivity and innovation. Employer and employee are required to try to agree on the kind of training to be undertaken and the timing. If they can’t, the employee can appeal and obtain a professional development leave paid for by the employer. At the end of 2006, a year and a half after the program was launched, 90 per cent of employers reported having received requests for training – 50 per cent from workers and 37 per cent from executives. On-the-job and external training each accounted for about half of the total.

Denmark has introduced a “job rotation” system through which a company that sends an employee for training hires an unemployed person to take that employee’s place. During that time, the unemployed person benefits from training and additional income. While this lasts only until the original employee comes back, the unemployed person will have acquired skills as well as a foot in the door of the company and a good chance at a permanent job when a vacancy comes up.

Training really qualifies people for jobs when it is undertaken within the company and its network of contractors and subcontractors. That’s where the jobs are, where they are created and destroyed, where they change and adapt. The best place for effective upgrading is the work environment, or closely knit combinations of work and school or internal and external training. Training linked to employment increases the productivity of both the worker and the firm and offers workers the prospect of advancement with their current and future employers. And even though the proportion of people who earn their income through nonstandard jobs (independent workers, telecommuters, involuntary part-time workers) is increasing, most workers still keep their jobs for more than ten years. This stability is desirable. It should be encouraged through the system of employer contributions, to dissuade companies from cutting jobs hastily or resorting to job cuts as an easy way out, instead of first looking to other solutions such as reorganization or renegotiation.

In short, there is no place for fatalism in these matters. Reforms are not only possible – they have been or are being implemented in other industrialized countries. In Quebec, let us convene one of those summits that are our specialty. Let us establish objectives, in workplaces and in people’s living spaces. Let us learn from experiences elsewhere. Let us raise funds, recruit volunteers, get retired teachers involved. Let us provide massive support to the 132 existing literacy organizations. Let us make it our goal to reduce adult illiteracy by 50 per cent within ten years, and let us establish an ongoing, active, personalized system of knowledge acquisition in adult life.

For an effective Left, human resources are the ones that count the most.