by Kevin Cox

As Nova Scotia parents receive the news today that our children are on the bottom end of the national scale in language comprehension and math and barely in the middle in science, guess where Halifax students are.

They’re on a two-day holiday as teachers participate in an “assessment summit” conference listening to lectures from four speakers from the United States.

It might be drawing a long bow to link professional development conferences with the disappointing results on the pan-<b>Canadian</b> assessment program tests through the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education.

But the fact that some teachers are able to give up two valuable teaching days during the heart of the school year indicates misplaced priorities that may be at the heart of the struggle of students in this part of the world to keep up with the rest of the country.

First let’s look at the test results. The tests were given to 13-year-old students last year. Our best showing was in science, where Nova Scotia tied for sixth place with Saskatchewan.

But in reading comprehension, Nova Scotia was eighth of 11 jurisdictions, and in mathematics we were ninth of 11.

Nova Scotia failed to meet or exceed the Canadian mean average in a single category and we were dwarfed by Quebec, which finished first in reading and mathematics and second in science. In that province, education is a point of provincial pride, an essential element of the province emerging as a major force in the knowledge-based economy.

Nova Scotia has recently taken steps to try to catch up with the rest of the country with some standardized testing and putting more emphasis on basic curriculum. But yesterday’s results simply aren’t good enough.

We shouldn’t be boasting that we’re “Canada’s Education Province”, when clearly the bragging rights to that honour lie elsewhere. Yesterday, the Alberta government proudly boasted in a news release that its students were first in science, tied for second in math and were third in reading.

“Alberta students continue to excel academically because of the province’s high curriculum standards, excellent learning resources, well-trained teachers and a strong assessment programs”.

Ontario, which has an education quality and accountability office, boasted that its students were tops in the country among anglophones in math and reading, and finished tied for second in science with Alberta.

“These are very positive results for Ontario students and are a testament to the quality of education provided in Ontario’s public system”, Brian Desbiens, chair of education, quality and accountability office said in a statement.

Quebec didn’t say anything: when you’ve done it, there’s no need for bragging.

Nova Scotia Education minister Karen Casey took some solace in Nova Scotia students hitting the adequate level on the tests. But she does realize adequate isn’t good enough and the system has to work harder on literacy and numeracy skills.

There’s a lot more at stake here than just the provincial rankings. Our students have to be able to compete with the best in the world – not just the best in Canada. They have to compete for scholarships and bursaries at universities. Eventually they will have to look for jobs in a fiercely competitive global marketplace.

Our students are not being prepared for that competition unless they are being taught to strive for excellence and that mediocrity or so-called adequacy is unacceptable.

That means schools should publish their standings in standardized tests and take as much pride in that as they do with winning a football, hockey or basketball title. When is the last time you saw an academic pennant or trophy in a school lobby? But even now some school boards and schools won’t even release how they fared on the provincial tests. What are they hiding?

We could take this a step further and provide cash awards to schools that show superior performance and improvement in tests – rewarding excellence in a system that right now seems dedicated to ensuring that everybody passes. That’s something the business sector should be happy to contribute to.

But we have to address some of the problems that leave us lagging the national standards. We need to value precious classroom time so teachers should be willing to use vacation and weekend time for professional development days.

Teachers have a tough job, trying to maintain discipline, inspire and instill some knowledge into students who are often unwilling to learn.

They need and deserve the support of parents, politicians and business leaders in terms of time, energy and resources.

In the present situation, the education system can’t afford to carry teachers who would even suggest they’re working to their pension. It’s time to move them out with buyouts and early pensions.

We need enthusiastic, energetic and inspirational people at the head of the class – and there is a whole generation of new teachers waiting in the wings to do that. They know what the new economy looks like – and they know what the stakes are if our children stay at the back of the pack.