The provincial government says it has the right plan in place to boost low scores in literacy, math and science.

Penelope Pacey, executive director of the Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick, says literacy has to be addressed through the family.

Education Minister Ronald Haché says he believes significant improvements have been made in ensuring New Brunswick students move from the rear to the front of the class nationally.

“I think there have been improvements in the system. Are we satisfied? We’ll never be satisfied, but some of the results are quite impressive,” Haché says.

Last year for the first time, students across the province took home a report card that ranked the reading, writing and numeracy scores of their school against others from across the province.

The move was part of a complete overhaul of the curricula in the three subjects with the goal of fostering a pattern of success.

The school report cards traditionally had been given only to superintendents, district education councils, school administrators and teachers.

In the past two years, new evaluation programs, run early in the school year, were adopted. There were also new reading and writing achievement standards set for kindergarten to Grade 9 and provincial literacy assessments at the grades 2, 4, 7 and 9 levels. As well, mathematics assessments were conducted in grades 3, 5 and 8.

Proficiency scores are reported to have jumped two or three percentage points on average since the programs were initiated.

“We are being visited by people from all over the world “¦ and we have a system that is the envy of many countries in the world,” Hache says.

Charles Cirtwill, executive vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies based in Halifax, believes New Brunswick’s education system still lacks the competitiveness that has propelled other provinces to higher learning levels.

The institute has completed several studies that suggest the province should adopt a school model that gives more educational control to principals, teachers, parents and students.

“One of the biggest challenges for New Brunswick is that it still has the system wrong,” Cirtwill says.

“They are still asking good people to work inside a bad structure and expect them to have excellent outcomes.

“It’s just not going to happen.”

Cirtwill says the province is moving in the right direction with the introduction of public reading, writing and math scores.

But he says the province needs to open school boundaries to allow parents to send their children to schools that they feel provide a better education.

“Until you change the incentives, if there is nothing at stake then why would anyone want to change?” he says. “If they (employees of the Department of Education) are not at risk of losing their job, losing their funding, losing their reason for being where they are, then why do they care?”

Cirtwill also disagrees with New Brunswick’s educational targets, which aim by 2013 to make 85 to 90 per cent of students proficient in reading, math and science.

“If you don’t set goals, then you don’t create urgency and nothing gets done, so I would much rather see them set aggressive goals,” he says. “Our goal should be 100-per-cent literacy and we should never say things like, ‘Yes, but given certain circumstances we are never going to achieve that.’

“We are never going to achieve our targets, or blow through our targets, as long as we think we can never get to 100 per cent.”

New Brunswick is also plagued by low literacy levels in all age groups compared to other provinces. The most recent Statistics Canada numbers on literacy levels, released in 2003, have the province ranked 11th among the provinces and territories.

Only Nunavut had lower scores.

More than half of the province – 56 per cent – had literacy scores under Level 3. Statistics Canada believes a person should have at least Level 3 literacy to function well in Canadian society.

Penelope Pacey, executive director of the Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick, says the numbers speak to the need for a broader focus on literacy.

“It’s wonderful to try to increase those test scores and proficiency levels for children,” Pacey says. “But if those children are going home to families with literacy issues the picture isn’t going to change radically.

“You need to start addressing it more holistically through families.”

Pacey says the importance of reading to children, using computers, and the importance of libraries throughout the province, needs to be stressed.

“I think that everybody needs to get involved,” Pacey says. “Communities and individuals all need to really start to understand what literacy is and how important it is and how it affects every aspect of society.”