The link between high quality public education and economic development is clear. Outstanding public schools provide the foundation for professional and advanced skills training and are therefore necessary for the development of a strong, competitive workforce. Strategic investments in our schools that improve student performance are therefore wise investments in our province’s human capital.

It is within this context that we should consider Prince Edward Island’s latest rounds of standardized testing results from the internationally-focused Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the nationally-based Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP).

The PISA test — which covers math, science, and literacy — publicized its scores in early December 2013. Prince Edward Island did not fare well, placing dead last among Canadian provinces. These results represented a six-year slide for the province in the mathematics field. P.E.I. has now been at the bottom of the Canadian pack in math for 14 straight years.

The Island’s PISA results are clearly uninspiring, but the PCAP results provide some grounds for optimism. The PCAP evaluations covered the same fields of study as the PISA, but for a slightly younger age cohort. Here, there was a marked improvement among Island students when compared to their Canadian counterparts, with the province placing roughly in the middle of the pack. In stark contrast, in the previous PCAP results, from 2010, the province placed last in the country.

Recent reforms in P.E.I. are one reason for this improvement. Specifically, the age cohort that was examined by the PCAP test benefited from targeted investments made over six years that have been made possible by the establishment of standardized assessments for Grades 3, 6, and 9. These tests have provided crucial data on where targeted actions were needed. For instance, mobile literacy and numeracy coaches were provided to assist teachers with the curriculum in schools where students weren’t faring well. Standardized test data allowed for precise, targeted interventions to help struggling students without a costly makeover of the entire system.

These tactical, incremental changes were done at little overall expense yet they created positive strategic results. These changes are examples of the type of reforms that we need to implement to improve the performance of our schools and meet future labour force needs.

Island businesses must now compete regionally, nationally, and internationally. P.E.I. is an island geographically, but its long-term prosperity remains connected to the global market beyond the Confederation Bridge. Our economic growth will therefore always depend on the skills of our labour force and its ability to compete with other jurisdictions. Hence, the importance of ensuring that the K-12 system is given both the targets (in math, science, and literacy) and tools necessary to prepare students for the challenges needed to grow the provincial economy.

The success of the provincial aerospace and defence sector, and particularly Slemon Park shows the economic direction this province should go. But filling advanced manufacturing and maintenance jobs in these industries will require a competitive and well educated workforce. Outside investment will not set-up shop in the face of a local labour skills shortage.

The legislative Standing Committee on Education and Innovation is currently conducting Island-wide hearings on how to improve the education system. The committee is due to present their report, with recommendations, to the legislature before Christmas. These recommendations will hopefully stress the importance of continuing on the path to education reform, especially in light of the encouraging PCAP assessment results. The global economy is increasingly interconnected and Prince Edward Island needs to continue improving the quality of its public schools in order to compete. Educational reform, coupled with smart, targeted investments in our schools can help the Island meet these challenges.

Jeff Collins is a research associate with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies

*This article appeared in the opinion section of the Guardian