Literacy is crucial to the success of individuals in both their career aspirations and their quality of life. It is more than a basic reading ability, but rather an indication of “how adults use written information to function in society.”
Strong literacy skills are closely linked to the probability of having a good job, decent earnings, and access to training opportunities. Individuals with weak literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed or, if employed, to be in jobs that pay little or that offer poor hours or working conditions.
Traditionally, literacy has referred to the ability to read, understand, and use information. But the term has come to take on broader meaning, standing for a range of knowledge, skills and abilities relating to reading, mathematics, science and more. This reflects widespread and deep changes that have taken place in technology and in the organization of work over the past quarter century. The ability to use and apply key mathematics and science concepts is now necessary across a wide range of occupations. Literacy is fundamental for learning in school. It has an impact on an individual's ability to participate in society and to understand important public issues. And it provides the foundation upon which skills needed in the labour market are built. Technology, and the science behind it, permeates all aspects of our lives, from how we work and communicate to what we shop for and how we pay our bills. The complexity of today's world means that individuals need to have some level of proficiency in reading, mathematics and science in order to understand and participate fully in economic and social life.
A population's literacy skills also have a bearing on how well a country performs economically. The world we live in today is vastly different from that of a generation ago. Technological change has transformed the way in which work is done; competition in many industries is global in nature; and the industrial structure of the Canadian labour market has rapidly evolved from a manufacturing and agricultural base to one based on services. These changes have, in turn, brought rising skill requirements. Countries that are successful in endowing their populations with strong skills are usually in a better position to meet the economic challenges of operating in a globalized information economy.
Finally, having a population that has strong literacy skills also places a country in a better position to meet the complex social challenges that it faces. For example, strong literacy skills are linked to better health outcomes for individuals. A highly literate population will be better able to deal with issues of governance in a highly diverse society. And informed debate is needed to help us determine how best we can allocate scarce resources across competing priorities, such as education, health, investment in infrastructure, and social programs.
A key indicator of educational progress is the extent to which schools are successful in equipping their students with strong literacy skills. This indicator consists of two components. The first component relates to how well students perform on average, with higher average scores indicating, at a national or provincial level, stronger academic achievement overall. The second component concerns the range in scores between the top-performing students and those at the bottom of the distribution. Equity considerations suggest that a system that is able to achieve high scores through the strong performance of all students, regardless of their backgrounds, would be preferable to one where a strong average was the product of a small proportion of superachievers. There are efficiency reasons for wanting to reduce the size of the gap...