Monday, December 04, 2017

Understanding Literacy in Canada - Why Level 3 Literacy is Important

This is a guest post from my friend and colleague T Scott Murray of DataAngel - see more about Scott and his work here. This post was written in response to a post by Canadian researcher Christine Pinsent-Johnson. Her original post is available here.

Enough Already: An Angry Rebuke to Dr. Christine Pinsent-Johnson

In a recent blog post, Christine Pinsent-Johnson argues against using Level 3 as a literacy standard to which we should aspire. I argue that such a position is misguided, immoral and extraordinarily disrespectful of the people whose lives are touched by inadequate literacy skill levels.

The quotes from both the OECD’s William Thorn and ETS’s Irwin Kirsch are technically correct – there is nothing about the IALS, ALL or PIAAC proficiency scales themselves that might be interpreted as a standard. Our argument for using Level 3 as a minimum standard is based on the relationship of proficiency level to individual outcomes and to the level of skill demanded by jobs in Canada. More specifically, I argue that four things justify the use of Level 3 literacy as a critical threshold:

1.     First, the threshold between literacy level 2 and 3 is a cognitively crucial one. Level 2 tasks only require the application of routine, procedural knowledge, however acquired, in the recall processes in the back of the brain. In sharp contrast, Level 3 tasks require the activation of the fluid problem-solving processes in the pre-frontal cortex. In a world in which SIRI can handle all Level 2 literacy tasks, one does not need to be a genius to figure out that workers might need to be able to handle at least Level 3 literacy tasks.

2.     Second, the structure of the Canadian economy is changing rapidly in response to the diffusion of digital technologies throughout the economy, the globalization of markets for key inputs and the rapid growth of literacy skill supply in countries with much lower labour costs than Canada’s. Canada is one of the few OECD countries with a system that tracks the demand for key Essential Skills, including literacy. As illustrated in the following chart,  97% of the jobs created between 1997 and 2014 demanded Level 3.

Figure 1 Number of paid jobs by literacy skill level demanded by the occupation according to the ESDC’s Essential Skills Profiles applied to monthly Labour Force Survey employment by occupation estimates, Canada, 1997 - 2014

Roughly half of adult Canadians aged 16 to 65 are classified as Level 1 and 2, so, by definition, 47% of adults are vying for the 3% of  new jobs that demand that skill level, and 44% will find themselves out of work or in a job that demands higher levels of literacy skill than they have.
3.     Third, our analysis shows that significant differences in the rate of real wage growth in jobs that demand different levels of literacy. As documented in the following chart, adults holding jobs that only demand Level 2 literacy realized 1% real wage growth between compared to 9%, 17% and 16% at Levels 3, 4 and 5 respectively  These differences are precipitating a massive increase in skill-based wage and income inequality.

Yearly equivalent increase in real wages @ 2020 hours 1997-2014

4.     Fourth, having Level 1 and 2 literacy skill level has a profound impact on a broad range of other individual labour markets, health, educational and social outcomes.  Depending on the outcome measure, the likelihood of experiencing poor outcomes ranges from 2.5 to 13 times more likely, even after removing the effect of a broad range of other variables known to increase the odds of experiencing poor outcomes including age, gender, education, immigrants status, language and Aboriginal status. For example, the following chart shows the impact that adults with Level 1 and 2 literacy are 2.5 times more likely than their more skilled peers of being in fair or poor health. Such levels of skill-based inequality are unfair.

The fact that research shows that the relationships between literacy skill and outcomes is causal and that adults at level 1 and 2 bear the disproportionate burden of poor outcomes, renders Level 3 the moral threshold to which Canadian’s and public policy should aspire.

More directly, given the choice, no one would choose to remain at Levels 1 and 2 given the negative impact that these skill levels have on one's own health and welfare.

Comments about this guest post can be left on this blog site.