Research Note: Market Failure in Canada’s Skills Market

Not all of DataAngel’s analysis ends up in published reports. Some of this material is nonetheless useful in that it offers unique insights into matters of crucial importance to policy. The following research note highlights a key aspect linked to the fairness of adult literacy and numeracy skill upgrading, specifically the need for the instructional offer to reflect learner’s needs and objectives. Learners deserve and expect instruction that is efficient, effective and that produces consistent results. Sadly, in the majority of programs, this is not the case.

One of the fundamental principles of adult education is that the program offer should reflect the learners learning needs and objectives. In 1924, Vygotski defined a region slightly above learner’s skill level where instruction would be most efficient and effective – the so-called “zone of proximal development”. By extension, instruction outside this zone would lead to disengaged learners and highly variable score gain within any given group of learners.

The simplest way to create classes with homogeneous learning needs is to assess the learners and sort them into classes.

Where volumes or context do not provide for multiple classes to be created, systematic assessment also provides Instructors with a means to adjust the content and pace of instruction to compensate. Research identifies 64 distinct patterns of strength and weakness across proficiency levels in oral fluency, prose literacy, document literacy and numeracy, a level of diversity that even skilled and experienced instructors would be unable to detect.

Systematic assessment of a broad range of skills at the point of program intake is the only answer.

I argue that learners also need to be systematically tested at the end of their instructional program to confirm how much they have learned and to update their learning plan. The same information on skill gain would serve several related purposes:

  • It would provide instructors with the means to reflect on their instructional practice,
  • When aggregated at the program level, it would provide training providers with a way to compare the performance of instructors and funders with a way to compare program efficiency, effectiveness and consistency across programs,
  • When published, it would provide training providers, learners and funders with a way to compare programs, information that is crucial to detecting promising innovations and to driving poor training providers out of business.

There is no excuse for programs not to assess all learners at the point of program entry and exit. Employment and Social Development Canada has funded the development and validation of the TOWES-Prime suite of web-based, fully adaptive tests of prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy and reading components. These low cost tests offer real time results that are reliable at four levels of precision, including one that yields reliable estimates of skill gain when administered pre and post training.

Governments, as the funder of the much of the language, literacy and numeracy instruction offered, need to demand systematic pre- and post-assessment of participant’s skills.


T. Scott Murray is a retired senior manager from Statistics Canada and President, DataAngel Policy Research Incorporated, a global specialist in education, skills and productivity.

T. Scott Murray
DataAngel Policy Research
Mobile: +1 613 240 8433


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