Canada’s economic recovery, competitiveness internationally and quality of life are all tied to our performance in education. It is perfectly understandable, therefore, that political leaders feel they should have something to say about how they plan to ensure that Canadians, young and old, from every corner of the country and from every background, get the education and training they need to succeed.

Of course, these can be tricky waters to navigate for a federal party leader.  Speak too little to the education aspirations of young people and their parents, and one looks timid and out of touch, but speak too much without acknowledging the exclusivity of provincial and territorial jurisdiction, and one looks like someone who either makes empty promises, or is itching to pick fights with the premiers.  So what is a contender for federal office to do?

In truth, there is plenty for the federal government to do that can have a positive impact on education systems, without interfering with those systems themselves.  The challenge is not a shortage of workable policies, but rather the need to present these policies to voters in a way that is catchy enough to inspire their support.

Canada remains the world’s most highly educated country " measured by the proportion of the adult population that has attained a post-secondary education (although for younger adults " those between the ages of 25 and 34 " Canada falls to third place, behind Korea and Japan).

In the last round of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Canada ranked near the top, outperformed by only three other OECD countries in math, four in science and two in reading.  Canada did even better on the additional PISA computer-based test that focused on problem-solving.  Among OECD countries, only Korea and Japan performed better than Canada.

The same picture emerged from a lesser known study of computer skills " the International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) " published late last year.  ICILS placed Ontario’s Grade 8 students at the very top, alongside those of the Czech Republic and Australia, and ahead of those of the 17 other participating countries including Korea and Germany.  Newfoundland and Labrador, the only other Canadian province to participate, didn’t do quite as well as Ontario, but still scored above average, and did as well as countries such as Germany.

Canada is well positioned in education relative to these ”œAsian tigers.”

It is certainly true that Canadian students are being outclassed by students in East Asia -" not only those in Korea and Japan, but also those in city-economies such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai that are not OECD member countries.  The same is true, however, of students throughout the West.  The new benchmark in education that these Asian economies have set must be taken seriously.  The point here is that no Western country is currently better positioned in education relative to these ”œAsian tigers” than Canada.

What about Canadians who are no longer students?   At first glance, the results of the latest international study of adult skills hardly inspire confidence.  According to the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Canadian adults appear to hover around the global average in literacy, numeracy and problem solving.  If our education systems are so good, how can they produce graduates who are, at best, in the middle of the pack in terms of skills when compared with adults across the industrialized world?

The riddle can be solved by focusing on the diversity of the country and the driver of that diversity, namely immigration.  Canada’s proportion of immigrants in its population and its proportion of adults whose first language is different from the official language (in which literacy tests are administered) are higher than those of most other OECD countries.  It is no surprise that the literacy scores of Canadians with a university degree, for example, are only average, given the relatively large proportion of our university graduates who either arrived in Canada with their degree in hand, or face language barriers, or both.  If we compare the scores of university graduates born in Canada with those of domestically born university graduates in other countries, Canada once again places near the top.

This does not mean that our immigrants are not doing well; on the contrary, their scores are also well above average.  Indeed, there are two success stories here: our education systems, which produce competitive graduates, and our immigration system, which attracts newcomers who are more highly skilled that immigrants elsewhere.  Unfortunately, these successes are washed out when the numbers are combined in an average for the population as a whole that masks more that it reveals.

So where does this leave us in terms of a federal election campaign?

First, there is a set of related policies that is standard Ottawa fare, but whose familiarity makes them no less important. They are: supporting skills retraining for less-educated older workers and language training for new Canadians, facilitating the recruitment of more international students, and cooperatively forging a new approach to education on reserves. Interestingly, what all these policy areas have in common is that they require the federal government to work collaboratively with its partners, be they provincial governments or First Nations. This means that the important question in the context of an election is not just which party has the best ideas, but which can best move those ideas forward.

A second policy area for any federal government to engage with is the collection and publication of quality comprehensive data on education and skills.  It is a cliché that few problems can be solved just by throwing money at them, but the paucity of education data may be one exception.  There is nothing preventing the collection of better data on the progression of Canadian students through each level of education and into the labour market, except the resources that Statistics Canada needs to get the work done.  This goes beyond the issue of the census.  Regular reporting on post-secondary student enrolment and graduation rates, the makeup of university faculty, levels of student debt, and graduate employment and earnings is more precarious than necessary (and in some cases has been discontinued) due to lack of adequate and reliable funding.

As studies like PISA have shown, the best way to pressure governments into improving the performance of the social programs and services they manage is to measure and publish outcomes on a regular basis.  Any federal leader or party that wants Canadian students to do even better than they are now need not worry about the things they cannot -control " like what happens in the classroom " for they can focus instead on things that they can, like the health of our national statistical agency.  The federal government can even stay on the right side of the provinces, while enhancing accountability, by transferring new resources not directly to Statistics Canada itself but to the Canadian Education Statistics Council, which is composed of provincial and territorial bureaucrats and the chief statistician, and which is charged with overseeing the production of education indicators.

Regularly measuring and publishing outcomes can pressure governments to make improvements.

The problem with each of the ideas mentioned so far is that while they may make for good public policy, they may not grab headlines or inspire the general public. It is possible only Policy Options readers will feel that ”œbetter data” is an appropriate ballot question.  Is there no option for a party that wants to push a bit harder on the education agenda?

The answer is to focus not on education systems or institutions, but on their environment.  That means focusing on equity: among families and within the federation.

In addition to what happens in the classroom, many of the factors affecting student success are linked to economic conditions in which children grow up.  The alleviation of poverty, and the family and community stresses that go with it, would go far toward removing the barriers to learning and to the love of learning.

Canada is already fairly well positioned in this regard compared to many of its competitors, where variances in families’ and neighbourhoods’ wealth are much greater and affect education outcomes much more.  In terms of how well children do and how far they go in school, the type of neighbourhood they are born into matters, but it matters less in Canada than in most other countries.  But that doesn’t mean that there are not thousands of children living in poverty, or that we don’t need to make sure our comparative advantage in this area does not erode over time.

Luckily, this is an area where the federal parties seem eager to engage in debate, even if they come at it from different angles.  Some may prefer to bring in income-splitting and increased benefits and tax credits for families with children; some may focus on alleviating the plight of the middle class; some may focus on the need for a national child care program.  Voters will be faced with meaningful choices, and the election will determine the preferred path.  The point here is simply that this is the right terrain for a debate among the federal parties about how to improve education.  Education can be improved by improving the circumstances of the most disadvantaged children in our society.  This is a policy lever the federal government has at its disposal, and it is shaping up to be one of the major issues in the federal election.

To ensure Canada remains a global leader in education federal parties should package the areas they can act on.

The second way the federal government can enhance equity is through the redistribution of wealth across the federation.  As the University of Ottawa’s Jennifer Wallner has argued, Canada’s respectable performance in education is to a large extent tied to its success in ensuring that each of the members of the federation has sufficient resources to deliver the programs for which it is responsible. This brings us to the issues of transfers " notably the Canada Social Transfer, various labour market agreements and equalization " which means back to the type of issue that excites policy analysts and few others.  Promising to protect or enhance equalization or the CST is obviously less of a vote winner for a federal party than promising to increase transfers to individuals or families; yet that does not take away from the fact that this is one of the most effective ways in which the federal government can ensure that Canada remains a global leader in education.

The challenge for a federal party, then, is not how to find a policy lever, but how to make that policy attractive to voters.  The reason it is hard for federal politicians to resist the urge to intrude on provincial/territorial jurisdiction is not because they are bad at reading the Constitution, it is because they are good at reading voters. Families want their concerns addressed, as do business and community leaders, and everyone knows that the success of individuals and societies passes through education.  What federal parties can do, however, is package the areas in which they can act as part of an agenda that will help ensure that Canada remains a global leader in education.

Think of it this way: what threatens to erode Canada’s current position as a world leader in education?  Some obvious answers to this question " such as the wrong approach to teaching or curriculum " are (fortunately) beyond Ottawa’s reach.  But others " such as the absence of adequate measures of education outcomes, or the deepening of inequities across society and the federation " highlight the appropriate role that a federal government can play.

Andrew Parkin is the former director general of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.