The Minister of Education will pump another $17 million into the Province’s spending on public schools. Her decision is curious, given the fact that their performance continues its long, slow slide. If public schools are underperforming, why not give them a little more money? The answer is complicated, and surprising.
Let’s first dispense with a myth created by the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, namely that the Province has been starving the system of funds. Budgets for elementary and secondary schools have declined slightly over the last decade. But the number of children in the system has gone down much faster.
Canada now allocates a greater proportion of its Gross National Product to education than any other developed country. The part absorbed by elementary and secondary schools rose from 3.4% in 1960 to about 5.1% today.
The change in student-teacher ratios over those years confirms the point. In 1960, the average classroom in Canada contained 25.7 pupils. That figure has since steadily declined, and by 1993 reached 15.7.
In Manitoba, enrollment in public schools peaked in 1971. A declining birth rate and a continued flight to private schools are responsible for the shift. The Province did decide to reduce its budget for public schools to reflect these trends, but spending per pupil is now more generous than ever.
What about performance? The latest round of standardized testing confirms its dismal state. Why have more money and more teachers per student have done nothing to reverse the trend?
The answer lies in the underlying philosophy that governs the system. One anecdote illustrates the point.
In the latest round of testing, Grade Three students in Fort Rouge School in inner-city Winnipeg averaged 82% in math, a significant coup. In other schools with similar demographic profiles, with high percentages of children from single-parent homes and on welfare, scoring ran much lower, in the 30-50% range.
We asked a local school trustee what happened. Why did students who are among the most deprived in the Province do so well? Her response was troubling.
She said the teachers were probably not following the curriculum laid down by the Department of Education. It emphasizes "creative thinking" and abandons traditional math drills in favour of calculators. She added that teachers who deviate from it are liable to be punished. Conformity has replaced excellence as the standard of judgement.
Last fall Rod Clifton, a Professor of Education at the University of Manitoba, delivered an insightful lecture on the subject of merit pay for teachers. He had reviewed about 100 such systems in the United States and concluded that they did not work. We asked why successful teachers could not be rewarded in some way. He answered that merit pay systems are too contentious. Teachers’ unions fight them all the way, so they cause more trouble than they are worth.
These facts lead to some radical conclusions. The way we deliver education dollars doesn’t work any more. The centralized approach, with tight curriculum controls from the Department of Education, can no longer ensure progress because it brings with it inflexible bargaining units that are unresponsive to improvement.
In places like Alberta and Wisconsin, high levels of public spending on education generate better results. The dollars follow the child. Public schools are forced to compete for their trade. Within general parameters for standards confirmed by regular testing, centralized funders abandon the curriculum monopoly and let schools experiment with different teaching methods.
In a system of school choice, the successful teachers at Fort Rouge School would benefit from success. Their enterprise would receive more money and their paycheques would improve.
And that’s how it should be.