Education Should Focus on Knowledge: Manitoba schools falling behind

Commentary, Education, Joseph Quesnel


As students return to schools, it's important to have a frank discussion about how to improve our education system here in Manitoba.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy who specializes in education policy. He has experience teaching at various levels and currently teaches high school social studies.

Zwaagstra has presented three main ways to develop a high performance education system in Manitoba. All of the ideas involve Manitoba adopting a different philosophy of education or in one case, education funding.

The first idea is to recognize that content should be king in our schools. Romantic progressive ideology has infected Manitoba schools. This ideology de-emphasizes the acquiring of factual knowledge to the detriment of students. A case in point is mathematics. Students need to master the standard algorithms in order to gain a deeper understanding of more complex mathematical problems. Schools ought to abandon the ineffective, discovery-based instructional techniques and return to skills-based learning.

The same applies to all other subjects. Students in English language arts should be familiar with certain books and authors. History courses should focus on specific knowledge as well.

Not focusing on knowledge means schools do not ensure that all students share some common background knowledge.

A second idea is the adoption of standardized testing standards. All provinces, except for Manitoba, require students to take standardized tests at various levels (typically Grades 3, 6, 9 and 12).

Grade 12 students write provincial standardized tests in English language arts and mathematics. Schools then send these results to the education ministry but they are not available to the public. Manitoba's refusal to release any of this student performance data to the public makes it unique among all of the provinces in terms of its unaccountability.

Standardized tests allow school administrators to be able to demonstrate results to the public. Like health care, education consumes a large portion of the budget, so there must be accountability for expenditures.

Studies show that standardized testing works. In one study, a professor at the University of Munich looked at data for 39 countries that participated in a mathematics and science test. He found that students in countries with a standardized testing system outperformed those without one.

The last idea is the elimination of the education portion of local property taxes. Provinces should fund education through general revenue.

The current system creates a vast inequity where some, namely Winnipeg, pay higher property taxes than in other school divisions.

The trend across Canada is to move away from locally funded education and move towards a general revenue model. No other province is seeking to emulate the Manitoba model of education funding.

Some proponents of general revenue funding have also argued that full provincial funding creates a clearer line of accountability. Rather than focus on local school trustees they know little about, responsibility would flow from the minister of education to the public.

In closing, Manitoba's education system would be best served by ignoring some of the education fads going around (like moving away from content and opposing standardized tests) and instead adopt some good old fashioned common sense.

That is the true path towards a successful education system.