Mediocre Education Policies Lead to Mediocre Results

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

The results of Manitoba students on the latest Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) tests are, to say the least, very disappointing.  Over the last fifteen years, the reading, math, and science scores have declined from near the Canadian average to the bottom of the pack even though Manitoba spends more per K-12 student than every other province except Alberta.

The current government has been in power since 1999. It should be ashamed of these results. So should educational leaders who have supported this government’s education agenda.

However, it didn’t take long for the government’s supporters to offer excuses. Predictably, Manitoba Teachers’ Society president Paul Olson blamed the poor results on the low socioeconomic status of Manitoba students. But other provinces also have many low income families, and they performed significantly better than Manitoba students.

Education minister James Allum acknowledges that these test results are unacceptable.  But, his so-called action plan shows he is attempting to deflect blame, just like the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, rather than accept responsibility for making substantial changes.

For example, Allum said that Prince Edward Island students showed significant improvement and Manitoba should follow PEI by having more test preparation sessions with the students before they write the next PCAP tests.

Unfortunately, Allum does not appear to understand what really happened in PEI.  Prior to 2007, PEI students had no standardized testing, and they consistently scored last in the country. Then PEI introduced standardized tests at grades 3, 6, and 9 and used the results to sharpen their teachers’ focus on the academic basics. Not surprisingly, the latest PCAP results show that PEI students have made substantial gains.

Teaching Manitoba students the tricks of test-taking will not lift them from the bottom. Rather, the government should use standardized testing to evaluate student achievement in key subject areas at various grade levels, like PEI recently did.  The results of the tests should be made public—as they are in every other province—so parents know how well their children are doing. Standardized testing reminds schools of the importance of the core academics and focuses teachers on the curriculum.
Allum also said that he is committed to “ensuring better accountability by working with school divisions to set goals and track progress in essential math and reading skills.” Considering that Manitoba is the least transparent province in the country when it comes to student achievement, the government has a long way to go.

Last year, the government reluctantly made important changes to the math curriculum when it restored standard algorithms and declared that Manitoba students must memorize basic math facts.  But, most schools still use discovery-based textbooks, such as Math Makes Sense and Math Focus, which are more likely to confuse students than enlighten them.  Better textbooks are needed.

In addition, considerable research shows that traditional teaching methods, such as direct instruction, help students learn the curriculum.  Sadly, discovery-based methods are still pushed on prospective teachers in university faculties of education.  Discovery learning encourages students to figure out things for themselves and come up with their own ways of solving problems. This works fine for university graduate and post-graduate students but not so well for grade 1 students learning how to add and subtract for the first time.

The discovery-based philosophy, also known as constructivism, is also embedded in provincial curriculum guides. This is why academic content seems to receive less and less emphasis each time a new curriculum guide comes out. These guides need to be rewritten to place a proper emphasis on specific knowledge and skills.

If the NDP government is serious about improving the academic performance of Manitoba students, it needs to make a number of substantial changes.  Focusing on the academic basics, introducing standardized testing at a variety of grade levels, publishing the results for parents to see, and freeing teachers from education fads, would go a long way to lifting Manitoba students from the bottom in reading math, and science.

It’s time to end the excuses and begin the serious work needed. Our students deserve nothing less.