Bill 64 is Dead, but Reform still Required

Commentary, Education, Rodney Clifton

BILL 64 is dead. There is little doubt that many Manitobans were delighted when interim Premier Kelvin Goertzen tolled its death knell.

Instead of dancing around the bill’s funeral pyre, government members need to seriously review the Manness/MacKinnon commission report, paying special attention to what it identified as “imperatives” — those necessary and urgent initiatives for improving educational achievement in Manitoba’s public schools.
Three of these are key because they are most relevant to the students’ learning: improving the curriculum; implementing fair and rigorous student assessment procedures; and strengthening the capacity of educators to improve teaching and learning.

Improving the curriculum is perhaps the most difficult imperative. For this reason, the minister of education’s first task is to indicate clearly what the curriculum is and what it is supposed to provide. The curriculum is the property of the citizenry, not that of educators alone, and the minister is the trustee and arbiter of the expectations and prescriptions that the public have for it.

The minister should remind Manitobans the curriculum is mandated; that is, it is the authorized template of subject matter knowledge and skills established for Manitoba students to be acquired in the course of their education.

This means the curriculum must enable students to be comfortable and competent in our modern culture. As the Manness/MacKinnon commission argues, the curriculum and schooling experience must be focused so students have the knowledge and skills they need to make a living, participate in the democratic process and are aware of the intellectual and cultural life of this country.

Even though there will be some debate over the core subjects and skills, most people will agree literacy and numeracy are central. And perhaps there is a consensus that by the time students graduate from high school, they should have a good understanding of the history, geography and government in Canada and they are aware of the important ideas and achievements in the physical and social sciences and the arts.

In essence, the public education curriculum must include core subjects in proper scope, sequence and depth for each grade. This will take considerable work, and we are encouraged that the minister has recently established an advisory group “to identify underlying principles of the kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum and establish its overall structure.” (Winnipeg Free Press, Sept. 11).

Second, the government needs to re-establish standardized examinations in these core subjects to ensure students understand the material and that they have the requisite skills before progressing to the next grade or graduating from high school.

Fortunately, Manitoba has experience with administering standardized examinations in the core subjects. Despite anticipated objections, it is time to re-establish these examinations as a routine feature of schooling. This is an important objective because fairness in assessment and fidelity to the curriculum must be recognized.

The Grade 12 examinations could be used for entrance into colleges and universities and as certification of competency in the basic skills for those students entering the work force.

Finally, the minister of education must make the certification of teacher-candidates more formal and transparent. The commission recommends establishing a college of educators, but the minister can formalize certification without establishing a new agency.

Professions such as law, medicine, nursing and engineering have independently administered certification examinations to ensure these professionals are competent, skilful and uphold professional standards. Isn’t it time education joined these professions by adopting such certification procedures?

Fortunately, the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., has developed a large battery of both knowledge-based and skill-based tests, called “Praxis Exams,” in specific subjects and grades for teacher certification. A majority of U.S. states use Praxis exams, and these tests could easily be adapted for Manitoba.

Such tests could even have the effect of providing a form of accreditation of faculties of education, one of the effects the commission anticipated in its discussion of a college of educators.

Of course, these initiatives could prove contentious for some special-interest groups. But if the PC government is to honour the Manness/MacKinnon commission — a comprehensive and coherent report with compelling recommendations — then it ought to seriously contemplate taking specific action on these key educational initiatives as soon as possible.

 

Rodney Clifton is professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. John Long is a former professor in the department of educational administration, foundations and psychology at the University of Manitoba. Peter Narth is a long time public school teacher and administrator, a former president of the Manitoba Association of Principals, and the former executive director of Manitoba’s Technical Vocational Initiative.