Earlier this month, Manitobans elected a new provincial government. As a result, NDP leader Wab Kinew will soon be sworn in as Manitoba’s twenty-fifth premier.
No doubt premier-designate Kinew intends to make significant changes to education policy. So here is some non-partisan education policy advice for the incoming premier to consider.
First, Manitoba needs to get serious about improving instruction in the academic basics, particularly in math and reading. Compared to other provinces, Manitoba students consistently score at or near the bottom in these subjects on international assessments such as PISA and on national assessments such as PCAP. This is unacceptable and we can do better.
No doubt the new government will be tempted to increase spending on education and hope that this fixes the problem. However, Manitoba already spends more per student than every other province except Nova Scotia. Thus, it would be a mistake to assume that simply spending more money will lead to improved student achievement. Something else is required.
There is an old saying that you should work smarter, not harder. Instead of demanding more from teachers, the province should empower them to teach more effectively. For example, there is overwhelming evidence that systematic phonics instruction is the best way to help students learn how to read.
That is what the Ontario Human Rights Commission discovered when it investigated this issue. Its Right to Read report concluded that students were being shortchanged by the “three-cueing” approach to reading instruction that encouraged students to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words rather than sound them out. The Right to Read report was so compelling that Ontario changed its reading curriculum to put more emphasis on phonics. Mr. Kinew, Manitoba should do the same.
In addition, research shows that there is a direct link between background knowledge and reading comprehension. Simply put, the more you know about a topic, the easier it becomes to understand an article or book about it. Thus, encouraging teachers to create knowledge-rich learning environments in their classrooms will improve the reading skills of their students.
As for math, the evidence is clear that students benefit from lessons that are clear, structured, and provide them with many opportunities to practice their new skills. In addition, committing basic math facts to memory and learning the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division is essential. Students need these skills to do higher-order math problems.
During the election campaign, the NDP promised to bring in a universal nutrition program in public schools. It makes sense to implement this promise as quickly as possible. Students learn best when they are properly fed.
However, if the new government is serious about helping disadvantaged students, it needs to do more than just provide them with food. That’s because students from disadvantaged homes are the ones who suffer the most from substandard instruction in school.
It’s the families living below the poverty line who are least able to hire private tutors for their children or enroll them in independent schools. If we want to see real improvements in student achievement, we need to ensure that students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, receive the academic instruction they need to succeed.
Taking concrete steps to improve the quality of instruction in schools is neither left-wing nor right-wing. It’s simply common sense.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.