DOING THE MATH
How does $2.25 billion annually add up to poor test results?
THE NDP government has literally poured tens of billions of dollars into Manitoba’s public education since it took office in the fall of 1999. The province now has a public school system with operating costs of $2.25 billion each year, with about 60 per cent or so of that amount covered by provincial revenue.
In virtually every comparable category on school spending, per-student funding and student-teacher ratios, the New Democrats under Gary Doer and Greg Selinger have been far bigger spenders on public education than was the last Conservative government of Gary Filmon, elected in 1988.
But what quality of education are Manitobans getting for thier money?
That’s far harder to pin down — or, it is exceedingly difficult to analyse and identify positive learning outcomes both quantitatively and qualitatively, to put it in education jargon people within the system would understand.
Enrolment is steadily declining, and the public schools’ share of the province’s children is also declining as families look to private schools and, in the last few years far more dramatically, to homeschooling.
There are fewer students but more teachers each year — and not just because the NDP has committed to capping kindergarten to Grade 3 class sizes at 20 children by 2017.
“Is there value for the money?” University of Manitoba education professor Jon Young said. “The indicators are so ambiguous and so complex.”
Manitoba does not have widespread testing and tracking of student performance; instead, elementary school teachers perform individual diagnostic assessments of the children with whom they spend 5½ hours in the classroom each day.
Manitoba has a poor track record compared with every other Canadian province in the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Canadian ministers of education tests — each conducted among randomlyselected schools every three years in math, science, and language arts.
Manitoba is at or near the bottom in almost every category in every set of tests, and no one is taking solace that the province’s young students perform better than children in many major industrialized countries.
On the other hand, high school graduation rates have climbed steadily under the NDP. The province said 71.1 per cent of high school students graduated in 2002; by June 2014, the rate was 87 per cent.
“Under the NDP government, education has been well-funded. The government committed to match funding with the growth in the economy, and they have done that. They’ve made K-to-12 schools a priority,” Young said.
“The most important observation is that we continue to fund the public schools well. The other side is harder to get at.”
Not surprisingly, Education Minister James Allum thinks Manitoba has a pretty darn good education system — a system from preschool to adulthood, he emphasized, not just kindergarten to Grade 12. “We’re kindergarten-to-career,” Allum declared. “We remain focused on prioritizing kids’ quality education... positioning them to go on and get a good career, and stay right here in Manitoba.
“Manitoba has been prospering; we’ve been putting a priority on education. Postsecondary enrolment has increased dramatically in our time in government,” Allum said, citing graduation rates.
It’s a system that is boosting early childhood education, capping class sizes at 20 in kindergarten to Grade 3, and working with students through high school to prepare for university and college, which, it is hoped, will put them in good jobs.
But, Allum said, national and international testing can undermine public confidence.
“We acknowledge there’s a learning gap,” Allum said, pointed out, “86 per cent of our kids are meeting or exceeding expectations.” But that’s not good enough. He called everyone on the carpet last year, when the OECD numbers came out, and demanded Manitoba do better.
“A full range of activities was undertaken” to work with schools to prepare better for the next round of three-year testing, Allum said.
Manitoba has been revising the math curriculum to get back to the basics in early years, and future teachers are now required to have at least six credit hours in university math before they can get into a faculty of education.
“We’ve put resources online so parents can see what’s being taught in the classroom,” said the minister.
The provincial Conservatives, and leader Brian Pallister, are less enthusiastic about the NDP’s record.
The teachers are working hard and they’re good teachers, said Conservative education critic Wayne Ewasko (Lac du Bonnet), who was a high school guidance teacher before being elected to office in 2011. “(But) we’re not getting results. I don’t have faith in the leadership.”
When children educated under the Filmon government wrote the national and international tests in math and reading — science was added later — they were consistently near the top in Canada, in the top three regularly, Ewasko said.
Those tests are only a tool, he said. “(But) all the kids coming dead last now are educated under the NDP. It doesn’t have to be standards tests — we need ‘made in Manitoba’ ” to evaluate students’ performance and figure out how to make it better.
Money isn’t a solution, Ewasko said: “The minister is going around the province now on a promise-andspending spree.”
The Manitoba Liberal party did not respond to requests for its perspective.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society has long and frequently complained the Filmon Tories cut 700 full-time teaching jobs in Manitoba during the 1990s. (“There were wage freezes and losses in purchasing power,” said MTS president Norm Gould.)
More teachers and smaller class sizes sit well with MTS, which is nervous about the possibility of the election of a Tory government in April.
While the Conservatives have been reluctant to be specific about education issues, other than criticizing the NDP for allegedly failing the province’s children, Pallister has told the union he will not cut front-line teachers, Gould said.
“He’s used the term ‘front line.’ If you can find the definition of ‘front line,’ that would be important. Does that include resource teachers, guidance coun- sellors, special education?”
While MTS is among the NDP’s biggest fans, the teachers’ union still has concerns over equity within the funding formula.
“Certainly, funding is a key issue,” Gould said. “Equity is a big thing within the funding formula, with equalization. Funding drives the whole bus. You have rural divisions trying to deliver robust programming for kids” despite low assessment bases.
And the situation is no better within Winnipeg, said Gould. “Mill rates are deceiving — 13 mills in St. James is very different from 13 mills in Pembina Trails, based on the value of homes... the amount of revenue you generate.”
Nor is MTS satisfied with the way Manitoba educates its special-needs children.
“The premier has a special-needs task force. You have to put children in a very negative light to justify the funds. Divisions have to top up the money,” Gould said.
U of M education professor emeritus and frequent government critic Rod Clifton said there is no evidence spending more money improves the quality of education.
“It’s very difficult to know here,” because there is little hard data on student performance, he said.
“There are no uncontested ways of getting at it,” because any means of testing or other methodology to measure student performance is invariably rejected as ideological or political, Clifton said.
A C.D. Howe Institute report on teacher compensation and student performance (released Sept. 3) concluded paying teachers above-average salaries (such as in Manitoba) does not lead to better student performance, and below-average salaries (such as in British Columbia) do not lead to lower student performance.
Manitoba does poorly compared with other provinces in random national and international testing, said Clifton, but there is no indication such testing in any way measures the curriculum compared with other jurisdictions’ curricula.
He dismissed Grade 12 language arts testing (process tests, in which students receive unfamiliar written material and then are judged on their ability to understand and interpret that material) as a way to measure performance.
“Generally, all the kids pass, and the top kids and bottom kids aren’t spread out,” Clifton said.
Graduation rates are up, he conceded, but: “It’s easy to get the kids out — it’s difficult to know if they have the proficiencies necessary” for postsecondary education and good careers.
It costs a lot of money to get 23-student classes down to a cap of 20, Clifton said, but that “may not have much of an effect. No one knows.”
And Clifton said provincial support for specialneeds children varies greatly: “Some school divisions are able to play the game better than other school divisions. The ideology of mainstreaming is so powerful that it’s difficult to get into the debate.”