Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - COVER - BY NICK MARTIN

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.”

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