Addressing Manitoba’s education declines

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I am very encouraged by the letters that teachers have published in your newspaper (e.g., Lowering The Bar Raises Graduation Rate, Dec. 8). We are experiencing similar frustrations in the post-secondary system, where we have noticed that students’ high school marks are often not reflective of skills or work ethic.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/12/2015 (2436 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I am very encouraged by the letters that teachers have published in your newspaper (e.g., Lowering The Bar Raises Graduation Rate, Dec. 8). We are experiencing similar frustrations in the post-secondary system, where we have noticed that students’ high school marks are often not reflective of skills or work ethic.

While increasing the graduation rate is a laudable and desirable goal, this does not translate to genuine student success if standards have been lowered. When students are granted a particular grade or a diploma, employers and post-secondary instructors expect a certain skill level to have been achieved. At the post-secondary level, we rely on high school grades to determine whether students are prepared to take our courses. Inflated grades set students up to fail and students (and their parents) stop appreciating false success when they discover that they lack the skills and work ethic to succeed beyond high school.

If “success is [measured by] how your score started, and where you go” (Be Thoughtful About Education, Dec. 1), we should consider that national and international tests show that Manitoba students’ math skills are in steep decline — the percentage of 15-year-olds performing at the lowest levels on international tests doubled since 2003, while the percentage of students in the highest-performing levels was cut in half. Both our struggling students and our high-performing students are being shortchanged by our education system.

In 2003, Manitoba students performed at the Canadian average —on par with provinces like Ontario — but on the latest national assessment, Manitoba stood out as the lowest-performing province in Canada. The decline is not unique to math —international and national assessments show that our students are struggling in English and in science, too.

The assessments involved randomly selected schools, except First Nations schools, which were excluded from the sample. Students who are at an obvious disadvantage, such as students with cognitive disabilities or limited English language skills, were also excluded from the assessments.

So if we are to measure success from where we started (at the Canadian average) to where we’ve gone (lowest in the country), it must be concluded that our education system is failing many students.

The provincial government is to be commended for some positive changes they have made in response to the declines. Revisions were made to the math curriculum in 2013, which involved the reintroduction of column addition, times tables and long division, JUMP Math is now a recommended resource, and K-8 teachers are now required to take two math courses in university prior to certification.

While these are positive steps, there are other glaring problems that must be addressed before we will see marked improvement. The provincial math curriculum remains shockingly weak. As an example, fraction addition, which was once taught in grades 4 and 5 in Manitoba, is now first introduced in grades 7 and 8. This is just one of many examples from a provincial curriculum that has been continually weakened over the past 20 years.

Most Canadian provinces administer standardized tests yearly at various grades and publicly post school-level performance results. Manitoba is lacking transparency in this area. The provincial Grade 12 test is still administered, but division-level results are not published, let alone school-level results. Standardized provincial tests in earlier grades were abandoned in Manitoba by the year 2000. This may also be contributing to the declining scores on international assessments since meaningful data is not available to the public at a provincial level.

In addition to the weak curriculum and lack of rigorous testing, our math education advocacy group WISE Math is constantly hearing from teachers who are frustrated with the system. They tell us of professional development sessions that promote bunk teaching methods like discovery math and multiple intelligences, administrators who bend to unreasonable demands from students or parents to inflate grades, and being forced to push students through the system who have not completed work satisfactorily. In most cases, teachers are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation, but they must make their voices heard in order to push the system to change.

As we move into a provincial election, I encourage citizens to ask politicians to make concrete commitments to improve education in Manitoba and I encourage teachers to continue speaking out. Changes are needed in education before our students suffer even more.

» Anna Stokke is a math professor at the University of Winnipeg, a co-founder of the math education advocacy group Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE Math) and author of the C.D. Howe Report “What To Do About Canada’s Declining Math Scores.”

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