Manitoba needs to reverse its steep academic decline

July 17, 2014

Manitoba has had fifteen years of academic decline in reading, math, and science. That is the track record of the current NDP government. Once near the Canadian average, Manitoba now sits second last out of the Canadian provinces.

In a study recently released by the C. D. Howe Institute, John Richards analyzed data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Every three years, PISA tests more than 500,000 fifteen-year-old students from approximately 65 countries in the core competencies of math, reading, and science. Students from all provinces participated in the latest PISA tests.

Richards noted that from 2000 to the present, Manitoba was one of only two provinces (the other being Prince Edward Island) to experience a statistically significant decline in all three competency areas. To make matters worse, only Manitoba’s math and reading results declined by 35 points.

Interestingly, when it comes to per-student expenditures, Manitoba ranks near the top in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, Manitoba’s per-student spending comes in a close second to that of Alberta. In the 2010-2011 school year, Manitoba spent an average of $13,150 per student, which was more than $500 higher than the national average. Clearly, more spending does not necessarily lead to better academic results.

Richards used the worldwide PISA data to examine education policies that seem to improve student achievement. Most notably, high-performing jurisdictions give schools more autonomy while simultaneously expecting them to publicly report their students’ academic achievement levels.

Unfortunately, Manitoba does the exact opposite. Schools and teachers have little autonomy since the provincial government dictates everything from school year schedules to report card comments. At the same time, the province has systematically abolished all standardized tests except for two administered at the grade 12 level. But, shamefully, the results of the tests are kept hidden from the public.

In fact, when it comes to student achievement, Manitoba is the most secretive province in the country. No other province goes to such lengths to keep the public in the dark about how students are doing. If it weren’t for international tests such as PISA, Manitobans would have no idea that student achievement has been falling for 15 years.

If the Manitoba government wants to improve student achievement, it needs to take a serious look at provincial curricula and ask whether the necessary academic content is clearly prescribed.

Fortunately, the government took a good first step last year when it listened to mathematicians and put the standard algorithms back into the math curriculum. It needs to follow through by examining other whether similar changes should be made in other subjects. For example, a stronger focus on spelling and grammar in English Language Arts would probably be a good idea.

In addition, the government needs to cut down on its tendency to micromanage so many issues. During the last decade, a huge amount of time and energy has been wasted debating things such as school board amalgamations, mandatory physical education credits for grade 11 and 12 students, and the province-wide school closure moratorium. Add to this list the new provincial report card and the headaches its implementation has caused for teachers and parents, and it is not hard to conclude that the government has lost its way, at least in education.

Finally, the government should acknowledge that it was a mistake to abolish standardized testing. These tests play an essential role in measuring and reporting on student achievement. Instead of simply relying on PISA results every three years to identify problems, the government needs to institute annual standardized tests at several grade levels and make sure the results become public.

If designed and implemented properly, standardized testing will bring a much-needed focus to Manitoba’s education system. By highlighting student achievement, school administrators will get the message that they must not lose sight of this essential goal. It may even cause them to think twice before blindly adopting the latest education fad without first examining the evidence for its effectiveness.

Manitoba’s education system has been in decline for the last fifteen years. It is time we reverse this negative trend and make student academic achievement the primary focus.