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Tinkering by NDP fails kids

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It was hard to find a glimmer of good news in the results of math scores for Manitoba, released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Tuesday. Compared to other OECD states, Manitoba's 15-year-olds managed an average score. But against Canadian counterparts, the province slipped to near last place. The results were similarly dismal in reading and science.

The assessment, run in 2012, indicates Manitoba continues its slide in the three disciplines scored. Only mathematics was extensively tested in 2012 by the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment. The results in the last decade or more show a slide not just relevant to other countries, but in Canada, which has seen national scores fall against other countries. In math, Manitoba scores above only Newfoundland and Labrador and P.E.I. In reading and science, only P.E.I. scored lower.

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Why? Manitoba students have been at the mercy of math specialists who routinely rework the curriculum and the teaching methods to adopt the latest in learning theories. The old methods of adding in vertical columns, memorizing multiplication tables, and long division were trashed. Today, PISA indicates, 21 per cent of Manitoba's 15-year-olds tested could perform at only the lowest levels of math skills, up from 11 per cent a decade ago.

Various excuses have been used to explain the slide -- that the decline in the scores are not meaningful when confidence intervals are considered, that the rising number of new Canadians struggling in English contributes to the dropping numbers. But none of these holds water. The fact is Manitoba parents have been sent adrift in their efforts to track their child's performance -- standardized tests were done away with by the NDP at the behest of the Manitoba Teachers Society, and report cards increasingly employed obscure measures of achievement that confound comprehension.

Last year, then education minister Nancy Allan finally brought some sanity to the discussion, triggering a return to teaching basic math skills in primary grades and a requirement that alternative math courses in secondary grades include higher mathematical skills, rather than concentrating on skills required to manage a personal budget and doing income taxes. The latter was in part a recognition that graduates entering university education programs -- the young adults who would one day teach the primary and secondary students math -- needed higher math skills themselves to do the job.

And on Monday, in an offensive move designed to buffer the bad news out of PISA, the provincial government announced it would be funding a new position at the University of Winnipeg, a joint professor in mathematics and education, to improve math skills of would-be teachers. And on Tuesday, it announced another 130 teachers will be hired to cut the size of classes from grades 1 to 3.

There has been no conclusive evidence class size itself translates into student achievement -- those pro and con can wave warring research -- but that will not deter Education Minister James Allum on an agenda that plays to a teachers' union long supportive of the NDP. The OECD itself has found few of the countries that poured money into reducing class size saw an impact on student academic achievement. Indeed, some strong countries, such as Finland, restrict class size to below 20 students, while others do better while having very large classes -- Korea's classes have 34 or more students and yet the country ranks high in PISA's assessments.

Mr. Allum on Tuesday was frank about his disappointment with Manitoba's results. He must stay the course now with an emphasis on basic skills in math class for Manitoba children.

The results for reading and science are equally instructive. It is unfair to expect children to adapt to new teaching methods lurching from theory to trend to massive experiment, the results of which have seen Manitoba's rank bottom out.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2013 A8

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