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Q: How does geography affect Manitoba math scores?

Province's teachers at significant disadvantage when it comes to professional development

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Yet another national test has recently placed Manitoba students at the low end of the scale for performance in mathematics.

Reaction was swift; the results were called abysmal, referred to as a Third World performance, and Manitoba students were labelled bottom dwellers.

Some people, in a vitriolic manner, cast aspersions on teachers unions and the NDP government's education policies. Others cited teachers' lack of preparation and accountability; still others pointed to absentee parenting and poor family values.

The reality is that with an improvement of about two per cent Manitoba students would rise to the top half of the provinces in terms of performance. An improvement of six per cent places our scores at the Canadian mean and in the top three. Surely such a small increment is not cause for such angry reactions.

Moreover, we most certainly could achieve such a small increase in our mean scores with a little concerted effort and a bit of co-operation. In my opinion, a key component of that co-operation would be an ongoing system of professional development with contributions from the province, divisions, teachers and academics.

National and international organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics offer excellent professional development conferences where teachers are able to access the latest and most successful innovations, and even revisit the old tried-and-true methods in workshops and presentations.

The problem for Manitoba teachers is that Manitoba is isolated geographically from other large centres of population where these conferences take place. This means there are fewer professional-development opportunities available for our teachers that can be accessed in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable amount of resources.

The province would be wise to establish a professional development fund that would be available for teachers to attend such conferences. These teachers could be expected to bring their new knowledge back to the province and pass it on to other teachers in local workshops and presentations.

Some professional development funds are available for teachers at the school-division level, but access on a provincial basis would be far more equitable. Permitting 10 teachers a year to attend such conferences for the major testable subjects of reading, science and mathematics would cost about $90,000 a year and have a high cost/benefit to the teachers and students of the province.

For example, one teacher who attends a conference and learns a successful strategy to deal with geometry, one of our weaknesses, in turn conducts a workshop to 20 teachers who in turn implement the strategy in their classrooms with more than 400 students benefitting. Now multiply by 10 and continue on a yearly basis.

As school divisions face budget constraints, one of the first cuts is often to consultants at the division level. A math consultant, properly trained, can provide a great deal of expertise and assistance to the classroom teacher who has myriad daily demands keeping astride of multiple subject areas, large class sizes and a diversity of students.

Consultants should set out three-year plans that mirror the national assessments, review the areas that need to be addressed and implement classroom-level strategies that will lead to improved performance.

In recent years, a large number of new, inexperienced teachers have entered the education system. There is a reason we have a laddered pay scale, education, experience and professional development matter. Individual teachers should be required each year to develop a professional development plan that helps them improve their skills in the classroom. Teachers could take a course, attend workshops, develop a new resource among other steps. Teachers should be held accountable to for their upgrading plans in a yearly review.

Academics from the discipline, in this case mathematics, and from the profession, education, need to form closer alliances to better understand the differences in philosophy that often drives a wedge between them.

Recently, a mathematics conference at the University of Winnipeg that featured a number of mathematicians and educators was a positive step in this direction. Such debate and regular liaison with the community are needed to maintain the interest in improving and to continue to better understand the perspectives of others as we build a community of professionals.

There has been considerable debate about the performance of Manitoba students in mathematics. Debate can be fruitful, it forces us to think through our positions carefully and reflect on our opponents' views.

Ultimately, we need action and a rigorous system of professional development would go a long way to raising scores.

Don Metz is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Winnipeg specializing in physics and mathematics.

The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their fields. It is open to any educator from Winnipeg's post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini bio to julie.carl@freepress.mb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2012 J12

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