Making it all add up

P.E.I. has made big gains in math and reading -- can the same approach be duplicated here?


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They're doing the wave in Green Gables, but we in Manitoba are still gnashing our teeth and wringing our hands over the news our kids were stone-cold last in national test results released this fall in math, reading, and science.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/11/2014 (2857 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They’re doing the wave in Green Gables, but we in Manitoba are still gnashing our teeth and wringing our hands over the news our kids were stone-cold last in national test results released this fall in math, reading, and science.

In Prince Edward Island’s Charlottetown, Summerside, Montague, North Rustico, Mount Stewart, and likely in Cavendish, too, Islanders are delighted at the amazing gains their children made in math and reading between 2010 and 2013.

So, what did they do on the Island that we can do in our schools?

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files Manitoba Deputy Minister of Education Gerald Farthing admires the co-operation in P.E.I.


P.E.I. seriously stepped up teacher training and professional development, identifying students’ weaknesses and assigning resource teachers to work with the classroom teacher directly with students.

P.E.I. also tested the kids and published the school-by-school results.

Backing up a bit, we’re talking about the national tests written in 2013 by Grade 8 students randomly selected by the Council of Ministers of Education in Canada (CMEC).

The national score across Canada was 507 in math — don’t ask how the CMEC arrived at that number, it’ll only make your brain hurt worse than sucking too much Slurpee at one go.

Children in P.E.I. scored 492, fourth in Canada, an improvement from a score of 460 and 10th place only three years before.

Manitoba kids? Tenth, with 471. We’d been at 468 in 2010.

In reading, the Canadian score was 508. Islanders went from 10th to sixth by scoring 494, Manitoba kids were last at 469. Major science testing took place for the first time: P.E.I. was sixth at 491, Manitoba last at 465.

“We’re looking very carefully at what they’ve done in P.E.I.,” said Manitoba deputy minister of education Gerald Farthing, who’s had discussions with P.E.I. educators and, in mid-November, set up a teleconference with his people and their people.

P.E.I. students’ performances had been setting off alarm bells, said Elizabeth Costa, director of professional development for the P.E.I. Department of Education, so educators set about changing all that.

It wasn’t just a poor showing in the CMEC testing every three years, but P.E.I. students — just like Manitoba kids — also fared poorly on the testing of 15-year-olds in dozens of industrialized countries, which the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development conducts every three years. “It certainly has been a change of culture on P.E.I.,” said Costa, who explained the emphasis has been on grades 3, 6, and 9, and is now extending into Grade 11.

To put it simply, P.E.I. identified what the students were supposed to learn, whether they were learning it, and if not, what not and why not. And then they did something about it, in the classroom.

“We involve our teachers every step of the way,” Costa said. The educators asked: “What are our barriers to improving student performance in Grade 9 math? If we see who is not getting it, what do we do? We’ve already taught it.”

P.E.I. added three PD days, which included math and reading resource teachers spending time in the classroom with the teacher and their students — not a workshop. They were essentially on-site coaches.

From January to March, they respond to the results of what the student doesn’t know with effective strategies, Costa said. “That’s what we attribute our improvement in math to. We saw tremendous gains.”

Which they then measure with assessments conducted provincewide, and publish each fall school by school on the department’s website.

The Island developed its own tests based on its own curriculum, the lessons the kids were learning every day, said Costa — not some packaged test bought arbitrarily off a shelf in Texas.

P.E.I. children still do poorly in the OECD tests, Costa said, pointing out participants play no role in designing the tests.

“You need a very balanced assessment. You need benchmarks along the way… what is working in our curriculum, what is possibly not working in our curriculum.”


Teachers were apprehensive at first, but Costa emphasized there was never any intention to punish those whose students needed more help.

“That’s part of the growing pains — you have to see it through and support the teachers. I believe in gentle pressure,” Costa said. “It has never been about ranking. Our teachers are really deserving of credit.”

But, she cautioned, “Just assessing wouldn’t make any difference. Our assessment gave us direction about what we needed to do and where we needed to go.

“Our assessments assess outcomes; if our teachers teach to the test, they’re teaching what is expected in the classroom.”

There was less targeting of reading, but it was handled much the same way, Costa said.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society is less than impressed.

“School isn’t just literacy and numeracy and job preparation,” said MTS vice-president Norm Gould.

Get too worried about these test scores, and kids could lose class time for music and phys-ed and social studies, Gould warned. “We have to keep this in focus. We can’t have this back-to-basics juggernaut that’s screaming down the street.”

The MTS is always willing to look at the curriculum, he said, but argued the test data don’t show the effects of poverty, language and other factors. “We need to work on the socio-economic angle — teachers do what they can do when these inputs hit the school.”

Manitoba’s Tory opposition lambasted the NDP for our kids’ showing and has heard from a lot of people who want things turned around immediately, said education critic Wayne Ewasko (Lac du Bonnet).

“They are asking for some testing, absolutely,” said Ewasko, a high school teacher and guidance counsellor until his election less than four years ago.

The Tories aren’t yet prepared to lay out their election platform, but they see the need to assess kids and to see where a child’s learning stands compared to his or her peers in Manitoba, Canada and the world.

“How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re at?” asked Ewasko. “Bottom line: How are our kids doing? What kinds of resources can we put in place… which kids need the additional resources?”

The Tories haven’t decided if they’d publish assessment results by school, but at the very least, he said, teachers need to know how their students are doing and where they’re weak. “You shouldn’t have to recreate the wheel,” Ewasko said.

The CMEC and OECD do not release numbers beyond the overall Manitoba scores, but St. James-Assiniboia trustees are asking the Manitoba School Boards Association to lobby for divisional breakdowns of the data showing the scores for the randomly chosen schools in their division.

In P.E.I., the teachers’ union is pleased with the classroom and curriculum support, less so about testing.

“Teachers here are opposed to standardized tests. We have common assessment — the federation still has concerns about that,” P.E.I. Teachers Federation president Gilles Arsenault said. “Our students might have become better at the art of writing tests, but they haven’t learned any more. It wasn’t anything to do with the tests, it was the learning strategies. For us, the real gains were when there was a classroom teacher paired up with a math coach — it was true education in the classroom.”

Arsenault said some teachers felt under pressure. And he feared the P.E.I. government could be reducing the funding that allowed for additional expert teachers to be brought into the classroom.

Arsenault said P.E.I. had fewer challenges to overcome than does Manitoba — a more homogeneous population, fewer first-language issues and less dire poverty in the cities. There’s no evidence, however, parents are moving their kids among schools to find schools with better test scores, he said.

Islanders want better-educated children, not guilty parties, said University of P.E.I. education dean Ron MacDonald.

“There’s been a very deliberate set of interventions to identify the areas of weakness — I think it’s working… gearing instruction to that particular area of need.”

MacDonald said governments should be cautious about putting too much stress on results.


Farthing is impressed by the collegiality in P.E.I., the way that the province, school divisions and classroom teachers work together. “They’re trying to find ways to work with teachers and create this community of educators,” Farthing said.

As well, Manitoba’s assistant deputy education minister, Jean-Vianney Auclair, has been spending time in Quebec, said Farthing, “Particularly around teacher training. Quebec puts more of a focus on teacher training.”

The CMEC or OECD, math or reading or science, Manitoba has had a higher percentage of children performing at the lowest level on the scale than other provinces. “That’s what we need to take a close look at,” Farthing said. And Manitoba wants kids who are now just meeting expectations to achieve above expectations: “We’d like more kids to be further along.”

Not that it’s likely to end Manitobans’ hand-wringing or negate the need to get better fast, but MacDonald reckoned both provinces have pretty good education systems within a global context.

“Somebody has to be last. People are looking for crises — I don’t think there’s a crisis,” he said.

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