Tories must ditch dislike for teachers

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What exactly is Premier Brian Pallister’s goal in the recently announced review of public education?

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/01/2019 (1299 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What exactly is Premier Brian Pallister’s goal in the recently announced review of public education?

We were told the $700,000 review, revealed by Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen last week, is designed to “inspire excellence in teaching and learning” as part of a “lifelong learning approach.”

In particular, the two-person review panel — former Saskatchewan NDP cabinet minister Janice MacKinnon and former Filmon-era Tory education and finance minister Clayton Manness — is to “develop a stronger sense of shared accountability for student learning” among educators and trustees.

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen says there could be further school division consolidation.

A review of the funding model, which involves a combination of direct provincial support along with education property taxes, will not be part of this review, but governance will be examined. Goertzen strongly suggested a further consolidation of the province’s 38 school divisions would be considered.

It’s safe to say Goertzen’s message was a shock to those working in the system.

Goertzen puts the responsibility for the sad state of affairs directly on the shoulders of teachers, administrators and trustees. In fact, in outlining what he wanted to promote, you can safely assume the minister does not think those people are particularly accountable and committed to what he described as “excellence in teaching and learning.”

This underlying message was amplified the day after Goertzen announced the review, when he revealed the province would only increase funding to school divisions by 0.5 per cent in 2019-20, a cutback when you take inflation and population growth into account.

Goertzen said the austere funding commitment is necessary because the province is still battling a deficit left to it by the previous government. But underlying that message is an accusing finger being pointed at the system: you need to do a better job with the money you have now.

It’s often said that it’s only paranoia if they’re not out to get you. And in this case, those who toil in public education are not being paranoid.

Baked deeply into the DNA of the Progressive Conservative party is a profound, almost institutional skepticism about the public education system. Diehard Tories believe teachers are paid too much, school trustees are incompetent and the outcomes of the system are far too disappointing. Add in Goertzen’s comments from the funding announcement, and it’s fair to say this government is dishing out a heaping helping of tough love to the public education system that it believes is underperforming.

Is there any truth to these beliefs? Although “overpaid” is a subjective assessment, Manitoba teachers are certainly well paid on a national standard and based on that fact alone, perhaps more can be expected. Some of the school divisions and the trustees that run them are, fairly speaking, only marginally competent.

One thing no one can argue with is that Manitoba students do not rank highly on national scales in graduation or test results.

But does all that add up to a system that is, as Goertzen suggested, unaccountable and not committed to excellence in learning? That perspective ignores the fact that educational outcomes are, in general, determined by social and economic conditions.

Social scientists have repeatedly proven that more students graduate, and graduate with higher overall marks, when they have strong family support, when they are free of the ravages of poverty and where they are surrounded by peers who are motivated to do well in school. Students who live with lower socio-economic conditions and are surrounded by peers who are less committed to education do not succeed.

Not surprisingly, a province such as Manitoba that has among the highest rates of child poverty in the country is going to suffer when it comes to provincewide outcomes.

Of course, even in the face of extreme child poverty and a lack of family supports, there are strategies the system can use to produce better outcomes. Smaller class sizes, school breakfast and lunch programs and other social-service supports have helped boost performance in some of the poorest places in the province. However, these measures require funding to ensure they are applied broadly to those students who need them the most. For the time being, expanding programs to combat socio-economic forces doesn’t appear to be Goertzen’s priority.

Pallister and Goertzen want a system that can do more with the same or even less financial resources. As has been the case in the United States where lawmakers attempt to reform public education, teachers in Manitoba will no doubt face the brunt of the Pallister government’s contempt based on the fact that they are, by all reasonable measurements, paid quite well.

But what about school divisions? Goertzen’s suggestion of fewer or even one provincial school district could be an explosive political issue.

Many Manitobans continue to cling fiercely to the idea that school divisions provide essential, local control over education and would fight strenuously against any further amalgamation. But without some change in governance — possibly making all school divisions bargain centrally with teachers, for example — it’s tough to see how Pallister will get his desired outcomes.

Goertzen is not wrong to suggest that public education needs a tune-up. And he is certainly correct to suggest that teachers and trustees will need to embrace new ideas and strategies to produce better outcomes. This is an all-hands-on-deck challenge. But it may also require the government to embrace new strategies, such as dialing down the obvious contempt it has for the system and the people who work in it.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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