After the release of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results in December, which tested math abilities in 15-year-olds, former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley remarked that the results were "on the scale of a national emergency" for Canada. If that's the case, we certainly have a crisis situation in education in Manitoba.
The latest bad news comes with the release of the 2013 Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) results. PCAP is a national test written by Grade 8 students across Canada every three years. Science was the major subject assessed in 2013, but math and reading were also assessed to a lesser extent. Manitoba students came in last in Canada in all three areas. The details show more cause for concern: Manitoba has the highest percentage of children performing at the lowest level and the smallest percentage of students performing at the highest level in science. Both struggling students and high-performing students are underserved by the current system. This finding echoes what was discovered in the 2012 PISA results.
Educational standards have declined significantly in Manitoba.
In past years, Grade 6 students wrote rigorous provincial tests in mathematics that tested material, such as fraction arithmetic, that isn't covered until Grades 7 and 8 in current curricula. Is it fair to Manitoba students to throw them into national and international tests when they have not been tested in a similar fashion at a provincial level?
Prince Edward Island realized a remarkable jump in its PCAP scores since the last round, after introducing rigorous testing in Grades 3, 6 and 9 about five years ago. Students cannot possibly be expected to improve if they are not given honest feedback about their weaknesses and if those weaknesses aren't addressed before moving them through to the next grade level.
The provincial math curriculum is fraught with problems such as the insistence on teaching multiple confusing strategies for basic arithmetic. To their credit, the province introduced some positive changes in 2013, but important concepts such as fraction arithmetic are still delayed. Realistically, the entire curriculum needs to be rewritten. Academic standards need to be a major focus and teachers need to be fluent with the mathematics they teach.
Minister James Allum seems aware that these things need to be addressed and I hope that genuine action will be taken.
As a math professor and education advocate, I'm often asked what parents can do to ensure a strong math education for their children. Apart from supplementing at home with resources such as JUMP Math, I encourage parents to get involved in the upcoming trustee election. Parents can positively influence the makeup of a school board by educating themselves about candidates' platforms and voting for candidates who care about improving academic standards.
A strong caucus of trustees, who focus on improving academic standards in areas such as reading, writing, mathematics, science could have a profound positive effect on the children educated in the division. Conversely, a board of trustees dominated by individuals who do not believe in testing or deadlines, shun awarding zeroes for poor work and discourage academic competition in the form of science fairs or enrichment programs could make the situation even worse.
Consider Edmonton physics teacher Lyndon Dorval who was fired for giving zeroes to students. His firing was backed at the board level.
Surprisingly, many school trustee candidates seem unaware about Manitoba's poor performance. A perusal of candidates' websites shows that few mention academic standards as a priority. I am interested in hearing more from those who do care about academics and hope that trustee websites will be updated to answer questions that we should be asking. They are:
— What ideas do trustees have to improve academic standards in their division? Specifically, how would they work to improve reading, math and science learning?
— What will trustees do to improve assessment practices in their division? If we really want to ensure students are meeting academic expectations, and that grades are not being inflated, progress needs to be measured in a rigorous way and weaknesses need to be addressed.
— What will trustees do to ensure struggling students get help with grade-level material before being promoted to the next grade? Do trustees support advanced programs for students who excel so that our strongest students are being challenged? We have some outstanding students in this province and they deserve to be challenged in school.
— How do trustees feel about focusing on the basics (for example, memorizing times tables and learning math procedures early)? Do trustees recognize that practice and hard work are important for academic success? Do trustees favour hiring more teachers with backgrounds in mathematics? Are trustees prepared to think critically about educational fads and bandwagons? How will they guard our children against fads such as those that told us memorizing times tables, learning math procedures and testing were detrimental to learning? That is, how will trustees guard against the educational fads that have resulted in the abysmal performance we have seen on recent PCAP and PISA tests?
Minister Allum is correct that Manitoba kids can do better in math, science and reading. In the meantime, the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE Math) will continue advocating for improved math education for our children.
Anna Stokke is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Winnipeg and a co-founder of WISE Math.