April 10, 2020

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Opinion

Failure's real cause must be examined in schools review

Davie Hinshaw / The Charlotte Observer Files</p><p>Previous provincial governments over the last three decades have vowed to improve the quality of education.</p>

Davie Hinshaw / The Charlotte Observer Files

Previous provincial governments over the last three decades have vowed to improve the quality of education.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/4/2019 (351 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba’s newly appointed Education Review Commission has been tasked, in the words of some of its creators, with "fixing our schools." Ostensibly, this is because our students are not doing as well as they should in numeracy and literacy on international achievement tests.

The implication always seems to be that schools are deliberately not doing their jobs and that, if they were only held to account by the government, they would — and the marks would improve. Pretty shaky ground on several fronts and, in my view, not at all the real failure of schools.

While we should never be satisfied if any young people are not experiencing personal success in their endeavours when they are doing their best, most of our students are collectively doing as well or better than previous students when we take their profiles into account — and they are certainly always in the statistically valid range.

Our schools are generally not the problem when it comes to numeracy and literacy achievement, except that nobody, including our most knowledgeable educators, knows how to teach complex mathematics to some students, or how to help some read at what is considered an age-appropriate level. On the other hand, this is not life-threatening, and governments need to give themselves a break and think more judiciously about promises they have no hope of keeping.

Previous governments of all stripes over at least the past three decades have, to their credit, vowed to make things better, and to some extent, they may have succeeded. Their actions and pronouncements have at least not prevented our students from continuously improving to where they are now, but as noted above, the easy pickings may be gone.

Blame and shame heaped on the education system are not likely to do much other than cause resentment and resignation among educators, as well as increased mistrust of both schools and government, something which serves neither in the long term.

The real failure of the school system might be the degeneration of democratic politics and politicians, and for that, we’re all to blame.

Some rhetorical questions: how, if our school system was doing its job, have we ended up with so many self-focused, sometimes mean-spirited and vindictive politicians? How have public incivility, divisiveness and polarization become the hallmarks of today’s politics, along with personal attacks such as name-calling and unsubstantiated accusations?

Why do we just accept that governments, supposedly representing all people for the good of all, can wilfully try to turn people and groups against each other? If the school system was doing its job, would politics have sunk to this level? What could the schools have done to predict and prevent the loss of integrity and civility that is so much a part of today’s politics? What might we do to right the ships of schools and politics, and re-imagine respect for, and pride in, the very institution of government?

We might start by saying we want the same thing for our children and young people — happiness and success. Regarding this matter, I trust parents more than anyone else, so we should give them an opportunity to speak and be heard. With a little more honesty and mutual respect regarding our respective limitations, we might work on working together. Honesty would mean admitting that none of us is sure we know how to accomplish what we want educationally, but we know it requires all of us.

Respect means we would actually take seriously what parents tell us; it also means we might hear how inconsequential test scores really are on a human level, and have a dialogue about what is really important to all of us, thereby helping schools work toward something not quite as elusive.

We might demand that our politicians exhibit the kind of conduct we would wish our young people to emulate, including not evading the tough questions and the known answers. For example, they and we know how Finland has accomplished its test-score turnaround while becoming the happiest country on earth. If this is important to us, we might follow Finland’s lead in making teacher education entry more rigorous and the program more demanding, paying teachers accordingly and generally being less self-serving and more focused on public well-being.

We might also take seriously the findings of the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy that the lack of success in school is more attributable to children’s social conditions than any other factor, and that it is futile to address school failures without addressing child poverty and students’ home lives. In other words, we might hold our politicians accountable for what the best available evidence shows us.

The other lesson to learn from all of this is that education must be lived now where we live, but its results can only be understood much later by how we adults and our elected politicians apply what we have learned.

"Fixing our schools" demands a collective and inclusive effort supported by a common purpose and an understanding that while the immediate results of schooling can perhaps be judged on some short-term basis, the consequence of education — an educated populace — is a longer-term project.

John Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. A lifelong educator, he has served as a teacher, counsellor, work education co-ordinator, principal, school superintendent and university professor.

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