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This article was published 14/12/2019 (768 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
On Dec. 3, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development announced the latest round of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results. Manitoba fared poorly, especially in mathematics.
PISA tests 15-year-olds from randomly selected schools, except First Nations schools. Students with intellectual disabilities or limited language skills are also excluded.
Between 2003 and 2018, Manitoba’s PISA math score dropped 46 points, which the OECD estimates as comparable to just over one year of schooling. The percentage of children performing below Level 2, which corresponds roughly to innumeracy, doubled. Equally troubling is that students performing in the highest levels — our future STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) leaders — decreased from 19 per cent to eight per cent during this time. These are the largest declines in Canada.
Several explanations being proposed for Manitoba’s steep decline point away from factors related to the teaching of mathematics. Manitoba Teachers’ Society president James Bedford attributes the decline to child poverty. Others cite increased class sizes, education spending cuts and problems with the PISA test.
We agree that child poverty is a serious issue, but the facts must be examined before attributing causes. Statistics Canada reports low income using the Market Basket Measure (MBM) and the Low Income Measure (LIM). If child poverty were responsible for a decrease in scores, one would expect an increase in child poverty in Manitoba from 2003 to 2018. However, Statistics Canada data show a decrease in child poverty — from 19.1 per cent in 2006 to 9.5 per cent in 2017 under the MBM, or from 32.3 per cent in 2003 to 27.9 per cent in 2017 under the LIM.
It has been claimed that lifting class-size caps has affected scores. But the cap was lifted in 2017 and affected grades K-3 — how can this be responsible for 15-year-old students doing poorly on a 2018 test? Furthermore, the highest-performing province — Quebec — has the largest class sizes in Canada; Manitoba has one of the lowest.
Those who attribute the decline to spending cuts by the current government are committing the same logical fallacy: this government took over in 2016 but the major decline was from 2003 to 2015 (39 points).
Another criticism is that PISA does not test the Manitoba curriculum. This is true, but it does not test the curriculum of any province or country. PISA tests so-called 21st century skills, such as creativity and problem-solving, which our curriculum claims to foster. PISA is not intended to be a measure of individual student performance — the target of testing is the school system itself.
What changed in Manitoba over the period of decline that might have credibly affected the scores? Likely suspects include dramatic changes to curriculum, adoption of unproven educational fads and the elimination of provincial standardized testing.
Manitoba underwent major curriculum changes in 1995, which were further dramatically reinforced in 2006. Important learning outcomes were moved to late grades. For example, memorization of math facts was removed altogether then returned in 2013, but is not required until Grade 5. All arithmetic with fractions is put off until grades 7 and 8, whereas students in high-performing systems start fraction arithmetic in Grade 4.
Moving curriculum outcomes made room for teaching multiple strategies and emphasizing models such as blocks and algebra tiles.
It was claimed that the curriculum changes would enhance understanding and problem-solving, but multiple strategies and models introduce mental clutter, making it difficult for students to process mathematical ideas. Strong problem-solvers are fluent in standard methods and have a mind well-stocked with basic facts and procedures.
It has consistently been shown that emphasis on higher-level problem-solving skills under the assumption that basic skills naturally follow is not an effective way to teach either type of skill.
PISA co-ordinator Andreas Schleicher insists that "to do well in PISA, students have to be able to extrapolate from what they know… apply their knowledge creatively in novel situations and demonstrate effective learning strategies," and a consistent finding from PISA is that "teacher-directed instructional practices tend to better predict student achievement than student-oriented learning… the pattern is clearly visible in both East and West."
However, Manitoba teachers’ professional development tends to promote student-oriented or inquiry-based teaching. For example, the expensive keynote speakers commissioned over the past two years for Manitoba’s largest annual PD day are leading proponents of inquiry-based math teaching fads.
Manitoba’s glaring decline may be due in part to a lack of transparency around student performance. Most Canadian provinces administer standardized tests yearly at grades 3, 6, 9 and 12 and publicly post school-level results. Standardized provincial tests below Grade 12 were abandoned in Manitoba by the year 2000. This makes the effects of policy changes and educational fads invisible to the general public.
In March, the province is expected to roll out its long-awaited report on the provincial education review, which took place earlier this year. We are hopeful that the recommendations in the report will address factors that credibly have an impact on educational outcomes.
Robert Craigen is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Manitoba. Anna Stokke is a professor of mathematics at the University of Winnipeg. They co-founded the advocacy group Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE Math).