Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/2/2017 (1963 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Property owners in the Winnipeg School Division are being asked if they are willing to pay more taxes to save school programs. We have been told the nursery program may be on the chopping block if taxes are not increased. Trustees are encouraging parents and ratepayers to attend consultation meetings and provide feedback.
The former NDP government provided consistent funding increases to education over a multi-year period. The current Tory government, faced with a large deficit, wants to reduce spending, so school divisions will not receive as much provincial funding as they would like. The board of trustees warns the shortfall may need to be recovered by increasing property taxes.
During the decade in which funding increased, student scores on international tests decreased. On the Program for International Student Assessment, which is written by 15-year-olds worldwide, Manitoba’s percentage of low-performing students in math doubled and the percentage of high-performing students halved since 2003.
Manitoba’s score in math is now significantly below the world average, having dropped a whopping 39 points, which is reckoned by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to be the equivalent of nearly one school year of instruction.
A similar decline in Manitoba’s performance is reflected in reading and science, the other two areas assessed.
This begs the question: if taxpayers are being asked to pay more for education, shouldn’t we demand to know why we’re not getting better results?
I have been advocating for better math education in Manitoba and in Canada for more than five years. I have noticed two disturbing trends. The first is that educational funds are often directed toward things that may hinder student learning. The second is the tendency for certain factions of the education establishment to operate behind closed doors, shutting out individuals who may challenge their ideology.
A common practice in Manitoba is to hire expensive consultants to provide professional development on unproven fads. Resources based on ineffective methods are then purchased and teachers are encouraged to implement these methods in the classroom, resulting in more struggling students who need extra help. This creates the need for more professional development and additional funding and the cycle continues.
While it is encouraging that graduation rates have improved, an increasing number of high school graduates are unprepared for post-secondary education or the work force. This leads to additional costs at the post-secondary level, where remedial math courses must be offered to bring a significant proportion of students up to speed with topics that should have been mastered in K-12.
The situation is unlikely to change until the gatekeepers of education begin listening to alternative voices, but they seem increasingly unwilling to do so.
Most recently, the school board proposed a math task force in 2016 to examine the problem. At the time, a trustee suggested I would be a valuable member of the task force in light of my expertise as a university mathematics professor and as a public advocate for better math education.
The invitation never came and I have been unable to obtain information about the composition of the task force, except that it includes two high-ranking union executives — the president and vice-president of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association. The union president informed me on Twitter that the task force would include only members from the union and the school division. The vice-president went further, suggesting secrecy is required to "prevent others from strong-arming their way in." Outside voices and transparency apparently are unwelcome.
I advocate for basic skills, hard work and practice, higher standards, testing, accountability and the use of effective math programs in the classroom. These are common-sense approaches but seem to antagonize those who have staked their careers on programs that do not value these things. That’s a hard barrier to break through. This leaves the impression the welfare of students is not first priority. Egos, ideologies and career aspirations of a few powerful adults seem to take precedence.
All too often, those who played a role in creating an educational problem in the first place are charged with fixing it. It wouldn’t require a stitch of extra funding to include alternative expert voices in a meaningful way and it would benefit students.
I encourage citizens to attend consultation meetings and to ask questions before agreeing to a tax increase. Why aren’t we getting better results and how can we be sure that education dollars are being spent in ways that improve student success?
Anna Stokke is a professor of mathematics at the University of Winnipeg, co-founder of the advocacy group WISE Math, co-founder of the non-profit Archimedes Math Schools and author of the C.D. Howe Report, What to do about Canada’s declining math scores.