Michael Zwaagstra in December articles in the Winnipeg Free Press and The Carillon bemoans Manitoba’s results on national and international academic tests that show our students performing poorly. According to Zwaagstra there are three keys to improving education in our province
3) direct whole class instruction.
Mr. Zwaagstra’s articles fail to report however on the three areas where our province gets top ranking.
1) Manitoba has the highest child poverty rate in Canada. I suspect we have more school kids who live in families lacking the basic necessities for healthy living than any other province.
2) Manitoba has the highest rate of adult incarceration in Canada. This leads one to believe we have more school kids with a parent in jail than in any other province.
3) Manitoba’s percentage of children in foster care is one of the highest in the world. It follows that we would have more school kids who are separated from their families than in any other province.
Could those three things impact children’s ability to learn and do well on standardized tests? If we focused on eradicating child poverty, on finding alternatives to such massive incarceration and looked for ways to improve foster care might that affect test scores more than the three remedies Mr. Zwaagstra suggests?
As a university education supervisor I have spent a fair bit of time in the last five years in inner city Winnipeg schools. Just before Christmas children in one school got free eye- exams courtesy of some caring Manitoba optometrists who volunteered to come and test children suspected of having vision issues. They discovered forty kids who should have been wearing glasses and provided them all with prescription lenses. One wonders though how those kids’ inability to see properly might have impacted their education and subsequently their scores on standardized tests in the past.
The six core area schools I know well devote time and money to providing breakfasts for children, setting up and staffing parent rooms where families can come for counseling and support, providing after school programs to keep kids out of gangs and off the street, arranging for kids to have dental work done at school by volunteer dentists, obtaining a stock pile of winter outerwear for children who come to school dressed improperly and the list goes on and on. These shouldn’t necessarily be the things teachers and administrators focus on but they know they are vital to their students’ ability to learn so they make them a priority. Could finding ways to relieve educators of those responsibilities allow schools to spend more time, energy and money on actual teaching?
That being said I am curious about the statistics behind Mr. Zwaagstra’s contention that regular assessment, teaching basics and direct class instruction is lacking in Manitoba schools. In the six weeks before Mr. Zwaagstra’s article was published I made nearly forty visits to Winnipeg classrooms. The education students I supervise must include a plan for assessment in every lesson and they do. During almost all lessons I observed, teachers were doing some whole class instruction and they were teaching the basics as best they could even though they had students whose reading and numeracy competencies were spread over as many as six different grade levels and every class had newcomers to Canada just learning English.
It is indeed troubling that Manitoba’s students have a low standard of academic achievement. Many of the reasons for that stem from long standing societal issues and addressing them will be much more costly and complicated than doing more tests or telling teachers they aren’t using the right instructional methods.