Lesson plans in the wake of Manitoba’s K-12 education review will have a renewed focus on fundamental reading, writing and math skills to prepare students for a series of new summative standardized tests.
The province is championing a back-to-the-basics approach, with an emphasis on the “deep implementation” of curriculum and traditional tests to improve student achievement, drawing from the commission’s 180-page report.
Other curriculum-related changes planned include new frameworks for both K-10 science and “skills, technology and career development” curriculums, an updated French immersion policy, and a review to determine whether phys-ed should be required at the end of high school.
The K-12 commission’s 75 recommendations — which the province has accepted “in spirit and principle” — were published this week, alongside implementation strategies laid out in the Education Modernization Act and “Better Education Starts Today” (BEST) action plan.
The BEST strategy outlines plans to implement new final assessments in grades 3 or 4, 6 or 7, and 10, which would replace existing provincial tests. School-level data are expected to be collected and then made available to local communities.
The Pallister government continuously cites poor international test scores as the reason for much-needed change across the public system, including the replacement of English school boards with regional entities that will report to a provincial education authority.
Critics say standardized tests, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), on which Manitoba students ranked second-last of all Canadian provinces in reading and last in math and science in 2018, must be contextualized with rates of child poverty and children in care.
“We’re dealing with poverty and we’re dealing with trauma — and unless we address those two tracks, regardless of what we do to the train, it’s still going to be a bumpy and slow ride,” said Rex Ferguson-Baird, principal at Brooklands School in northwest Winnipeg.
Ferguson-Baird said he doesn’t think it’s fair to compare students who are living with those experiences to those who are not, and assessments should be used to determine where a student is at and next steps for improvement to ensure they are growing in their learning.
“Standardized assessments should never be the single source of information to determine the quality of anything; they should be part of a whole suite of information, but inevitably, that’s not how they’re used,” said Martha Koch, an assistant professor of education at the University of Manitoba.
Koch, who researches assessment, said classroom observation, teacher focus groups, and consulting math and literacy specialists are more effective ways to find out how to improve teaching methods and outcomes.
Meantime, the chairwoman of mathematics at the University of Winnipeg applauds the province’s focus on standardized tests so educators revisit basic math skills in early years that are built upon later in the K-12 system.
Anna Stokke said the reality is students are struggling in math, citing an “extremely alarming” drop of 46 points in Manitoba scores on the PISA tests between 2003 and 2018.
“The reason that kids drop out of math is because they’re struggling in it, and they’re often struggling in it because they didn’t master a concept that came earlier,” said Stokke.
The K-12 commission heard from parents concerned about fundamental skills and teachers struggling to get through the curriculum at present — factors which underline a recommendation to replace mandatory Grade 11 and 12 physical and health education credits.
The commissioners suggest Manitoba create “more rigorous high school credits that include topics, such as financial management, nutrition, entrepreneurialism, employability, parenting, and other life skills.”
Phys-ed specialist Deondra Twerdun-Peters said, “Our hearts kind of sank,” when she and her colleagues at Fort Richmond Collegiate read that line, knowing the class focus has changed in recent years from being sport-centric to holistic wellness.
Twerdun-Peters tackles topics including stress management and healthy relationships with senior-years students.
“Healthy students are better learners, so if we take away that health and that wellness piece, what are we leaving our students with? How are they going to navigate the rigours of the classroom, academically, socially and emotionally?” she said.
The province has committed to reviewing the requirements and curriculum, per the commission.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press