Editorial: Education reform plan both vague and oddly specific

After sitting on the report for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the provincial government finally released the recommendations of the K-12 Education Review Commission March 15 and an outline of their plans to change Manitoba’s primary and secondary school system.

That the school system is not performing as well as anyone would like is not particularly contentious. Manitoba students don’t rate as well in math and literacy measurements as they used to when compared to other jurisdictions, or as well as they should, some would say, given the amount that is spent on their education, which is the among the highest per student in Canada. Of course, that overlooks the fact that, throughout the province and especially in the north, many students spend their first years of education attending First Nations schools, where per-student funding is far, far lower than it is in provincially run schools. Some of these students have already fallen behind where they need to be by the time they start high school. The difficulty of that transition is made even harder for many First Nations students who have to leave their home communities to attend high school in Thompson or Winnipeg or elsewhere. Adjusting to a whole new school, a whole new peer group and a whole new community away from their families can sometimes prove too much. Unfortunately, it occurs in one of the most vital years of their secondary education, as the number of high school credits successfully completed in Grade 9 is a pretty good predictor for whether a given student will graduate on time. Graduation rates in Manitoba are around 80 per cent. That number should probably be higher, but for some northern school districts, getting to that point itself may seem insurmountable, with some graduation rates in the 60 per cent range or even less. For Indigenous First Nations students, the gap between themselves and the provincial average can be even greater. In some areas, fewer than half graduate on time and many never do at all.

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The need for education reform, or at the very least improvements, is clear, but exactly how the education review is going to achieve that is not particularly well mapped out. The government’s website describing the changes has a lot of vision or mission statement type phrases that talk about improving graduation rates and tests scores and technology use and so on, but often there is little in the way of concrete steps that will be taken or what sort of metrics will be used to measure how that process is going. You might be tempted to say that that is only because it’s early in the process, but the government has already got specific plans to amalgamate school divisions into regions and do away with elected school boards. They had time to get very granular there and to go off-script from the commission report, which actually recommended about half as many school divisions – six to eight – compared to the number of regions the province is proposing – 15. The commission also envisioned those as having a mix of elected and appointed representatives but the province thinks that all appointed positions is a better way to go.

It can also be a little confusing to follow the province’s logic on why amalgamating school districts and doing away with elected school boards will benefit students. On the one hand, they point out that Manitoba spends more per student than any almost any other province but doesn’t get the same results. On the other hand, if more money doesn’t necessarily produce better results, why is it assumed that shifting dollars from administration, which doesn’t account for much of the provincial education budget overall, to the classroom will do what other dollars couldn’t? Are these magical teaching brain-building dollars or something?

Learning has been around forever, but formalized state-run education is actually a much more recent invention and it often struggles to keep up with societal changes. Many white-collar workers of today who spend their time at desks using computers and other gadgets had never even seen a computer at their school until they got to high school, or at all, depending on how old they are. Some of today’s students could use computers before they ever set foot in a classroom. Many things about the education system cold do with improving but the way the province used the K-12 education review to make vague promises about student achievement and propose specific actions to reduce local democratic control of schools makes some people feel like maybe it was used, at least partially, as a way to “streamline” and centralize control of education while using poor test scores and graduation rates as a smokescreen.

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