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Manitoba Schools Should Empower Teachers and Students

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In everything from economic growth to energy generation, Manitoba’s excessive bureaucracy and partisan, over-centralized government has choked off our potential. Sometimes, it’s the private sector surrendering power to the politicians by demanding public money before they’ll invest. Sometimes, it’s the public sector stomping out innovation to please their political masters.

One area where too much command and control has limited Manitoba’s potential is in K-12 education. Of course, we need provincial standards to make sure students are getting the basics right. But we can do so much more – if we tried. Instead, Manitoba’s government has taken standardization to a pathetic extreme. They’ve stomped out innovative teaching, learning and school organization in the process.

Perhaps this explains why our school results are so poor for the money we spend. Since the turn of the 21st century, the per-student cost of education has risen roughly three times faster than inflation. The ratio of teachers to students has grown steadily – as has the cost of administration.

With so much invested, we should be getting better results. We aren’t. Last fall, we learned that Manitoba’s educational outcomes rank dead last in Canada in math, science and reading. It doesn’t help that our teachers need permission from their political principals on Broadway before they go to the washroom.

Some observers feel that only radical changes to our system structure will help. There are calls to cut schools and even cut school boards, since frustrated parents hope to shift money administration back into to the classroom. Others argue for radical changes to education delivery, whether it’s on the left by allowing for more culturally-specific education, on the right by allowing for non-profit-run charter schools as they do in Alberta, or whether it’s tech entrepreneurs calling for more investments in educational technology.

Reform is needed. On the other hand, reform takes time. We can start getting better educational quality now if our educational bureaucracy was only willing to be more flexible. Our own teachers are looking for it, and it’s time to start listening to them. Other provinces are already ahead of us.

In British Columbia, provincial officials have led a four-year transformation of the curriculum that’s still underway. Built around five key goals, the new B.C. model insists on “personalized learning,” “quality teaching” and “flexibility and choice” as three of the most important values they want to see, alongside high standards and better use of technology.

Teachers complained that the curriculum was too scripted, with too many picky objectives – so the new model has “fewer, but higher level outcomes” to put measurable improvement on skills ahead of scripted, stunted instructional techniques. Note that British Columbia still has standardized testing for core curriculum goals to measure results, so parents will still know that different student and teacher paths to success are still all about success.

Alberta’s public system is learning to be more flexible through experimentation, thanks to a recently completed ninety-school pilot project for “High School Redesign” that put a familiar goal – “flexibility enhancement” – front and centre.

In Ontario, provincial teachers have had a chance to experiment in how they’d teach more flexibly from the ground up. Public schools there have completed one hundred school level learning pilots for a “21st Century Teaching and Learning” initiative that’s designed to enhance the next wave of teaching and curriculum reforms. Two thirds of the teaching pilots included the use of a technology that many of our kids already have access to: mobile devices.

Even in Saskatchewan, the system is proving more nimble – by adjusting with the calendar. Provincial officials noticed that tying school opening dates to Labour Day meant losing valuable instructional days in years where the holiday fell later in the month. In November, the government tabled legislation to change the rules, so school will begin on September 1st – even in Canada’s most farm-friendly province.

Meanwhile, here in Manitoba, nothing meaningful will be changing in the 2015 school year when it begins on September 8. – losing four instructional days in the process. The Ministry of Education will still be building its firewalls as always, hoping to snuff out even the faintest spark of change, innovation or reform.

Manitoba Forward is here to help teachers win this fight, and to help students win the chance to learn the way their neighbors will be learning in other provinces – where they’re already spending less and getting better results. Help us make education a place where we can move Manitoba Forward again – and share your ideas on how better public policy leadership can improve our education system.

Dave Shorr

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