BILL 64 is dead. There is no doubt that many Manitobans were elated when Interim Prime Minister Kelvin Goertzen sounded the death knell.
Instead of dancing around Bill’s funeral pyre, members of government should seriously consider the Manness / MacKinnon commission report, paying close attention to what he identified as “imperatives” – those necessary initiatives. and urgently needed to improve academic success in Manitoba public schools.
Three of them are essential because they are most relevant to student learning: improving the curriculum; implement fair and rigorous student assessment procedures; and building the capacity of educators to improve teaching and learning.
Improving the curriculum is perhaps the most difficult imperative. For this reason, the first task of the Ministry of Education is to make it clear what the program is and what it is supposed to deliver. The curriculum is owned by citizens, not educators alone, and the minister is the custodian and arbiter of the public’s expectations and prescriptions for him.
The minister should remind Manitobans that the curriculum is mandatory; that is, it is the authorized model of subject matter knowledge and skills established for Manitoba students to acquire during their studies.
This means that the program must allow students to be comfortable and competent in our modern culture. As the Manness / MacKinnon Commission argues, the curriculum and the school experience must be focused so that students have the knowledge and skills they need to earn a living, participate in the democratic process and be aware of the intellectual and cultural life of this country.
Even though there will be a debate about core subjects and skills, most people will agree that literacy and numeracy are essential. And maybe there is a consensus that by the time students graduate from high school they should have a good understanding of the history, geography and government in Canada and they are aware of the important ideas and achievements in the physical and social sciences and the arts.
Essentially, the public education curriculum should include core subjects in an appropriate scope, sequence, and depth for each grade. This will take a lot of work and we are encouraged that the Minister recently established an advisory group “to identify the underlying principles of the K-12 curriculum and establish its overall structure.” (Winnipeg Free Press, September 11th).
Second, the government must reinstate standardized exams in these core subjects to ensure that students understand the subject and have the required skills before moving on to the next year or graduating from high school. .
Fortunately, Manitoba has experience administering standardized exams in major subjects. Despite anticipated objections, it is time to reinstate these exams as a routine part of schooling. This is an important goal because fairness in assessment and fidelity to the curriculum must be recognized.
Grade 12 exams could be used for entry into colleges and universities and as a certificate of competence in basic skills for students entering the workforce.
Finally, the Ministry of Education must make the certification of teacher candidates more formal and transparent. The commission recommends the creation of a college of educators, but the minister can formalize the certification without creating a new agency.
Professions such as law, medicine, nursing, and engineering have independently administered certification exams to ensure that these professionals are competent, skilled, and meet professional standards. Is it not time for education to join these professions by adopting such certification procedures?
Fortunately, the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, NJ, has developed a large battery of knowledge and skill-based tests called “Practice Examinations” in specific subjects and grades for teacher certification. A majority of US states use Praxis exams, and these tests could easily be adapted for Manitoba.
Such tests could even have the effect of providing some form of accreditation of faculties of education, one of the effects the commission anticipated in its discussion of a college of educators.
Of course, these initiatives could prove contentious for certain special interest groups. But if the PC government is to honor the Manness / MacKinnon commission – a comprehensive and coherent report with compelling recommendations – then it should seriously consider taking specific action on these key educational initiatives as soon as possible.
Rodney Clifton is Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and Principal Investigator at the Frontier Center for Public Policy. John Long is a former professor in the Department of Educational Administration, Foundations and Psychology at the University of Manitoba. Peter Narth is a longtime public school teacher and administrator, past president of the Manitoba Association of Principals, and former executive director of Manitoba’s Technical Vocational Initiative.