Opinion

Many lessons buried deep in student report

By: Brian O’Leary

  • Every three years, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development releases the results of a large-scale assessment of 15-year-olds’ performance in reading, maths and science. Sadly, the latest scores from the Program for International Student Assessment suggest Manitoba students aren’t doing well in comparison to their peers in other Canadian provinces.

The release and the subsequent media coverage of these results focuses only on Manitoba’s place in interprovincial rankings. Politicians and educators alike are quick to explain the results and offer solutions. Is it poverty? Is it our lack of standardized tests? Do we need more preschool and nutrition programs, or do we need longer school years and greater adherence to curriculum?

I suggest we take a deep breath and a longer look at what the results might tell us. The OECD’s report detailing the results runs 175 pages. It compares data over time and correlates test results with a host of factors. If we suspend our judgment and look at the data, we might learn a thing or two.

Manitoba’s results are stable. We experienced a decline in 2009, from middle of the pack to below average for Canada, and have held steady since then. We haven’t improved, but we haven’t gotten worse. We’ve experienced both funding increases and budget restraint over this time.

Manitoba’s results actually parallel Canada’s results, declining from 2000 to 2009 and remaining stable since then. And because the tests are normed and there was a significant increase in participation from a number of Chinese city states in 2009, our results might not really be different at all.

Lots of Manitoba students do quite well. In Canada as a whole, 86 per cent of students performed at a level sufficient to “take advantage of further learning opportunities and to participate fully in modern society.” Eighty per cent of Manitoba students performed at that level; across the OECD, the average is 77 per cent. To put it another way, if we can raise the achievement of two students in each class, Manitoba would rank as one of the top provinces in Canada.

Poverty matters. This is well-established. The OECD uses a measure of economic social and cultural status (ESCS), which measures students’ family wealth, education and occupations. Canada’s ESCS status index is 0.42; Manitoba’s index is 0.17, by far the lowest such score in Canada. The top-performing provinces, Ontario and Alberta, are at 0.48 and 0.46, respectively.

Even the other lower-performing provinces, Saskatchewan (0.29) and New Brunswick (0.24), are significantly above Manitoba. Disadvantaged students in Manitoba performed well below their more advantaged peers.

There are other trends in the data: girls do better than boys do; second-generation newcomers do better than Canadian-born students, who do better than first-generation newcomers.

Poverty, gender and newcomer status matter, but engagement, passion and time on task matter even more.

Students who read for pleasure for one to two hours per day performed 72 points higher than students who did not. The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in Manitoba is 58 points, and between girls and boys, the gap is 29 points.

I’m just scratching the surface of what we can learn from the Program for International Student Assessment data, but a few things are clear.

The challenge we face in Manitoba’s schools is one of doing better for our most disadvantaged students. Poverty does affect their outcomes, but it does not determine them. Schools alone are not the solution to poverty, but schools can do something.

What is it that schools can do, and how can we do it well? That is where our focus should lie.

How can our teachers do better for one or two or three of the students in each of our classes?

How can we make a difference for those students who most need that difference made for them?

The answers are as varied as the students themselves, but they likely rest in strong relationships, rigorous curriculum and relevance to the student. It depends on getting it right, one student at a time.

Success lies in all of us consistently doing what we do when we’re at our best — igniting passion, believing in our students and going the extra mile.

Brian O’Leary is superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division.