Education ministers fail a grade

Disappointing response to PISA test results doesn’t reassure parents, students, business

Published on July 11, 2014

.E.I. Education Minister Alan McIsaac and CMEC Chair and Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson speak with reporters in Charlottetown. The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) wrapped up meetings in Charlottetown Wednesday

A day after the local chamber of commerce said it was “extremely concerned” over P.E.I. students’ dismal test scores and poor skills training, ministers of education from across the nation meeting in Charlottetown took a surprising nonchalant attitude on the same topics. Just when we were convinced that education was at a crisis point, we are told to relax, things are not as bad as those nasty PISA people would lead us to believe and that better test results are on the way.

The closing press conference by the Council of Ministers of Education might have been designed to calm nervous parents and students, and reassure business leaders but it was a disappointing response to what many people believe are serious problems.

The meeting chair said Canadian students are doing much better than some may believe. The Alberta minister downplayed media coverage and reaction to Canada’s standings in 2013 PISA results and P.E.I. Education Minister Alan McIssac was right beside him, nodding in agreement.

A recent random sample of P.E.I. teachers found not one had a background or major in mathematics. At least Mr. McIsaac acknowledges this as a wake up call. The Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce, appearing before a legislature Standing Committee on Education and Innovation, is concerned those poor scores are hurting the Island’s economy and urged government to stop the erosion of education supports.

The national meeting chair said people who did the testing say Canada’s results “are not statistically significant.” Are we to discount the entire PISA process and accept the argument that Canadian students are doing OK in math, reading and science? P.E.I. placed last in the nation in those PISA tests and there has been a storm of criticism expressed since the test results were released late last year

Education ministers, instead of proposing solutions, chose to ignore the results and argue that an overhaul of the education system is not needed over the results of one test. The ministers may not take the results seriously, but many others do at home and abroad.

Speaking of overhaul, that’s exactly what Quebec did with its education system from Grade 1 to end of high school and that province led the country in test results and was on a par with other leading countries. A Quebec spokesman said the thrust of its overhaul was to teach kids how to learn while focusing on getting teachers trained in specialty subjects, such as math and science.

That should have provided a lesson for other ministers but astonishingly they seemed more concerned with dismissing the PISA results rather than suggesting solutions.

Shouldn’t our goal always be to improve, innovate and excel to give our children the best education possible, instead of accepting the status quo and lamely attempt to reassure us that all is well? To accept PISA is to admit a problem exists and thus admit mistakes were made.

The Alberta chair said other assessments coming later this year will contradict PISA results and show Canadian students are doing better than international tests would indicate. Ministers were urged to not jump to any conclusions or action. That is apparent since the PISA results came in almost nine months ago.

If adding three PD days to help train teachers to better teach math is the best that P.E.I. can come up with so far, perhaps it is time for a full review, a task force or a commission to thoroughly examine the education system in this province. And the sooner the better.