Against the Tide - Paul MacNeill

We should have known PEI’s surprising vault up international educational test scores was too good to be true. It took less than 24 hours to prove it.

Education Minister Doug Currie and his senior bureaucrats put their best spin forward, painting our leap from the bottom of Canadian performers in PISA tests as attributable to hard work and investments made by the provincial government since 2007.

We now know that is not true.

Our improvement is largely attributable to demands by the education bureaucracy to teach to the test and revelations uncovered by CBC that PEI excluded three times the allowable number of students from even writing the exam. In short, our marks improved because of a politically motivated bureaucracy that once again put itself ahead our students.

You’ll remember the last time Island children participated in PISA in 2012. Held every three years, the international test compares 15-year olds in 72 countries in math, science and reading. We were the only Canadian province to fall below the medium international test score in all subjects. It was a major embarrassment to the education bureaucracy.

Then Education Minister Alan McIsaac did what virtually every recent Minister of Education has done – panicked and allowed himself to be led down a wrong-headed path by a failed bureaucracy.

Rather than being bold and ask tough questions about our continuous systematic failures, a far less disruptive plan was developed: Teach to the test, and manipulate the test to artificially inflate our standing.

The former English Language School Board urged teachers to in effect teach to the test in emails distributed in September 2014. It offered practice tests, questions and answers. And it strongly suggested teachers incorporate this into an already bursting curriculum. In short, the senior bureaucracy put pressure on teachers to put artificial focus on PISA.

There was another important change. Unlike 2012 when all 15-year olds participated - and thus offered a full picture of where we stand - the number was dramatically reduced in 2015. Participation was further culled by the department’s refusal to let a staggering 14 per cent of eligible students write the exam. Of those not allowed to write, 85 per cent were deemed to have an intellectual disability, which if true is 2.5 times the national average. Or in other words a provincial crisis that should have every bureaucrat screaming for help.

But that is not the case.

Students were excluded for political reasons. On top of all of this there are unsubstantiated reports of individual schools further reducing who could write.

What is clear is the government and education bureaucracy manipulated the system to artificially inflate our provincial performance. It is a decision that could only have been made at the ministerial and senior bureaucrat level and it demands accountability - the level of transparency the premier continually speaks of.

To put the exclusion in context. PEI exempted more students than every other Canadian province, and more than every one of the 72 countries that participate in PISA.

It is impossible for government to declare any victory in these results. Currie crowed about the equitable education – separation between high and low achievers - students receive in the province. He is reading something into PISA results that does not exist. How is it possible to determine whether the system is equitable when we refuse to let those deemed less academically gifted from writing?

Not only are the results manipulated, but government - despite the millions spent on standardized tests - has yet to implement accountability systems to measure the effectiveness of one investment over another or whether changes actually improve or decrease the quality of education. Government thinks its investments are improving the system, but it can’t prove it. For an administration that is forever talking about data driven decisions the lack of accountability is a staggering question of competence. We have squandered tens of millions of dollars on provincial standardized tests that still lack the proper systems to interpret results.

Most egregious is the decision of government to use Island students as unsuspecting pawns in their manipulative spin. Currie and his minions trotted out high school students for the cameras to promote a narrative of excellence he and the bureaucracy knew to be deceitful.

The Department of Education is without shame. And now Premier Wade MacLauchlan must wear it. Once again he is left to clean up a mess that occurred prior to his becoming premier, with one big difference. The premier had the opportunity to bring a fresh face to education. He didn’t do it. Instead, he brought the failed bureaucracy of the former PEI English Language School Board into the new Department of Education.

The actions of the minister and the department are at best ethically challenged and at worst government sanctioned cheating.

The premier needs to clean house.

Wade MacLauchlan promised to bring credibility and focus to PEI’s beleaguered education system. Instead frontline teachers and students are stained yet again by the actions of the bureaucracy and their political master.

It needs to stop.

The actions of Doug Currie and the education bureaucracy are an unforgivable insult to parents, teachers and students that demands accountability. If the premier attempts to defend the indefensible, and protect those at the top of PEI’s education system, it will only further erode the dream of excellence in education and slip us further into a bureaucratic abyss.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

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(1) comment

Bev Howard

We need accountability now before it goes any to far. Our young people deserve better..

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