Ghiz’s education policy: Last is OK

Second Opinion by Paul MacNeill, publisher

“With the exception of Prince Edward Island.”

If there is a catch phrase summarizing the repeated failures of PEI’s education bureaucracy, this is it. The phrase is used repeatedly in a 90-page report outlining the woeful state of our education system compared to other Canadian provinces and 65 countries around the world.

This space has often criticized standardized tests; bureaucrats use them to justify their existence while politicians love them because tests make it appear as if they are doing something to improve our children’s education.

Reality is far different.

Standardized tests dumb down the curriculum, breed mediocrity, demoralize teachers and sap millions of dollars better spent on frontline services. It is a reality proven time and again.

Consistently, though, we’ve argued one set of standardized tests is necessary to gauge where our students and curriculum stand in relation to others. That standardized test is administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and is known as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). It is an independent process not susceptible to manipulation from the Department of Education. Unlike PEI’s made-to-order standardized tests that cover only a portion of the curriculum and don’t allow low academic achievers to participate, PISA is credible.

Last week PISA released results for math, reading and science tests conducted on 15-year-old high school students. To say our results are an embarrassment is an understatement. Abysmal and pathetic are more apt. Provincial shame also works.

Island students were dead last in all three categories compared to other Canadian provinces. Worse, PEI is the only Canadian province to fall below the OECD average. And we accomplished this ignominy not in one or two subject areas, but all three.

The results are a stinging indictment of our provincial curriculum and the Department of Education.

Predictably, Minister of Education Alan McIsaac was trotted out to defend his department. He offered no solutions or vision. Rather than demand change and accountability, the minister – and later his department staff – offered only avoidance, gibberish and bureaucrat BS.

The minister and his apologist minions claim that investments made in early childhood education will eventually right the ship. It is a staggeringly asinine claim. PEI’s PISA math scores have been on a steady decline for 13 years. Basically Alan McIsaac is saying, don’t worry PEI, we believe things will turn around within another decade as our youngest students move through the system.

Twenty-plus years is too long to wait for results.

Premier Robert Ghiz needs to give Minister Alan McIsaac a one-way ticket to the backbench, where he once showed critical thinking and an independent streak lost the minute he joined cabinet. Maybe he can reignite the imagination he showed as a backbencher.

The premier must fire Deputy Minister of Education Sandy MacDonald so he can better utilize his professional credentials as a psychologist. There’s a provincial shortage, he’ll have no problem finding a job.

And the premier needs to demand accountability from an education bureaucracy more concerned with covering its own ass.

This is a provincial crisis.

The premier loves to boast that PEI has an educated and ready workforce. Does he think potential employers are ignorant of our test results? Does the premier not question why immigrants leave PEI in droves? Talk to them. It is no secret that a primary reason is a belief our education system is second-rate. PISA results will do nothing to change that. Nor will Liberal rhetoric.

The primary issue with the Department of Education’s defensive response to PISA is that none of its excuses will do a damn thing to improve educational outcomes.

There was no mention of the devastating long-term impact the social pass policy has on students, classrooms, families and our provincial economy.

Students, regardless of whether they meet curriculum outcomes, are pushed into the next grade. It robs students of the confidence that comes from setting and achieving goals and minimizes the importance of taking responsibility. It maximizes issues within the classroom. By the time students hit high school academic problems are compounded exponentially.

Anyone who believes the social pass is not a significant contributor to our abysmal math, reading and science results – not to mention our drop out rate - is in education elite dreamland.

Why is government not questioning the quality of the provincial curriculum or how it is delivered? For more than five years a report calling for sweeping change to our broken semester system has sat on a Department of Education shelf collecting dust. Seventy-five minute classes (too long given the attention span of teenagers) mean high school students go a calendar year without attending an academic math class. It also means students must give up subjects such as music that are proven beneficial to a complete education.

Want to know why our provincial marks are in the basement? Look at the semester system.

PEI’s curriculum rewards students for tardiness, lack of focus and disrespect for deadlines. Teachers are stymied. We need to empower teachers not lock them in bureaucratic handcuffs filling out unnecessary paperwork and teaching to wasteful provincial standardized tests. Deal with the real issues first and then determine if provincial tests are needed.

For decades we’ve heard excuses and promises, later broken, by the Department of Education. And Alan McIsaac has the bloody audacity now to say trust us for another decade.

Like hell.

Alan McIsaac hasn’t earned that trust.

His department hasn’t earned that trust.

PISA is a clarion call for change and only Premier Robert Ghiz can demand it. It means pushing back at those who have played Lego with our school system only to see the foundation repeatedly crumble.

It demands the courage displayed by Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna. Minutes after taking office the premier vowed to eliminate the social pass and bring needed reform to education.

“It has to (be eliminated). The situation that we’re in now is rather dire,” the premier said.

Dire is a perfect word to describe the state of education on PEI.

The bureaucracy, never held accountable, is failing classroom teachers, parents and most importantly students. Nothing less than our future growth as a province is at stake.

It is time to stand up Premier Ghiz. The time for excuses is long gone. Last is not good enough.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at


Anonymous on Thu, 12/12/2013 - 12:36

so why is PISA acceptable? Isn't it a standardized test?

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