education reform new brunswick finland

Education reform is a study in patience

The first report cards of the school year will soon be sent home. But the province’s report card came more than a week ago – and it wasn’t the gold-star studded A+ masterpiece we’d all love to hang on the fridge and admire.

The annual provincial assessment results (for the 2015-2016 school year) show how students tested in Grades 2, 6, 9, 10, and 12 on reading, writing, math, science, and French skills. Even the provincial minister responsible, Brian Kenny, stated the results were “not what they should be” and that we “need to improve our outcomes.”

A lot has been made of the Grade 2 literacy scores. There were 5,080 students tested in English. The goal is to have 90% meet or exceed the standard. Only 73.8% achieved this. So, almost three-quarters of students did well. That’s not so bad, considering these are seven year old kids we’re talking about. But if you look back over the results, the numbers have been progressively slipping since 2010, when it peaked at 83.6% meeting or exceeding the reading assessment. Then again, we can look back to 2004, when the rate was only 59.4%. So what do all these numbers really mean, anyway?

Maybe it means we’re not looking long-term enough when it comes to the way we approach education. Maybe it means we’re getting caught up in wanting immediate improvements when we should be focusing on what type of learners we’re encouraging and what values we want to be promoting. That approach seems to be working for Finland. For years this small country has been a global leader in education, even recently being ranked at the world’s most literate nation (Canada ranked 11th), but that wasn’t always the case.

How do we replicate Finland’s example, a great model for a bilingual province, as three languages are the norm among children there? Well, the country also has one of the lowest poverty rates in the world. The links between strong communities and strong academics is obvious, so let’s continue to ensure our children are being supported from birth with programs that help their families create stable environments. Finland, with more than 5 million people, offers free, full-time daycare and kindergarten. The system acknowledges the power of play, especially in learning at a young age. Another reason given for Finland’s success is the training and respect provided to teachers. Each has a master’s degree, but salaries remain on par with ours. And extra-curricular activities are just that – extra, not part of school or placed on teachers. And while the rest of the world is focused on its position in this education competition, Finland’s ability to spurn the concept of rankings seems to be a cornerstone of its success. Learning shouldn’t be a competition. It should be a lifelong love.

It’s not an unreasonable goal, to reach the level of love Finland has for its education system. A generation ago it was ranking in the middle of the pack, just like we are. If we want change, it’s attainable. But whether we follow Finland’s approach or another model, there is one key lesson we need to take away. Finland’s politicians and people didn’t change focus when results were not immediate. They waited. They waited some more. And slowly, over two decades of sticking to the plan, they saw the success they wanted. We, too, need to find patience. Patience with our young children who are trying to learn amidst a cacophony of other stressors. Patience with our teachers who try to reach dozens of young hearts and minds each year. Patience with programs that need time to produce results.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s She Said columns.

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