Don’t blame Alberta teachers for declining math grades

The recent release of the latest provincial achievement tests has Albertans again concerned about declining math scores.

It would be wrong and misplaced, however, to blame teachers without understanding the role of the education bureaucracy. In reality, teachers are mandated to teach curriculum imposed by the provincial government.

More choice for parents, including on the curriculum, is one solution to the math problem.

Albertans are right to worry about declining math performance. According to the most recent annual tests written by Grade 6 and 9 students, only 59.2 per cent of Grade 9 students achieved acceptable standards in math, an 11.9 per cent decline in one year.

Perhaps even more alarming, to receive an acceptable standard, students only had to achieve 42 per cent on the test. In other words, 41.8 per cent of Grade 9 students scored less than 42 per cent.

Previously, the minimum score was 44 per cent, so not only are fewer students achieving the standard, but the standard itself has been lowered.

Moreover, international test scores such as the Programme for International Student Assessment – where Alberta’s 2015 score on math fell below the national average, and only Manitoba experienced a larger decline – corroborate these worrying test results.

We can dispel the myth that a lack of government spending is the problem. Alberta’s inflation-adjusted, per-student spending in government schools grew 17.5 per cent between 2005-06 and 2014-15 (the latest year of comparable data).

And per-student spending in Alberta is above the national average: $13,115 versus $12,646.

In reality, a key aspect of this problem is the monopolized curriculum.

All schools in Alberta that receive government funding, regardless if they are public or independent, must follow the provincial programs of study, which includes curriculum – basically, what and how materials are taught.

Basic economics teaches us that monopolies result in lower quality goods and services, less diversity in choice and/or higher prices.

There’s no conceptual or theoretical reason to believe these standard monopoly costs don’t apply to education, and curriculum more specifically.

When Alberta mandates a single curriculum, it eliminates diversity and experimentation that can lead to better methods. More significantly, it requires that all funded schools in the province institute reforms deemed beneficial by a centralized bureaucracy.

So, in 2007, when the bureaucracy in Edmonton decided mathematics should be taught a different way, it affected almost all schools in the province.

In light of the recent provincial achievement test results, the provincial government should immediately and thoroughly review the curriculum changes.

However, this example also illustrates how the imposition of monopoly curriculum on most schools can contribute to sudden and undesirable province-wide outcomes such as the recent decline in math scores.

The province’s students would be better served if the province relaxed these regulations and allowed more choice in curriculum, while still focusing on common learning outcomes.

Freeing up both government and independent schools to experiment better matches parental preferences with educational options, and can unleash innovation and learning that results from experimentation.

Choice and competition in education have consistently been demonstrated to work elsewhere and can help solve the math problem in Alberta.

Jason Clemens and Angela MacLeod are analysts at the Fraser Institute.

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