By Reid Southwick
As appeared on page A1

The provincial government unveiled an ambitious education plan Tuesday, committing to propel provincial standardized test results to a top-three rating in Canada, while better preparing senior students for post-secondary education. The Liberals expect the five-year plan will cost $100 million by 2010, bringing overall education spending to an even bolder threshold of more than $1 billion by the end of their mandate.

The 37-page plan calls for more than 130 programs, strategies and committees to position the province’s education system as an example to follow in Canada. Under the plan, teachers will have more freedom to exercise their creative muscle in the classroom, moving instruction away from fact-based lessons to more hands-on learning. The goal is to help children better absorb course material.

Teachers who achieve these goals will be rewarded with funding and asked to spread their insight to others in the province. Those who don’t will be mandated to improve.

Once the plan is fully operational, the government says, students will arrive at kindergarten with sufficient knowledge competency, leave Grade 5 with proper reading, writing and math skills, and graduate from high school having identified personal strengths and better prepared for post-secondary education.

“We want a society where every single student meets these three basic tests because every student has a destiny and every student has the right to learn,” Education Minister Kelly Lamrock said Tuesday to a crowd of roughly 150 students, parents and teachers seated in the Devon Middle School auditorium in Fredericton.

The plan will build on existing testing requirements for early education to include more tests for literacy and numeracy competence. It will also set benchmarks for children who have special needs to ensure they learn and develop on par with their classmates.

The plan will be underpinned by a 23-point accountability checklist the government will use to gauge progress. This includes a mandate to bring the province to the top-three rating for literacy, numeracy and science skills. The Liberals had campaigned on a promise to move New Brunswick’s education system from “worst to first.”

The government will expand courses in the trades and arts across the province, while attracting more private sector investment to improve those programs. Private sector partners will also play a role in developing community-based schools. Under the Liberal plan these centres would operate beyond regular school hours to provide community-based programming. The community schools, expected to total 75 within five years, will also provide students with local elective courses and independent study programs.

To better prepare students for post-secondary training, the Liberals have committed to working with community colleges and universities to develop dual programs that give students credit toward their high school diploma and a possible post-secondary credit.

Lamrock said during an interview there is much at stake as the province prepares to put its plan in action.

“If we don’t make a change in our education system from one that values following instruction to one that motivates kids to solve problems creatively we’ll pay for it when the jobs that want to hire people who creatively solve problems will go somewhere else,” he said.

But the plan has come under fire from groups who say there is much more left to do.

“When you take a look through the document, what you see are very warm, very friendly, very supportive comments around goals and objectives you want to see in the education system, but no talk on how you’re going to make it happen,” Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said in an interview.

“This is more of a political document than anything. I don’t think it really gives you very many specifics on how you’re going to achieve some of these objectives.”

Cirtwill said the province’s plan to boost spending for education to $1 billion by the end of its mandate will not solve any problems.

“There has been little to no evidence that shows spending more will achieve more,” said Cirtwill, also the co-author of the AIMS Report Card on Atlantic Canadian High Schools.
“It’s all about how you spend it, not how much you spend.”

Opposition education critic Madeleine Dubé criticized the government for not setting any annual deadlines for the five-year plan.

“What’s funny is there are no deadlines in that plan. It’s a five-year plan, but he’s not saying what year things will happen,” she said.

“(Lamrock) doesn’t have a clear-cut plan like he promised the people across the province.”
Dubé said much of the province’s announcement was simply an exercise in re-branding old Conservative policies. A provincial plan to improve student competency in mathematics and literacy, for example, was already promised by the previous government, she said.