Call it hitting rock bottom.
On a cold December morning nearly a decade ago, a groundbreaking international study on academic performance was released.
It examined the reading, math and science skills of 250,000 students from 32 countries, including 30,000 teenagers from across Canada.
New Brunswick’s test scores were terrible.
In the three basic subjects, New Brunswick students scored the lowest in the country. The province’s students were twice as likely to have “serious difficulties” understanding even the simplest written material, compared to the Canadian average.
The results were shocking and would spur a flurry of consultants’ reports condemning New Brunswick’s education system and making recommendations to improve academic outcomes.
Ten years later, after an injection of funding and programs aimed at improving student performance, literacy and numeracy scores are up.
It’s been a slow climb from the bottom, but test scores have consistently shown New Brunswick students catching up with the rest of the country.
But some education advocates are worried gains made in recent years may be in jeopardy as the province wrestles a nearly $850-million deficit and an historic net debt of $9 billion.
The Progressive Conservative government has had to trim budgets, including constraining Department of Education funding.
As a result, each district education council has reluctantly cut spending by two per cent this year. Spending on things such as school maintenance and field trips has been curtailed, with some districts handing out pink slips to library assistants and teachers’ aides to reach the goal.
While the austerity has been achieved this year, district superintendents have said cutting another two per cent each year until 2014, as the government indicated may be necessary, would be extremely difficult.
The challenge facing education officials is to not let the recent gains in academic achievement slip despite shrinking resources.
One expert said the key to improving education in New Brunswick without additional funding may already be gathering dust on a shelf in the Department of Education building.
Charles Cirtwill said the province should dust off a consultant’s report that emerged in the wake of the damning education report a decade ago.
After the international standardized test showed New Brunswick students had the worst academic performance in the nation, the then-Progressive Conservative government of Bernard Lord hired Elana Scraba.
With the goal of finding the cause of the poor marks and offering solutions, the Alberta-based consultant came to the province for a six-week comprehensive review of reading and writing skills taught in schools.
Her final report came out nearly a year after the international test scores shocked New Brunswick into action.
Scraba warned in her report that without a concerted effort by all stakeholders to improve outcomes, the education woes facing the province would continue.
“Some extremely hard choices face decision makers,” stated the report. “One choice is to allow the status quo of kind, gentle accepting attitudes to be perverted into excuse for inaction, or for inappropriate educational decisions.
“The consequence of staying to the status quo is that achievement of most New Brunswick students will remain low, and perhaps drift downward.”
The report listed 20 contributing factors to “the failure of the system to educate its young people.”
Those factors included mismanagement of the French immersion program, mismanagement of the inclusion of special needs children in the classroom, and the system’s aversion to streaming students into similar ability groupings.
“She started from the legislation and walked her way down and laid out a very clear agenda that said New Brunswick is trying to do too much with too little with predictable results,” Cirtwill said in an interview.
“In other words, literacy and numeracy were failing because you were trying to do too many things,” he said. “One of the reasons for Alberta’s success was it had a greater focus from the top down with what they were trying to achieve with education.
“It was a mission that everybody shared, measured and worked towards and that was literacy and numeracy for everyone at the highest possible level,” he said. “And so New Brunswick slowly started to work towards that.”
The New Brunswick government had to act. Lord made schools a priority, making a personal pledge to improve the province’s grades and to make sure the necessary programs, teachers and resources were in place.
It’s an agenda that the next Liberal government of Shawn Graham picked up on, and although some would argue on a differing approach between the Tories and Grits, the focus on education by both governments has slowly paid off.
Cirtwill said the report by the Alberta consultant still contains valuable recommendations and advice for the province, especially in a time of fiscal restraint.
“Alberta often comes up in these discussions because they have consistently outperformed us for about 30 years now,” he said. “But the literature is really overwhelming on this point.
“It’s not about how much you spend but how you spend it that matters.”
Although Alberta spends more on education – $12,765 per student in 2008-09 compared to $11,285 in New Brunswick – Cirtwill said the prairie province’s better results aren’t about spending more.
“The difference in spending is minimal when you look at their great results,” he said. “The difference is they focused their spending and made principals and teachers literally responsible for their schools.”
Cirtwill said the Edmonton public school board, for example, has almost as many students as New Brunswick’s 14 school districts combined. This means extra dollars are being spent on administration in New Brunswick rather than in the classroom.
In addition, he said Alberta has francophone schools that operate within the same system as the anglophone schools.
“I would say you don’t need two parallel systems in order to deliver an excellent bilingual education,” he said. “It’s more costly.”
The Department of Education expected to announce soon committees that will work this summer on governance and district amalgamation, shared services between districts, and facility and school use.
“Instead of 14 different HR and payroll systems, IT systems, facility managers, are there ways to find some shared services?” Education Minister Jody Carr said before schools shuttered for the summer in June. “We do have to think differently. Are we set up in the best ways where we can direct the most money into the classroom?”
Cirtwill said committees should start by going through the bevy of consultant reports commissioned by the department over the years, starting with the Scraba report.