Politics, student poverty hampering New Brunswick schools, auditor says
FREDERICTON -- New Brunswick's auditor general says the province's education system has been hampered by political interference and the challenges faced by students living in poverty.
In a report released Wednesday, Kim MacPherson said provincial assessment results in reading, math and science have never met targets over the last 15 years.
"One in four, or roughly 25 per cent of our students, are not reading at the expected level in Grade 2," MacPherson told a committee of the provincial legislature.
She said successive governments have changed priorities too frequently.
"We found that there are frequent changes in the education strategy, which creates instability and shifts the focus away from educating our students," MacPherson said.
She said every time a government introduces a new education plan it consumes resources and affects the entire system, right down to the classroom.
"A student that started school in September 2004, by the time they graduated, they would have experienced five different education strategies, each with different priorities."
She said one example is the recent change to the grade at which anglophone students can enter French immersion, which was made to fulfil a political promise.
MacPherson looked at the effectiveness of the French immersion program. She found that of the 1,624 students who entered into the program in 2005, 75 per cent dropped out of the program by the end of Grade 12 and only 10 per cent achieved the Education Department's language proficiency goal.
Kris Austin, leader of the People's Alliance party, called French immersion a "dismal failure" and said it should be scrapped.
"When you have a 90 per-cent failure, you have to seriously look at the program," he said.
"We want to see all children coming out with some level of second language proficiency, as opposed to French immersion and the failure of it," he said.
Austin said the Education Department needs to look at another form of second-language training.
But Green legislator Megan Mitton said French immersion needs to be maintained and improved.
"Bilingualism is such a valuable asset in our province. Culturally and economically it is good for our society," Mitton said.
Finance Minister Ernie Steeves made it clear that French immersion is here to stay, despite its faults.
"It isn't working and has to be changed. Having said that, New Brunswick is a bilingual province and we will have a French immersion system," Steeves said.
MacPherson said poverty is also an issue for the education system, and teachers must often focus on students' basic needs such as hunger and inadequate clothing before they can focus on teaching.
She said teachers report many of the students affected show up late, or are absent.
"More collaboration with other departments and local communities is required to address the basic needs to ensure teachers' efforts are devoted to student learning," she said.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2015 nearly 1.2 million children across Canada were living in low-income households, representing about 17 per cent of all Canadian children. That jumps to more than 20 per cent in the three Maritime provinces.
MacPherson was also critical of a failure to enforce many aspects of the Education Act, including the regular evaluation of teachers.
"We selected a school at random in one district for testing and found that one teacher had not received a performance review in over 20 years. Another teacher in the school was last evaluated over 10 years ago. There were three other teachers who had not received a performance review in over five years," she said.
In her examination of the province's finances, MacPherson said she is pleased the province reported its first budget surplus in a decade last year, but remains concerned about the province's net debt -- now at $13.9 billion.
"It's the smallest increase in net debt in a decade -- it was $106 million. To me, this shows encouraging signs of fiscal progress in the short term. It is a slight improvement -- emphasis on the word slight -- because action is still required in my view in order to get our fiscal house in order," she said.
Steeves said the new Tory government is aligned with the views of the auditor general and the goal is to control spending and produce balanced budgets.
The surplus was the result of higher tax revenues and transfers from Ottawa, and a reduction in spending.
Liberal finance critic Roger Melanson also credits the policies of the province's former Liberal government.
"Crucial investments in infrastructure, health and education, have allowed us to turn our economy around," he said.
MacPherson was also critical of a failure of government departments to implement all of her recommendations made in previous reports. She said the uptake is about 70 per cent but should be 100 per cent.