A recent announcement by provincial NDP leader Dominic Cardy prompted a fiery social media response from post-secondary education minister Jody Carr, which whipped up some of the most intense and productive public debate you can hope to see out of New Brunswick.
Citing government data that found 56 per cent of New Brunswickers functionally illiterate, Cardy is promising to rid New Brunswick primary schools of the “no-fail policy” should he be elected in September.
“What you’re doing is condemning [students] to hours, weeks, months of boredom in classes they don’t understand and cutting them off from the potential to do well in life,” he said of the policy.
The policy reads, “New Brunswick public schools must not use grade retention as a standard educational practice.”
Carr responded to a particular phrasing Cardy used:
“NDP calls for ‘social consequence for a child not doing well in school’. Really!? Why not put them in city-square and stone them? Aghast,” Carr tweeted.
After a few responses that supported students being pushed harder, he clarified himself, tweeting, “But a ‘social consequence?’ Agree with needed improvements, but one size does not fix all as NDP calling for.”
Cardy said he is not calling for a one-size-fits-all solution. He envisions an elementary and middle school system with courses tiered by skill level, more like what is seen in high school or university, that can be passed or failed, rather than failing an entire year.
St. Thomas education professor Ray Williams said failing grades were eliminated because teachers are now trained differently. They tailor their teaching to individual students, and give extra assistance and intervention to students during the school year, rather than simply assessing them at the end of the year.
“We now know that social and psychological stress [repeating] produces negatively impacts the brain’s capacity to learn. That’s why we have shifted to formative learning interventions,” Williams wrote in an email.
Cardy said it must become more acceptable to fail, but the motivation should be there to avoid it.
“Having gone through the system in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a stigma. And it was a stigma that in my case made me work a little bit harder. I was not a very good student. I liked to read, but not in class. I was pretty lazy. Knowing that I could be held back was something that pushed me,” he said.
Williams points to Canada’s standing in tests like PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, in defending the current policy.
In 2012, the average 15-year-old New Brunswicker’s PISA reading score was 502, 21 points above the U.S. and eight points above the U.K., but still 21 points below the Canadian average of 523.
“I cannot see how anyone who knows the facts and examines the statistics can claim that New Brunswick has a growing literacy problem or that an automatic promotion rule is contributing to that problem,” Williams said.
Regardless of how well-educated New Brunswickers are, Cardy said fostering competition will be a good thing.
“This is a wake up call to us that we can’t continue to just sit back and expect to have a nice comfortable life, where we will live this very wealthy existence without any competition from elsewhere,” he said. “If we want to be successful in the next 50 to 100 years, we’ve got to focus on education, that’s the tool to unlocking wealth and potential in the province.”