Manitoba's education overhaul focuses on accountability, but critics say schools already offer that

The Manitoba government says it wants accountability from a school system with lagging test scores, but it's unclear what that will look like or what consequences may emerge if schools fall short.

Province will add standardized tests, make more results public, in bid to boost scores and accountability

The Manitoba government isn't saying how an education system centralized under provincial control will ensure schools are 'accountable for results.' (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

The Manitoba government says it wants accountability from a school system with lagging test scores, but it's unclear what that will look like or what consequences may emerge if schools fall short.

The province set out two years ago to review its kindergarten to Grade 12 school system with the knowledge its students ranked among the worst in Canada in math, literacy and science. 

The government wanted somebody to answer for these scores.

Kelvin Goertzen, then the province's education minister, said in 2019 that he was frustrated when he asked school division officials who was responsible for improving student results, and was told everybody is.

"If we're all responsible, then really nobody is responsible," Goertzen said at the time.

Two years later, the government's strategy for K-12 education reform, released on Monday, prioritizes accountability. Within five years, it says Manitoba will possess an education system that is "accountable for results" so "our children perform better and stop falling behind." 

The strategy also calls for the education system to be accountable to taxpayers and a new governance model — which will see the province dissolve all 37 of its English-language school divisions — to be accountable as well.

It says the province should consider creating a regulatory body for teachers to ensure the profession answers to the public.

Asked Wednesday what happens if certain goals aren't met, Education Minister Cliff Cullen wouldn't say.

"Clearly, there will be an evaluation," he told reporters at the Manitoba Legislature. "We're looking at increased assessment of our students as we go forward so that we can gauge if we're making increases in terms of marks and student achievement."

Parents want more from their children after graduating high school than solely receiving high marks, said the acting dean of the University of Manitoba's faculty of education. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The acting dean of the University of Manitoba's faculty of education worries the province will rely on standardized tests as its sole metric for success. 

"If you ask parents what they want to see their child develop into, they will not list, 'Well, they will get an 85 per cent on the standardized test,'" Thomas Falkenberg said.

"What they will say is, 'I want my child to get a good job, I want my child to live a happy life, I want my child to be a contributing citizen.'"

There's nothing wrong with seeking more accountability in education, Falkenberg said, but the province must first outline what it wants from the public school system and then measure success against those goals.

The end goal shouldn't be getting high marks, he said. Rather, it "might be to become a participating active democratic citizen. And then you can establish the means to assess, to hold the school system to account to what degree they actually accomplish that."

The Progressive Conservative government has signalled it wants better test scores from students. It is planning to develop new provincial assessments — one in Grade 3 or 4, one in Grade 6 or 7, and one in Grade 10 —and share that data with "local school communities" on a schoolwide level.

In 2018, Manitoba started breaking down Grade 12 provincial test scores by school division, after two decades in which only the provincial average was made public.

Manitoba Teachers' Society president James Bedford said moving to release that data would prompt the general public to start ranking schools.

"No, we don't have good schools and bad schools," Bedford said. "We have schools in this province that are hugely overpopulated by impoverished students.'"

Government must focus on poverty: MTS

Bedford has continually argued the province is over-valuing standardized tests, while failing to address one of the root cause of slumping grades: Manitoba's high rates of child poverty.

"Who is responsible for poverty?" Bedford asked. "I would say that it's a shared responsibility and there's an enormous role the provincial government has to play in addressing the symptoms of poverty and, quite frankly, fixing poverty."

The government's call for accountability seems to fly in the face of the work of school trustees, said Louise Johnston, board chair of the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg.

"For me as a trustee, I'm publicly elected, so I am accountable to my communities. They keep me on task."

Johnston adds Louis Riel keeps its community informed on student outcomes. The division reported on its website Wednesday the number of kindergarten to Grade 8 students who need help with recovery learning.

Opposition NDP education critic Nello Altomare — a former school principal — said the government's messaging suggests the school system doesn't already prioritize results, which he says is a patronizing claim.

"My colleagues find it kind of insulting — some of the insinuations saying we were never accountable before. That's the furthest thing from the truth." 

He said as a principal, he regularly worked in collaboration with teachers and division officials. He felt accountable to the kids entrusted to his school's care, and their parents, he said.

Manitoba's education revamp

2 years ago
Duration 2:12
The Manitoba government says it wants accountability from a school system with lagging test scores, but it's unclear what that will look like or what consequences may emerge if schools fall short.


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. You can reach him at