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From poor to prosperous

How Memorial helped catapult province to educational achievement


Dr. Gerald Galway, Faculty of Education.


From one-room schoolhouses to virtual classrooms, performance levels in education in Newfoundland and Labrador have gone from dismal to some of the highest in the world. Historically, provincial educational outcomes seem to have been directly correlated with our economic standing in relation to the rest of Canada; but in recent years we have catapulted to the forefront of our country’s economy.

Premier Joseph Smallwood’s initiative to turn Memorial College on Parade Street into a university in 1949 pinpoints a critical advancement in education in this province. The university and Faculty of Education continue to play a pivotal role in Newfoundland and Labrador’s presence on the global platform.

This pride and determination to strive for a better future may be the guts that propelled the province to its current position on the Canadian and world stage.

Dr. Gerald Galway of Memorial University’s Faculty of Education is a co-author of an upcoming book, Pathways to a Learning Society. The book explores the province’s educational transformation in a number of areas including student performance on standardized testing, which has made impressive gains.

An excerpt from a chapter titled, The Transformation of a Fishing Society, reads: “By any account, in 1949, relative to most of its sister provinces, the education system in Newfoundland was underdeveloped, poorly-resourced, regionally disparate and inaccessible to many citizens.”

Dr. Galway, Dr. Ken Stevens and Dr. David Dibbon, dean, Faculty of Education, argue that the early development of education in Newfoundland was repressed by early foreign-imposed restrictions, government instability, economic uncertainty and religious segregation.

“It’s little wonder why the people of Newfoundland have never been quite sure where the province stood relative to the rest of Canada,” Dr. Galway said. “Just after Newfoundland entered confederation barely 50 per cent of students entering Grade 2 were advancing to high school and only about two thirds of Grade 11s passed their public examinations.

“While the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have been recognized for their resilience and perseverance, the notion that the province was a kind of poor second cousin to the rest of Canada was not an uncommon belief.”

Dr. Galway was hired by the Department of Education fresh from his job as a classroom teacher in 1990. As Achievement-monitoring consultant, he measured performance levels for students in this province and compared them to the achievement of students across the country. At that time, schools across the province were assessed using the Canadian Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS), a set of standardized tests that measured student performance against a comparison group from across Canada.

“The most interesting part of this story is that just three to four decades ago our students consistently achieved in the bottom quarter, when ranked with other Canadian students.” he said. “There weren’t many national comparators in those days, and despite the flaws and criticisms of standardized tests it was a useful – if harsh – indicator of how we measured up against the rest of the country.”

This form of large-scale standardized testing has since been replaced with provincial criterion-referenced tests, where students’ performance levels are measured against learning outcomes linked to each province’s curriculum. But, other tests, such as the Program of International Student Achievement (PISA), still enable comparisons to be made across countries and provinces.

In very recent years, performance levels of Newfoundland and Labrador students look a lot different from those early CTBS results.

The 2006 PISA study measured the capabilities of 15-year-olds from 57 countries in the areas of science (primarily), math and reading. If Newfoundland and Labrador were compared as a country, it would place 9th in the world in science. Among provinces, only four were ranked ahead: Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. Canada placed third in the world.

“I think the normal order of things is changing,” said Dr. Galway. “Government and school boards are making good policy choices – things that we couldn’t do before because of financial restrictions: like cutting school fees and making school more affordable for families, expanding programs, improving infrastructure and equipment, building great new schools, investing more in teachers, and keeping tuition and student loans affordable – all of these things are part of this shift to a better-educated province.”

For more information on the PISA study, visit: www.cmec.ca/Programs/assessment/interstudent/pisa2006/Documents/Pisa2006.en.pdf.
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