I first looked at expenditures by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador on education to tried and determine if the problem lay in insufficient funding. I discovered that the province is spending heavily, at a level comparable to Alberta and other provinces.
I next turned my attention to the student to teacher/administrator ratios. I found that Newfoundland and Labrador had one teacher for every 24.5 students in 1971-72 and one teacher/administrator for every 12 students in 2010-11.
So, the problem must lie elsewhere. Back then, Newfoundland had 162,000 students and today just 68,000 students.
I then investigated teacher salaries and found that teachers earn about $75,000 per year and administrators $100,000 per year.
These are certainly very good salaries relative to other provinces. I was also surprised to find that teachers are absent an average of 16 days per school year, and that the province paid substitute teachers for 90,000 days to replace 5,600 full-time teachers.
Achievement in math and language arts is rather desperate. I looked at standardized testing for grades 3, 6 and 9 as well as results in public examinations and in advanced placement exams to see how our students fare against Alberta and other provinces.
The answer is "not very well."
More surprisingly, our public schools fare poorly against private schools in the province (such as St. Bonaventure's College).
Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador both administer achievement testing in grades 3, 6 and 9. While I reviewed the assessment results for all three grades, my focus was on achievement in Grade 3 math and language arts.
I discovered that Alberta students on the same or similar tests, fared much better. Approximately 90 per cent of Alberta students achieved an acceptable standard in both math and language arts.
About 20 per cent of Alberta students achieved a standard of excellence in language arts and about 30 per cent of students achieved excellence in math.
The performance level of Grade 3 Newfoundland students was significantly lower in both language arts and reading, especially in regards to the level of excellence. Private schools in Newfoundland, though little in number, scored much higher than public schools.
One example is number operations (reasoning, problem solving, etc.).
Some 63 per cent of public school students in Newfoundland obtained an acceptable standard (a 3 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5) compared to 83 per cent for private schools in Newfoundland.
This is a fairly representative example.
I had hoped that my children could attend private school, but I was shocked to learn that these schools do not get one cent from the government.
That is shameful, considering that their results appear to be much better all across the board.
The same general result holds for Grade 6 math and language arts. In math, only 50 per cent of public school students scored to an acceptable standard in math, compared to 70 per cent of private school students.
Then, high school
High school achievement is no better. The average June 2010 grades in public examinations were 66 in English, 64 in biology and 71 in both chemistry and physics. These science courses were taken by the better students.
Students in math have the choice between the advanced math and general math. Only 31 per cent of all students writing the public examination wrote the advanced math exam. Almost 70 per cent wrote the general math exam and scored an average mark of 62.
The Department of Education public exams are more rigorous than school exams in all 15 public exams, both in English and French.
For example, schools submitted a pass mark for 85 per cent for students in Math 3204 and for 94 per cent of all students in world history.
However, only 68 per cent and 77 per cent of English and history students respectively received a pass grade on the public examination.
The better students are those that normally write the college board's advanced placement exams for university credit. Most good universities require a score of 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5; for some only a 5 qualifies for university credit.
Memorial accepts a 3 for most subject areas.
Only 24 per cent of Newfoundland students obtained a 4 or a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5. Relatively speaking, the Newfoundland average score of 3.1 is not especially poor but well below the scores for students from British Columbia (3.67), Alberta and Ontario.
While the minister of education is to be commended for her openness and accountability in providing this information on achievement, I have not been able to find any government commentary to disclose just how poorly our education system is performing.
The media could do a better job in evaluating the data, especially now that there is a general election.
Government will be spending $841.6 million this fiscal year on primary, elementary and secondary education of which almost $500 million is going to teacher salaries and another almost $200 million to school board operations.
It is absurd that not one cent of this money is allocated to the private schools, which do the best job of educating their students.
My purpose in writing this letter is to stimulate debate towards achieving an improved performance by our schools in educating our children.
Surely there are several ex-teachers in our House of Assembly, so I ask them, why has our system failed?
The very first step is to admit failure.
It might be that there is some minor misinterpretation of the data although I have tried to be balanced and precise.
If there are mistakes, I apologize for them and expect, from some, a condemnation of the truth.