Numbers don’t lie—Saskatchewan kids can’t afford a teacher strike

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Appeared in the Regina Leader-Post, January 24, 2024
Numbers don’t lie—Saskatchewan kids can’t afford a teacher strike

The Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) recently staged a one-day strike to push the Moe government to meet their latest demands. But kicking kids out of classrooms is the absolute last thing the union should do if it genuinely has the best interest of students at heart.

Here’s why. The kids are not alright. And in large part, it’s because they have spent too much time out of the classroom. Saskatchewan test scores on the latest PISA assessments—the gold standard of student testing, which assesses 15-year-olds worldwide—have plummeted. Saskatchewan students are years behind where they once were, and years behind the national average.

According to PISA, a 20-point drop in student scores represents one year of lost learning. From 2012 to 2022 (the latest testing year), Saskatchewan students dropped 22 points in science, 38 points in math and 21 points in reading. In other words, Saskatchewan 15-year-olds are more than one year behind in science and reading, and nearly two years behind in math, from where their counterparts were just a decade earlier.

And while Canadian students experienced overall declines, the drops were larger in Saskatchewan in every subject. In 2022, Saskatchewan lagged the national average by more than one year of learning in every subject. The province is 21 points below the national average in science, 29 points below the national average in math, and 23 points below the national average in reading.

While student results were already declining, COVID school closures were a major factor. Saskatchewan schools were closed provincewide for a minimum of 15 weeks, with regional and individual classrooms keeping kids out of class even longer. Research shows these school closures—and any lost classroom time—hurt student academic performance, mental health and social progress, and increased long-term student absenteeism while likely reducing the lifetime incomes of students.

Locking children out of their classrooms—again—shouldn’t be an option.

But when asked if teachers would forgo salary increases to receive concessions on class size and composition, the STF president sidestepped the question and said both spending items were needed. Saskatchewan was once the top per-student spender on government schools in Canada, and according to the Moe government’s latest budget, education spending in Saskatchewan is increasing. Yet spending more hasn’t helped produce better results for Saskatchewan in the past.

Moreover, class sizes remain a key issue in Saskatchewan’s current debate but research shows smaller class sizes do not improve student performance. The limited positive impacts of smaller classes are only in the early years and help few students—at the high school level, even these narrow benefits don’t exist. It’s also more expensive to reduce class sizes that to implement other education improvements.

There’s also the issue of so-called “classroom complexity”—the increasing number of students with exceptional needs, learning interventions and poor behaviour. Clearly there are issues, and provincial policies should empower teachers to lead their classrooms, maintain high standards of behavioural and academic excellence, and ensure discipline for safe and well-functioning classrooms. If the province mandates a curriculum, it should emphasize clear direct instruction from teachers and teach children the foundational skills in reading and math. But none of these policies necessitate higher spending.

Finally, the Moe government should empower parents to find classrooms that best fit their children by making independent schools more affordable to all income levels and allow more of parents’ tax dollars to flow to the schools of their choice. And permit tuition-free charter schools with specialized focus (like in Alberta) to empower communities to establish their own schools to meet their needs.

Of course, neither independent schools nor charter schools force teachers to join a union. Alas, this is not a policy solution we hear echoing from union halls. But research shows that more school choice has the potential to save taxpayers money, rather than costing more, while meeting the needs of families.

All these solutions can be discussed while keeping Saskatchewan kids in class—an absolute imperative for student wellbeing and success.

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