The commission’s mandate was sweeping: to forge a school system that would make New Brunswickers the best-educated and most productive workers in the country. The new order was to be a cornerstone of Premier Frank McKenna’s unflagging attempt to reshape his province’s economic destiny. After six exhausting months and more than 100 meetings with teachers, students, school trustees and parents, the 1992 Commission on Excellence in Education delivered an ambitious vision of reform. Its 42 recommendations were wide-ranging, from improved teacher training to a longer school year. But throughout its 84 pages ran a central theme: an approach to education that focuses on the core subjects of mathematics, science and language arts, as well as modern technology. “It is no good trying to be all things to all people,” declares assistant deputy minister Byron James. “We need to become more focused.” To this day Commissioner James Downey, now president of the University of Waterloo, defends that vision. While advocating a childcentred approach to teaching in kindergarten and the early grades, he insists that, as they proceed through elementary school, students learn best in a more structured, subject-oriented system. “If you do that too soon you run the risk of turning children off,” says Downey. “But if you fail to do it, you run the same risk.”
Last fall, anglophone schools across New Brunswick began to implement many of the ideas of Downey and co-chair Aldéa Landry, on the basis of a document called Education 2000, released last November by the province’s department of education. Coupled with a new emphasis on technology, the plan represents a fundamental, $61 -million revamping of the province’s educational system. “Instead of ‘back to basics,’ ” says McKenna, “we call our approach ‘ahead to the basics.’ ”
Along with lengthening the school year by five days, the province is making moves towards standardized examinations. Next fall, Grade 3 students will face provincial
tests in math, science, reading and writing. Then, as part of a cyclical program to monitor students as they move through the system, Grade 6 students will face provincewide exams in the same subjects in the fall of 1995—followed by Grade 9 students in 1996.
Meanwhile, anglophone high-school students will begin to undergo a barrage of regular standardized tests similar to those now taken by their French-language counterparts. In the province’s francophone high schools, standardized exams in French, history, math, physics, chemistry and geography have been around for seven years. This year, in response to the commission’s recommendations, English-speaking schools have followed suit, launching provincial math exams in Grades 9 and 11, and English exams for students in Grade 11. “I think it’s important to know, in a shrinking world, how our students are doing vis-à-vis others,” said Downey, justifying such measures. As well, this school year marks the beginning of new course requirements in math and science at all English-language high schools: students will have to take three years of math and two of science, compared with the current requirements of two years and one respectively.
At both elementary and secondary levels, the new educational program puts a strong focus on technology. Each day at Fredericton’s McAdam Avenue School, students grapple with computer basics at the school’s new bank of terminals. At a dozen other New Brunswick schools students can tap into School Net, an information network that provides access to innovative computer-based learning materials as well as online science, math and technology advice from experts at universities and corporations. Next year, that number will jump to 160. “Technology,” explains McAdam’s principal, Cathy Walsh-James, “is causing a classroom revolution.”
For the moment, even those with reason to complain about budget cuts seem supportive—or, at least, resigned to the kinds of changes now unfolding. “The McKenna government realizes the value of a well-rounded work-force,” declares Dianne Wilkins, a music co-ordinator in the Fredericton area who has been forced to find other sources of operating funds for junior high-school bands— a result of financial cutbacks. “It’s a matter of rethinking and dealing with reality. We’re just being asked to show a little ingenuity.” But as New Brunswick struggles with its sweeping reforms, the demands upon teachers and students are only beginning.
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