By Brian Lee Crowley
HELL HATH no fury like an educational establishment called to account.
That’s my conclusion watching the reactions from the region’s departments of education and teachers’ unions to my institute’s first annual performance report card on Atlantic Canada’s high schools.
With the honourable exception of the Nova Scotia Department of Education, most of the institutions that are used to running the public schools in this region as if they are a private fiefdom were outraged at the temerity and impertinence of our effort. We had the gall to suggest that schools were not all identical, that there was important information publicly available about how each school performed in areas such as exam results, and that this information had to be made available to parents, students and citizens in general in an easily accessible and understandable format.
The reaction was a howl of fury. In Newfoundland, the Department of Education tried to bully us into not releasing our results, while the whole educational establishment officially harrumphed that no one should read the report. Imagine that the people charged with ensuring that our young people are taught to think clearly and to open their minds to new ideas have become the modern equivalent of the medieval church, deciding what books are too dangerous for their feeble-minded flock to read. Don’t engage with difficult ideas – close your eyes to them instead.
In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, many members of the educational establishment try to dismiss the report card with ominous references to obscure hidden agendas; but when challenged to say why, exactly, they disagree with the content and the methodology of the report, they fall silent, or mutter about methodological flaws that they cannot explain. The head of one of the teachers’ unions accuses us of wrapping ourselves in the cloak of – gasp – accountability. Well, that beats the heck out of the cloak of invisibility in which the union wants to wrap any hard information about what’s going on in the schools.
What accounts for this anger and angst? For the very first time, our educational establishment is being called to account for its own performance, and it doesn’t like it. Tough. We all must render accounts to someone. Politicians must look at polls and answer to voters at elections. The media must track their audience share and be answerable to investors and advertisers. Workers have annual performance appraisals and universities must attract students, satisfy donors and governments, and score well in the Maclean’s survey.
Schools mustn’t be any different. For example, in this region, national and international tests consistently show that we lag behind the rest of the country in our ability to give our kids the education they need to succeed. That’s partly a system-wide failure. But kids are not educated in some vague, abstract system; they are educated in very specific schools, each with strengths and weaknesses. We need to be open and honest about that, and to help ourselves and our kids by identifying those strengths and weaknesses, so that the first can be emulated and the second overcome.
Parents understand this, and have been asking for better school accountability for years, but with little success. That helps to explain why my institute’s Web site got over 100,000 hits in the four days following the report’s release. As one self-described learning-disabled mother, who spent hours poring over our report, wrote to me: “There is so much controversy because people just do not like to hear the truth.”
Newspaper editorialists have been equally supportive of our efforts, and equally dismissive of the circling of the wagons by teachers’ unions and departments of education. They recognized that we wanted a debate on what school success looks like, and that our report only claims to capture a part of the complex reality of the public schools. But no study captures everything; the demand for perfect comprehensiveness is merely a handy excuse for inaction.
It is no accident that within 24 hours of our report, though, two provinces announced they will now do what they condemn us for: supplying more (but still incomplete) information on a school-by-school basis. Many union spokespersons grudgingly admit that the measures we have used in our report are important, but don’t go far enough. We have therefore invited them and their colleagues in the various provincial governments to help us gather even more information about school performance for our next annual report card.
Shooting the messenger may be a comforting reaction in the short run; but in the long run, departments and unions will have to become more open and forthcoming. In jurisdictions across Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and other countries, this kind of responsible and sophisticated school ranking is seen as valuable and even indispensable. Now it’s here and it’s going to stay. That’s a welcome development for those who put the quality of our children’s education first.
Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies