By Jim Meek
Progress Magazine

Just before the Gulf war began in March, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) released a report that “shocked and awed” the region’s educational establishment. Or maybe that should be “stunned and stupefied.”

AIMS had the nerve to rank the region’s schools in three areas: academic excellence; the proportion of graduates to dropouts; and the post-graduate “success” of students. Then the think-tank did the unthinkable. It graded the schools, from A to F. Not only that: it ranked schools from first to worst.

The reaction to this report was – well – reactionary. In all four provinces, it was rants all around from teachers, politicians and unions.

In one lengthy Jeremiad published in a Halifax newspaper, a principal from a rural Nova Scotia school suggested the survey might hurt the feelings of students in the last place school – his. In Prince Edward Island, Education Minister Chester Gillan – an old pedagogue himself – sniffed that the study did a “serious disservice to students.” In New Brunswick, the Teachers Association dismissed the AIMS research as “misleading.” And in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Teachers Association distinguished itself by launching several rockets at AIMS before the report card on the region’s schools had been released.

I was all set to join this holy crusade myself, but I figured I should see the whites of the enemy’s eyes before firing a bullet between them. So I read the report first. And here’s what I found:

The authors start by making a modest proposal: Given that “one of the most important functions of the provinces” is educating citizens, maybe we should figure out how well our high schools are doing the job. This is important. Good students generally turn into adults who earn their way; give society back more than they get; and make a pretty good go at life.

And it also turns out that Atlantic Canada is doing badly – flunking, if you like – at educating its kids. In comparison with other regions of Canada, our four provinces appear to be locked in a race for last place. Rankings of 15-year-olds in Atlantic Canada showed students from our four fair provinces finished 7th, 8th, 9th and tenth in reading; 7th, 8th, 9th and tenth in mathematics; and 7th, 8th, 9th and tenth in science. That’s tenth out of ten provinces by the way. (We do earn an A+, however, for consistency.)

In fairness, I should add that other rankings reveal some bright spots in our educational system: Sixteen-year-old francophone students excel at mathematics in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, for instance. So do 16-year-old science students in Prince Edward Island.

Overall, though, the findings shouldn’t cause anyone to pop champagne corks. (Although they might drive you to drink.) After reading the dreary results, I was left wondering if our pedagogues and their minders didn’t descend on the methodology of AIMS report to divert attention from the educational establishment’s unmitigated failure to deliver the goods.

But back to the report: What AIMS set out to do was complete an “important first step” in ranking our schools. (The authors concede that the methodology is flawed – in part because the Atlantic provinces have failed to provide consistent data on school performance.) The real point of the AIMS report – published in the March edition of this magazine – was not to point fingers. It was to rank schools so we could collectively figure out what works – and what doesn’t work – in education. Once that’s done, this region could start to create a model of educational excellence for schools in the region to emulate. The Canadian experience shows that educational systems tend to thrive after school rankings are implemented. In Alberta, for instance, students have increasingly excelled at standardized math tests since school rankings were introduced in 1994-95.

Instead of carping at their critics, then, our teachers and politicians should develop a more comprehensive method of ranking our schools – and making them better. Like it or not, education is a competitive business whether the goal is creating a generation of entrepreneurs, or a generation or rounded human beings – or both. As to reaction to the AIMS report itself, all it really proves is that the education of our children is too important a mission to be left to the educators.

Jim Meek is a consultant and writer based in Halifax. He can be reached at meek@ns.sympatico.ca