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Good evening.  Thank you to everyone who has come out tonight; and thank you to Larry Huber and the Saskatchewan School Boards’ Association for inviting me to be part of the program you’ve come out for.

I’ve been asked to comment on the Frontier Centre’s School Report Card project, and I have a couple of other comments in mind as well.  Actually, I want to do four things:

  1. I’d like to talk briefly at the start about the Frontier Centre, because I’m sure people who may not be familiar with think tanks or with Frontier in particular may wonder what role we play in Saskatchewan public policy, and want to know why we see ourselves as a legitimate voice in a debate like the one over school performance feedback.
  2. I’d like to talk about our School Report Card project, describing what we’ve done so far, what we plan to with it in the future, and perhaps most importantly, why we think it’s important to do this at all.
  3. I’d then like to respond to some of the criticism that has been levelled against this project and others like it.  To give you the flavour of that response, I think that there are legitimate criticisms of a one size fits all ranking system, but if the publicity reflects the system then it is better to have an informed debate than attempt to hide the facts in government vaults or databases.
  4. Finally I’d like to make some remarks that I hope many people here will find challenging in a good way.  I’m going to argue that the current tension between teachers who see standardised testing as constraining their autonomy and parents and taxpayers who want to see results from education is merely a flashpoint in 140 years of increasingly centralised education in this province.  The real question to ask is not whether publishing the results of a centralised system is problematic, but whether the central control is really better than local autonomy when it comes to getting better education outcomes in the widest sense.

The Frontier Centre for Public Policy
I find that the concept of a think tank is not widely understood.  It makes for long introductions when I meet people socially.  In fact, recently I’ve found it’s easier just to tell them I work for the Montreal Alouettes, for some reason that stops the questions.

But I think it’s important before I go any further to give you an idea of what we’re about.  Like most think tanks we are predicated on the insight that ideas have consequences.  That means that the ideas in a political culture, even though you can’t see or touch them, are more powerful than anything that you can.  If you look around the world today and through history, it is the dominant ideas that tend to predict a society’s success.  For example, in Canada we have a deeply ingrained idea that free and fair elections are important, and they are.  I always remember a Saskatoon Star Phoenix Article from the last federal election about an off duty police officer helping stuff envelopes for one of the parties.  If you want to see where the poverty and human misery around the world are, you can bet it is in the countries where that idea has not taken route here.   It’s in the countries where it would be more newsworthy if an ununiformed person was able to influence an election.

Now I think free and fair elections are pretty safe in Canada, but the goal of the think tank is to stimulate the idea culture in a society by offering new ideas about policy in the hope that they will become popular in the public mind.  The Frontier Centre does this with a stream of research and publications which are regularly reported in the media and directly communicated to people who subscribe to our email list or come to our policy events.

We call ourselves an independent think tank.  If you want to get technical about the term, humans are social animals and nobody is completely independent from the rest of the world.  It would be more accurate to say that we have structured our interdependencies to maximise the independence of our output.  There are three key ways that we’ve done that:

  1. We don’t take money from government.  We need to be free to criticise any public policy, but politicians generally tie their political survival to particular policies, so you just cannot freely critique public policy if your funding decisions are made by people whose very survival relies on the acceptance of particular policies.
  2. We don’t do work on contract, you cannot approach the Frontier Centre and have a study done for money.  Accepting that kind of work would be lucrative for a while but it would damage the public faith in our work and alienate other donors who genuinely believe in the value of think tanks.
  3. We don’t have any “trump card” funders; I doubt that any single funder contributes more than 5-10% of our funding in any given year, so no funder has a “veto” on Frontier work.  Having said that; if someone does want to donate that much, please see me after.

That’s enough about Frontier; I hope I’ve convinced you that there is a role for think tanks as contributors to public policy debates, and that the Frontier Centre is a competent organisation for doing so.
School Report Cards

The School report card concept is one that was developed in Canada by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, another think tank based out of Halifax.  The Atlantic Institute has published these reports for eight years and is now “taking their show on the road” to Western Canada, meaning that the Frontier Centre is helping them to replicate their work for schools in Western Canada.

The structure of the School report card is to take statistics provided by school divisions or education ministries and use them to construct a one-stop shop for understanding how different schools are performing. 

This performance is measured in two ways, the first is the level of engagement, and the second is the level of performance.

Engagement consists of the following measures:

  • Attendance: Where available, the attendance rate of high school students.
  • Moving-on rates: Based on the number of students who move from one grade to the next grade. The Grade 12 moving-on rate is calculated by dividing the number of graduating students by the number enrolled at the beginning of the year.
  • Post-secondary preparation: Where available, the proportion of students participating in college preparatory math and language arts courses.

Post-secondary participation: Where available, the proportion of students moving on, or intending to move on, to post-secondary education the year after graduation.

Achievement is measured by:

  • School marks: Where available, the average teacher-assigned grades for general, academic and advanced level courses in math, science, language arts and humanities.
  • Provincial exams: Where available, the average grade on provincial exams including math, science, language arts and humanities.
  • Post-secondary achievement: Is based on the comparative academic success of Atlantic Canadian post-secondary students in their first year of post-secondary studies at 21 Atlantic Canadian universities and community colleges.

Context Adjustment

Of course if you want to measure the performance of schools, then it is only fair to acknowledge that schools begin with differing