Too little progress – and you and I are to blame

by Charles Cirtwill

Call it the seven-year itch. Call it navel gazing. Call it what you want. As the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies and Progress publish the eighth annual AIMS Report Card on Atlantic Canadian High Schools, I find myself faced yet again with Progress editor Pamela Scott Crace’s now annual question to me: “Are we making progress?” This year, as with every year, I’m having a hard time answering.

You see by all objective measures, we are winning. More and better information is available to you—the parent, student, taxpayer, individual teacher, principal, politician—than has ever been the case. Not only AIMS, but now every province and several school boards release comparative information about the performance of their schools. Just this past year, the Halifax Regional School Board released its first report card on every school under its umbrella; this effort follows closely on the heels of New Brunswick’s province-wide effort.

Newfoundland and Labrador has cemented itself as the latest example of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) dictum that more school-level information leads to better schools and better-educated students. Even Prince Edward Island has implemented more open and comparable public reporting. The “educrats” can still hide things, but it’s harder for them to do so, and the reformers inside the system only need to look over their shoulder every few days instead of every few hours.

And yet by all objective measures, we are losing. The available objective results are mixed at best or declining at worst. Our adult literacy rate, our performance on national and international tests, our performance on our own provincial and board exams are all, at best, holding steady and in some cases may be holding steady but only because the tests may be getting easier each year.

Our leaders and our education “experts” remain all too enthusiastic about “one size fits all” solutions, whether it’s late immersion, full inclusion, early literacy intervention, or what have you. And cash—yes, if only the cash flowed more freely to our schools, then we would all live in a land of milk and honey. This despite the fact even the OECD has discounted the link between spending and school performance, and despite the fact that time and time again it has been demonstrated that changing what you do, not what you spend, matters more in making schools better.

We, the people of Atlantic Canada, remain far too complacent and willing to accept the direction of these same experts. “Business-led” reform efforts focus on school-board governance, volunteering, or fundraising because those are the things we “know” or are “good at.” And when businesspeople have the temerity to publicly criticize local schools, the rest of us turn various shades of red and scurry beneath the nearest rock, embarrassed one of us has said out loud what all of us shout about in private.

In the final indignity, while we know more about our schools then we ever have before, we still for the most part lack the power to act on that information. We lack the power because we fail to demand the right to choose. Atlantic Canada remains the only part of Canada without any meaningful school choice. We can make “out of boundary” applications to move our children from our local school to another one; some of us have even had such applications approved. Most of us, however, don’t even know that we’re allowed to ask, and many wouldn’t ask even if we knew we could.

Where we do have choice, as with Nova Scotia’s Tuition Support Program, we spend so much time trying to keep it alive in the face of determined opposition from the education establishment we have no time to make sure its benefits are getting to everyone who needs it—in rural Nova Scotia, neighbouring New Brunswick, western P.E.I., or northern Labrador. So when Pamela asks me every year about progress, I need to stop and think. Are things better then they were seven years ago? Absolutely. Are they as good as they should be? Not on your life.

As I write this column, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams has just responded to the criticism levelled at him for choosing to access health care outside his home province—indeed, outside Canada. His response: “It’s my health and it’s my choice.”

That response reminded me of an exchange my wife had recently with a senior minister in Nova Scotia’s current government. The conversation took place in the hallway of the Halifax Grammar School, which one of his two children attends (the other goes to a government school). His answer about why one of his children was at the private Grammar School? Basically, that you need to find the right fit for each child.

The problem with that reply, as with Williams’ answer, is that not everyone is free to make the same choices. When we change that—when it isn’t just the rich, the desperate, or the determined who manage to find the right fit for their children—then we’ll truly be making progress.

Charles Cirtwill is the executive vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.