By: Charles Cirtwill

At some point each of the parties in the current New Brunswick election will dutifully trot out some language around education. But make no mistake, education is the thing, it is the hook upon which all other promises, commitments and goals hang. And, to date, New Brunswick is failing miserably.

Let’s consider the 2007 results on national tests. New Brunswick ranks almost dead last in reading proficiency, ahead of only P.E.I. on the English side and Manitoba on the French. Such dismal scores are not new either. New Brunswick has consistently faired poorly on national tests and internationally it was dead last among Canadian provinces in science in 2006 and next to last in math that same year.

Will laptops for every student solve this problem? Or how about expanding school based childcare in our quickly emptying public schools? It’s possible, but I am not betting the farm on it. What about just massively increasing spending? Even if New Brunswick wasn’t mired in growing debt and assuming away the real question of whether a massive increase in taxes is feasible or sustainable. Would more money solve the problem? Not according to the evidence.

Washington, D.C. spends more than just about any other public school jurisdiction in North America on a per pupil basis, and has some of the worst results. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) looked hard at international spending trends and only gives money a lukewarm endorsement as an effective reform tool. In Canada, Ontario consistently spends big, with little or nothing to show for it. In Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia is the perennial cheapskate, yet consistently outperforms its neighbours. Politicians on the election trail may not like to hear it, but it really is not how much money you spend, but how you spend it that matters.

So, what to do? Well, the answer is to find someplace that works and copy what they do. When in government both the Liberals and the Tories have done exactly that and in both cases they looked to Alberta for inspiration. For the Tories under Premier Lord, that translated into a serious look at the Alberta system as a whole. For the Liberals under Premier Graham, it involved at least not rejecting the ideas of site based management and the Edmonton model of public education delivery.

Unfortunately both rapidly retreated in the face of concentrated opposition from the education establishment and essential indifference from the voter.

The lesson from this is clear. Meaningful education reform starts with you, the average New Brunswicker. Not with the parties or with the politicians, but with you. You need to recognize there is a problem and shout it loudly. Until you do, anything the parties say will be, to steal a phrase, just “sound and fury signifying nothing”.

Sadly for your children and your neighbour’s children, that epiphany has not happened yet. Like Canadians generally and Atlantic Canadians specifically, New Brunswickers are remarkably content with their education systems. Forget the bad test scores, rising illiteracy, and complaints about unprepared or incompetent high school graduates from professors and business people alike, forget the challenges retail clerks have making change, most people feel their schools are pretty good. The system is uniformly damned, but each and every school is praised. Of course that begs the question, if every school is excellent how can we have such consistent evidence of collective failure? Like you, your politicians know that not every school is excellent, not every child well served. Indeed, I would argue they even know what to do to make things better. But they won’t do any of it until they know you will support them, and so far you have not been there.

The systemic differences between successful models like Alberta and unsuccessful ones like New Brunswick are there for all to see: single minded obsession with student performance, public funding of all delivery models (government schools, private for-profit, private not for profit, home schooling), and a firm and unwavering commitment to not only testing but using the testing to promote classroom learning, enhanced teaching and public accountability. The further innovations in Edmonton are equally obvious: true site-based management, a differential funding model with more money allocated for kids that are harder to teach, a model built not for the mythical average student, but one built around the kids actually in the classrooms.

Such changes do not happen overnight and they are not easy. When you are ready for those changes, just let your politicians know. Until you do, New Brunswick isn’t moving to the head of the class anytime soon.

Charles Cirtwill is President & CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), a public policy think tank based in Atlantic Canada.