Edmonton’s public school system became one of the best in North America by taking a free-market approach that could offer lessons for Toronto, says a former superintendent of the Alberta board.

Angus McBeath said the Edmonton board decided in 2001 that parents could send their child to any school in the city, and publicized performance results to help them choose.

Now, 57% of students in Edmonton do not go to a school in their jurisdiction. The result: improved test scores.

Since 2001, the high school graduation rate has risen to 71% from 63%.

Mr. McBeath was in Toronto yesterday to show public school officials in the city how the Edmonton model works. The stop is part of a North American tour with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Society for Quality Education, which is based in Toronto.

Ontario public schools are bleeding students to the private system – the number of private schools has doubled to 1,000 in the past 10 years, by one estimate – and Mr. McBeath said elements from Edmonton’s method can be implemented anywhere.

According to Doretta Wilson, the executive director for the Society for Quality Education, there’s a reason that private education in Ontario has been growing.

“It’s a serious decision that parents don’t make on a whim,” Ms. Wilson said.

“Parents will choose private if they have that option or especially if they are frustrated with the system,” Mr. McBeath said. “In Edmonton, hardly anyone goes to private school any more.”

He said one goal was to ensure children from underprivileged families would perform as well or better than children from middle-class families.

Academic performance and postal codes are often linked, he said. The Edmonton board was able to make direct correlations between students’ academic performance in Grade 3 and their high school performance.

“It could have been predicted: ‘You’re not going to make it,’ ” Mr. McBeath said.

The board’s new target was that all children should be able to read by Grade 3.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Isn’t that unrealistic, there must be somebody who won’t learn to read and write?’ ” Mr. McBeath said. “I would want no higher standard for Air Canada not killing the passengers than I would want in terms of our kids.”

Now, 88% of Grade 3s in Edmonton read at their level.

The results are not comparable, but in Ontario, 63% of Grade 3s read at their level in 2004-2005, up from 55% in 2000-2001. The goal is that 75% of Grade 3s in Ontario will read at their level by 2008.

Schools in Edmonton compete for students and receive funding based on enrolment. But principals and teachers have been empowered to spend the money how they see fit.

Teachers must follow the Alberta curriculum and children must write district and provincial achievement tests. As well, targets for improving results must be set every year.

Ongoing professional development is also part of the program and no classroom is private.

Principals now spend 50% of their days in the classroom so they can decide what kind of professional support is needed. Teachers are also taught to give other teachers feedback.

Each school had to decide on a weakness to focus on, and all schools chose literacy.

To read more about the AIMS Angus McBeath North American Tour, click here.