By Bobby O’Keefe  – Research Manager, Atlantic Institute for Market Studies
& Mark Milke – Director of Research, Frontier Centre for Public Policy

Some politicians and educators in Manitoba appear to think that all is fine with the province’s education system and that parents have no right to know what is going on inside their schools.

In response to the release of our recent report, Behind the Classroom Door: A Guide to the High School Report Card, Manitoba Education Minister Nancy Allan asserted that “We don’t really have a comfort level with this model of pitting one school against another . . . one school ends up at the bottom, and it could be a great school.” The minister also argued that, “I like to think all of our schools are fantastic schools.”

But by asserting that all schools are “fantastic,” the Minister is herself actually ranking schools; she’s simply suggesting they all rank equally. The release of results could either prove her contention or, if they showed that some schools did not compare well, prompt questions as to why and provide information on areas for improvement.

Pitting students, parents and taxpayers against the system

While not releasing any information at the school level avoids pitting school against school, the department is instead pitting students, parents and the taxpayer against the system – with the system holding a clear advantage because it holds all of the information.

Pat Isaak, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, argued on the other hand that “There’s nothing to be gained by ranking schools as schools [already] report to parents and students.”

It is simply not true that there is nothing to be gained by ranking schools, at least according to the OECD. In a 2006 analysis, it found that making school level performance results public brought about improved performance in those same schools.

The OECD also found that the impact of improved performance was significant no matter where the schools were located, the resources each possessed or the types of families served. From rich suburbs to poor inner-city neighbourhoods, from remote rural schools to schools serving thousands of kids — all became better as more information was made public.

The reluctance of the Manitoba government to release relevant information about tax-funded, public schools becomes even more mysterious in light of the fact that other Western provinces have no problem letting parents know how their schools are doing.

For example, in our recent report card British Columbia topped the charts for openness and transparency.  One can download a “School Data Summary”, a 51-page document with five-year comparisons of achievement results, enrolment reports, school and community demographics and even student and parent satisfaction survey results for every high school in the province. (The only minor complaint about British Columbia’s system of data collection and distribution is the lack of a more user-friendly comparison between schools.)

Alberta provides data which is easy to access, makes available all exam scores, teacher-assigned grades, final grades and enrolment data at the school level. It can all be downloaded from Alberta’s Ministry of Education website, though the overall breadth of data available publicly is less than that in British Columbia.

Even Saskatchewan performs well when it comes to responding to requests for data, though it needs to improve its ability for the average citizen to access it. While school-level data is not available online, the Saskatchewan government enthusiastically cooperates with requests for that data.

Openness matters a lot

If we want our kids to be better educated and better equipped to take on the world, openness matters–a lot. BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the OECD understand that, but for some odd reason, Manitoba’s provincial government does not.

Perhaps the best example and evidence for how transparency can improve schools is found in the 2006 science test results from the OECD report. The results showed that the most open provinces –Alberta and British Columbia– score first and second among the provinces. Manitoba? Sixth, down from fourth in 2000. While Saskatchewan trails the pack, the province has not released school performance data until recently.

It appears Manitoba’s government would prefer that parents not have access to most data and information about how schools and their kids are doing. That’s regrettable, and against the trend to openness elsewhere.

Bobby O’Keefe is research manager at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) and co-author with Rick Audas of the Behind the Classroom Door: A Guide to the High School Report Card, released jointly with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Mark Milke is director of research at the Frontier Centre.