For many years, Manitoba has earned a reputation as a middle-of-the-road province with an adversity to extremes.
In one area of provincial policy, however, Manitoba boldly stands alone. It is the only province that stubbornly refuses to make information about student academic performance available to the general public.
The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy recently released a report on public schools in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In order to compile this report, these think-tanks needed information such as school graduation rates, attendance records and student performance on standards tests.
Whereas Saskatchewan willingly released most of the requested information, Manitoba Education and Literacy refused to co-operate.
As a result, the report contains virtually no useful information about Manitoba high schools. The NDP government’s emphasis on keeping student performance data secret put us offside with Saskatchewan and sets us apart from the practice of every other province in Canada.
Information that is routinely available in other parts of the country remains locked away in Manitoba. Education Minister Nancy Allan made a number of media appearances in an attempt to justify her government’s stance against accountability. During a recent CBC radio interview, Allan offered up her usual talking points.
In her initial argument, Allan pointed out that the province released a report called A Profile of Student Learning and Performance in Manitoba on its website. The report is limited to providing only student data on a provincewide basis. This makes it useful only to people naive enough to believe that all schools in Manitoba are exactly the same.
When challenged on this point, Allan argued there was no benefit to breaking down the information any further. According to Allan, if that kind of data were available to the public then it might be misused by think-tanks who wish to rank schools on the basis of performance.
With all due respect to Minister Allan, that is an absurd reason to keep information away from the public. Using this logic, the province should also prevent regional health authorities from releasing any regional health care data just in case some think-tank decides to “misuse” the information and ranks hospitals on the basis of performance. If everything is the same across the province, perhaps the government should also mandate that MPI stop charging different insurance rates to drivers based on where they live and instead average everything out on a provincewide basis.
This paternalistic approach to information by the NDP government is insulting to the public. We don’t need Minister Allan or anyone else from the government telling us that these data are being kept away from us for our own good.
In addition, there is good reason for concern about student academic achievement in Manitoba. Last year, the Programme for International Student Assessment found that Manitoba now comes in second-last among Canadian provinces in reading and mathematics. In fact, this assessment shows that provincewide academic results have steadily declined since the NDP took power in 1999. The government probably thinks it has good reason to keep academic data away from Manitobans — particularly during an election year.
It was ironic that during the same radio interview Allan pointed to the strong PISA results from Finland as proof that we don’t need standards tests in this province. Finland, she noted, does not have a lot of standards tests and yet still does very well on international comparisons of student achievement.
Aside from the obvious irony of using results from a standards test to prove we don’t need standards testing, there are other reasons to be cautious about comparisons with Finland. The population in Finland is considerably more homogenous than in Canada and schooling is only compulsory until the end of Grade 9. Local schools also have considerably more autonomy than they do in Manitoba.
Unless the NDP is considering implementing these examples from the Finnish model, it might be wise for Allan to avoid simplistic comparisons with other countries.
In the meantime, Manitoba needs to follow the example of other provinces and make academic achievement data available to the public. People have a right to know how their schools are doing.
Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier centre for Public Policy, a Manitoba high school teacher, and co-author of What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.