In Brief: School choice makes for a better education. As a panelist at a national conference for public administrators, AIMS Executive Vice President Charles Cirtwill explained how choice makes a more representative classroom.

If by Grade 3 students are in the bottom 20 per cent of their class in reading, they’re doomed to stay there for their entire school career, warns University of New Brunswick education Prof. Douglas Willms.

Research also shows that holding low-literacy students back a grade won’t help, he said Tuesday.

Instead, he said, these students should receive intervention in the form of 100 to 150 hours of additional instruction to boost their reading skills.

“Don’t wait to fail,” he told a panel session at the national convention of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada held in Fredericton.

“Literacy trajectories are established early,” said Willms, who’s also director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy.

The panel session was entitled Turning Around Education Policy and Performance. Willms said the importance of early literacy in school has been known for many years but until recently, governments have concentrated on
literacy at the high school level.

“Over the last five years, there has been a shift towards more resources in kindergartens, Grade 1 and Grade 2. We see that in New Brunswick and we see that in a lot of provinces across the country.”

Willms said researchers now have better literacy measurement tools to use with students before they even start school. The 100 to 150 hours of literacy intervention doesn’t mean taking a student out of class and putting them in a different class, he said.

“That means something in addition to what they are getting in school.”

That’s why after-hours classes and summer learning programs are so important, he said.

Willms said he’s optimistic that augmented intervention will be available soon in New Brunswick and a pilot program is in the works.

“I think we are making good strides now. We are seeing improvements in Grade 2 assessment results and I think we will continue to see an upward trend.”

Charles Cirtwill, executive vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies based in Halifax, was also on the education reform panel Tuesday. He said he supports adopting a school model that gives more educational control to principals, teachers, parents and students.

That includes letting parents pick which schools their children attend, based on the Alberta model, he said.

“Most education researchers will tell you that one of the key things when talking about student success is engaging their families and the best way to engage their families is to actually give them some authority,” he said. “That is where choice comes in.”

The Alberta model, which includes homeschooling and publicly funded private schools, is far better than anything in Atlantic Canada, he said.

Opponents of letting parents pick which school their children attend say better schools will get better students.

But Cirtwill said that kind of streaming is already happening in New Brunswick through the early French-immersion program. There’s also socio-economic school streaming in the form of where people live and who can afford a house in a nice neighbourhood, he said.

“The private schools, the charter schools tend to be more representative of the overall society than the public schools do,” said Cirtwill.

“You can actually structure your voucher system or however you want to deliver it to actually encourage a broader, more representative distribution of students,” he said.

Cirtwill said that when reform-minded Fredericton-Fort Nashwaak Liberal MLA Kelly Lamrock was education minister it looked like the Liberal government might be prepared to consider at least piloting the choice model for schools in a district in New Brunswick.

“I think New Brunswick is probably the most likely province to see at least some experimentation'” Cirtwill said.

But he doesn’t expect that to happen soon.

“I am not holding my breath for anything new on education in the next year and a half,” he said.

“You’ve got an election next October. They have enough on their plate.”