Broadening The Report Card On Manitoba Schools

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Last week, the Minister of Education released a report card on the performance of Manitoba’s public schools. To Drew Caldwell’s credit, he did not try to mask the unpleasant news, that one in ten students fails to pass at least once between Grades One and Eight.

What should be done about it?

First, we have to find out how high the failure rate really is. Only four out of ten students in Manitoba actually wrote standards tests, because the Minister made most of them optional as soon as he assumed office. Where they’re still compulsory, in Grade Twelve, 38.5 per cent of students failed their mathematics tests. In Grade Nine, where tests are voluntary, 25.3 per cent failed them. The problem cannot be addressed unless its full dimensions are understood.

Rigorous measures of performance are never pleasant. During the brief period of compulsory, across-the-board testing in Manitoba which the NDP government aborted, the negative data that emerged became a political hot potato. Much of it was never shared with the public, but sent in confidence to individual divisions and schools.

The teachers’ unions who have access to the Minister’s ear told him that standards tests were a waste of time and money. For parents, these tests are necessary, and they should be restored immediately. These performance measurements absorbed only one percent of public school budgets, but the information they provide is priceless. Test thoroughly, and test often, so we can discover where we’re falling down.

Second, we need to take a hard look at how school services are delivered. If you are a traditionalist, you can argue that the system needs more resources.

A recent analysis of school finances by the Manitoba Association of School Trustees shows that education spending in the public school system has been flat. Between 1995 and 2000 it increased 10.4% during a period of 10.2% inflation (from $1.10 billion to $1.21 billion). However, provincial spending on public schools increased by only 7.0%, meaning that property taxpayers picked up proportionately more of the school bill. Spending on universities and colleges increased a whopping 52% during the same period.

But spending is a poor proxy for effective public policy. Manitoba has one of the country’s most expensive systems on a per capita basis and it still performs below the Canadian average in several key respects. Realistically our public schools are awash with money and short on results.

Independent schools produce better outcomes, with higher test scores (6-10% on Grade Three tests when they were compulsory testing), and lower per student costs (roughly 80% of the public system). This efficiency gap cannot be explained away, as many teachers and administers try to suggest, by the claim that private school students come from better, more supportive backgrounds. Parochial schools who cater to families with modest means also do better.

What happens to the money inside public schools is arguably more important. Although public classroom spending increased overall by 10.4% in the last five years, the shifts in budget priorities presented in public school spending (FRAME Report) are skewed towards administration.

Spending on trustees is up by 14.3%, while curriculum development is down by 2.2%. In the face of high failure rates, shouldn’t we be expanding resources for curriculum development instead of rewarding trustees? Budgets for gifted instruction, i.e. focusing on talented star students, have been lashed by 53.1%.

In contrast, spending on “mainstreaming”, the practice of placing special needs students in regular classrooms instead of specialized facilities is up by 49.7%. This program, embraced province-wide in 1988, has had predictable consequences. Slavish adherence to egalitarian principles confers a warm and fuzzy sort of satisfaction for some educational theorists, but for the frontline teacher it means constant disruption of instruction for the rest of the students, who are shortchanged. Predictably parents have pulled students from public classrooms to place them in less distracted independent schools, which perform correspondingly better.

Finally, spending on professional and staff development is up by about 30%. In theory, the budget increase for professional development ought to promote better learning outcomes, but does it? Premier Gary Doer recently challenged the practice of opening classrooms before Labour Day, and received a puzzling response. Apparently public schools need those extra few days to meet the legal requirement to supply 200 days of instruction a year. Why? Because the school year is riddled with days off, for stretched holidays and 10 of them, yes, for “professional development.”

If Premier Doer looks into the matter further, he will discover that the 200-day rule has long been a convenient fiction. What constitutes a day? Fifty years ago, it meant instruction from 9:00 a.m. until 12:00 p.m. and from 1:40 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. Not any more. Every parent, especially those who work and must provide day care when students are not in school, quickly learns that a “day”, especially in high schools, can mean a few hours at best.

Drew Caldwell and his people showed significant courage in releasing their report card on Manitoba’s public schools at all, given its contents.

Now it’s time to buckle down, focus more on the big picture and open our minds to a more performance-based system.

“The reformation of Canada’s schools: Breaking the barriers to parental choice” by Mark Holmes is available through the Frontier Centre online bookstore