More Parental Choice in Schools

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Manitoba’s newly elected school trustees ought to have motored to St. John’s College November 4 to hear Dr. Mark Holmes speak to the issue of reforming public education. His title, Schooling in a Pluralist Democracy, sounded vague, but it contained a clear and thorough perspective on the means necessary to retune our schools.

A veteran educator turned author and analyst, with three books to his credit, Holmes came to this perspective by working the school system from a variety of career angles. As a front-line teacher and principal in New Brunswick, then as a school board administrator in Québec and finally as a professor who taught new teachers at the University of Toronto, he acquired the critical ability to assess Canada’s public school performance from inside and out. Now retired, he dispenses his corrective wisdom through Ontario’s Organization for Quality Education.

Holmes insists that there is no such thing as the “common school” in Canada. In a diverse and pluralistic society like Canada’s, the values and skills parents expect their children to accumulate through basic schooling can’t be had with a “one-size-fits-all” approach. In our original public system, developed in the nineteenth century, parents controlled the style and content of learning. But the balance shifted almost totally as we socialized funding, to the point that provincial authorities now dominate decision-making. Holmes wants to tilt the equation back in the direction of parents by giving them more choice.

All provinces except Newfoundland provide at least some funding to independent schools, mainly because demand for such venues continues to increase dramatically as parents seek out more rigorous alternatives. Holmes noted that public support for independent and separate schools is so great that even governments ideologically opposed to these schools are unlikely to get rid of them. The benefit of a stronger independent school sector, highlighted in Alberta, is the pressure it places on the public system. Edmonton’s public school board has responded to its customer base by accommodating parental wishes for greater choice and stronger currricula. It is not a coincidence that Alberta students across the board are reporting superior test scores in performance assessments.

Holmes emphasized the importance of rigorous assessment, through high-stakes external tests. While he acknowledged that the current Manitoba standardized exams were better than nothing, he argued that they could be greatly improved. To ensure that all students are learning the basics, he would like to require all potential high school graduates to pass a basic literacy test. If they fail, they would be required to stay in school. This mechanism for accountability would prompt students to realize that they actually have to do some work while in school, and force educators to shed their loopy obsessions with trendy, time-wasting social and ideological issues. Students in the Province of Québec, for instance, which mandates strict exit tests, outscore their counterparts in the rest of the country and consequently far fewer of them end up on welfare rolls as adults.

Teacher recognition and compensation also requires reform. While he was skeptical of the value of some merit pay programs, he recommended that at least some teacher pay be linked to performance. Just as universities recognize different levels of professors, teachers might be differentiated through promotion, with “master teacher” as the last stage. Outstanding teachers would thus be better compensated than average teachers. The practice, driven by union rules, whereby kindergarten teachers receive exactly the same pay as high school teachers produces predictable problems. There is a surplus of teachers who want to teach kindergarten and Grade One, he noted, while there is a shortage of high school math and science teachers. Simple economics should dictate that teachers who are in higher demand and are more specialized receive higher salaries than generalist teachers who are easy to find.

Holmes described how schools teach a drastically watered-down form of morality. The current values taught in schools — respect for others, non-violence, and tolerance — are necessary, but fall woefully short of true moral education. Virtues such as truth have been sacrificed on the altar of political correctness and the need for teachers to avoid negative confrontations with their students. “The fundamental issue,” he complains, “is that the schools today offer low-level values, don’t emphasize academics very highly, and get into all kinds of questionable campaigns.”

By these standards – wider school choice, a rigorous curriculum, accountability through testing, rewarding superior teachers and values transmission – Manitoba’s education system does not pass muster. The Department of Education’s budget for standards assessment, for instance, was chopped in half by the incoming NDP government, no doubt, meeting the demands of the teachers union to de-emphasize performance measurement and testing. Parents would be shocked to see the low marks scored by our students in last year’s Grade Twelve tests, the only ones we still mandate, so the numbers have not been publicly released.

We are not doing our children any favours by insulating our public schools from measurements of performance and limiting competition from alternative providers. The thoughts of Mark Holmes should be required reading for all Manitoba educators.