Pay Schools for Student Success

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Are the poor being shortchanged by Winnipeg’s public school system? A new study from the University of Manitoba says, “Yes.” While it contains much of merit, its main recommendation for repairing the problem falls short of the mark.

Research in the study How Do Educational Outcomes Vary with Socioeconomic Status? portrays a distressing state of affairs. Children from relatively disadvantaged homes are falling far behind their peers from wealthier families. Only half of eight-year-olds in homes from the poorest quarter of the population passed the Grade Three language tests administered in 1998/99, compared to 84% of those from the most affluent. The spread in Grade Twelve graduation rates is even wider, 37% versus 81%.

Since the acquisition of knowledge can become a means of escaping poverty, these numbers are discouraging. This study basically says that a frighteningly large proportion of students living in poverty are fated to remain there. It also establishes that this tragedy is avoidable. “Apgar” scoring a method of assessing the physical well-being of newborn children clearly indicates that kids from poor families start out on a level playing field with affluent offspring. They fall behind during their learning years.

These social facts are important, and it is worth noting that they could not have been discovered without the use of standardized tests. The study draws its comparative data on Grade Three performance from 1999 because the Manitoba’s NDP government subsequently made such tests voluntary and cancelled public reporting of the results. Even though the value of their study depended on the information obtained from them, in media appearances some of the researchers’ amazingly denigrated the use standardized instruments.

Surprisingly, they were careful to avoid criticizing the public school system, despite its obvious failure to turn things around for so many poor children. Indeed, as the study points out, lots of them disappear below the radar screen. The researchers weight their comparisons with census information to account for a large slice of this population that never took the tests in the first place. Obviously these children should have been sitting in Grade Three desks, but simply were not.

Also surprisingly, the study says nothing about the perverse incentives that allow school divisions to get away with this neglect. They are paid in full for the number of students who are in place on “Count Day,” on September 30. After that, they tend to let things slide. Winnipeg #1, the largest division with a catchment area containing almost all of the poorest families, even laid off its truant officers. They had already been paid for the missing children and, since many of them come from the most troubled homes and are the most difficult to teach, the path of least resistance looked more attractive.

The remedy for this is simple: change the funding formula so that schools are paid for the number of children who complete grades, not who attend on a particular day. Also, give them bonuses for improving the test scores of the children most at risk. If you want to get really serious, install competitive incentives for excellence by vouchering poor children. Then parents can seek schools that will pay attention, a resort that is increasingly attractive to neglected minority populations in big American cities.

Instead, this study concludes that we need way more of the same. It calls for the expansion of existing programs that target at-risk children, and for bringing more of them into the system before kindergarten, and for more subsidies for daycare, where poor kids will allegedly absorb more intellectual skills. The image comes to mind of Mao Tse-Tung’s program of gigantic nurseries to rescue the masses from the unenlightened embrace of their parents.

These recommendations reek of an error that happens when a researcher makes an inference about an individual based on aggregate data for a group. You can identify a child as coming from a poor neighbourhood and being statistically more likely to fail in school. But to say that a massive new spending program of early childhood intervention directed to neighbourhoods will therefore meet that person’s needs is simply not a sustainable conclusion.

Before this study was conducted, we already knew that children can rise out of poverty if they acquire intellectual skills. That’s where we ought to focus, on the soft underbelly of innercity curricula that don’t teach kids to read or count. To be sure, there are a number of proven programs for doing this. Moreover, give their parents the means to do an end-run around a broken system that does not ensure their children learn the material.

By the way, should further proof be required that the system is dysfunctional, look at the provenance of this important study. It was produced by the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, not by the Department of Education, or any of the faculties of education, which don’t want to know about the “missing children.” Maybe, no news is good news.