The Alberta Teachers’ Association responds to our work on Edmonton’s public schools

Publication, Education, Frontier Centre

Letter to the Editor, Winnipeg Free Press

November 7, 2005

Simplistic isn’t the answer

It’s always flattering to learn that the neighbours are paying attention to you; however, Peter Holle’s Oct. 30 column, “Edmonton lets principals run schools — and it works,” comparing Edmonton Public and Winnipeg Public schools, does neither system a favour by undermining confidence in the performance of public schools and advocating for increased standardized testing.

To start with, the PISA test results quoted in Holle’s column cannot be used to compare individual school districts. Even looking at the provincial picture, the differences between Alberta’s performance on these tests and Manitoba’s is typically less than four per cent. This difference is not educationally meaningful and may well derive from differences in parents’ educational attainment, socio-economic status, curriculum content and familiarity with high-stakes testing.

Manitoba’s students have performed very well indeed on PISA tests, scoring well above the average achieved by students in other wealthy, industrialized countries. Internationally, only students in Hong Kong and Finland have performed significantly better than their counterparts in Manitoba or Canada as a whole.

Holle is also mistaken in identifying increased standardized testing as the high road to school improvement. Finland, a county that consistently achieves the highest scores in international testing (beating even my proud province), has refused to expand centralized testing beyond the tests administered at graduation to the 50 per cent of students who attend the academic upper-secondary schools. Instead, the Finns have created an education system that concentrates on meeting the needs of students and facilitating the work of teachers. For example, Finland has chosen to limit class sizes to a maximum of 24 students and to implement a universal hot meal program at no cost to parents. The Finnish school system is based on a culture of trust rather than control. Teachers are respected and allowed to plan their work and choose their methods independently.

Simply put, if testing created a better education system, then students in the United States would stand head and shoulders above their counterparts in the rest of the world. They don’t. They achieve significantly lower scores than students in countries like Canada. Improving our education system should be everyone’s goal. But it can’t be accomplished with simplistic solutions.

Not in Alberta, and not in Manitoba either.

Frank Bruseker


Alberta Teachers Association

The Frontier Centre’s response:

Why does Frank Bruseker think that public knowledge about performance undermines public schools? Standards tests are not the only way to make the system accountable, but they are an important tool. Finland does not use them, but their system does allow teachers a large measure of curricular freedom, a frontline empowerment that allows best practices to emerge. The methods adopted by the Edmonton Public School Board—site-based management, principals who are intimately involved with classroom activity and teachers who are supported by coaching—create similar structures for excellence that test scores merely reflect.

The 4.5% difference in PISA scores between Manitoba and Alberta is significant, especially because they’re conducted when schools have had children for 10 years. Would Bruseker prefer his pension to accrue by that amount in ten years or is less better?

The U.S. has the best and the worst performing children for a number of reasons, and standards tests merely let them know about it. They don’t cause the problem.

If hot meals and small class sizes had anything to do with student achievement, many districts in North America would move instantly to the top of the ranks. But they don’t. We need standards tests to tell educators how they are doing in a centralized system that crushes their ability to perform successfully.