SaskEd Measures Up

Commentary, Education, David Seymour

With the hopes and dreams of lifetimes on small shoulders, thousands of children put their futures in the hands of government educators every morning. These educators may hope to succeed in many different ways, but through good management rather than good luck. If the number one rule of management is what is not measured is not done, then Saskatchewan’s education system is streaking ahead of Manitoba’s. While SaskEd has maintained its robust performance measurements, Manitoba seems infatuated with Lady Luck.

In 2001, the government of Saskatchewan started a massive restructuring and realignment of the entire education system to ensure improved and maximized student learning. Manitoba’s expensive education system continues to decline, while the Ministry and school boards waste tax dollars without offering any evidence of quality, let alone improvement.

As a proportion of GDP, Manitoba spends more money than Saskatchewan does on public education. Despite this, Manitoba’s politicians continue to confuse cash injections with performance improvements, as Education Minister Peter Bjornson demonstrated when trumpeting a $33-million injection earlier this year. There is little to no evidence that the money is doing anything. No one knows what the school trustees are doing, the Manitoba NDP has reduced the number and scope of standardized tests, attendance and discipline tracking has stopped, and even the number of dropouts is no longer available to the public. With Canada’s high school dropout rate higher than many other OECD countries, this is important information that Manitobans should have.

The more-bucks, uncertain-bang deal Manitoba offers its taxpayers is like a gas station attendant saying, “I’m not sure if I pumped ten gallons or twelve, but I’ll charge you for fifteen and it’ll feel like you’ve bought a lot.”

Manitoba’s education priorities have made school climate and community involvement the schools’ top priorities, ahead of literacy and mathematics. Assessment and Evaluation ranked ninth and Health and Fitness ranked second last at 14th. According to the province’s reports, students are not the priority for Manitoba schools. So, just what is happening in the schools?

Within the schools, proven methods of testing and measuring are being abandoned. Some schools are piloting a provincial plan in which high school students are not assigned marks. The Manitoba Teachers Society insists that asking a child to meet a minimum provincial standard is hazardous to the child and in response to the teachers’ union, not current research, fewer and fewer school boards are requiring standardized testing. For the past five years at least, the Manitoba government has publicly stated that it does not consider reading, writing or mathematics to be priorities for the school system.

As a result, about 2,500 students per year eschew the public system for private schools, and Manitoba students fare worse than those in other Western Canadian provinces on standardized assessments administered by international benchmarking agency PISA.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan schools are aggressively improving the quality of education, and they can prove it. NDP Saskatchewan seized its constitutional responsibility for public education and is focused on strengthening the schools. Saskatchewan students are registering improved learning and achievement in school (Saskatchewan Learning, Indicators Reports).

From provincial policy to the local school, Saskatchewan dollars and functions are aligned with much greater accountability. The effort to address the learning needs of all children, from the gifted to the special ed, began in 2001. Every child’s progress is monitored through all levels of the education system. There are multiple mechanisms for assessment and defined measures for learning; there is regular and detailed reporting to the public who pays for the education system.

The Saskatchewan Learning Indicators annual public report is over 200 pages long (Manitoba does not have one), and includes data that tell Saskatchewan citizens how effectively their dollars are being used. For example, there are reports showing that 79% of the province’s 18-year-olds graduated from high school in 2004 (information unavailable in Manitoba) and that most students graduate with 27.7 of the required 24 credit hours. As in Alberta, a strong education system is stemming the exodus to private schools.

Committing to measurable results and accountable government will inevitably offend some and will tend to draw a colourful range of rebukes from those who might be measured. Nevertheless, the government of Saskatchewan has stayed the course and remained loyal to its taxpayers rather than emulate Manitoba’s style of capitulation to vested interests. Saskatchewan educators deserve thanks for all those hopes and dreams on small shoulders.

The co-author of this article is Professor Rod Clifton, Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba.