Manitoba’s Closed-Door Approach To School Information: Other provinces are transparent

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre


In their response to our recent report that showed BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan provided reams of information that allow parents and educators to compare schools, it appears some politicians and educators think all is either fine with Manitoba’s schools, or parents have no right to know what’s going on inside their schools and how well they prepare our children for their future.
So, Education Minister Nancy Allan asserts that "We don’t really have a comfort level with this model of pitting one school against another…one school ends up at the bottom, and it could be a great school.” The minister also argues that, “I like to think all of our schools are fantastic schools." Pat Isaak, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society argues “There’s nothing to be gained by ranking schools” as "schools [already] report to parents and students."
First, by asserting that all schools are “fantastic” the Minister has already ranked schools; she’s simply suggesting they all rank equally. The release of results proving such would only support her conclusion. If, on the other hand, some schools do not compare well, then that information will prompt questions and hopefully provide information on how to help that school improve its performance. By releasing nothing at the school level, the department avoids pitting school against school; it instead pits students, parents and the taxpayer against the system – with the system holding a clear advantage in the information asymmetry.
As for the response from the teachers’ union—that nothing can be gained by ranking schools, that’s simply not true. In a 2006 analysis, the OECD found that making school level performance results public brought about improved performance in those same schools.
Further, the impact of the performance improvement was still significant regardless of location, the types of families they served or the resources possessed by each school. Rich suburbs or poor inner-city neighbourhoods, remote rural schools or schools serving thousands of kids — all became better as more information was made public. Simply put, making achievement results public at the school level results in improved performance across the education system.
Which makes the reluctance of the Manitoba government to release relevant information about tax-funded, public schools all the more mysterious. Other Western provinces have no problem letting parents know how their schools are doing.
For example, in our recent report card British Columbia topped the charts for openness and transparency. For every high school in British Columbia, one can download a “School Data Summary”, a 51-page document with five-year comparisons of achievement results, enrolment reports, school and community demographics and even student and parent satisfaction survey results. (The only minor complaint about British Columbia’s system of data collection and distribution is the lack of a more user-friendly comparison between schools.)
As with British Columbia, Alberta isn’t perfect. But Alberta provides data which is easy to access, makes available all exam scores, teacher-assigned grades, final grades and enrolment data at the school level. That can all be downloaded from Alberta’s Ministry of Education website, though the overall breadth of data available publicly is less than that in British Columbia. Even Saskatchewan performs well when it comes to responding to requests for data, though it needs to improve its ability for the average citizen to access it. While school-level data is not available online, the Saskatchewan government enthusiastically cooperates with requests for that data.
If we want our kids to be better educated and better equipped to take on the world, openness matters—a lot. BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the OECD understand that but for some odd reason, Manitoba’s provincial government does not.
Perhaps the best example and evidence for how transparency can improve schools is found in the 2006 science test results from the OECD report. There, the most open provinces—Alberta and British Columbia, score first and second among the provinces. Manitoba? Sixth, down from fourth in 2000. Saskatchewan trails the pack, but, remember, the OECD report showed that public release of school performance helped improved results. Saskatchewan has not done that, until now.
It appears Manitoba’s government would prefer parents not have access to most data and information about how schools—and their kids—are doing. That’s regrettable, and against the trend to openness elsewhere.