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What stands in the way of improving public schools

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The annual elementary school report cards, issued by the Fraser Institute, are relied upon by many parents to help them monitor the success of their child's school as compared to others in the province. However, some educators heavily disagree with the ranking formula used and find the practice of school comparison harmful. Earlier, education experts George Briggs, Charles Ungerleider and Sharon Murphy explored the negative side of school rankings. Now, Peter Cowley defends the Fraser Institute's school rankings.

Are Canada's government-run public schools up to the task of educating the country's young people?

In private conversations, I am often told by educators that the real reason that it is not fair or useful to rate public schools is because as a result of government regulation, collective agreements or school board directives, there is simply nothing they can do about poor school performance.

One could easily reject this claim as simply an excuse for ineffectiveness. But perhaps it should be taken more seriously. Perhaps it reflects the recognition by those closest to the problem that there are certain characteristics of government-run school systems that, taken together, make real improvement and sustainable, high levels of academic performance difficult to attain.

What Stands in the Way of Improving Public Schools

Consider some of the specific impediments to improvement that have been mentioned by these educators:

There is a general distaste for competition among the major education stakeholder groups. Competition, while encouraged at the student level as a way to help kids be the best that they can be, is considered to be destructive when it is suggested as a way to improve teaching and school management.

A striking example of this aversion to competition among the vested interests that run this country's public schools was the reaction of virtually all the stakeholder groups to the installation of a "school comparison" feature on the Ontario Ministry of Education website in 2009. Functionally similar to the one available on the Fraser Institute's www.compareschoolrankings.org, this feature allowed visitors to easily compare schools on the basis of their students' academic results. The ministry removed the feature in the face of persistent and heated lobbying by these same education insiders.

There is no provision for the routine expansion of successful operations. When a school finds a successful method of operation, it is rarely cloned for the benefit of more students. A stunning example comes from Vancouver, where the education board established a single Montessori elementary school. Despite superior academic results and routine waiting lists, it was in operation for over 17 years before a second Montessori school was established.

Professional autonomy in the classroom inhibits the adoption of more effective teaching practice. Either through their collective agreement or by custom, public school teachers often enjoy "professional autonomy" in the classroom. This means that when it comes to how to teach and how to manage the classroom, individual teachers may decide for themselves. Professional autonomy limits the principal's role as head teacher and mentor, making classroom level improvements more difficult to establish.

Many teachers are not adequately prepared for teaching. Research in 2006 by the Fraser Institute found that at most Canadian universities, it was unlikely that student teachers specializing in elementary-level teaching were required to take training in the teaching of reading.

Collective agreements and provincial regulations restrict innovation and leave less room for efficient and effective management of schools. The effectiveness of school administrators is often hampered by contractual and regulatory interference in the operation of public schools. For example, limitations on hours of work make it difficult for individual schools to extend the school timetable where necessary while seniority clauses limit a principal's ability to select the best teacher for an available position.

There is little in the way of rewards for good teaching or school management. The idea of compensating educators, at least in part, for the educational outcomes of their students is one that is generally opposed by teachers' unions.

Solution for Failing Schools

There is no cost to educators when poor performing schools fail to improve. Since educators are generally not held accountable for student achievement, there appears to be little personal cost to them when schools do not succeed. Several years ago, a Vancouver-based newspaper columnist could discover no evidence that any B.C. teacher had ever lost his or her right to teach due to incompetence.

What must be done?

When these and other impediments to improvement within public school systems are recognized, it is clear that governments must look for better ways to provide for our children's future. By encouraging more investment in the private school sector, the Ontario government can ensure greater competition in education and thereby drive innovation and improvement.

Importantly, no one will benefit more from increased competition in education than the students themselves. It is time for education to be–as so many educators would agree–"all about the kids."

—Peter Cowley is director of school performance studies at the Fraser Institute.
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