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The ranking of schools: why are rankings an educational taboo?

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"Which school is the best?"


That is one of the questions most commonly asked by today's parents. Since most parents want what's best for their children, it is a question which never goes away. Yet it's also a question that almost always elicits an equivocal response and then a "mini-lecture" from most educators. Ranking schools, we are told, is a dangerous "free market" business concept, it threatens to unleash cut-throat competition, and it unfairly labels as "bad" many schools in lower income neighbourhoods.

Most education departments and school boards have responded to rising parental expectations and now accept the need for provincial testing to assess student performance, normally beginning in Grade 2 and extending to Grade 12 graduating year. Standardized testing is now commonplace and individual school accountability reports are becoming more prevalent, but the idea of rating or ranking schools still meets stiff resistance within the public school system. Educational authorities, strongly supported by teacher unions, continue to hold the line.

The lively public debate over the rankings has now spread to virtually every province. Although school rankings were first introduced in the 1990s by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) has now emerged as its chief proponent. Since 2003, AIMS has produced Annual High School Report Cards ranking all schools in Atlantic Canada. In early February 2010, AIMS expanded into Western Canada, releasing their first High School Report Cards for British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Where do the Canadian provinces stand on the question of school rankings? The Fraser Institute high school rankings have gained grudging acceptance in BC, Alberta and Quebec. Ranking public schools remains hotly contested terrain in Ontario. Among the western provinces, BC and Alberta provide the most public disclosure of results. "Manitoba operates in the dark ages," declared AIMS Report Card authors Bobby O'Keefe and Rick Audas. The recently released AIMS school rankings made news headlines in early February 2010 across the West and earned high editorial praise from the Winnipeg Free Press.

Canadian educational authorities, backed by teacher unions, are dead-set against system-wide rankings of public schools. The vehemence of the response from Canadian educators begs the key question:

Why does Ranking Schools remain one of the great "taboos" in the world of education? Should Canada's private and independent schools consider taking an independent position?

—Dr. Paul W. Bennett: An education consultant, a regular commentator on critical issues in Canadian education and the Director at Schoolhouse Consulting in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
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