Bad News Can Help Reverse Poor Results

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, March 5, 2006

It is understandable that when the Fraser Institute report card is published, most of us want to hear stories about schools that have done well.

After all, it seems almost cruel to draw attention to schools that are struggling in their efforts to ensure their students’ success.

Yet, it is precisely these unsuccessful schools that need the most attention. After all, schools whose performance is deteriorating and those that are chronic poor performers have the greatest opportunity to improve and they have a clear responsibility to do so. Regrettably, these same schools are generally reluctant to have their stories told. You will not often see them featured in the pages of this newspaper.

How much better it would be in the long run if unsuccessful schools went out of their way to draw attention to their predicament so that, by drawing upon the experience and skills of the largest possible group of educators, they could quickly reverse their decline.

Of the 729 schools rated in this report card, 39 showed significant decline in their academic rating over the past five years. Twelve of these have shown declines in two or more consecutive editions of the report card. Three of the 12 -- separate schools St. Bede in Calgary and Our Lady of Victories and St. James in Edmonton -- have shown declines in their ratings in all four of the most recent editions of the report card.

Seventeen of the 39 declining schools are in southern Alberta, 11 in Calgary alone. Three of these Calgary schools are among the 10 fastest declining schools in the province. (See graphic below.)

Knowing that a school’s results require improvement is the first step. However, to improve a school, its teachers and administrators must believe that improvement is achievable.

This report card provides evidence about what can be accomplished. It demonstrates clearly that, even when we take into account factors such as the students’ family background --which some believe dictate the academic success a student will have in school -- some schools do better than others.

Armed with this hope and encouragement, educators should not be reluctant to ask for help in turning their situations around. They should seek the advice of better-performing schools serving similar student populations wherever in Alberta such schools can be found. This good counsel can supplement the help available to them in their own district.

Nor should schools shun newspapers or other media interested in writing articles about the challenges low-performing schools face. If they are to rapidly improve, these schools should have their stories told.

Parents whose children’s school is experiencing a significant downward trend in its academic rating -- or any of the report card’s indicators -- can do their part by assuring themselves that the school’s administration and teaching staff have in place achievable improvement plans aimed at reversing the decline in academic achievement. If no such plans are in place, parents must demand them.

The report cards have been a good first step in attracting attention to unsuccessful schools. Now, Alberta’s elementary schools seem to more quickly identify and reverse declines than they did before the report card’s introduction. Of the 757 schools included in the 2002 edition, 64 (about 8.5 per cent of the total) had experienced a significant decline in their academic rating during the five years preceding its publication. In contrast, this edition’s 39 declining schools equal just 5.3 per cent of all schools in the report card.

While it is heartening to see Alberta’s elementary schools seem to be responding more quickly to any deterioration in their students’ academic results, more work needs to be done.

It is time to start telling the bad news stories about schools more publicly and more loudly so that declines in results can turn into improvements.

When this happens, we will have even more good news stories to read about.

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