Ranking the schools: Pro and con; Report cards help both parents and educators

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun

Each year, hundreds of thousands of parents and educators in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec turn to the Fraser Institute’s school performance report cards.

Why? Because they provide accurate, objective, understandable information about the performance of individual schools that is not easily available anywhere else.

Parents use the report cards when they are choosing a school for their kids. Because they make comparisons easier, the report cards alert parents to those nearby schools that appear to have more effective programs.

They can also see at a glance which schools are improving over time. In addition, a few minutes study of a school’s report card might suggest questions that parents should ask when they interview the principal and teachers at prospective schools.

After their kids have settled into a school, parents use the report card as an annual audit of how the school is doing. Informed parents are more likely to encourage the school’s educators to focus on results and find ways to improve student learning.

Educators also use the report card in ways that will ultimately benefit the kids they teach. The report cards include a variety of indicators, each of which provides results for another aspect of school performance.

Teachers and school administrators who are dedicated to improvement study each indicator’s historical values in search of ideas for improvement and feedback on the effectiveness of their improvement efforts.

For those educators who are uncertain that lasting improvement is possible, the report cards offer hope. Each one provides evidence about what can be accomplished. It demonstrates clearly that, even when we take into account factors such as the students’ family characteristics--which some believe dictate the degree of students’ success--some schools do better than others.

Indeed, the data consistently suggest that what goes on in schools makes a difference to student results and that some schools make more of a difference than others.

If more school performance data becomes available, the institute’s report cards can be made even more valuable. To date, they have reported only on academics.

However, many parents would be interested to know how successful the schools are in encouraging students to participate in the fine arts and to adopt and maintain an active lifestyle.

Other parents might like to know whether the school’s students are acquiring the communications, leadership, teamwork and citizenship skills that they will need to be successful in their future studies and careers.

Regrettably, indicators of school performance in these non-academic aspects of school performance cannot be added to the report cards due to a serious lack of data. I would encourage SFU’s Dean Shaker to join with me in an effort to encourage education authorities across the province to begin the collection and distribution of a far richer set of school performance data.

Nevertheless, all of the institute’s report cards provide parents and educators with an in-depth look at how the schools are doing in academic studies--a core aspect of every school’s program.

They are all based on large, multi-year sets of student results data. In B.C., for example, provincial testing conducted at Grades 4, 7, 10, and 12 provides a strong foundation for both the secondary and elementary report cards.

The result is a detailed annual report of the extent to which each school ensures that its students acquire the skills and knowledge that are embodied in the provincial curricula.

Unfortunately, the many benefits of publicly rating schools do not come without some cost. The adverse publicity surrounding an unfavourable result can bring pain to a school’s community.

But when results are not good there is a clear imperative to overcome the emotion and explore all possible means by which poor results may be reversed.

In the words of a determined Alberta elementary principal, Sure, it hurts to see your school rated at the bottom in the province ... it knocks you down. It affects morale. You take it personally. But we decided that we had to find ways to change this school.

But each edition of a report card also contains a great deal of news worth cheering about. In the secondary schools’ report card that was published in this newspaper on Saturday, 24 B.C. schools found evidence that their improvement programs had resulted in significant improvement in their overall rating over the past five years.

Getting the truth out into the open is always the first step in any effort to make things better.

By helping both parents and educators understand how individual schools are doing over time, the report cards contribute to everyone’s goal of a better education for the province’s children.

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