A Report Card on Canadian Education

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posted June 21, 2001

Looking across Canada, it is clear that some provinces have more to celebrate than others. In some, rising student achievement and public satisfaction are the products of sound educational policies. The best thing to be said about the others is that they mean well.

Evidence from around the globe leaves little room for doubt about what policies improve public schools. In a recent report on educational efficiency, Germany’s Kiel Institute studied the education systems in 39 countries. It found that competition from independent schools, attention to test results, and school autonomy make the difference between effective public education systems and ineffective ones.

Some school systems do more of these things than others. Let’’s consider these three factors of a successful education system in order and consider which Canadian provinces deserve a place on the honour roll.

Research by Harvard Professor Caroline Hoxby shows that as competition from private schools increases, so does the achievement of public-school students. She has shown that a $1,000 tuition subsidy to private school students results in a real improvement educational attainment, test scores and wages. Yet, only four provinces and two territories (British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut) encourage the choice of private schools by offering them funding.

Ontario is considering following suit with its Equity in Education Tax Credit for parents who chose private schools. These provinces should be congratulated for implementing a policy that has proven not only to improve the affordability of private schools but, more importantly, to improve the performance of public schools.

Evidence that competition improves public schools comes as no surprise to a majority of Canadians. A recent COMPAS poll found that 55% agree that competition is the best way of getting public schools to improve their performance. An even larger majority (60%) believes that governments should offer tax relief to parents with children in independent schools.

Now, which provinces are serious about testing? British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, Manitoba and New Brunswick have curriculum-based provincial examinations at the end of high school. Research by Cornell University Professor John Bishop indicates that these exams improve both the quality of school instruction and the quantity of student achievement. Yet despite public desire for accountability and the evidence of the benefits of testing, Ontario, Saskatchewan and the Atlantic provinces still provide us with too little information about how their students are doing. This is inexcusable.

Finally, there is the question of school autonomy. Here in Canada, only Alberta permits autonomous public schools, better known there as charter schools. While that province deserves congratulations as the first in Canada to give birth to this promising new generation of public school--accountable to parents as well as to the government. Alberta’’s charter schools, however, are diminished by inadequate legislation. They are difficult to establish and, consequently, so few in number that they provide little alternative to the status quo. In the rest of the country, school autonomy is subject to the whim of the local school board and most school boards allow very little.

Canada can learn much about real school autonomy from New Zealand. That country abolished school districts in the late 1980s and now all schools are autonomous. New Zealand’’s public schools are governed by a partnership of the principal, teachers and the school’’s local community. Parents are free to choose whichever school they prefer and 85% say their children are attending their first choice of school. Not surprisingly, New Zealand student test scores, which languished far below international averages before the reforms, are now well above of them. Perhaps it’’s time for Canada to follow suit.

When it comes to our children, good intentions are not enough. Loyalty to our own backyard brand of public education should not blind us to the fact that greater competition from private schools, attention to testing and school autonomy would likely improve it.

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