The Report Card on Alberta’s High Schools—comparing schools on the basis of student success

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, July 23, 2016

Last year alone, about 250,000 Alberta parents, teachers, school principals, and others visited the Fraser Institute’s school performance website and did just that.

But one of the Report Card’s more vocal critics apparently believes that such comparisons have no value at all. Mark Ramsankar, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association was quoted in a recent Calgary Herald story saying, “The last thing we need is a ranking of schools, where you always see schools in which students that are from wealthy families at the top, versus students who are from poor families at the bottom.” He asks, “Where is the value in that?”

Of course, Mr. Ramsankar knows—or certainly should know—that there’s much more to the Report Card than just a ranking list. But, if he’s truly unaware of the Report Card’s value, he need only direct his question to any of those quarter million Albertans who take advantage of its findings each year.

The Report Card’s website makes it easy to compare the academic performance of Alberta schools.

Parents consult the website when choosing a school for their children. Its objective, comparable information about each school’s academic results helps them make a more informed choice of the school to trust with their children’s education.

Once the choice is made, parents then compare each year’s academic results with those of the recent past to see if their school is improving, declining, or just standing still.

Parent councils use this information as the basis for discussions about current performance and possible improvement. Indeed, when a school shows little sign of improvement over a number of years or its academic results fall into decline, parents often become strong and effective advocates for change.

But, perhaps Mr. Ramsankar considers parents unable to correctly judge the value of the Report Cards’ results.

In that case, he might simply ask a few principals how they use the website as it might well be of even more use to them than it is to parents.

Principals committed to improvement scour the website for aspects of their school’s performance that must be improved. Comparisons among schools of the detailed course-by-course results may even bring attention to opportunities for improvement that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The website also makes it easy for principals to compare their schools with others serving students with similar characteristics. For example, the principal of a small rural school with a high proportion of students with special needs can quickly find similar schools to make more useful comparisons.

Among these similar schools, the principal will likely find some that consistently perform better on one or more of the Report Card’s academic indicators. This solid evidence that improvement is possible offers both hope and motivation to the principals of less successful schools.

And, of course, these same higher-performing schools all come with a telephone number. Undoubtedly, their principals will happily reveal the ingredients of their success. The principal of the less successful school can then adopt or adapt these superior approaches for the benefit of her own students.

With each annual update, we find that improvement takes place at all types of schools serving students with many different characteristics. And a quarter million parents, principals and others across Alberta are paying attention.

If Mr. Ramsankar is determined to work for improved education for all Alberta students, he would do much better to embrace the Report Card for its contributions rather than making simplistic and unhelpful generalizations about its results and its value.

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