I will get the disclaimer out of the way up front. This is a very controversial issue and while I do continuously seek the opinion of colleagues, educators, researchers and parents, the views that I express this evening are not meant to represent any specific group or organization.
I would like to address the title of this session. Is there a Perfect School? …. There cannot be. Schools are living organisms that, when functioning effectively, are continually striving to improve and grow. The word perfect implies an absence of “need for change”. Schools must continually grow in order to meet the changing needs of students and our evolving society.
Critics of the FI Report, particularly when it first appeared, suggest it "should not be allowed". Or alternatively that the information contained within the Report should not be made public because it might be used in a Fraser Institute Report style document. Given that the first suggestion is an affront to the democratic principal of freedom of speech and the second contrary to a democratic responsibility to hold public institutions fully accountable - I am often puzzled by the motivation behind these suggestions. We cannot control the exchange of information between parents in the parking lot either - but we can create a climate of information sharing that ensures that parents aren't acting on parking lot information alone……. or the Fraser Institute Report card information alone.
Our influence comes through the manner in which we react to the use of school data - our ability to expand and enrich the supply of useful indicators and information available.
A typical response from the public education system when the FI report was first unveiled was defensiveness - mainly consisting of many excuses about why the results being reported were out of the control of public educators or inaccurate. For public schools this is ultimately self-defeating. I believe that this knee jerk reaction is gradually being replaced with a sense that accountability and the sharing and use of data can be a win-win experience – though not necessarily support for the current FI Report format.
Focusing on growth is NOT the same as saying we are not succeeding.
What do parents want and need from a school in terms of student development and growth?
The following is from the Parent Handbook from THSS in Maple Ridge and, as a parent, I think it is a fairly accurate list.
*High academic standing
*Safe and caring environment
*Ability to meet student needs
*Prepares students for post-secondary life
(Ability to communicate/function -- know all options for school/work --- adaptability - set goals and plans for success)
*Options to explore recreational / competitive
*Communication with home
*Positive school culture
What are the indicators that a school is achieving success and growth in these areas and how do we communicate them?
It is widely accepted that increased learning takes place in schools when parents/students choose to be there - published data can help create a good match.
One example – for parents in Prince George, a partnership with local Realtor’s produced a book that describes the unique characteristics of each school including a profile, culture, atmosphere, programs etc.
In the form of a school report card, it might be more meaningful and comparative to report on results by more defined groups so the performances of minority and special education groups can be tracked and best practices/areas needing help are identified.
It would be useful to include:
% of grade 8 students who graduate on time (5 years)
Student satisfaction rate
# of teachers teaching in their specialty area
Scheduling (use of time)
Hours of parent volunteerism
Parents are looking for information in order to effectively advocate for the optimal education experience for their children. The public looks for information that assures them the public education system is fulfilling their mandate to educate our youth.
All parents and guardians can, and almost all want, to make informed decisions around their child's education. It is a fallacy - and I believe discriminatory - to suggest that only the educated and or wealthy will use information about achievement to the benefit of their children.
Low socio-economic status is not an automatic life sentence. Low expectations have the potential to be. There is no shame in being ranked lower overall as a school if you are doing well compared to schools who serve similar populations or if you are actively seeking information and research on how to do better for the student population you serve.
Indeed, testing and reporting on the results highlights the disparities of results for different groups of kids. It focuses public attention and with it resources where they are most needed while at the same time it raises the awareness of the value of funding education.
I see the popularity of the FI report as one of several indications of public support for a move to a more standards-based education system. This public and parental support of standards is reflected in recent changes to our provincial education system in terms of accountability contracts, school improvement plans and the publishing of data on the Internet.
Approximately 10% of school aged children in BC are private or home-schooled and the percentage is rising yearly even as overall population of K-12 aged students declines. The Fraser Institute Report does not create competition - the competition already exists and public schools, if they are to survive as strong public institutions, must recognize and respond to this reality.
When the provider (I refer specifically to the public school system) has control over the release of information there is public and parental concern, that the information does not necessarily represent full disclosure of weak or poor results. This creates an appetite for information that is perceived to be unbiased.
Involved parents often respond to information about district and school successes with a degree of skepticism borne of experience "That's great, but what are you not telling us". There is a need for third party, arms-length information – and I suggest some of it should come from a provincially funded independent assessment office.
Standards and data lead to frustration when neighborhood schools have a monopoly on students who live within an area defined by lines drawn on a street map. There is constant pressure to act on the results of assessment when parents and students have the right to choose schools. While the FI Report Card does not contain sufficient information to make a fully informed school choice it can be an effective part of the mix.
Of the literally thousand of parents I have had contact with the last decade of my involvement with public education reform, I am not personally aware of anyone who chose a school based solely on the FI Report…. and I am a trustee in a district where students have long had the right to choose which of our five high schools they wish to attend…. however, many of them have posed some challenging questions based on the rankings. Parents, and the educators they look to for guidance, are capable of tying standards back to practice and their effect on student learning - particularly if we also put more pre-service and in-service emphasis on professional development around assessment literacy for all educators. I believe it is this information and knowledge that ultimately informs choices not tables in a newspaper.
Those of us charged with making decisions for the public education system are constantly faced with the reality of finite resources. Compiling assessment data province wide and putting it into the form of the FI Report is an expensive undertaking. Disseminating the results requires further expense. Accountability, by definition, isn’t only under the terms and conditions of the provider. Therefore, if third parties such as the Fraser Institute are willing to put the resources into the compilation, analysis and dissemination of data – it is ultimately in the best interests of the public education to work with third parties. For similar reasons, why not share best practices and create greater professional ties between private and public educators? The benefits will flow both ways - for instance, many private schools have more resources and the freedom to innovate and field test some new approaches while public schools have a richness of diversity, programs and ideas to draw on.
I like to think about accountability and the use of assessment data as a starting point for a discussion about successes and potentials. A starting point for ensuring that we recognize, analyze and replicate practices that produce results as well as an opportunity to identify, in a timely manner, areas where we could be doing better so that we can start seeking solutions, and more effectively allocate resources as part of a culture of continuous improvement. There isn't a place for divisive defensiveness in this model.
The attitudes this approach has the potential to inculcate could remove much of the animosity between private and public schools. After all, together we are educating the future of British Columbia. When a private or public school succeeds we all benefit. When a private or public school fails we all suffer.--Katherine Wagner