January 19, 2019

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Opinion

Secret data on Manitoba schools should be divulged

“You don’t drive accountability without seeing where things area going well, where they’re not going well,” Goertzen said. (Ruth Bonneville / Free Press files)</p>

“You don’t drive accountability without seeing where things area going well, where they’re not going well,” Goertzen said. (Ruth Bonneville / Free Press files)

If you really want to know what’s happening inside a school, join the intelligence network of parents who gather daily at the schoolyard.

They huddle and chat outside of the fence after drop-off and before pickup, assessing the school with a frankness that might surprise the principal if she eavesdropped.

Which teachers work extra hard to connect with kids? The parents confide this information to each other.

Which teachers are lazy and only keep their jobs because they’re protected by the union? The parents name names.

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If you really want to know what’s happening inside a school, join the intelligence network of parents who gather daily at the schoolyard.

They huddle and chat outside of the fence after drop-off and before pickup, assessing the school with a frankness that might surprise the principal if she eavesdropped.

Which teachers work extra hard to connect with kids? The parents confide this information to each other.

Which teachers are lazy and only keep their jobs because they’re protected by the union? The parents name names.

Who are the schoolyard bullies? The parents point them out to each other as the kids enter or leave the school.

Meetings of this intelligence network take place wherever parents congregate. They meet up at school sports, plays, concerts, in the hallways during parent-teacher meetings and in social-media groups to which school staff are not privy.

The parents share because they care. Nothing is more important than their kids, and they suspect there is more going on inside the school than the authorities let on.

The parents are right about that. There is more going on than school authorities are willing to reveal.

In October, the provincial government got the results of the latest provincial standardized tests. It includes individual results for each school. For example, the results would let parents compare the math and language test results of students at Sisler High School, Tech Voc and Garden City Collegiate.

But the province didn’t release the school-by-school information. Down at the legislature, it’s a closely guarded secret.

The secrecy around standardized test results in Manitoba goes back almost 20 years. The former NDP government, after lobbying on the matter by the teachers’ union, decided to stop disclosing Grade 12 test scores by school division. It continued to report the results at a provincial level, with repeated national tests showing Manitoba scores are the lowest, or near the lowest, in reading, science and math.

There was an encouraging development on Oct. 25 when Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen overturned two decades of secrecy and published the latest test results by division. On a government website (www.edu.gov.mb.ca), the public can now compare the test results in all divisions in Manitoba.

And Goertzen may open even further the vault that contains secret data on Manitoba students. He said the government may decide to share test results on a school-by-school level as part of an education review the province will introduce early in the new year.

"You don’t drive accountability without seeing where things area going well, where they’re not going well," Goertzen said.

The possible release of school-by-school results is likely to provoke the teachers’ union, which has previously criticized standardized testing. At a meeting in Brandon last year, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society asked the provincial government to pull out of an international standardized test called Programme for International Student Assessment.

The teachers’ union argues Manitoba’s poor results on standardized testing reflect unfairly on Manitoba teachers because this province’s high poverty rates and large Indigenous population skew results lower than in other provinces. The union is right that some areas of Manitoba have serious socio-economic problems, leading to children who have lost the lottery of birth being raised in dysfunctional homes where education is the least of the children’s concerns.

Goertzen said he invites feedback on whether the province should release school-by-school test results. Expect a clash of priorities when the feedback begins.

The main priority of the union are the teachers. Union officials are paid to protect the jobs of teachers and to negotiate the best possible salaries and working conditions.

The main priority of parents are their kids. And it’s likely parents want access to school-by-school results to help them help their kids.

For example, if parents know their school fared much lower than other schools in math results, they could use this context to discuss with their school principal and their division trustees how their school could improve its math program. Also, the low math result could prompt a parent to get outside help, such as tutoring, to help the child excel.

One reason the data were made secret in the first place was the belief by some officials that the general public couldn’t be trusted to understand the limitations of school-by-school results. People might overreact and believe their child’s educators are performing poorly.

But it seems condescending to suggest that only people within the education industry can properly interpret school-by-school results. If education officials adopt such an attitude, that’s a perilous position. It’s always a bad idea to get between a mother bear and her cubs.

Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.

Carl DeGurse

Carl DeGurse
Senior copy editor

Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.

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