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Textes d'opinion

1 septembre 2002septembre 1, 2002

School Report Cards in Quebec - Foreseeable Official Reactions and Fruitful Hidden Impacts

Fraser Forum, pp. 9-12

School Report Cards in Quebec - Foreseeable Official Reactions and Fruitful Hidden Impacts

There are few things more predictable in a western democracy than the official reaction of the public education establishment to an independent report on school performance. However, empirical evidence supporting this assertion is always welcome and the introduction of the Report Card on Quebec's Secondary Schools provided it in spades. Nevertheless, despite the self-confident reactions of education officials, the Report Card has very likely caused substantive responses from these same officials that have contributed to the on-going structural transformations in the province's education sector. Equally important, the Report Card has encouraged a real political debate on school choice in a province where concepts like school rankings, value-added estimation, curriculum diversity, charter schools, school vouchers and, indeed, school choice were seldom spoken of just a few short years ago.

A powerful challenge to a monopoly-of-information strategy

What will happen when an independent assessment like the Report Card is introduced into an arena where policy decisions are made by a highly centralized group that monopolizes the flow of information about the results of those decisions? To predict the outcome requires, first, a model that links interests with information on school performance. Consumers need information on the quality of alternative services and their attendant costs in order to make accurate decisions on how best to spend their income. When they act according to their preferences and their budget, consumers have a powerful, though unintended, impact on the freedom of suppliers to act in ways that maximize their own well-being. Thus, the public monopolist will first try to stop or control the flow of objective information regarding the quality of its output and the actual cost of its services to consumers. Life is much easier for the politicians in charge of the education monopoly when they need not worry about pressure from well-informed consumers. It is much easier for them to make compromises on quality and costs to accommodate the demands of teachers' unions and school boards—both of which can prove valuable allies at election time. Without this information, consumers will still try to obtain the best services for their money but they will act more erratically and, therefore, the consumer will have little or no impact on principals' and teachers' salaries and taxpayers may well be forced to pay more for less.

Now, introduce an independent, low-cost source of information on school performance that, while imperfect, is recognized by consumers as of considerable value. The monopoly's control over information is immediately broken. Consumers' behaviour in choosing schools becomes more rational and, therefore, more efficient. School boards must react to new consumer demands and, as a result, must change their human resources plans, transportation policies, and school budgets. The work of teachers and principals is more closely scrutinized than ever before. The minister of education loses some of his control over curriculum and can no longer determine the direction of education in the province with complete freedom. Most important, the public monopoly loses its ability to compromise quality of output and cost-efficiency in order to obtain electoral support from teachers' unions and other members of the education establishment.

It is now easy to predict the reaction of the affected public officials. Like a well-prepared chorale in perfect unison, the minister of education, the teacher's unions, the school boards, and affiliated interest groups will announce the end of the world (as they know it) and predict dire consequences for both the province's parents and society at large unless the Report Card is outlawed. Thus, neither my co-author, the Fraser Institute's Peter Cowley, nor I were surprised by the official reaction to the release of the first two editions of the Report Card (Marceau and Cowley, 2000, 2001). All the official reactions to the Report Card validate a simple model of self-interest that can be found at work in public monopolies in a variety of sectors in Quebec. However, the consequences of our challenge to the monopoly's control of information have been even more important than we had imagined.

Before the Report Card, Quebec's ministry of education administered a well-established program of compulsory examinations written by students during their last two years of secondary school. The data generated by this testing regime offered rich opportunities for officials to provide information to help parents make better educational decisions and to help education suppliers improve the services they provided. However, even though the ministry has annually published some of these school-level data on its web site since 1994, their presence has not been well advertised and, as a result, the information has been largely ignored by both the media and parents. Further, the material is published in a format that does not encourage the comparison of a school's current and historical results, or of one school's overall results with those of other schools.

On the political side, official opinion was strongly opposed to easily accessible information on school performance that might lead to more decentralized decision-making in education. The province had recently received the final report of the Commission for the Estates General on Education, a two-year study of education in the province that recommended, among other things, curtailing financial support for private schools, eliminating religious instruction in the province's schools, and an immediate and comprehensive change of the pedagogical approach used in all schools. The Commission's report was followed by a costly project that, rather than bringing about real change, gave the public a false sense of controlled revolution. This pseudo-revolution extended the power of the education monopoly by reducing the number of school boards by half without any apparent gains in efficiency and by including in the mandate of the public system full-time schooling or kindergarten for all children aged four and five—and, soon, three-year-olds will also attend public kindergarten. Throughout this process, control remained firmly in the hands of the education establishment and nothing hinted at the exciting new socio-political dynamics in education that were created by the publication of the Report Card.

Reactions to the first edition of the Report Card—apples and oranges!

After the launch of our first Report Card and the simultaneous publication of the school rankings—dubbed The Prize List of Secondary Schools—in L'actualité, Quebec's leading news magazine, the education establishment reacted predictably. While admitting that the data contained in the Report Card could be useful to parents because it came from the ministry's own data files, the Minister of Education, François Legault, told the media that ranking the schools was like comparing apples and oranges. The teachers' unions and school boards had no positive comments to make and condemned the Report Card as a low blow to public education from the "right-wing" Montreal Economic Institute and Fraser Institute. However, television, radio, and newspapers across the province covered the launch of the Report Card extensively and many editorialists supported the publication of the Report Card.

In the months following the launch, two significant developments took place. First, despite his initial rejection of the idea of comparing schools, the minister developed his own report card or Success Plan(1), as it was labelled. However, while it was based on a similar set of data, it was not easy for parents to find or use. Second, editorial comment on the Report Card and related issues continued well after its publication. Indeed, sensing that parents had a great interest in information on school performance, some newspapers jumped on the bandwagon and published school examination marks in advance of the release of the second edition of the Report Card. The times were definitely changing.

Reactions to the second edition of the Report Card—apples and bananas!

When the second edition was released, L'actualité published, in addition to the school-ranking list, the data for all 463 individual schools in a special pull-out section of its edition for November 15, 2001. Estimated readership of this edition of the magazine exceeded one million people. The editorial text that accompanied the data tables contained the results of a comprehensive telephone poll. Seventy-five percent of the poll's respondents agreed that school results like those in the Report Card should be published. Minister Legault revised his previous opinion by suggesting that the Report Card compared apples and bananas! In general, the opposition was more formal and less impassioned following the release of the second edition and, while a few professors from faculties of education accepted an invitation from the School Board Federation to contest the Report Card's validity, for the first time, the provincial federation of parents' committees publicly supported it.

Causes or coincidences: How education in Quebec has changed since the introduction of the Report Card

Coincidence or not? The ministry of education has increased the amount of data on schools, student results, and associated socio-economic data that it releases annually. After the second edition, at least one Quebec school board even bought space in its local newspaper to display the results of students in its special elite programs. The evidence is mounting that at every level, the education establishment is sharpening its focus on results and their measurement.

Coincidence or not? After the release of the first edition of the Report Card, one of the questions most frequently asked by parents was why there was no compulsory mathematics examination. Two years later, a compulsory mathematics examination is now in place(2).

Coincidence or not? Newspapers reported the sudden popularity of the private schools (Chouinard 2001b) while school boards complained (Richard 2002). The Report Card was credited—and blamed—for this development as private schools took 80 of the top 100 positions in the Report Card's ranking. Parents waited for hours to secure places for their children at the private schools' entrance examinations—something never before seen in the province. I suspect, however, that it is the ranking that has stimulated consumer demand rather than the type of ownership of the school as places at high-scoring public schools are also in great demand.

Coincidence or not? In June, Quebec's federation of francophone school boards announced that the boards must become more marketing-oriented in order to challenge the increased popularity of private schools(3). As often happens in these circumstances, there have also been renewed appeals to the new Minister of Education, M. Sylvain Simard, to stop or reduce funding to private schools. The minister refused, saying that public schools can and should do a better job of marketing their services (Chouinard 2002c). Parents are now being encouraged by the ministry to choose the school they prefer—public or private.

Coincidence or not? Montreal's school boards have for some time forbidden their schools to introduce new special or alternative programs. The interdiction was rescinded several months ago with the avowed purpose of allowing the schools to compete with the fast-growing private schools. Those public schools can now exercise their capacity to innovate and become more appealing to parents. This about face means more diversity in the Montreal education market even for those parents for whom private schools are not affordable. The Report Card has apparently encouraged the growth of competition among schools to the benefit of all students.

Coincidence or not? Minister Legault, who recently changed portfolios to become minister of health, has announced that later this year his ministry will introduce a public report card that will compare hospitals on performance data (Samson 2002).

Coincidence or not? A year ago, shortly after the provincial Liberal party formally adopted the concept of a government-administered school report card, Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), a party represented in the National Assembly only by its leader, Mario Dumont, went further and adopted a voucher system of school funding as a component of its political platform. While at the time this radical new program got little attention, things changed dramatically this spring. The party appeared to present a viable alternative to the more established parties and polls showed increasing support for the ADQ. The older parties began to shift their platforms to the right in an attempt to overcome some of the ADQ's early advantage. Even so, they were sure that voters would reject outright the more radical policies of the ADQ like school vouchers and a privatized medical system. But, the voucher program was much discussed in the province's media (Chouinard, 2002a). Spring by-elections proved to be a stunning victory for the ADQ as it won four of the five available seats. Some political analysts now believe that the fast-approaching general election campaign will be focused on these two planks in the ADQ's platform. Even if the ADQ does not win the next election—which at present seems the likely election outcome—the new political dynamic will bring education, and specifically report cards and vouchers, onto the official electoral agenda and into the homes of millions of people.

Conclusion: The Report Card is an instrument for policy change

It is, of course, possible that all these events are unrelated and that their timing is mere coincidence. But two or three years ago, before the Report Card was introduced in Quebec, there was no talk of instituting a new compulsory mathematics examination or of dramatically increasing the quantity and quality of school-level data that could be easily obtained by parents. Nobody foresaw the increased popularity of private schools or the market-oriented response of the public sector to this increased level of competition. Nobody suspected that this same competition would lead to the expansion of alternative programs in Montreal Island public schools. Nobody predicted that Minister Legault, just a few months after he railed against our Report Card, would propose a report card on hospitals. And, certainly nobody suggested that school vouchers would become the subject of serious public debate in a society where the political establishment is still convinced of the existence of a true "modèle québécois" of the state, in which there was little place for consumers, decentralization, or market-oriented solutions.

Is it possible that the publication of performance data on the providers of important public goods and services in such areas as education, health, and the environment can be an important instrument of policy change? Certainly, such publications as the Report Card can influence the public agenda by breaking down the systematic information monopoly so much preferred by the public monopolist. Easy access to useful information on results creates a domino effect that eventually touches the most sensitive part of the policy process: the opinions of voters, parents, and media-consumers with which politicians and media will of necessity try to align themselves.

One thing, finally, is clear to me. I have realized that almost all of my prior policy analysis and recommendations were addressed to academics and public suppliers resulting in, to be honest, no appreciable effect other than support from students, colleagues, and some public servants. Publications like the Report Card are an altogether different kind of public-policy instrument. By supplying tools that consumers can understand, appreciate, and use easily when making decisions, you can change their behaviour. And, are not shifts in consumers' behaviour the most effective drivers of policy change?

Notes

1. See http://www.meq.gouv.qc.ca/publications/plan_reussite/index.htm.
2. See http://www.meq.gouv.qc.ca/CPRESS/cprss2002/c020412a.htm.
3. André Caron, Président, Fédération des commissions scolaires du Québec (FCSQ), in Magazine SAVOIR, June 2002. p. 3.

References

•Chouinard, Marie-Andrée (2002a). «Bons d'études: Mario Dumont se heurte à l'opposition des parents», Le Devoir, July 4, p. A1.
•Chouinard, Marie-Andrée (2002b). «Faire concurrence au privé: Le quart des écoles publiques ont déjà un volet particulier», Le Devoir, March 12, p. A1.
•Chouinard, Marie-Andrée (2002c). «L'école publique reprend du galon», Le Devoir, May 10.
•Marceau, Richard, and Peter Cowley (2000). Bulletin des écoles secondaires du Québec: Édition 2000/Report Card on Quebec's Secondary Schools: 2000 Edition. Montréal, PQ: Institut économique de Montréal / Vancouver, BC: The Fraser Institute.
•Marceau, Richard, and Peter Cowley, with Sylvain Bernier (2001). Bulletin des écoles secondaires du Québec. Éd. 2001/Report Card on Quebec's Secondary Schools: 2001 Edition. Montréal, PQ: Institut économique de Montréal / Vancouver, BC: The Fraser Institute.
•Richard, Monique (2002). «L'éducation publique, c'est une question de justice», Le Soleil, February 22.
•Samson, Claudette (2002). «80 000 usagers contribueront au 1er palmarès du réseau», Le Soleil, June 13.

Richard Marceau est chercheur associé à l'IEDM et co-auteur du Bulletin.


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