Ontario School Information Finder

In a bid to improve access to information and individual school accountability, the provincial Ministry of Education made a big misstep. This week, it introduced the Ontario School Information Finder which allows parents (and others so inclined) to comparison shop between shoes, er, schools.

Parents can find schools by name, or even more easily, by typing in their postal codes into the search engine. Then adding additional schools to their shopping cart, school bags, they can select three, hit the “Compare the Schools I selected” button and see how each school compares to the others in two domains: student achievement (as measured by provincial testing) and student demographics (including percentage of students from low income families, recent immigrant families, families with a university level-education and students receiving special education).

“What’s the objection to parents knowing this information?”, a reporter asked me today.

No objection. Parents already have access to this information. It is publicly available through the Fraser Institute and C.D. Howe, probably the most famously, but also through individual school profiles published by school boards, real estate agents, Toronto Life, and even a school board trustee.

However, the problem is the way the Ministry has packaged the data on student achievement and student demographics, as if it were a meaningful measure of a school. Learning the number of immigrants at a school, or the number of low-income kids, only tells you about the “input.” It doesn’t tell you how good the students are and it doesn’t tell you how good the school is, how much learning goes on there. However, it’s very likely that the Ministry website will be used to shop between schools.

When parents choose a school for their child, provincial test scores are probably one of the least reliable measures of a good school (and was part of the reason so many parents resisted the introduction of the EQAO). To be bald, provincial test scores correlate highly (although not absolutely) with student demographics, as the TDSB’s recent work on its Learning Opportunity Index attests. So, if parents choose a school by its test scores, they will likely be choosing a school where wealthier students attend rather than a school where great learning is happening.

Well, maybe peers are important. Higher income kids are three times more likely to go to university then kids in the bottom 10% of income (TDSB report). Isn’t that a good influence? It may be, but there are other considerations.

Social mix strengthens an important civic function of public education. We learn to get along with each other there. Students who attend more homogeneous schools learn alot less about others who are different from them – and, frankly, this is already a problem that occurs in many of Toronto’s schools, as Professor David Hulchanski’s work on the sorting of neighbourhoods by income has shown. A tool like this will accelerate this segregation. (And it is segregation; parents I spoke to in a focus group last year in one upper income neighbourhood worried that their kids only see people of colour at the local corner store and that their kids will not understand diversity in any real or granular sense when they move out of their enclave.)

Given the choice, parents acts for the benefit of their own child, as they should; so if “good” schools are defined, uncritically, as the ones with higher test scores, poor kids will be left further behind. Poor kids will be left further behind because they have fewer options, whether it’s bus fare to travel to “better” schools or parents who know how to hunt through the system. Left unfettered, two streams will emerge: elite schools and “bad” schools.

In a bid to give parents greater free choice, to ensure their own family’s gain, the Ministry has created a tool that gives free rein to individual license without considering our common good. What we will see is greater inequality, and it sounds all too familiar in these economic times.

The common good, the idea that a social mix strengthens us all, is even part of the calculation.

People for Education has been quick off the mark on this one, posting an open letter to the Premier, because the Ministry website undercuts the very foundation of a strong public education system. Parents and educators are signing up in droves to endorse the letter.

So, what should parents want to know when selecting a school?

  1. Is the principal an excellent educational leader?
  2. How well do teachers connect to the community? to each other? to the students?
  3. How happy are other parents with the school?
  4. Is the school a small enough size that people know each other and big enough to allow some diversity?
  5. How welcoming is the school culture?
  6. What additional supports are available to students?
  7. What sort of improvement do students make when they attend the school, i.e. what is the value-added?

School visits will give you that information.So what if you wanted to build a web tool which might work?

Rate My teacher is a website that lets students get at some of these issues, even if it is focused at individual teachers. Perhaps a more useful website would have been one that let parents connect with each other, to share their experience and learn from each other.

Suggestions like this are often met by fear (and anyone who has ever read the anonymous comments left on a newspaper website has some reason for this fear). However a moderated forum or a wiki format would achieve the same school-level accountability and transparency that the Ministry was trying to achieve and have provided more meaningful information for parents looking to learn more about their local schools.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, when Ontarians are polled about the performance of schools in OISE’s biannual survey, the happiest people in the system are usually those closest to the the school system, that is parents. And parents are most likely to be happy about their own school and although they may worried about other schools. A Wiki page for each school would allow parents to build a shared vision of the strength of their local school. A Web 2.0 approach would have been a much better model. We may get there.

2 Comments to “Ontario School Information Finder”

  1. Hi Diane

    Interesting post Diane. I think your seven points you note above make sense. Without a doubt our new local school is great and its great frankly because of the principal…without a doubt he creates a fantastic spirit within the school. Parent are engaged and the school lives the values it preaches.

    I’m also for creating more direct comment forums on local schools as you suggest.

    But I have to say I don’t have a problem with the new site. It organizes already available information in an accessible manner. I also don’t think being able to compare schools is a bad thing. Its one input among many.

    I don’t think we should assume what parent will or won’t do with the information. Maybe comparing school results (however limited the indicators may be) will encourage parent to get engaged with their school to learn more about how the school is working to achieve a good education for their kids etc. Maybe parents will like what they see…maybe they won’t.

    A question – you comments pinpoint a concern about the idea that parents will choose certain schools over others on the basis of this site. Is there really much choice in the system – I thought the public system was governed by districts with only limited ability to move between districts? Is this still the case and does this not limit your concern?

    Anyway an interesting read…keep up the blogging!


    • Hi Dan,

      Nice to hear from you.

      I know the Toronto District School Board best, but there, and in some other boards, an “optional attendance” policy allows families to attend schools outside their area with the local principal’s permission. The school must be “open” i.e. have space. Some schools are so popular they are designated “closed” or “limited.” Parents may opt for different schools for a range of reasons, including daycare, specialized programs, etc. In fact, by high school, a large portion of students do not attend their “neighbourhood” school.

      The Minister said today in an interview that school shopping is an “urban” issue. But 2/3 of Ontario students attend schools in urban areas.

      Regarding the second part of your comment, you’re right. Information is not a bad thing, and I was heartened to hear that the Minister wants to expand the information available. (She also backed down and said they would remove the compare button until they have done some broader consulting and re-framing. The Compare button was a big problem because it set the “shopping” tone.)

      In the end, I’m probably just more cynical than you. I think that problems which make perfect sense at one unit of analysis (i.e. individual, family) can be disastrous at another level of analysis (i.e. neighbourhoods or society). But I l like the faith you put in people’s good motives. It’s an essential Canadian value.

      And I’m glad to hear you have a great principal. They’re wonderful when you got them.

      Thanks for your comments!


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