Choosing between the good, the bad and the poor schools

Many years ago, when my daughter was ready to begin school, we looked to the neighbourhood school. We attended a fun fair. I chatted with the school principal. I talked to other parents in the area. And if there had been provincial EQAO testing scores on the then-budding internet, we would have looked those up. It’s a good thing we didn’t.

The school, it turned out, was a great school, and we hit it during its heyday, when the principals valued social equity, the teachers were committed, and parents were welcomed inside.

Yet, if we had only judged this school on its provincial EQAO scores, we may never have gone.

No, it’s not that it was a bad school, but it was a poor school — a school with a large number of students from low-income families. And everyone from the C. D. Howe Institute to the Ontario Institute in Education has shown that poor kids don’t do well in standardized tests such as the EQAO.

The reality is that the richest schools have the best academic outcomes, and lock-step down the income ladder, except through feats of teaching heroics, test scores and other markers of academic success drop.

Excellence in test-taking predicts….excellence in test-taking. It has much weaker correlations with overall course grades, graduation, or later success in life. This is why tests like the SAT (Standardized Aptitude Tests) are slagged even by university admission officers as a lousy way to find academic excellence, yet it is one of the only one consistent measures available.

But, still, when new parents move into the neighbourhood, they want to know (as I did), “Is it a good school?”

It’s a fair question.

Every year, the provincial tests administered to Ontario students by the EQAO attract a ton of media coverage. We all want to know how our school do.

With the installation of provincial EQAO tests, a wealth of other websites have emerged, happy to advise the worried parents of wee ones.

The EQAO scores at my family’s local public school have improved over the past decade, so much so, that when the Premier (the “Education Premier”) visited last year, the first comment he made publicly was how well test scores had improved at the school.

And yes, teachers have tried harder, new programs have been introduced, and scores have risen. What McGuinty didn’t say, but was just as important, was that the average income in the neighbourhood has also been steadily rising. And so predictably, our scores have risen.

Parents who are hunting for the best school might as well ignore the scores. A lot more than what can be captured in a provincial test goes into an effective schools.

In my more mischievous moments, when people ask me what makes a good school, I want to advise them to ask how students were suspended (data that is hard to find again) or, in high school, how many students committed suicide in the past year (never published, of course).

Instead, go see how many parents show up to help for the pizza lunch, see how many school clubs are run, and see how the principal welcomes parents. Think about the value of knowing other families in the local community.

Most of us are happy with our schools. It’s why such a high proportion of Canadians still send their children to publicly-funded schools.

And this is not to say that there are not bad schools in the system, places where principals suspend inordinate numbers of their students or impose bans on parents entering playgrounds when faced with their sharp criticism, places where the physical plant has deteriorated to embarrassing levels.

But the value of a neighbourhood school is best known by those closest to it. As  the OISE Survey of Public Attitudes towards Education in Ontario continues to find, those who are closest to the school system are the happiest with it.

The research bodes well for any worried parent.

Why inequality is growing in public schools, Globe & Mail, February 16, 2011

One Comment to “Choosing between the good, the bad and the poor schools”

  1. Great piece! I sometimes wonder if what gets selected to be measured is more telling of a society’s values than what the scores actually are.


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