Posts tagged ‘Research’

December 14, 2012

Research fatigue and other lessons from Toronto’s Regent Park.

“Research Park – er, I mean Regent Park…”

It was a telling slip in one resident’s lament about the degree of academic surveillance taking place in Regent Park, the low-income Toronto neighbourhood where public housing has been torn down and is being rebuilt as a mixed income community. Thousands of new condo and townhouse owners will be living alongside the original low-income tenants in the next decade.

It is a living lab, a natural social experiment that is too tempting for a city with three universities and several more within driving distance of it.

Professors, grad students and undergrad class projects have taken their toll on Regent Park residents, creating a research fatigue, just as the second and largest phase of the redevelopment at Regent Park is underway.

(See More below to see a short list of the research projects I know.)

“If another researcher knocks on my door again, I won’t be very polite when I answer it,” declared one resident.

Another long-time resident was puzzled by the attention, saying

Our neighbourhood is just like every other one. There are all kinds of people. It’s not related to income or our location. It’s just that we’re living in a fish bowl.”

However, a recent panel at University Toronto drew a packed house of academics, residents, community service providers and advocates. The interest in undeniable. Even the residents in attendance at Regent Park Research Panel: New Findings from the Field were active in the debate afterwards. The speakers, all graduate students, have spent long stretches in the community and so spoke with an authenticity generally welcomed by the audience.

Each spoke in turn on their area of study.

Ryan James, York University

Youth, Stigma, and Security in 1970s Regent Park

James, an Anthropology doctoral student with ties to the community, described a history of Childhood in Regent Park. One of the powerful points in his narrative was the vulnerability of local children and youth.

One young women explained, “Being poor almost meant that you have a target on your back for sexual predators.”

Gordon Stuckless of Maple Leaf Gardens notoriety was remembered in the community.

When the community rose up in defence of its children, a vein of  “virulent homophobia” also erupted. This died down though, James explained, when gay rights activists held counter-demonstrations protesting that homosexuality did not equal pedophilia.

Sharon Kelly, University of Toronto

Navigating the road back home: The return of Regent Park Phase I residents

The next speaker, Sharon Kelly, also a doctoral student in Anthropology, embedded herself within the project unit which managed the moves required by residents as the redevelopment occurred.

“It was a place of hope,” she explained, decorated in bright colours and with fresh flowers, where residents, assigned by random draw, pored over floor plans to choose their new units. Higher floor or lower? North, south, east or west? Early project phase or later? In Regent Park or nearby? They lingered, ranking their first, second and third choices.

However, Kelly explained the site office was also a place of distrust, where residents worried about favouritism or grew weary of delays or frustrated their choices were not available. Some of the tensions were very real. Long-time residents were upset that a random draw meant that their length of tenure was not recognized. Or families and seniors, who were not able to meet shorter moving times, sometimes lost out to others who were more nimble.

Staff were sympathetic, but argued that the lottery system ensured impartiality, especially given the difficulty of evaluating and comparing competing needs. It was emotionally draining work, Kelly explained, and staff were forced to make decisions fast in order to keep up with the construction schedule.

A swap board was created so that tenants could negotiate changes among themselves. While well-intentioned but, Kelly did not hear of any viable trades made this way. What it did offer however was a sense of control that tenants welcomed.

When asked what some of the challenges, Kelly explained the biggest issue regarding complex work of resident relocation was the deceptively simple issue of communication.  Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) was cognizant of this, she said, and, for instance, when they needed to contact residents, they knocked on doors instead of mailing letters.

The work goes on, as three more phases have to be completed.

Martine August, Planning, University of Toronto

From isolation to inclusion? Tenant experiences in Regent Park’s Phase II

The final speaker was Martine August, a doctoral student in Planning, working with Alan Walks to take a critical look at gentrification and mixed income neighbourhoods.

August began with a brief description of the development plans for Regent Park. Begun in 2002, the revitalization of the neighbourhood was set to happen in five phases through a Public Private partnership. Capital would be raised through the sale of private market, newly-built housing stock.

The first phase is now completed, and residents have returned to new homes. Once complete, only 19-20% of the housing will be Rent Geared to Income (RGI), down significantly from the original neighbourhood. While the overall number of low-income residents will stay approximately the same, as higher income people move in, their density will be decreased.

Arguments for why this is good, August explained, is that there is “presumed need to deconcentrate poor people” because they are isolated from good role models. The concentration of need, the argument goes, leads to negative outcomes; Cause and effect are being mixed, she argues. (Professor Jim Dunn’s work, see below, is also finding that the “role model” argument is based on weak evidence.)

In the public’s mind, mixed income neighbourhoods have emerged as an ideal without the supporting evidence.

At best, these arguments are offensive, August explains. At worst, it is used to justify gentrification, leading to the removal of homeless and other marginalized people. This framing re-stigmatizes poor people (in a similar way to how public housing was originally and purposefully built to be unattractive).

Discussions of renewal and mixed neighbourhoods “use the language of balance in service of exclusion,” August argues. It is an academic argument she wants to test.

To explore this further, August interviewed 32 households before they moved out (pre-phase 2) and 50 households who have moved back from phase 1.

Residents were enthusiastic about several things in Regent Park: central location, availability of services, walkablility, easy access to public transit, number of local ethnic grocery stores, parks, and places of worship.  Residents described the benefits of living downtown and the vibrancy of the neighbourhood (all themes which are part of the marketing campaign for the new condos).

Residents also described the strong social ties and community connections they had with other tenants. “This doesn’t match the story of social isolation which is told about poor neighbourhoods,” August explained. Newcomers found each other, people borrowed from each other,  kept care of each other’s children, celebrated together, were there for crisis support. Community members also were proud of their political activism, describing Regent Park as a place which hit above its weight because of the concentration of people together.

So, contrary to stereotypes, Regent Park is well-located, well-connected, well-served.

“Not that weren’t real problems,” August said. “First, being the state of repairs and maintenance of the buildings, pests, broken appliances, plaster crumbling, and poor common areas. And it’s not clear that redevelopment will improve this. Already residents are telling of problems in their units, falling glass, broken shelves, buckling floor boards. TCHC has a $6m cut to their repair budget”.

Drug activity is still reported, according to August, but the tenants tend to take the attitude that “but if you don’t bother them, then they won’t bother you.” Tenants also recognize that solving this issue is not simply a matter of getting “the bad guys out.”  Brothers and sons are swept up in the crackdown, and the problem usually just shifts to a new location.

New design and new condos haven’t stopped these old problems.

Residents also report that stigma still an issue. although many resist the stereotypes. Something as simple as clothing reinforces class divisions within the new community.

Each new condo tower has achieved higher prices than one before.

August argues that if the purpose is to solve social problems, a market driven approach may not be the best way to address the issues.

English: As part of the redevelopment of Regen...

As part of the redevelopment of Regent Park from a social housing development to mixed-income neighbourhood, four of the five apartment towers designed by Peter Dickinson are being demolished (one will be preserved for historical reasons). Constructed in 1958, the collection of Regent Park towers won a Silver Medal by the Massey Medals for Architecture in 1961. This is an image of the second tower being demolished. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However the market forces are pressing forward. The number of condos have now gone from around 3000 to 5400 without much discussion.

This will have impact on many levels, including the political presence of tenants as gentrification shifts to the local demographics to more middle-class concerns. At this point, residents associations, like RPNI (see below), represent tenants. Condo associations are also emerging. There may be opportunities to bridge among these associations.When asked, August recounted a telling story from the Don Mount (now Rivertowne) re-development across the river from Regent Park. That smaller community has also undergone a “renewal” that mixes income groups into a single housing project. Low-income tenants there report that people in market-rent housing have been really dominating community meetings, focusing on issues such as safety and policing, noise and garbage collection. Tenants feel targeted in their own neighbourhood.

When Regent Park condo owners heard about local youth being targeted by police, they organized an information session for youth, to learn their rights. This “rights-based” approach, in contrast to “keep-your-head-down” approach, highlights the very different frame of experience that middle-income and low-income people use.

The evening ended with the promise to continue the discussion, finding opportunities to bring these findings to the people of Regent Park.

“Good people live there,” one tenant said in conclusion.

read more »

September 17, 2012

Who are the students identified as having special education needs in the TDSB?

Are boys,Black students or students from low-income families more likely to be identified as Special Needs in the Toronto District School Board? Are children from more privileged backgrounds likely to be identified as Gifted?

A new research report from the board confirms what parents have often worried about.

This latest release confirms the racial and socio-economic backgrounds of its students are reflected in who is identified as Special Needs.

The report is drawn from a longitudinal study of the TDSB students who were in Grade 9, over 18,000 of them in 2006. It follows this cohort of students through each grade. (By now 79% of the studied students have graduated.)

According to the new Fact Sheet on Special Education:

  • Nearly 2/3 of students identified as having special education needs in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) are male.
  • Students who live with no or only one parent are more likely to be in a special needs program (other than Gifted) than those who live with both parents. In fact, not a single student who did not live with a parent was identified as Gifted (These would include students who lived independently or with other family members). Gifted students were also most likely to have parents with a university-level education (77% of Gifted students compared to 44% of students overall) and a professional-level occupation (56% of students in Gifted compared to 27% of students).
  • Tracking the pattern of low-income Special Needs students are the racial backgrounds of students in special ed. classes. The starkest contract was for students of African, Caribbean and Black backgrounds. Black students were the most likely of all other racial groups to be identified as having a Mild Intellectual Delay (MID), making up almost one-third (32%) of those so identified even though they make up only 1/8 (12%) of the overall student population. Black students also made up 17% of those identified with a learning disability. Interestingly, Whites made up more than half (53%) of students identified with a learning disability although they represent 34% of the total population. This may be that as a result of parents paying for private evaluations.
  • Gifted programs show that those with racial and class privilege are much more likely to be accessing these supports (which include smaller class sizes and enriched materials). 77% of students identified as Gifted have university-educated parents. White and East Asian students make up 80% of the Gifted identifications although together they represent just over half (53%) of the total enrollment in the year studied. Seven percent of the remaining students were South Asian. Less than 5% of Gifted students were Black (to be proportionate there should be twice as many).

The release concludes with a summary of the Board’s commitment to review the processes which may give rise to these inequities and act as barriers to student success. Several areas for review include

  • the structure of congregated/integrated program delivery (whether students should be grouped together or supported in class),
  • the process for referral, identification and placements of students suspected of having a disability, and
  • ensuring student learning is culturally and socio-demographically sensitive (for instance, gifted girls tend to be less disruptive so are less frequently identified).

The publication page by the Board’s Research & Information Services department is a hidden treasure, deep within the TDSB’s website, under the Tab “About Us.” (About us — truer words.)

Keep watching this page. Later this year, the results from the school board’s second parent/student census will be posted.

There, we may find the evidence of what we have suspected, that our schools still reflect more the realities of our community than its aspirations.

read more »

June 25, 2012

Student graduation rates in the TDSB showing improvement across the board

Research staff at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) are producing a series of fact sheets to give an early peek at some of their drop-out data, and, as elsewhere, it’s good news: Student graduation rates are up.

Of the more than sixteen thousand students who started grade nine five years ago, 79% had graduated, up 10% from a comparator group seven years earlier. Those doing a “victory lap” held pretty well steady at 7%, so the decrease was in the number of students dropping out, down to 14% of the group in this study from a high of 23% in the earlier cohort.

However, while the groups examined are all showing an increase, not all groups of students are performing as well as each other. These research snapshots show some the differences among student performance within the system.

Board staff were also, for the first time, able to link these students profiles to the student census data.

Further analysis and more reports will be produced over the coming months, looking at issues like special education, race and ethnicity, and sex. This first brush looked at a wide range of variables: academic level, gender, age in grade nine, sexual orientation, racial background, language, and region of birth.

The numbers are more confirming than surprising. Eighty-eight percent of academic stream students graduated on time, compared to 59% of applied-level students. Girls had higher graduation rates than boys (83% vs. 75%).

Straight students had an on-time graduation rate of 82% compared to self-identified LGBTQ2S students of 69%.

Students who spoke English as a first language had a below-average graduation rate. Students who speak Chinese, Hindi, Serbian, and Bengali had the highest on-time graduation rates. Those who speak Spanish or Somali had the lowest rates.

The racial categories showed similar variation, but are less reliable because factors such as poverty or parental level of education were not controlled for. However, the numbers confirm that schools are not graduating Black or Latin American students in the same proportion as other racial groups.

The third fact sheet shows similar patterns when looking at the students choices around post-secondary education. 2005 and 2006 were the first years that a majority of TDSB students applied to post-secondary education on-time (the researchers measured rates of application from 17-year-olds).

The most interesting findings in this third fact sheet confirm how parental occupation and education levels seem to be major drivers in students going to university. 65% of students with parents in professional occupations confirmed an Ontario university after graduation, while only 46% of those with parents in “skilled clerical” occupations and 38% of those in unskilled occupations. These numbers are almost mirrored when looking at parental levels of education.

English: Missouri S&T Students at Fall'08 conv...

Students at Fall’08 convocation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly, while one out of eight (14%) of students from professional families chose not to apply to university, one-third of students from unskilled/clerical families chose not to.The pattern for college applications did not show such stark contrasts.

TDSB staff plan to continue to release these early glimpses into the student and parent census over the course of the next school year.

Next up for release is a report on Special Education and how socio-economic demographics interplay with those identifications. Subsequent reports will look at student engagement; LGBTQ students; Aboriginal students; the Black student diaspora (with York’s Professor Carl James); and at continuing education (52% of the current cohort have taken at least one summer school or night school class).

March 13, 2012

Outside the academy: The value of solution-focused community research

This is taken from a speech I gave at a pre-conference workshop on research at the 14th National Metropolis Conference of CERIS where I was asked to speak to the capacity of community agencies to do primary research. I took it as an opportunity to address academics and policy-makers. 

Photo Credit: Bard Azima, Livingface Photography, The Conference Publishers

As a director of research at a large community agency, I am admittedly a bit biased on this question.

Community-based primary research is good, not because of the much-touted participatory processes it uses, nor because it fulfills some evaluation criteria of funders, or because this research is somehow more “authentic.”

Community-based research is important because it addresses material realities and it seeks real solutions.

This is not to denounce those who do the hard, theoretical thinking that some of these wicked social problems require. But, if we are committed to social change and to wider ideas of justice, then we must address the grounded (and gritty) realities faced by those around us. This is an argument made by Critical Race Theorists, a place I call my intellectual home.

I am tired of research which is simply a walk in the park, describing its surroundings, commenting on it,  and noting perhaps an “oddity” or two. Occasionally, such research deteriorates into awful-izing a situation, describing in it in gory and pornographic detail.

My charge is that community-based research can’t afford to do that. To be honest researchers, we must look for change and find solutions.

“Research fatigue” emerges, I contend, when researchers spend too much time talking, dealing with process, and missing the end game. Community members tire of too much talk.

Admittedly, the field of action research has emerged to address this folly, but the solutions can be too simplistic, missing opportunities to make a change at the individual, program, organizational, sectoral and system levels. Instead, innumerable reports descend into a few “Try harder” recommendations.

To ensure they are accountable to for the use of government and donor dollars, non-profit, community agencies track an enormous amount of data. However, this is usually either administrative data useful for ongoing monitoring or program data for evaluation. Common categories include:

• Clients identifiers (d.o.b., sex, status)
• Client location
• Client concern
• Referral/Intervention
• “Dosage” or program participation
Some follow-up is also made to get a longer term picture of the impact.
This minutiae is a big industry – In our agency, one unit has its 23 staff take every Friday afternoon to do case notes – that time clients cannot access the service but data that is required for multiple managers to check, a director to review, so that it can be sent to funding program officers who later  return to do file audits, to be rolled into — I don’t know — giving us all a strong audit trail.

Good community research has a different flavour. It is:

Inclusive: More likely to include the unusual suspects – theory of creative teams – but not so process-oriented it cannot get to an end goal.

Solution focused: Awful-izing is easy; figuring out how to implement a solution is golden.

Asset-based: Such as the reports on resiliency in children and youth by Doorsteps Neighbourhood Services and Toronto Public Health which found how strongly tied children in “disadvantaged” neighbourhoods are to their families.

Analytical at the structural level: Reports like Social Planning Toronto’s fees and fundraising in school report, David Hulchanski’s work on gentrification in neighbourhoods done in partnership with St. Chris House (often ignored), or any of John Stapleton’s policy work look at the underlying triggers.

Sensitive to complexity: Two of the best recent examples which tried to capture dynamic interplay are the reports produced for the Strong Neighbourhoods Task Force which mapped needs and service levels to determine which neighbourhoods were the most under-served; TDSB census – Grades + SES + Experiential/self-report

Unpredictable:  The recent TWIG report on the new hour-glass shaped labour force created a new frame with which to think about poverty and inequality.

Outside the box:  United Way of Toronto produced two reports within two years of each other on the topic of neighbourhood poverty. Only the keenest among you have heard about Decade of Decline. But two years later, in 2004, Poverty by Postal Code made huge waves. The difference? GIS had evolved enough that maps could be produced, showing the same data visually.

This is work that can and is done by community agencies. I am proud of the theory-driven, knowledge transfer model we used in the Toronto East LIP. Over the past two years, we were able to:

• Map local services (in details beyond 211 Toronto)
• Map staff languages
• Map the social networks among partnership members
• Map levels of agency coordination and the gaps
• Map settlement pathways for immigrants and refugees
• Develop Toolkits for English Conversation Circles
• Develop Toolkits for grant-writing
• Produce information  sheets on private career college accreditation
• Produce fact sheets on frauds/scams Canadian newcomers may face
• Report local labour market information
• Begin to test the merits of place-based delivery of services ( community hubs) vs. outreach
• Set the groundwork for child care cooperatives and other parent supports
• Collaborate with grassroots groups and agencies to launch a report measuring the scope of the local underground economy
I think we proved community research can be both solid and solution-focused.
January 9, 2012

New Stats Can study: Youth crime patterns in Toronto neighbourhoods

I once showed a map of Toronto’s 2005 summer of shootings to a sociologist at the University of Hawaii and, without ever having visited our city, she was able to point out the main commercial districts, transit lines and low-income areas. These are the areas where urban crime cluster, she explained.

English: The northwest corner of the intersect...

Perhaps easily apparent, the patterns are always more interesting at a more granular level of detail.  So a new Statistics Canada report from the Crime and Justice Research Paper Series. has again given Torontonians another glimpse into criminal activity in our city. This time, author Mathieu Charron has focused on youth crime in Toronto. (His earlier 2009 paper on Toronto looked at broader patterns of crime.)

About 175,000 youth, aged 12 — 17, lived in the City of Toronto in 2006, the year which Charron used for his analysis. Using census tracts as a proxy for neighbourhoods, Charron looks at the geographic distribution of youth crime, and the characteristics of the places associated with it. He maps all police-reported incidents which involve a youth.

As anticipated, his maps show concentrations of youth crime along transit lines, in commercial areas, and then less frequently, around schools. But the study also finds some other interesting and confirming patterns:

  • About 1/3 of reported youth crime occurs in outdoors public spaces, and another third in commercial establishments. School properties accounted for the location of 12% of other reported incidents (2/3 occurring during supervised school activities). Public areas and local residences surrounding schools do not necessarily experience more youth crime, although local businesses do.
  • Neighbourhoods with lower mobility (i.e. residents more likely to have lived there for five years or more) experience less crime. Charron suggests more stable social networks may be part of the explanation for this.  And, as shown in other studies, neighbourhoods with higher levels of immigration are also less likely to experience some forms of youth crime. Family cohesion is usually seen as a contributing factor.
  • Neighbourhoods with more access to resources also are less likely to see youth accused of crime.
  • Central Toronto neighbourhoods (i.e. easily accessible) are more likely to experience youth crime in public areas.
  • Youth are more likely to be accused of a crime when they live in neighbourhoods with high adult crime rates, or higher residential mobility (people move homes more frequently) or where residents are economically vulnerable (low-income areas). Here, Charron cites other studies which attribute low levels of social control and/or exposure to violence as important contributing factors.
  • The characteristics of a youth’s home neighbourhood are more likely to predict whether youth become involved with the criminal justice system than the locations of where crimes take place. (Does that mean there are bad neighbourhoods? No, just vulnerable ones, with fewer resources.) This may be related to another of the study’s findings, that youth are more likely commit crimes outside their own residential neighbourhoods.

The most frequent sites of youth crime in 2006 were in commercial establishments, largely because of high traffic and opportunity. Property crime, especially shoplifting, accounted for 3 ⁄ 4 of the reported incidents. The maps Charron includes appear to confirm concentrations around shopping malls. The biggest apparent hotspot was Scarborough Town Centre with more than 250 incidents per square kilometre. Other crime hotspots (east to west) appear to be Yorkdale Shopping Mall, Dufferin Mall. Eaton Centre, Laird/Eglinton or Thorncliffe area, Cedarbrae Mall and Malvern Town Centre. These all showed rates between fifty to two hundred and fifty reported incidents. Outside of these large commercial centres, Charron found neighbourhood establishments, such as convenience stores and restaurants, were also vulnerable. Charron found a strong overlap between commercial areas which reported youth crime and adult crime, although youth were more likely to be involved in outlying neighbourhoods in the city.

In his next area of focus, outdoor public spaces, Charron found the prevalence of youth crime was much smaller, by a dimension of 25 to one (The upper range of outdoor events was only 10 incidences per square kilometre). As our Honolulu sociologist predicted, reported incidents were concentrated along transit and subway lines, in lower-income areas and near commercial areas. Charron also found some support for the “bored teenager syndrome,” that the number of reported crimes were higher in neighbourhoods with a higher number of youth, including central areas of the city where youth tend to gather and where household incomes are higher. Subway and other natural gathering points also attracted higher crime levels. The highest areas, reporting more than ten incidents per square kilometre, were around the University of Toronto, the Yonge Street downtown south of Yonge, Yonge and Finch, around Donlands and Danforth and the surrounding area (where five high schools are concentrated). Smaller problem pockets were found at Jane, south of Finch, the Mount Dennis area, Mount Pleasant and Eglinton (another high school), Pape Village, Greenwood Park, Kennedy subway station and its environs, and the Kingston Road and Morningside area.

The final location Charron examined are crimes which were reported to have happened in private residences. Largely concentrated in neighbourhoods with average employment incomes below $50,000 ⁄ year, the geographic pattern mimicked that of outdoor crime, especially outside the central part of the city. Charron found that crimes which occurred in houses were more likely to be property crimes, such as breaking and entering, theft and mischief. Crimes which occurred in apartments and other dwelling units were more likely to be violent offences. Residential crime was less likely to occur where there was a higher proportion of recent Canadian immigrants, where there are fewer youth or lower adult crime, or where local residents have access to more resources.

Charron concludes though by saying that neighbourhood characteristics, such as economic vulnerability, have less of an effect on youth crime than they do on adult crime — perhaps speaking to the early resiliency of youth.

More up-to-date data on crime in the city can be found through the Toronto Police Services Crime Statistics site and the City of Toronto’s Wellbeing Indices.
October 27, 2011

Pros & cons of collecting demographic data to improve educational equity for students

On Monday, more than sixty school board staff and community members from Ottawa and the GTA area gathered at York University for a roundtable on the topic of student demographic data and educational equity.

Sponsored by the Knowledge Network for Applied Education Research, the project hopes to corral the various ways boards are using non-academic data about students to better serve their academic needs. It’s a topic that is difficult to summarize within an afternoon’s work, however Peel region’s Paul Favaro set the stage, highlighting many key challenges.

These questions are complex on multiple levels, however, we cannot be frozen into inaction, Favaro said. The meeting organizers, Professor Carl James, others, and Favaro urged the group to move through these challenges to ensure all students are offered equitable opportunities.

When 40% of the variance in student achievement can be explained by factors external the classroom and school, we need to understand the pathways and mechanisms that are at play here, Favaro said. It is a question of grounded in fundamental principles, he said.

If we agree all students deserve the best educational opportunities regardless of their backgrounds and that large inequalities exist both within and outside the classroom walls, what is the benefit of collecting data which tracks students according to socio-economic class, race, sex, or other such grounds?

Favaro detailed the some of the positive and negative aspects of collecting student demographic data.

Benefits include:

  • Assessing which groups are vulnerable and are underperforming / under-served
  • Programming better targeted
  • Able to monitor and assess improvements / accountability
  • Encourages the fulfillment of each student’s potential
  • Moves closer to providing an educational system that is free of bias
  • Increases achievement in society and among vulnerable groups
Drawbacks however were also noted:
  • May (re-)produce reduced sense of academic competence, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Members of vulnerable groups may feel stigmatized
  • May increase prejudicial attitudes and stereotyping if critical analysis not used
  • May lead teachers to implicitly or subconsciously teach students from some groups below their actual potential
  • Added pressure on members of high-performing groups
  • Contributes to labelling & false homogenizing
  • May be used by those in dominant positions to keep vulnerable minorities down
  • Potential backlash from parents & community members from high achieving groups [preserving their rank]

Another barrier to building a stronger evidence base identified by the attendees is the unwillingness of school administrators, teachers, parents and the general public to explore these uncomfortable issues, because, as one attendee described it, we risked a loss of our “Canadian innocence,” our self-image of being a fair place.

Former B.C. Deputy Minister Charles Ungerleider gave closing remarks, identifying the need for national participation in the creation of these solutions. He is writing a paper for the Canadian Education Association on the topic to which we can look forward by the end of the year.


read more »

September 26, 2011

A critical look at international city rankings

“Well, big deal,” the Montreal Gazette sneered in Montreal and its place in the world, its editorial response to a recent international survey on urban quality-of-life. Montreal was behind Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. As a native Montrealer, I have to concur with the Gazette’s summary:

…rankings tend to favour an ideal, cleanly scrubbed and tidily tended city – which is essentially a suburb.

The editorial consoled readers, throwing in that New York City came 56th on the list.

So how accurate is the measuring stick for the wide range of surveys which rank cities?

This is the question that Toronto’s Intergovernmental Committee on Economic and Labour Force Development (ICE Committee) asked when it commissioned a review of the various urban ranking surveys last year.

As expected, the final report found methodological weaknesses in the comparisons and poor interpretations of the findings by the media and public creates more confusion than clarity when it came to grading the world’s cities. The report author reviewed forty-four rankings and identified seven key lessons:

  • Audience and purpose matter
  • Beware of over-simplification
  • Look at the scores, not the rankings
  • Be wary of data that has been overly manipulated and processed.
  • Longitudinal data are more useful than one-off “snapshot” studied, but watch out for iterative studied that change the rules as they go.
  • Stale source data may leave a false impression.
  • Make sure that apples are being compared to apples.
Probably the fairest explanation for why these studies continue to pop up in the media is attributed to Joel Garreau:
 “These lists are journalistic catnip. Fun to read and look at the pictures but I find the liveable cities lists intellectually on a par with People magazine’s ‘sexiest people’ lists.”

(Still, if you lean towards parochialism, patriotism, or partisan, if you believe Toronto is the centre of the world, you will be glad to know that Toronto generally does well on these international scorecards.)

July 20, 2011

Census 2011 looms as a failure

I couldn’t convince my own mother to do the long form census from Statistics Canada. Oh sure, she, the mother of a researcher, meant well but it is v-e-r-y long. At least, I console myself,  she recycled the form, meeting that civic participation bar.

A colleague explained that he had tried to complete the on-line the National Household Survey (the long form census) more than three times but he finally gave the task to another household member because each question required another hunt through the family files: housing costs, education levels, etc. Why couldn’t they make it easier, he asked?

This is a small sample, to be sure, but, like doing our taxes, filling out long government forms is no fun. So the response rate to the survey has got to be poor or very uneven.

Jennifer Ditchburn from Canadian Press quoted, “a lot of people shut down the conversation quickly when they find out it’s not mandatory.” She also reported Statistics Canada is not following up on incomplete Household Surveys and is settling for incomplete ones.

What will happen to the quality of the data, then? I recently asked a medical officer of health. He too had heard about the low response rates and despaired how this was what had been predicted during the discussions before parliament when the census revisions emerged. We’ll have to do estimations, he explained, to test how reliable the data is and then we will muddle through.

And that epitomizes the very issue with the census – a census is, by definition, a count of every household (or in the case of the long-form census, one in five random households). This census is no longer a census, but simply a sample of the Canadian population.

While the progress of the data collection is not public, other hints of the (non-)returns tell a worsening story.

The short-form census, the one that basically asked us to re-type what was on the mail label and add family language, must have a poor response rate too.

At the community agency where I work, clients were confused by government messaging. Hadn’t the whole debate about the census concluded that it was voluntary? Staff have had to explain that the short-form census is still required, while the long-form one, no longer called the census, is not.

Confused? I’ll say. So are others, as documented in the Hamilton Spectator and the Halifax Chronicle Herald this week (see the comments section for further evidence even).

I feel particularly mournful about this because, as governments move towards integrated policy responses, such as poverty-reduction strategies, and as our computational capacities increase, the census has become integral to good evidence-based decision-making. So just as the need and our capacity to explore better policy-making are emerging, our ability to do so has been undercut.

What a crying shame.

June 29, 2011

Wellbeing Toronto

Long awaited, Wellbeing Toronto is launching this morning through the City of Toronto website.

Keep hitting refresh! It will be here soon.

The Toronto Star has given a sneak peek in today’s edition. The site lets users select and map , across the City’s 140 social planning neighbourhoods, from a menu of indicators, ranging from one of Toronto’s top ten languages, applications to universities, or robberies. It also maps locations of various civic sites, community hubs, rate payers associations and other neighbourhood features.

While it’s bound to have some bugs as it launches (I couldn’t see a legend), this is a significant contribution to the civic dialogue of the city – as long as more than real estate agents use it! (My conflict-of-interest? I sat in on two advisory panels during its development.)

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April 11, 2011

Statistics Canada 2011’s long form census questionnaire will play out neighbourhood by neighbourhood

Within less than a month, Canadians will be filling in the new census forms delivered to our front doors, which we all have to answer. One month later,  a third of us will be given the voluntary long form, now called the National Household Survey.

People smarter than me have pointed out how this new format will hurt the reliability of the census. We know that low-income people and others who are not included in full civic  participation are less likely to participate. And, frankly, if they are not counted, then the government will look good.

“Look, fewer poor people in Canada!” And then, because dollars follow the evidence presented, “We can cut some of those costly support programs.”

That exact logic has some of us in the community sector worried. If people in our neighbourhoods are not counted, we will not be able to make the case for the need.

Toronto had a more small scaled rehearsal of this census “undercount” problem in 2006. Key Toronto organizations, City of Toronto staff and local academic researchers all raised concerns about undercounting in some key Toronto neighbourhoods. As a result, Statistics Canada went out and re-sampled the target areas.

In fact, when the Inner City Advisory Committee at the Toronto District School Board looked at the last census, they also worried about the undercounting problem and moved a motion to encourage local schools to set up form-filling clinics to help parents to complete the census.

Schools and community agencies are close enough on the ground to reach people who live in basement apartments, or who speak one of the official languages as a third or fourth language, or who have limited literacy skills. These are the people who are less likely to fill in the census form — especially if it is voluntary — so helping them to do so, helps build a more accurate picture of the neighbourhood.

On the other hand, some are arguing that we should boycott the voluntary long census form. The data, by most measures, will be unusable because the methodology has changed so much. Any data collected this way cannot be compared with earlier censuses. “Why participate?” they ask.

So, in the end, what community agencies and local schools are left with the prisoner’s dilemma.

  • If some of us, working for the benefit of our local community, support a higher response rate, our neighbourhoods will be helped,  but others, who didn’t do the additional outreach, will be hurt in the comparison.
  • If none of us work to support a higher response rate, then the resultant undercounts will hurt our clients.
  • And the final option, that we will all work to improve the census, seems the most unlikely scenario of all.

What we choose, and what others choose, will have consequences for all of us.

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