The ‘Achievement Gap’ is, by most accounts, growing in most major urban public school systems. One of the feature stories in The Globe and Mail’s Wealth Paradox series, written by Caroline Alphonso and Tavia Grant, demonstrated how income and educational achievement are correlated within Canada’s largest school system, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). While the important article was only a snapshot in time, it did raise serious concern about the dominant trend. As Canadian neighbourhoods become increasingly polarized along income lines, the promise of education giving every child an equal shot at a better life is getting harder to fulfill.
The Globe and Mail analysis confirmed the conventional wisdom about the so-called ‘iron law’ of income and achievement in public schools. Using standardized test scores and Statistics Canada income data for the TDSB, Alphonso and Grant painted quite a clear picture of inequality in Toronto’s public elementary schools: High-income areas are primarily home to high-achieving schools while lower-income areas have a higher number of lower-scoring schools.
The TDSB student results, school-by-school, mapped against income levels confirmed the initial assumptions: Schools in lower-income neighbourhoods have a higher proportion of students failing the provincial standardized tests, achieving at Level 1 or 2, the data reveal (Level 3 is a pass). And a 2010 TDSB study showed that the majority of students identified as gifted were from the most affluent neighbourhoods of the city, while those kids identified with a language impairment or a developmental disability were more likely to come from lower-income neighbourhoods.
Two markedly different schools, Courcelette Public School in the affluent Beaches district, and Edgewood Public School in the heart of working class Scarborough, were identified as representative types signifying the most highly successful and the struggling schools. A third school, John A. Leslie Public School, again in a lower income Scarborough area, but with a predominantly immigrant student population, was chosen as a school where kids outperformed the expectations based upon socio-economic status (SES) factors.
Two different approaches to allieviating the achievement gap were briefly introduced – the open attendance zone model and the targeted resource support option, but the article tilted heavily in the direction of explaining the later approach, currently favoured by the TDSB. Passing reference was made to the Vancouver and Edmonton school choice models before noting Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals’ fears that “introducing school choice could exacerbate educational inequality” because “low-income families don’t necessarily have the means to drive their kid across town to a higher-ranking school.”
When it came to fairly examining the policy options, the otherwise fine article came up decidedly short. Closing the educational gap by pouring more resources into under-performing schools, essentially the TDSB Special Student Supports model, was the only option really presented in any detail. In that respect, John A. Leslie Public School, one of the 150 schools in that program, provided a convenient exemplar of the preferred approach. This was also problematic because that school’s strong and effective principal, Greg McLeod, may well have been a bigger factor than the enhanced funding and resources.
Toronto elementary kids are required to attend their local neighbourhood school., unlike those in Edmonton and Vancouver, where parents and kids have a choice in the matter. Opening up boundaries, according to TDSB operations director Carla Kisko, would be “a nightmare when it comes to planning.” Really? Then how have they managed to successfully implement it in Edmonton Public Schools since the 1970s? Why has the Vancouver School Board (VSB) also moved in that direction?
School choice is protected by law in B.C., so, provided there’s space, parents are free to send their children to any school within the Vancouver School Board. Competition to secure a place in the higher preforming schools is helping to fill once emptying schools and driving school improvement plans. According to statistics recently compiled by the VSB, including French immersion, nearly 50 % of all students currently attend school outside their local catchment area, and the vast majority are heading to the western parts of the city. While it poses a challenge for administrators, it does meet the growing parental appetite for choice.
In Alberta, where Alberta Education supports parent choice, Edmonton Public Schools offers more choice programs than probably any other school board in North America. It has also been a school system with students who for decades have performed extraordinarily well on national and international assessments of student performance, particularly in mathematics and science.
Why does Ontario and its lead board, the TDSB, still have an aversion to open boundaries and parent choice in the elementary grades? What’s the real purpose of maintaining strict school attendance boundaries? What impact would introducing “open boundaries” have on student engagement and performance? How and why has it worked in Edmonton Public Schools? Is it possible to introduce more parental choice, while at the same time limiting its impact on social and educational inequalities?