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Archive for the ‘School Rankings’ Category

Where you live can greatly influence on the educational outcomes of your children. Some education observers go so far as to say: “The quality of education is determined by your postal code.” In school systems with strict student attendance zones, it is, for all intents and purposes, the iron law of public education.

Students, whatever their background, can overcome significant disadvantages. ““Your destiny is in your hands, and don’t you forget that,” as former U.S. President Barack Obama said famously in July 2009. “That’s what we have to teach all of our children! No excuses! No excuses!”

ClosingtheGapCHClassPhotoThere is a fine line between identifying struggling schools and ‘labeling’ them.  “We identify schools and where they are on the improvement journey,” says Elwin LeRoux,, Regional Director of Education in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Yet we are careful not to ‘label’ some schools in ways that may carry negative connotations and influence student attitudes.”

How a school district identifies struggling schools and how it responds is what matters. Accepting the socio-economic dictates or ignoring the stark realities is not good enough. It only serves to reinforce the ingrained assumption, contribute to lowered academic expectations, and possibly adversely affect school leadership, student behaviour standards, teacher attitudes, and parent-school relations.

While there are risks involved is comparing school performance, parents and the public are entitled to know more about how students in our public schools are actually performing. The Halifax Chronicle Herald broke the taboo in November 2018 and followed the path blazed by other daily papers, including The Globe and Mail and the Hamilton Spectator, in providing a school-by-school analysis of school performance in relation to socio-economic factors influencing student success. The series was based upon extensive research conducted for the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS). 

A Case Study – the Halifax Public School System

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education (formerly the Halifax Regional School Board) enrolls 47,770 students in 135 schools, employs 4,000 school-based teachers,and provides a perfect lens through which to tackle the whole question. Student achievement and attainment results over the past decade, from 2008-09 to 2015-16, have been published in school-by school community reports and, when aggregated, provide clear evidence of how schools are actually performing in Halifax Region.

Unlike many Canadian boards, the HRCE is organized in an asymmetrical fashion with a mixed variety of organizational units: elementary schools (84), junior high/middle schools (27), senior elementary (7), P-12 academy (1), junior-senior high schools (6), and senior high schools (10).   Current student enrolment figures, by school division, stand at 25,837 for Primary to Grade 6, 11,245 for Grades 7 to 9, and 10,688 for Grades 10 to 12.

Student Achievement and School Improvement

Since November of 2009, the Halifax system has been more open and transparent in reporting on student assessment results as a component of its system-wide improvement plan. Former Superintendent Carole Olsen introduced the existing accountability system along with a new mission that set a far more specific goal: “Every Student will Learn, every School will Improve.”

HRSBGoodtoGreatCollageThe Superintendent’s 2008-09 report was introduced with great fanfare with an aspirational goal of transforming “Good Schools to Great Schools” and a firm system-wide commitment that “every school, by 2013, will demonstrate improvement in student learning.” Following the release of aggregated board-wide data, the HRSB produced school-by-school accountability reports, made freely available to not only the School Advisory Councils (SACs), but to all parents in each school.

Superintendent Olsen set out what she described as “a bold vision” to create “a network of great schools” in “thriving communities” that “bring out the best in us.” School-by-school reporting was critical to that whole project. “Knowing how each school is doing is the first important step in making sure resources and support reach the schools – and the students—that need them the most,” Olsen declared.

The Established Benchmark – School Year 2008-09

The school year 2008-09, the first year in the HRSB’s system-wide improvement initiative, provided the benchmark, not only for the board, but for the AIMS research report taking stock of student achievement and school-by-school performance over the past decade.

In 2008-09, the first set of student results in the two core competencies, reading and math, demonstrated that HRSB student scores were comparable to other Canadian school systems, but there was room for improvement. In Grade 2 reading, the system-wide target was that 77 per cent of all students would meet established board standards. Only 25 out of some 91 schools (27.5 %) met or exceeded the established target.

While Grade 2 and Grade 5 Mathematics students performed better, problems surfaced at the Grade 8 level, where two out of three schools (67.5 %) failed to meet the HRSB standard. High numbers of Grade 8 students were struggling with measurement, whole number operations (multiplication, division), problem-solving, and communication.

System Leadership Change and Policy Shifts

Schools in the Halifax school system may have exceeded the initial public expectations, but the vast majority of those schools fell far short of moving from “Good Schools to Great Schools.” Some gains were made in student success rates in the two core competencies, reading and mathematics, by the 2013 target year, but not enough to match the aspirational goals set by Superintendent Olsen and the elected school board.

HRSBElwinLeRoux

With Olsen’s appointment in September 2012 as Deputy Minister of Education for Nova Scotia, the robust HRSB commitment to school-by-school improvement and demonstrably improved standards in reading and mathematics faltered. Her successor, LeRoux, a 24-year board veteran, espoused more modest goals and demonstrated a more collegial, low-key leadership style. Without comprehensive school system performance reports, the school community reports, appended routinely as PDFs to school websites, attracted little attention.

The “Good Schools to Great Schools” initiative had failed to work miracles. That became apparent in May 2014, following the release of the latest round of provincial literacy assessments.  The formal report to the Board put it bluntly: “A large achievement gap exists between overall board results and those students who live in poverty.”

School administration, based upon research conducted in-house by psychologist Karen Lemmon, identified schools in need of assistance when more than one-third of the family population in a school catchment could be classified as “low income” households. Twenty of its 84 elementary schools were identified and designated as “Priority Schools” requiring more attention, enhanced resources, and extra support programs to close the student achievement gap.

The focus changed, once again, following the release of the 2017-18 provincial results in Grade 6 Math and Literacy. Confronted with those disappointing results, the HRSB began to acknowledge that students living in poverty came disproportionately from marginalized communities.

Instead of focusing broadly on students in poverty, the Board turned its attention to the under-performance of Grade 6 students from African/black and Mi’kmaq/Indigenous communities. For students of African ancestry, for example, the Grade 6 Mathematics scores declined by 6 per cent, leaving less than half (49 per cent) meting provincial standards. What started out as a school improvement project focused on lower socioeconomic schools had evolved into one addressing differences along ethno-racial lines.

Summaries of the AIMS Research Report Findings

Stark Inequalities – High Performing and Struggling Schools

Hopeful Signs – Most Improved Schools

Summation and Recommendations – What More Can Be Done?

Putting the Findings in Context

School-by-school comparative studies run smack up against the hard realities of the socio-economic context affecting children’s lives and their school experiences.  All public schools from Pre-Primary to Grade 12 are not created equal and some enjoy advantages that far exceed others, while others, in disadvantaged communities, struggle to retain students and are unable, given the conditions, to move the needle in school improvement. So, what can be done to break the cycle?

Questions for Discussion

Comparing school-by-school performance over the past decade yields some startling results and raises a few critical questions:  Is the quality of your education largely determined by your postal code in Canadian public school systems? What are the dangers inherent in accepting the dictates of socio-economic factors with respect to student performance?  What overall strategies work best in breaking the cycle of stagnating improvement and chronic under-performance? Should school systems be investing less in internal “learning supports” and more in rebuilding school communities themselves? 

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Today’s business leaders have a clear sense of where a better future lies for Canadians, especially those in Atlantic Canada. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce initiative Ten Ways to Build a Canada That Wins has identified a list of key opportunities Canada, and the Atlantic Region, can seize right now to “regain its competitiveness, improve its productivity and grow its economy.” Competitiveness, productivity and growth are the three cornerstones of that vision for Canada at 150 and this much is also clear – it cannot be done without a K-12 and Post-Secondary education system capable of nurturing and sustaining that vision.

Yet the educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the K-12 school system, educational reform evolves in waves where “quick fixes” and “fads” are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises.

Today’s business leaders –like most citizens–also find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.  Since Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood described the School System as a “Fortress” maintaining clear  boundaries between “insiders and outsiders” back in 1993 not much has changed.  Being on an “advisory committee” gives you some access, but can easily become a vehicle for including you in a consultation process with pre-determined conclusions determined by the system’s insiders and serving the interests of the educational status quo.

Provincial education authorities, pressed by concerned parents, business councils and independent think tanks like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) have embraced standardized testing in the drive to improve literacy and numeracy, fundamentals deemed essential for success in the so-called “21st century knowledge-based economy.” Student testing and accountability may be widely accepted by the informed public, but they are far from secure. Provincial teachers’ unions remain unconvinced and continue to resist standardized testing and to propose all kinds of “softer” alternatives, including “assessment for learning,” “school accreditation,” and broadening testing to include “social and emotional learning.”

Two decades ago, the Metropolitan Toronto Learning Partnership was created and, to a large extent, that education-business alliance has tended to set the pattern for business involvement in public education. Today The Learning Partnership has expanded to become a national charitable organization dedicated to support, promote and advance publicly funded education in Canada.  With the support of major corporate donors, the LP brings together business, government, school boards, teachers, parents, labour and community organizations across Canada in “a spirit of long term committed partnerships.”  It’s time to ask whether that organization has done much to improve student achievement levels and to address concerns about the quality of high school graduates.

A change in focus and strategy is in order if the business voice for education reform is to be heard and heeded in the education sector. Our public school system is simply not good enough. Penetrating the honey-coated sheen of edu-babble and getting at the real underlying issues requires some clear-headed independent analysis. We might begin by addressing five significant issues that should be elevated to the top of the education policy agenda:

  • declining enrollment and school closures – and the potential for community-hub social enterprise schools,
  • the sunk cost trap — and the need to demonstrate that education dollars are being invested wisely,
  • the future of elected school boards — and alternatives building upon school-based governance and management,
  • the inclusive education morass — and the need to improve intensive support services;
  • the widening attainment-achievement gap — improving the quality of high school graduates.

In each case, in-depth analysis brings into sharper relief the critical need for a business voice committed to major surgery –educational restructuring and curriculum reform from the schools up rather than the top down.

The education system in Atlantic Canada, for example, has come a long way since the 1990s when the whole domain was essentially an “accountability-free zone.” Back in 2002, AIMS began to produce and publish a system of high school rankings that initially provoked howls of outrage among school board officials.  Today in Atlantic Canada, education departments and school boards have all accepted the need for provincial testing regimes to assess Primary to Grade 12 student performance, certainly in English literacy and mathematics.

Prodded and cajoled by the annual appearance of AIMS’s High School Report Cards, school boards became far more attuned to the need for improvement in student achievement results. While we have gained ground on standardized assessment of student achievement, final high school examinations have withered and, one -by-one been eliminated and graduation rates have gone through the roof, especially in the Maritime provinces. Without an active and engaged business presence, provincial tests assessing student competence in mathematics and literacy may be imperiled.  Student assessment reform aimed at broadening the focus to  “social and emotional learning” poses another threat. Most recently, a Nova Scotia School Transitions report issued in June 2016 proposed further “investment” in school-college-workplace bridging programs without ever assessing or addressing the decline in the preparedness of those very high school graduates.

Today, new and profoundly important questions are being raised:  What has the Learning Partnership actually achieved over two decades? What have we gained through the provincial testing regimes — and what have we lost?  Where is the dramatic improvement in student learning that we have been expecting?  If students and schools continue to under-perform, what comes next?  Should Canadian education reformers and our business allies begin looking at more radical reform measures such as “turnaround school” strategies, school-based management, or charter schools? 

Where might the business voice have the biggest impact? You would be best advised to either engage in these wider public policy questions or simply lobby and advocate for a respect for the fundamentals: good curriculum, quality teaching, clear student expectations, and more public accountability.  Standing on the sidelines has only served to perpetuate the status quo in a system that, first and foremost, serves the needs of educators rather than students and local school communities.

Revised and condensed from an Address the the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, June 6, 2017, in Summerside, PEI. 

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Measuring what matters in education is a vitally important public policy issue fraught with controversy. Since 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has succeeded through the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) in establishing the global benchmark for student achievement in the fundamentals of reading, mathematics and science. Over sixty countries have come together to support student achievement testing and most participating nations have developed comparable national and state/provincial cyclical assessment programs. That global consensus is now under fire by a revivified movement of  North American educators purporting to be ‘education progressives.’

OntarioStudentVision2014“Measuring What Matters” movement has arisen attempting to “broaden the measures of success,” but essentially committed to either “soften” the standards or banish standardized testing all together.  The Ontario Broader Success project, initiated by Annie Kidder and People for Education, is in the vanguard of the attempt to water down student testing by incorporating “softer” competencies and socially progressive attitudes.  A growing band of North American education progressives, endorsed by education gadfly Alfie Kohn, issued a May 6, 2014 OECD PISA Letter objecting to ” the negative consequences of the PISA rankings” and claiming that “measuring a great diversity of educational traditions and cultures using a single, narrow, biased yardstick could, in the end, do irreparable harm to our schools and our students.”

The real agenda of the Canadian insurgency is to broaden the definition of student success and chip away at the foundation of student testing and public accountability.   In June 2013, People for Education released a Broader Measures of Success report which gave a clearer picture of the end game.  Building upon its long-held skepticism about testing, Kidder and P4E announced a five-year project to “broaden the definition of school success” to encompass more than “literacy and numeracy.”  The report, produced by researcher Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, proposed a new framework of six domains, only one of which was related to “academic achievement.”  Indeed, the P4E model attempted to sublimate academic achievement in the pursuit of five other goals:  physical and mental health, social-emotional development, creativity and innovation, and school climate.

One of the most credible proponents of the Broader Success agenda is Dr. Charles Ungerleider, a UBC professor and former BC Minister of Education.  Much of the substance of the critique comes from Dr. Ungerleider, a well compensated educational consultant committed to empowering teachers and thereby improving instruction.  In a very revealing BC Public Affairs show, Your Education Matters with Dr. Paul Shaffer, Ungerleider laid bare the goals of the  movement. “We should broaden the definition of success on a system-wide basis,” he stated. ” We can assess a student’s moral framework…evaluate the level of social responsibility…and evaluate compassion for fellow human beings.”

Ungerleider claims to support student testing, but he is adamantly opposed to “the misuse of (student performance) information.”  Ranking schools based upon student results qualifies as “a misuse of information”  perpetrated by think tanks like the Fraser Institute and AIMS. Promoting a broader concept of school success is, he advises Shaffer, the best way to “educate the public about what’s wrong with school rankings.”

The Broader Success movement is going all out to win the support of Canadian teachers unions like the Alberta Teachers Association.  On March 27, 2014, the ATA Magazine virtually endorsed their approach by publishing a short column written by Kidder, Gallagher-Mackay and Ungerleider. It appealed to teachers who are generally allergic to student testing and accountability. “By changing what is measured, ” the trio wrote, ” the initiative will support positive change in schools and make more room for the curriculum, programs and resources that support health, creativity, citizenship, social-emotional skills and positive school climate.”   All three of them repeated that message in a May 26, 2013 presentation at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education Conference at Brock University.

The Ontario Government appears to be listening to the Broader Success advocates, judging from the April 2014 policy statement Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario Consistent with the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne policy orientation, the new direction document attempts to move beyond instilling the fundamentals and embraces the pursuit of “soft” competencies and skills. Achieving excellence as measured in PISA  reading and mathematics scores remains first in priority, but the Ministry of Education is now tilting in the direction of “ensuring equity” and “promoting well-being.”

Where is Ontario public education heading?  The Achieving Excellence policy statement provides a few clues. It appears that Ontario, trading in on its claim to be one of “the world’s highest performing school systems,” is now flirting with the Broader Success policy panacea. Annie Kidder and People for Education no longer qualify as “outsiders” and have succeeded in burrowing into the Ontario education establishment.   With Dr. Ben Levin out-of-commission and Dr. Michael Fullan in a 21st Century Learning orbit, the system has lost its moorings and pinning down its future direction is purely a matter of speculation.

Focusing on student educational deficits can become the system-wide raison d’etre in the absence of clear aspirational standards.  That is the focus of  Ungerleider and People for Education. The highly successful Educational Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is no longer in the forefront, and that is a bad omen.  Recent research by Australian John Guenther pointing out the value of assessing the social capital of school-community partnerships and the effectiveness of alternative special education programs for at-risk children are lost on the Ontario educational insiders. So are legitimate concerns raised about the costs of rebuilding a complete battery of system-wide “soft” measures. Where student assessment standards whither and public accountability falters, mediocrity is not far behind.

Why are North American ‘neo-progressive’ educators abandoning academic standards and looking to broaden or kill the PISA assessments?  What is the real purpose of Ontario’s People for Education initiative promoting Broader Success measures for students and schools?  To what extent is that initiative motivated by the desire to return to an “accountability-free ” school system?  Can moral standards and social responsibility be quantified, and — if so- for what purpose?  Finally, will any of these changes produce students who are better educated, productive, resilient, and prepared to thrive in the 21st century?

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“Which school is the best?” That is one of the questions most commonly asked by today’s parents. Since most parents want what’s best for their children, it is a question which never goes away. Yet it’s also a question that almost always elicits an equivocal response and then a “mini-lecture” from most educators. Ranking schools, we are told, is a dangerous “free market” business concept, it threatens to unleash cut-throat competition, and it unfairly labels as “bad” many schools in lower income neighbourhoods.

Most education departments and school boards have responded to rising parental expectations and now accept the need for provincial testing to assess student performance, normally beginning in Grade 2 and extending to Grade 12 graduating year. Standardized testing is now commonplace and individual school accountability reports are becoming more prevalent, but the idea of rating or ranking schools still meets stiff resistance within the public school system. Educational authorities, strongly supported by teacher unions, continue to hold the line.

The lively public debate over the rankings has now spread to virtually every province. Although school rankings were first introduced in the 1990s by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) has now emerged as its chief proponent. Since 2003, AIMS has produced Annual High School Report Cards ranking all schools in Atlantic Canada. In early February 2010, AIMS expanded into Western Canada, releasing their first High School Report Cards for British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Where do the Canadian provinces stand on the question of school rankings? The Fraser Institute high school rankings have gained grudging acceptance in BC, Alberta and Quebec. Ranking public schools remains hotly contested terrain in Ontario. Among the western provinces, BC and Alberta provide the most public disclosure of results. “Manitoba operates in the dark ages,” declared AIMS Report Card authors Bobby O’Keefe and Rick Audas. The recently released AIMS school rankings made news headlines in early February 2010 across the West and earned high editorial praise from the Winnipeg Free Press.

Canadian educational authorities, backed by teacher unions, are dead-set against system-wide rankings of public schools. The vehemence of the response from Canadian educators begs the key question: Why does Ranking Schools remain one of the great “taboos” in the world of education? Join the conversation.

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