Monday, April 13, 2009

Does information provide power or help us discriminate?

Another thing that boiled up while on hiatus-- the Ontario Ministry of Education's School Information Finder website. In my office e-mail, I remember receiving an advisory regarding the launch of this service, which is a glorified conglomeration of information already publicly available for some years. It's the first time the information has been presented as a nifty little package with everything all tied up in a bow on one screen. Previously, you had to go to the EQAO website and search its database for school-by-school results. For primary class size cap information, you had to go to another MinEd website, the class-size tracker -- a site that when originally launched had information that was at least a full school year out of date but is now much better. To get the demographic data that's included in the SIF, you could be creative-- some was available within the student questionnaire results from EQAO testing (languages spoken at home, mother tongues)-- whereas a parent's post-secondary history is collected by StatsCan, if you're willing to cough up some dough to get census-tract level results. This is how school boards compile this data if they compile this data, and how the ministry does it as well.
The offensive, "controversial" element of the SIF was pointed out by People for Education, a Toronto-based non-partisan lobby group that represents parents and their concerns in publicly funded education. PFE didn't like the "shopping cart" type feature that would allow you to compare several schools' information on the same screen.
That open letter drew press coverage -- see here for one example -- and further coverage once the "school bag" feature was removed from the site. It also drew the attention of the blogosphere, although apprently more for PFE's politics than its point. This was followed by commentary (the best I've found is here, with a hat tip to the blogger of the last two links) indicating this website isn't the devil and the information it provides is valuable to parents. Of particular note was the point noting parents who can choose which school to send their child to already do. This is why French immersion programs are so popular (this reporter's own opinion, and fodder for an upcoming special project) -- they cater after the first few years to those whose parents are better educated than the average. Ditto, in some communities, for parents who choose to send their non-Catholic children to Catholic high schools. Why, even this own reporter's parents made the same choice-- what neighbourhood was the best they could afford a home in, which of the local schools was the most modern, most impressive and sound option for the education of their children. Full disclosure-- it was the local Catholic school.
Perhaps it's because this reporter already deals in the information presented on the SIF that I personally find it underwhelming. There is value in having this information in one location, on the ministry's website, accessible to all with a web browser. It's all public information, why not display it all on the same screen.
I find the site underwhelming because there's still so much that's missing... basic facility information such as how many classrooms the school has, when it was built and expanded. Does it have portable classrooms, or is the entire facility permanent accommodation? Has the facility ever been part of an accommodation review process?
Moving to the community level-- give me the other StatsCan information available down to a census-tract level such as median and average family incomes. Transience rates. Average value of homes. That information is available and it's out there for the taking.
Don't be naive enough to think the school board and ministry don't already have this information -- this reporter has written stories about how some of that data is being used to decide which schools get certain programs. I like data-based decision making, be it done at a school, board, ministry or parental level-- it's transparent and accountable. If the MinEd -- or for that matter any of the private Fraser Institute-type rankings -- want to really allow us to learn about our schools, this should be included in the school information finder as well.