Monday, August 24, 2009

G&M gets it (CD Howe)

This is a little late, but I thought I'd post the link to a Globe and Mail opinion piece regarding the C.D. Howe Institute's recent ranking of Ontario schools.
In a nutshell, the institute one-upped its west-coast, righter-wing cousin by doing a different analysis of schools' assessment data and demographic data. While Frasier uses certain demographic data as part of its overall ranking (meaning rich neighbourhoods with well-educated parents always win), C.D. Howe's analysis actually neutralized these demographic traits. The summary is here, the full report, with rankings, here. The institute actually links to the above G&M piece on its site now as well.
From the piece:
Not surprisingly, schools with students from more affluent backgrounds tend to do better, but within that generality Prof. Johnson says there are sharp variations. Based on the above-average affluence of their students, Mount Hope Public School in Hamilton and St. Cecilia Catholic School in Toronto were each predicted to have a pass rate of 5 per cent above the provincial average. In fact, Mount Hope's pass rate in Grade 3 testing wound up 10.7 per cent below the provincial average while St. Cecilia was 22.3 per cent above. Obviously, St. Cecilia is doing something right. Mount Hope has some thinking to do.
Prof. Johnson found the same variations in schools with less privileged students. Based on its socioeconomic makeup, Cornell Junior Public School in Toronto should have had a pass rate 7.9 per cent below the provincial average. Instead it scored 15.1 per cent above. It is way, way ahead of other schools with students of similar background. What is Cornell doing to give its underprivileged students a leg up?
It's a legitimate question, but the teachers unions would rather keep us in the dark. Though they represent a profession dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, they seem to feel that information of the kind being unearthed by Prof. Johnson is a dangerous thing.
In fact, it is priceless. It shows, to begin with, that background is not destiny. Kids in poor districts don't have to have lousy schools. Kids in rich areas don't always get great schools either.
Gee takes us down the garden path a bit, but the main point I pick out of here is that people make all the difference. You get the right people with the right skillset in front of students, armed with the right resources and you get results. Does life outside the classroom have an impact? Absolutely. But again, it's about having the right people, with the right skills, in the right places. Unless schools and boards are analysing assessment and demographic data, they're never going to know, with certainty, where the 'right' people need to be, and what skills they need to have.
I have not read the full C.D. Howe study or seen how my local schools have ranked -- that may come in the next few days -- but thought this G&M piece nicely summed up most of what I would say here.


RetDir said...

The concept of 'value-added' schools has been around since the 1980s, following some pioneering research done in London (U.K.) to try to counter the longstanding assumption, based on Coleman's research in the 60s, that school effects are minor compared to socio-economic effects. The C.D. Howe study is another step in trying to identify the extent to which schools do make a difference. As ER puts it so succinctly, "You get the right people with the right skillset in front of students, armed with the right resources and you get results." We all know this intuitively from our experiences in school - everyone who went to school had some teachers that were great, many that were good, and some that were terrible. The resistance of the unions to this concept is hardly surprising, but there are some interesting experiments happening in the States at the moment (with the support of the unions) around concepts such as merit pay. There's also lots of research showing the impact of the principal on student achievement.

Anonymous said...

the term "good" school bugs me.

Most of us have been to school and thus we claim to be authorities on what going to a "good" school means based on our own experiences.

Those whose school years were troubled or stressful might say that there are no "good" schools.

The first time I heard that term "good" schools was from Gerrard Kennedy, when he brought a moratorium on closures down. He said something to the effect that too many "good" schools were being closed then and not enough was being done for rural and small communities to save them.

I think the term "good" school is too broad to even deserve discussion. It's also a very subjective term.

If we were closing "good" schools then and needed a moratorium then, are we doing so now?

Are we to believe that those rural and small school concerns have been remedied?

I think my kids attended good schools but the education each child received was markedly different. It wasn't the school bones, or facility that was different, or the principals(too many going through that revolving door to be effective) was all about that person in the front of the classroom.

educ8m said...

Anonymous 10:27 has it right--the person in front of the classroom makes all the difference. The Tennessee Value Added Study, (yes RetDir there was a famous one) showed that it is the teaching that is the sole variable that led to sustained improvement--not class size or money spent.

Education Reporter said...

I think, without having read said study, that teaching may be the most important variable, however I would hesitate to say it's the sole variable behind sustained improvement.
In-school leadership is up there. Teachers teach best when they're supported by principals who are in the school and able to assist in the classroom when needed. Similarly, those principals are more effective when they're supported by good superintendents who come visit them, often. And so on.


Anonymous said...

Very true ER but consistent improvement by teachers can't happen with a revolving door of principals, all who manage differently and bring a different tone to the school. When the staying power of principals in a school is allowed to be longer than 4 years then I think we can talk about consistency and support.

In the sixteen years my kids were in the system we saw 10 principals come and go.

I was told by one teacher that she just keeps the door shut and sticks with methods and programs she knows from experience works.