Local school boards need to rethink reaction to study

Both local school boards were quick to attack the results of a recent study of public school released by the C. D. Howe Institute. And, with students returning to school next week, the news was worth more than those responsible were prepared to give it.

The Institute hired Wilfred Laurier economic professor David Johnson to prepare a report based on three years of provincial tests done for Grades 3 and 6 administered by the Ontario Education Quality and Accountability Office. However, Johnson factored in socio-economic data creating a more meaningful set of performance indicators that dealt with previous criticisms of studies that were said to have skewed results.

Northumberland County parents got an earful of disappointing rhetoric from school board officials. Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board chair Diane Lloyd blasted away calling the rankings demoralizing and divisive, while Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board superintendent Ron McNamara called the study unfair and gave no new analytical data.

In a brief moment of candor, Mr. McNamara said plainly, school boards don’t like “comparisons of schools”.

This is the same reaction school board officials give the EQAO reports every year.  Without exception, officials work hard to downplay any results, leaving parents, teachers, taxpayers and school administrators scratching their heads.

Accountability is one of the central reasons for these tests and studies. Parents cannot gain insight into the performance of teachers and administrators running the system without these kinds of studies. By removing socio-economic factors, Johnson’s study provides a greater insight than previous work. No longer are schools given lower rankings to disadvantaged neighbourhoods and higher rankings to privileged neighbourhoods. He is comparing apples with apples, not oranges. Rankings that don’t take this into affect really tell parents little about a school, teachers or instructional methods.

It would seem obvious Johnson’s methods would be something praiseworthy. But in Northumberland, it is not.

Critics charge the data Johnson used was two years out of date and the Census data was seven years old. However, these are the materials he was given. And, with the length of time it takes to undertake this kind of analysis, the results are meaningful enough to provide a useful comparison.

But rather than fighting over statistical relevancy, maybe school board should take a serious look at the numbers and use them to identify schools that need attention and those that are doing well so it could be duplicated elsewhere.

Efforts should be made to reach out to St. Mary’s in Port Hope, Brighton Public School, Grafton Public School, Hillcrest in Campbellford and South Cramahe Public School, as examples. Meanwhile, let’s celebrate the even longer list of successful schools.

Still, if school board officials aren’t prepared to be accountable to parents and taxpayers, then start providing meaningful date of their own prepared by authorities parents can trust, as well as trustees.

By denouncing these studies, it pulls the rug out from under parents and taxpayers, leaving them without any tools to assess the performance of administrators and front-line educators in an objective manner. Maybe, this is the point. And, it explains McNamara’s aversion to these comparative studies.

How else can parents make demands of principals and teachers, if they lack good information to advocate for their children and the community?

The rhetoric over the Johnson study only goes to show the distain administrators and officials at the school board have for parents and taxpayers. The trash talk needs to be replaced with more action and announcements about how trustees, principals and teachers are going to do to improve classrooms and address the poor results that keeps piling up from the various studies, including Johnson’s.

Spare us the moaning and step up to the challenge. Show some results instead of contempt.

Robert Washburn is a professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College.  His columns are archived at his blog at http://rwash.wordpress.com/. Comments are welcome.

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