As I’m sure you’re aware, MoneySense once again launched the No.1 ranking for the Best Place(s) to Live in Canada.
A massive, data-driven project led by by my colleague Mark Brown and our venerable web-team (Prajakta Dhopade and Mike Shoss), this project offers a little something for everyone. Want the top cities to retire? Best Places to Live in Canada has got it. Best cities to raise kids? Check that off the list. What about the most affordable place to reside or the best spot for work/life balance? Yep. Got that, too.
But every year when reading this report my parent-blinders switch on. Yes, we track the best cities to raise a family—based on a number of factors, including the number of households with kids and the cost and availability of daycare—but, as a parent with a now-school-aged son, I also want to know the quality of schools in the city I choose to live in. So, every year, I add one more list to the Best Place to Live in Canada mix: The (potentially) best schools in the best cities. Why is the word potentially bracketed? Because the concept of best is hard to define, particularly when the only consistent and easily accessible resource I can use to create this list is the Fraser School Report Cards. First launched in 1998, these report cards rank elementary and/or secondary for every public, private and separate school in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.
Cue the criticism. These rankings aren’t comprehensive. These rankings are biased. These rankings only track whether or not children are “taught the test.” And so on.
These are the arguments and concerns I heard when, on my second maternity leave, I began asking other parents what they thought of their neighbourhood school. They are the same arguments and concerns I heard from the egg-heads in my family, who have pursued higher-learning objectives. Truth be told, I, too, held these same concerns and made these same arguments. Full disclosure: I used the Fraser School Report Cards to help find our current home located in a great school district in Toronto’s east end. So, I decided to get some answers. I spoke to Peter Cowley, director for the Centre for School Performance Studies at the Fraser Institute. Cowley spearheaded the Fraser Institute’s launch of the school rankings in 1997 (first released in 1998). He’s passionate, knowledgeable and a well-spoken advocate for why his institution’s rankings matter. In a long conversation, I asked him to respond to my concerns. Here’s what I learned.
Concern #1: The Fraser Institute rankings minimize a public good
The biggest critique of the Fraser Institute school rankings are that it reduces the statistics collected by provincial ministries to the educational-equivalent of Tripadvisor. By selecting your city or school district you get a ranking of schools based on the results of these standardized tests.
“We are comparing the effectiveness of the school to do its job, which is to teach our children the basics.” says Cowley. “These are skills that all kids need to learn and master in order to continue their education.” This is when critics typically state that these standardized tests were never created to measure and compare schools with one another. Cowley asks: Why not?
“Teachers believe in comparisons and competition. Why else do we have report cards and trophy cases? Why else would we join debate clubs or science competitions or national robotics competitions?” ask Cowley. “Somebody always ends up failing in these endeavours and somebody always wins, but we’re all trying to be the best and to learn ways to improve.” Cowley asks: Why not apply this same philosophy to our education system? “Parents want their children to be successful and they want their school to be successful at teaching their children the basics. Without a report card they don’t have a clue as to how the school is doing.”
Truth be told, parents could find the information on the website of their respective provinces Ministry of Education site. But finding this information is often a difficult process. For instance, to find the B.C. stats, you’d first have to click on the “Administrators” tab, says Cowley. “Why isn’t this information under the ‘parents’ tab? What parent is going to consider clicking on this tab to find information about how their child’s school is performing in the standardized provincial tests?”
Critics, however, aren’t convinced that the Fraser Institute’s application of the provincial data is in the best interests of the schools, parents or students. David Johnson, economics professor at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., argues that the Report Card weightings are unjust. In a Times Colonist interview, Johnson argued that the balance of the weighting is based on indicators that haven’t been proven to affect school performance. These additional indicators often skew against schools that have kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The result is that a school full of poorer kids can be ranked below one with inferior test results. (As such, Johnson, in conjunction with the C. D. Howe Institute, created his own school rankings that factor in socio-economic variables that enables similar schools in similar circumstances to be compared.)
Still, Cowley doesn’t buy it. “I don’t think a school ranking lower in our list is indicative of children doing poorly because that just blames the kids. And if not the kids, it blames the parents for not having enough resources.” It also contradicts what studies have proven: That schools can make a difference in helping students overcome the adverse effects of economic disadvantage and family adversity. In 1979 Harvard Press released a book in which Michael Rutter and his colleagues discuss the three-year study of a dozen secondary schools in a large urban area that highlighted how schools whose students consistently performed better, were able to promote that success. It was the first assessment of how education can and does impact a student’s ability to succeed. More have followed. Given that our children spend a dozen years in a classroom—more than 15,000 hours in all—the notion that we can reform education to help students is appealing. Some would say essential.
With a $60 billion a year budget, fuelled from taxpayer money, these Report Cards provide just a little bit of accountability, says Cowley. If schools consistently score poorly, it should should provide impetus for parents, administrators and teachers to examine and develop solutions. “What am I supposed to do with the truth?” asks Cowley, “ignore it or use it as a basis for improvement?”
Concern #2: The Fraser Institute school rankings are biased
Critics also dislike the idea that other criteria, such as the percentage of ESL students who attend the school or the percentage of students with special needs, are included in the Report Cards. They suggest that this could lead to bias or disadvantage kids from other cultures or socio-economic backgrounds.
Thing is, the only criteria used for rating and ranking schools is test scores. By examining the average achievement test results (45% of the rating), the percentage of test scores that are below the acceptable provincial standards (45% of the rating), and the difference between test scores based on gender (10% of the rating), the Fraser Institute Report Cards develops a standardized ‘overall rating out of 10’. Any additional factors, such as the percentage of kids in alternative French programs or the percentage of ESL students in a school, don’t factor into a school’s rank or score. It’s just information that may be of interest to parents, says Cowley.
Take the B.C. schools list, as an example. By using the results of the Foundation Skills Assessment tests that are taken by all B.C. students in Grade 4 and 7—tests used to assess students’ knowledge of numeracy, reading and writing—the Fraser Institute is able to rate each school (known as the “overall rating out of 10”). This “overall rating out of 10” is then standardized and used to compare and rank each school in the province.
(Standardization is a statistical procedure where raw data with different criteria is processed so that all data sets are compatible and comparable. Think of it as a more complex version of adding differing values. For example, if you wanted to add 4/5 to 3/6 and 12/30, you would first need to standardize by finding a common denominator for all three fractions. In this case, you’d end up with 24/30 added to 15/30 added to (12/30.)
As Rutter explained in his book:
To settle for schools that simply act as institutions of containment for disadvantaged children seems a strategy of despair. The importance of this major book in education is its clear demonstration that these are not the only alternatives.
Concern #3: The school rankings aren’t comprehensive
Another criticism is that the rankings are not comprehensive enough. By only examining standardized test scores, the Report Cards miss other, just as vital components of a school that impact a student’s life and subsequent success.
Cowley whole-heartedly agrees. “There are many other aspects of schooling that are really important for some parents. For instance, we don’t factor in drama programs or sports. We don’t assess social justice or outside space or art facilities. None of this is addressed in these reports.” Cowley then adds: “But this Report Card should be just one source in your search to find the best school for your child. Not any child, but your child.”
As such, he strongly discourages any parent from buying a house or selecting a school based on these rankings alone. “Please, visit the school. Talk to the teachers, the principal, other parents. And don’t just assess a school based on one year ratings. Look at five years. You want to see consistency.”
Of course, Cowley and his team would love more metrics to add to the Report Cards, but are currently limited by the statistics chosen and collected by provincial education ministries.
Concern #4: The Fraser Institute emphasizes teaching to the test
Over the years, various provincial Teachers’ Federations have criticized the Fraser Institute School Rankings as being too dependent on a single test. The criticism is that the rankings rely on test results, which prompts teachers to shift away from teaching children necessary skills, such as critical thinking and analysis and adopt a “teaching to the test” attitude. At the risk of prompting even more criticism, Cowley asks: Is that so bad?
“The curriculum and the student outcomes are all prescribed by the provincial ministry. They are guides for schools so they can get money from the government—from you and I, the taxpayers,” explains Cowley. These outcomes are treated as our educational system baseline: The basic skills all teachers should provide to all students. It’s what our taxpayer money is spent on. “Regardless of a child’s background, it’s the teacher’s job to educate them on the basics,” says Cowley. “So, what’s wrong with teaching to the test?”
He argues that teaching to the test could mean all students are then guaranteed to at least be taught the very basics that are outlined in our provincial educational standards—basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. If that’s all a teacher is able to provide their students—either due to lack of resources, or over-capacity issues in the classroom, or a high proportion of students who struggle with family, cultural or financial issues—then at the very least these kids would have the basics; the skills necessary to move forward in their educational pursuits. “It’s great to wander off and provide breadth and depth, but not before students can master the basics,” says Cowley. I totally agree.
Concern #5: These school rankings promote private schools
The final criticism I’ll tackle regarding the Fraser Institute’s School Rankings is that it’s inherently biased towards private schools (also known as independent schools).
Just take a gander of the B.C. Report Card. It’s not until rank No. 17 that a public school finally makes the list.
But if the Report Cards were created solely to promote private schools and the privatization of education, Cowley asks why would they even bother ranking Ontario schools? Not one private school is listed in either the elementary or secondary school lists in Ontario. “You won’t find Branksome Hall or Upper Canada College on our list,” says Cowley. That’s because the Fraser Institute Report Cards relies on data collected by each province regarding basic skills test results. These tests are administered to all schools that receive funding from the government—if a school gets taxpayer money, the students have to complete the test. If the school doesn’t receive taxpayer dollars, they can exempt the students from the testing. In Ontario, most private schools operate solely on funds generated from school fees. In B.C., private schools are grouped into four tiers: Group 1 receives 50% of their funding from government coffers; Group 2 receives 35% of their funding from the government, while Groups 3 & 4 receive no funding. Because they obtain funding, Groups 1 & 2 are required to take the provincial Foundation Skills Assessment tests. So, they are included in the provincial data sets—the data set used by the Fraser Institute to produce the report cards.
“All schools that meet the criteria for inclusion are ranked, whether private, public or charter,” says Cowley. “If the private schools do better on these basic skills test measures, then they’ll be at the top of the list.”
As a parent, I need to start somewhere
In the end, as a parent, I have to ask: Do rankings matter? Will I visit the schools, talk to teachers or the principal, and ask parents with children in the school what they think? Yes. Will other facets of school life that are just as important but not included in these rankings be considered in my school choice? Yes. Truth be told: I want to find the best school for my child, not any child, but my child. So, I will take all these indicators and use them to weigh up my school choice. But I have to start somewhere. Since employees are accountable to their bosses; companies are accountable to their shareholders; and the government should be accountable to the people, then it’s not too far off the mark to think that schools should be held accountable to the standards they’ve established. The Fraser School Report Cards attempts to create that accountability. Since, accountability does matter, I start with these School Rankings.
To help you narrow your search, here’s how the schools in the our Best Places to Live ranking did:
Best schools in British Columbia
Best schools in Alberta
The Prairies → No data available
Best schools in Ontario
Best schools in Quebec
The Atlantic Provinces → No data available
The Territories → No data available
Best schools based on the Best Places to Raise Kids list 2016