Good schools vs. bad schools

Discussion of the evils of school comparisons and finger-pointing at ignorant parents is a popular edu-past time, especially with the recent release of the Fraser Institute Report Card on Ontario elementary schools.

Here’s the typical sentiment: if it weren’t for those status-grasping, advantaged parents climbing all over each other to get their kids into so-called “good” schools we would have a bucolic, egalitarian public school system where every school got what it needed and nobody would be blemished with a bad reputation.

Educator Sachin Maharaj touched on this territory in his Feb. 14 opinion piece in the Toronto Star, “Put an end to two-tiered public education.”

Maharaj, an OISE graduate student and assistant curriculum leader for the Toronto District School Board, commented that it’s “troubling” to see recent reports that parents are willing to lie and cheat to get their kids into “good” schools in the public system. This is evidence, he wrote, that many parents view public education in the city as a “two-tiered system,” using provincial test scores to compare and assess schools, something many educators criticize. Maharaj also commented that the fact some parents are willing to do anything to get their kids into schools they believe to be better “is an indictment of public education.”

But this phenomenon is not new, just as two-tiered health care is not new and is here to stay. More than 30 years ago, when I was a student at a fledgling public Scarborough alternative high school, we had students from outside the district using their grandparents’ addresses so that they would be geographically eligible for admission to the school.  The students, not their parents. We had students from Pickering, students from Uxbridge – places that did not have an alternative school like ours, with its emphasis on independent study and focus on self-motivated, interested learners.  And that was long before we had provincial testing (which I suspect many at my school would have opposed anyway). The point is, people were looking – shopping, if you will – for a school that fit their wants and needs. We had many students who felt the school was a lifesaver, because they did not “fit in” at regular high schools.

My own concern when people are trying to make choices about schools is not that they are attempting to exercise choice, but that they don’t always make those choices based on complete information. That’s why I think the more information available about schools and their quality, the better, instead of the typical proposal that everything would be much better if we just didn’t release any information at all.

Provincial test scores are one such piece of information, but they have their limits. Ditto for Fraser Institute report cards, which are limited to churning out ratings based on those very same scores. Parents need to size up their own kid and think about what they need, how they learn, what gets them engaged and consider which school looks best poised to accommodate them. I know parents who sent their son off to a prestigious all boys private school because, well, it was prestigious. It must be good, right? Not for that kid. He was soft-spoken, artistic and didn’t like the very expensive school his parents were paying for. It was not a good fit.

Parents should call the school and ask to visit it, or even attend a school council meeting so they can meet other parents and hear about what’s going on at the school. If a school is not open to even these modest meet-and-greets that might tell you something about how the school will respond when you’re a parent there. I’ll even say that so-called “bad” schools sometimes are maligned by an inaccurate reputation, when in fact they are schools that happen to be in needy neighbourhoods but are truly contributing value to a student’s development. When looking at test scores, don’t just look at the score itself, but how much that has improved (or not) over time. These tests have been done for long enough that it is possible to see which schools are able to sustain their gains, or lose them. That can tell far more than just a single year’s results.

At the same time, it’s common to hear it’s unfair to compare schools that are located amid very different populations of students – e.g. as Maharaj points out, you can’t compare a school in Lawrence Park to a school near Jane and Finch. And frankly, I can’t see that being a realistic real estate decision quandary for a family in any case. But we should be able to compare schools serving the same or similar groups of kids, such as schools with high ESL populations and high poverty, with each other. Is one adding more value than the other? How come? What is that school doing differently? This is where data becomes valuable.

More thought-provoking in Maharaj’s column is his comment that a highly effective teacher is the single-most important factor to an “at-risk” student’s success. I agree, just as I’d say the same for any student. However he goes on to say that “there is no systematic effort to encourage” the recruitment of such teachers to needy neighbourhood schools. The province’s still relatively new teacher performance appraisal system is limited, he writes, and there are no additional incentives to attract these teachers into high-needs schools. One option Maharaj suggests, which has been mentioned before, is creating a “master teacher” category, which would require teachers to undergo a tougher and more complete assessment of their teaching.

These are interesting ideas and kudos to Maharaj for having the courage to put them out in the open. But if he doesn’t like the idea that parents see public schooling as a “two-tiered system,” just wait until he hears what people think about a two-tiered teacher credentialing system.


A Win for Wynne

Early on in the provincial Liberal leadership campaign I heard from a couple of prominent provincial NDPers that they did not think Kathleen Wynne had the support within her party to take the Liberal leadership.

That she defied their expectations does not surprise me. This is a woman who, in fewer than 13 years, has risen through the political ranks from parent activist (and an anti-amalgamation activist too alongside John Sewell) to cabinet minister in various portfolios and now, to Premier. I won’t agree with Wynne’s views all the time, or even much of it, but there’s no question, she’s a contender. She’s smart, strategically savvy and has shown she is capable of being a team player even if she might not completely agree with the game plan – witness her support for Bill 115 at the legislative table even though I can’t imagine she was in favour of the way her government went about dealing with teachers.

Wynne is also competitive. I remember interviewing her early on her political career. She had once run for school trustee in 1994 and lost. She told me she had no intention of doing that again. If she was going to run for anything, she would be running to win.  And so she has.

And what of the fact she’s gay and has lived with a longtime female partner? Wynne confronted the whispering at the Liberal’s convention last weekend head on: “There was a time, not that long ago, when most of us in this race would not have been deemed suitable,” Wynne said. “ … But this province has changed.”

Her sexual orientation will undoubtedly be a hang-up for some voters. But again, Wynne has shown her ability to build bridges even with those who might be expected to recoil even within her own riding. Don Valley West includes the tony, predominantly white neighbourhoods of Leaside and North Toronto. But it also includes Thorncliffe Park, one of the country’s most densely-populated apartment neighbourhoods and with a large, south Asian, conservative Muslim population. Last I heard homosexuality was not a popular way of life with conservative Muslims. But Wynne has made a point of reaching out and bringing improvements to Thorncliffe Park. The local elementary school, Canada’s biggest with 1800 kids – and that’s just kindergarten to Grade 5! – will soon have a second school building completed exclusively for kindergarten students. Polling results confirm that even in Thorncliffe Park, Wynne trounced her competition in the last election.

Despite all that, as other pundits have pointed out, Wynne’s sexuality may be the least of her electoral hurdles. The government faces a host of problems and Wynne is going to have to dig deep into her skill set to deal with them. The challenge I’m most familiar with is the government’s standoff with public school teachers. What sort of olive branch will teachers, and more importantly, their unions, accept as good enough? With teacher unions nothing stays good enough for long. Wynne has already said she won’t tear up contracts the government essentially imposed last month.  But she also wants to get extra-curricular activities back on the rails. Unions have been adamant that extra-curriculars are voluntary, much as it wants to eat its cake too by using them as a bargaining chip and not allowing members to freely volunteer if they wish to, without sanction or intimidation. The only way out of this that I can see is if Wynne is able to charm and cajole teachers into relenting on the pressure tactic by inviting them into discussions about a better, more stable bargaining environment for the next contract round. And there’s also that niggling, little talked-about two percentage point salary penalty Wynne imposed on public elementary teachers in 2009 when they overplayed their hand in the last round of bargaining. That still stands today, and the union clearly had its sights on erasing it prior to last February when contract talks quickly blew up.

Could that be an item considered outside of current contracts and so fair game for addressing?  Maybe not before the next provincial election. But who knows how quickly that will swing around either?

Three Ont. Liberal frontrunners, three former education ministers

I remember meeting up with Sun Media’s Christina Blizzard at a party one time and the two of us shaking our heads at the Ontario Liberal government’s runaway spending projects. I was covering education for the news chain at the time and Blizzard was and still is its Queen’s Park columnist.

“At some point, they’re going to hit a wall,” I said. “It’s unsustainable.”

So that all three front-runners in this weekend’s Liberal leadership convention have nothing to say against their party’s record on education spending – just that wee bugaboo about how the Liberal government has treated teachers lately  – should tell you something about what’s in store from any one of them on the education file, whomever succeeds to the leadership, and to the Premier’s office in this province.

That said, I can tell you a few other things about each of them from my observations of Gerard Kennedy, Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne when each successively held office as Ontario’s education minister.

Gerard Kennedy came into the role fresh off his position as education critic in 2003. As critic, Kennedy did a good job of schooling himself on Ontario’s education system, criss-crossing the province’s school boards and meeting with teachers, students and trustees, which surely didn’t hurt him at election time. As education minister, he came in well-versed and promising that Ontario schools were too different to be micromanaged from Queen’s Park. History has shown how ironic that was, considering  we have seen nothing but an ever-increasing grip on control of local schools and boards since the Liberals came to power.

It was Kennedy who put a moratorium on school closures while the province came up with a policy on how they should be done, and Kennedy who introduced the quasi-province-wide contract bargaining process with teachers that predictably crashed and burned over the last year because it lacked legally-defined roles or rules to keep things in check when goodwill and more importantly, cash, evaporated.

At the time though, the process worked reasonably well, partly because it was new and unknown, and nobody had yet had the chance to develop a strong strategy for it going in. As well, that first contract under Kennedy finally put Catholic teachers on par, money-wise, with everybody else. It wasn’t all easy though – Kennedy did have to apply the screws towards the end by threatening to withdraw parts of the monetary package if recalcitrant unions and school boards did not agree to the deal before provincial deadlines.

Whatever you want to say about him, Kennedy was hands-on, and I appreciated his custom of returning my calls to his ministry himself (he sounded fairly horrified once though when I had to close a door on my screaming toddler son while interviewing the minister over the phone at home).

But it was under his watch that the Liberals began their massive spending  on education with such policies as capping primary grade classes at 20 (hello split grades), and adding more specialty teachers into the system – policies well-timed to preserve teacher jobs just as student enrolment was beginning a serious plummet across the province. Under the first Liberal budget, one line on the graph went starkly uphill – spending on education – intersecting with another that curved sharply downward, enrolment. The Liberals were proud of that and as I recall, Kennedy was pleased to see I had noticed the message in the graph.

Sandra Pupatello spent the least amount of time as education minister of the three leadership frontrunners – just five months, between April and September, 2006. But in her short tenure she showed a more demanding attitude towards school boards, one that said she was willing to support them, but that she also wanted them to be accountable for their spending and management. By June, 2006, she had already called the ever-challenged Toronto District School Board on the carpet, telling them to quit whining about their budget and pointing out that if the board needed more money, it could start dealing with its vast amounts of surplus school space (more than six years later and we still have the same problem). It would have been interesting to see what else Pupatello would have done in the role if she’d had more time. But I suspect she might not have had the patience to put up with the shenanigans the education sector is so used to pulling.

Kathleen Wynne has been criticized for being soft on teachers and in their back pocket. It’s true Wynne has been union-friendly, has enjoyed its support and had plenty of teachers working on her campaigns. She is also a former TDSB trustee who was part of the left-wing rebellion against the previous Tory government, leading to provincial takeover in 2002 when trustees refused to pass a balanced budget. And under her leadership as minister, the Liberals continued to roll out their pro-teacher, education spending agenda.

But Wynne is also the only politician among the three front-runners who actually penalized a teachers’ union, for overreaching on negotiations. Since 2009 teachers belonging to the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario – the same ones leading the protest charge against Bill 115 – have been paid less than all other teachers working in the province thanks to a salary penalty Wynne imposed when ETFO pushed for more than what the government was offering.  After ETFO defied one deadline after another, Wynne finally dug in and announced the union would lose out on a 12.55% raise over four years, getting instead just 10.4%. Still not too shabby, but less than everybody else. And now members are frozen at the same rate for another two years under the most recent provincially-imposed contract.

Wynne is also the only minister among the three leadership frontrunners to put a school board under supervision – both Dufferin-Peel and the Toronto Catholic board were taken over by the province under Wynne’s watch. She’s shown she’s not a pushover. She’s also shown she can toe the party line publicly even if, as part of the Liberals’ left, she might disagree with some of it privately. But it remains to be seen what she would do if she were the leader or Premier calling the shots – not a minister subject to party discipline. I suspect we might see Wynne use her mettle in a different way.

All three top Liberal contenders have said they would extend olive branches to teachers. Well what else are you going to say to party delegates, who know the fight the Liberals have with teachers has burst the party’s school-peace-and-stability balloon? Unless somebody is prepared to keep going headlong into a bigger deficit, the money needed to buy labour peace is not there. And so it’s all a question of how much charm and promises the leadership candidates have to sell — and how much of it unions are willing to buy.