Don’t Hide School Rankings

Worth A Look, Education, Frontier Centre

So let’s see if we’ve got the attitude of the teachers’ unions and their apologists right. They don’t like it when students are subject to standardized performance tests in reading and math. If the government insists on conducting such tests, they don’t like having the numbers published. If the numbers are published, they won’t sit still for out-of-context inter-school comparisons; some schools, after all, are full of poor students who were born overseas. But, oh yeah: They don’t want the contextual data published, either. And if it is published, they don’t want parents to be able to set data from different schools side by side, because that might encourage parents to — gasp! — “rank” one school against another.

Thus, apparently, goes the argument against the controversial new School Information Finder at the Ontario Ministry of Education Web site, which was posted on the weekend and hastily tweaked by Minister Kathleen Wynne in response to cries of outrage from groups such as People for Education (hint: They’re for state-managed, factory-model education, but perhaps not so keen on charter and alternative schools or home-schooling).

The group contends that for the Ministry to make demographic information about schools available is … well, it’s hard to understand exactly what their objection is, exactly. Executive director Annie Kidder claims that the new Web site feature “blindsided” her constituents. We fail to understand, as a matter of English-language usage, how providing information can “blindside” anybody. Then again, we don’t pretend to understand the twisted logic of those who oppose accountability within the public-school system.

The bizarre aspect of the current controversy is that all of the information needed to compare schools was already on the Ministry Web site — for those prepared to make printouts and do the comparisons manually. This week’s teapot tempest erupted because of a new Web site feature that allowed parents to set the data from one school side by side with the data from one or two others. “They were concerned about the comparison, that it seemed to be promoting a sort of shopping between schools, and there was a concern that that comparison could them lead to some kind of rank,” said an Education Ministry spokesman.

In what universe could it be considered problematic that parents would be given the tools to choose the best school for their children? Our society encourages responsible parenting in every facet of childhood development. Why should we systematically cripple our government databases — at the request of a purported parents’ group no less –in order to reduce parents’ ability to get their children into the best possible schools?

Moreover, why should our government shy away from technology that permits schools to be assigned a “rank” — as if that were somehow a dirty four-letter word. Schools should be ranked — with the teachers and administrators at the worst-performing schools held accountable, and their high-achieving counterparts suitably rewarded.

Ontario public schools are distinct from other service providers only in that parents have to pull up stakes and move house in order to make use of consumer incentives. But an awful lot of them do make use of their ability to vote with their feet, and the quality of the local schools is embedded in the price of neighbourhood homes. Why should the government conspire to conceal this essential information from homebuyers? What family ever made a decision on where to live without taking local education services into account?

Public education should not require us to put blind faith in the plainly ridiculous idea that all schools bearing the government trademark are equal. If the quality of public education did not benefit from competition and informed consumer choice, it would be the only consumer good in the universe that didn’t. And if our choice of schools must be straitened, it is all the more vital for data about schools to be abundant, multivalent and accessible.

Remarkably, Premier Dalton McGuinty, who defended the existence of the Web site’s Finder feature on Tuesday, is standing up for this principle. The headless Conservatives, groping about in the wilderness in a particularly pathetic manner, have taken the anti-information side.

One more point bears mentioning: Despite the efforts of teachers’ unions, People for Education and similar groups to keep parents in the dark, the truth will get out: Families will find ways to get information about which schools are good and which schools aren’t. But in the absence of easily accessible official data, they will simply be forced to rely on old-fashioned methods such as word of mouth and insider information. The winners will be well-connected upper-middle-class types, who have access to such channels. The losers: poorer families and immigrants.

Try as they might, the hyper-egalitarians won’t be able to eliminate differences in public schools. All they’ll do is hide them from those most at risk of enrolling their kids in the runt academies of the school board’s litter.