D'Amato Article on Catholic School Performance


D’Amato: Trustees could learn something from Fraser study

Waterloo, Feb 21 2013
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Schools are not all created equal, no matter what the school board authorities try to tell you.

The Fraser Institute understands this, and has come up with a richly detailed and fascinating “report card” on private, public and Catholic schools in Ontario, and how they stack up against one another based on provincewide standardized tests.

You can go to www.fraserinstitute.org right now, and click on “Report cards” and then “school performance” to check your own child’s school.

In public, neither one of our local school boards will comment on the results, saying that testing results are not intended to rank schools. You’ll never get them to talk about one school being better than another.

The problem with this is that the unwillingness to discuss differences between schools makes it difficult to have a public conversation about how to make all schools better.

That’s the conversation that the Fraser Institute is trying to start.

When I first saw that Laurelwood Public School was the top elementary school in the region, ranking 25th out of 2,714 schools across the province, I wasn’t surprised. It’s a wealthy, privileged neighbourhood, with no low-income housing. Parental income averages $145,600, and only 6.8 per cent of the children have special needs (the average is 21 per cent).

Even if the teachers there aren’t great, I thought, most parents can easily afford extras like math tutoring and enriched summer camps. Naturally, the kids would excel at academics.

But Peter Cowley, director of school performance studies at the Fraser Institute, and co-author of the report, said his research shows that parental income (which the institute gets from the Canadian census, and carefully adjusts so that only parents of school-age children are included) only accounts for 20 to 25 per cent of the variation in school performance.

Cowley said a big part of a school’s performance has to do with the effectiveness of the principal and his or her skill at mentoring, evaluating and motivating teachers.

“The common characteristic of an effective school is an effective leader,” he said.

In fact, Laurelwood performs above the level one would expect of a school even in a neighbourhood that has that kind of wealth. It’s such a good school, its teachers so effective, that it actually rises above what one might expect from the high-income neighbourhood.

(The Fraser Institute measures this for each school, in a line called “actual ranking versus predicted, based on parents’ average income.” A positive number means the school does better than expected, a negative number means the school is performing worse than what should be expected from the family income levels. Family income levels are a reliable predictor of how well a child does in school. They’re not as reliable as parental education levels but, because the census stopped asking detailed enough questions about this in 1996, the Fraser Institute now uses income levels.)

But back to Laurelwood’s success. Why shouldn’t we all be aware of it? Why shouldn’t the school board try to understand what Laurelwood does well that other schools could learn from?

As education reporter for many years at this paper, I always found it interesting that Catholic schools often outperformed their public counterparts in standardized tests.

And once again, seven of the top 10 schools in the region are Catholic schools, according to the Fraser report, even though there are fewer Catholic schools overall. Nine out of the 10 poorest performing schools in the region are public schools.

The public school trustees would routinely look for explanations outside their control, claiming that public schools attracted more immigrant students who are learning English. Or they might claim that the public board had better special education programs and therefore attracted more learning-disabled students, which skewed the results.

But look at the data and it’s not so simple. Take a look at two schools in Preston — Preston Public School and St. Joseph Catholic School.

Not one of these two schools had any students surveyed who were designated as immigrant learning English. Parental income was $88,700 at Preston, and $60,400 at St. Joseph. Preston had 20 per cent special-need students and St. Joseph 25 per cent.

Yet St. Joseph — with its lower-income parents and higher level of special needs — was ranked 8 out of 10. It was 313th among the 2,714 schools in the province.

Preston was ranked an unimpressive 4.6 out of 10 and stood at 2148th out of 2714.

If I were a parent living there, I’d want to know what St. Joseph was doing that Preston could be doing. I’d want officials to stop posturing, and start asking serious questions.

Instead of dismissing the valuable research of the Fraser Institute, the school board administrators and trustees should be poring over it.