View from here - Shopping and schools don't mix

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
Nathan Greenfield reports from Canada where league tables are considered crazy

In this hockey-mad country, millions check the sports pages over their morning coffee to see where their favourite team is in the National Hockey League. Despite the fact that almost a third of Canadians are innumerate, mass-market papers regularly run tables that rank players by a complicated formula.

Ranking schools is something else - as Ontario's minister of education, Kathleen Wynne, learnt recently when her ministry posted information on its website that was akin to a league table of the province's schools.

Ranking schools based on standardised tests is, of course, hardly news in England. Most American states do it, too, as do several other Canadian provinces. Ontario's Educational Quality and Accountability Office has done so as well, but its website is harder to navigate than the ministry's, which published the scores in the helpfully titled "School Shopping" section.

The title stuck in the craw of People for Education, a parent-led charity, which quickly issued an open letter to Ms Wynne deploring the "shopping mentality" fostered by the site. The letter also excoriated the ministry for providing profiles of schools that indicated class sizes, the percentages of university-educated parents, the numbers from low-income families, pupils who spoke English as a second language and gifted students.

Columnists, editorial writers and callers to phone-in shows weighed in. Some argued that parents deserved the same information online when choosing a school that they can get when picking a restaurant in Toronto or making an investment. Others called publishing socio-economic data nothing but veiled racism or, at best, snobbery.

Surprisingly, the opposition Conservatives, who were effectively responsible for bringing in the standardised tests in the mid-1990s, lined up with those accusing the incumbent Liberals of incipient racism.

Stung, Ms Wynne beat a hasty retreat and ordered the removal of the School Shopping section.

A day later the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, an organisation not usually known for rocking the boat, issued a report. It had nothing to do with league tables, but I feel it worth mentioning nonetheless. It reported that 55 per cent of university freshers were ill-prepared. It noted that while the government here pats itself on the back for increasing the graduation rate from 75 per cent in 2007 to 77 per cent in 2008 - which puts it on course for its 2011 target of 85 per cent - the bulk of graduates are less prepared for university than they were before mandatory testing.

As an English professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa, I was very impressed by the report's neologism: "Wikipedia kids." Too many graduates of Ontario's high schools know how to cut and paste, but have learnt little about cross-referencing and taking time to read, think and incorporate what they've read into a wider scheme of knowledge. Something tells me this isn't a problem just in Canada.

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