The Dryden Observer

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Focus on data politicizes learning

According to the Fraser Institute’s annual school rankings, the best school in Dryden is the one that was torn down two years ago.

The conservative think tank’s report lists Riverview School at 5.3 out of 10 to New Prospect’s 5.0. Neither local Catholic school is included in the analysis, which values schools exclusively on their success in standardized testing.

The study also leaves out Open Roads, the school built to replace Riverview in 2011 but the institute’s running its results under Riverview’s name.

To dwell on ridiculing their clerical error might be petty, but if we connect the dots and it gives us a picture of the wrong school, it’s time to ask the question: Are we relying so heavily on data that we’re risking not seeing the forest for the trees?

First off, it’s worth mentioning that even schools who succeed in these rankings routinely say they’re flattered to be recognized but using such measurements for competition shouldn’t be taken seriously. Secondly, it’s worth mentioning that we’re taking these measurements so seriously that it’s getting hard to distinguish your report card from your stock portfolio.

As Premier, Dalton McGuinty raised the dropout age from 16 to 18 years. He also accelerated the trend of pushing students through, bending over backwards to accommodate whatever unspeakable horrors their teenage lives are raining down on them until they eventually get coaxed into doing the work.

If teachers were encouraged to carry kids to graduation, there had to be some way to ensure diplomas were worth more than awards for continuing to breathe until adulthood, so regular standardized tests all seemed very logical.

Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) has been overseeing those tests since 1996, over which time it has grown into a $14-million annual investment. It supports a complex theory where quantified “literacy and numeracy” values define the quality of education. Where data once played a supporting role in the system, however, the system now supports the data.

Simplified, the theory works like this: The ministry prescribes data-proven “best practices” techniques. When new data is recorded based on teaching these techniques, scores will increase. When scores increase, the vision of the sitting government is responsible. When scores decrease, teachers and administrators are held “accountable.”

What these “best practices” actually are is a topic the media gives almost no significance at all. Report card day at the Fraser Institute probably gets more press than all legitimate Canadian education journals get in a year. Yet these are the ingredients we pour into the top of the machine with faith that centralized command of our collective teaching knowledge will spit out success at the bottom. Aside from the delicate fantasy that the entire system can be judged by how well it teaches to periodic math and reading tests, the public has no clue as to how these numbers come about – only that they should be rising.

“In Ontario, 70 per cent of students are now achieving the provincial standard in Grades 3 and 6 combined, up 16 percentage points compared to 2002-2003,” Education Minister Liz Sandals said in response to the Fraser Institute’s rankings.

To conclude her statistics prove our education system is better than it was a decade ago speaks more to how poor the system might have been then as to produce graduates who should be expected to believe this.

No one’s arguing over the importance of nurturing the cornerstone 3R skills that make learning possible. But what is education other than a daily attempt to create conditions that might excite children into learning and spark a passion to explore the adventure of learning for life?

Chris Hadfield School in Milton, for example, ranked 7.7 on the Fraser list. In January, Hadfield made those students the first to have a real-time chat with an astronaut in a space station. No one can quantify that kind of experience but it’s the only kind that makes kids dream of where their learning might take them. When the old test is taken off the fridge, the learning moment is the only thing that lasts.

Are we so delusional as to believe we can catch that, like a firefly in a jar? Or is the political pressure so high that we’re just tracing its shadow because it’s the best we can do?

Here are two things we can quantify for certain: Zero teachers went into this field to raise test scores and there’s no chance Dryden students can compete with a school that doesn’t exist.

 

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