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Fraser Report school rankings: a perilous path

The controversy behind ranking schools in the Fraser Report

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It's that time of year again. Spring, yes, but also the time that the Fraser Institute releases its rankings of Ontario elementary schools, which are due out this Sunday, March 27, 2011. I am philosophically opposed to this type of exercise and would like to present three arguments explaining my position, and then offer an alternative to school improvement (if this is the motive behind rankings).

Schools exist to serve their local communities.

The rankings are determined by someone at The Fraser Institute who decides what data are relevant to judging school performance. The assumption is that all Ontario elementary schools are the same - an erroneous assumption I believe. Take for example an elementary school in a neighbourhood populated by recent immigrants whose first language is not English. One of the most important goals of that school might logically be to focus on developing literacy in their students. In the rankings however, that school will be judged on its performance on a variety of other criteria as well, potentially diminishing its success in its efforts to improve literacy.

Schools are not businesses.

Businesses can be ranked on measurable outcomes such as excess of revenue over expenditures - the bottom line. Robert Evans puts it best when he writes:

A school's "product" is never clear cut. America's current frenzy over accountability and "high-stakes" testing rests, at heart, on a simplistic, misapplied factory model of education: raw resources enter; workers make inputs; outputs emerge; faulty outputs must indicate faulty inputs. But a school's "value added" is extremely hard to measure."

In the U.S. and Britain, the emphasis on testing and rankings creates a temptation, or in its worst case a necessity for survival, to move toward teaching to the test or teaching with a goal of improving ranking. In this case the needs of individual students are sacrificed to an external goal.

An intelligent alternative.

If the goals of the exercise are school improvement and serving the needs of students there are better methods than rankings. One such method is a locally developed school improvement programme. School communities, including teachers, parents, administrators and, where appropriate, students, can develop measures that are appropriate for their specific school setting. Benchmarking data can be collected, school improvement plans crafted and implemented and progress measured through local monitoring. In this manner the needs of students and the needs of specific school communities can be met. In addition, the involvement of the community can be a powerful lever to improve schools. The Fraser Institute might serve education better if it allocated its ranking resources to developing templates for school improvement programmes and supporting schools in their goals, rather than generating questionable rankings.

"High states testing" and rankings lead to a deterioration of education.

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