New Canadian Media

Why Ranking Schools May Not be Such a Smart Idea

Written by  New Canadian Media Wednesday, 05 November 2014 11:16
Canada can no longer afford practices that polarize and segregate communities along economic and socio-cultural lines.
Canada can no longer afford practices that polarize and segregate communities along economic and socio-cultural lines. Photo Credit: USDAgov via CC

by Charles Ungerleider in Vancouver

The Fraser Institute has added Ontario’s schools to a growing list of school rankings in the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec.  The Fraser Institute justifies its ranking as an aid to parental choice of schools. According to the Institute, “Where parents can choose among several schools for their children, the Report Card provides a valuable tool for making a decision. Because it makes comparisons easy, it alerts parents to those nearby schools that appear to have more effective academic programs.” 

The Fraser Institute believes that parents will seek to maximize educational benefits for their children when choosing the schools their children attend, but the research indicates that parents choose schools on other grounds.  On what basis do the parents who choose schools select the schools that their children attend?  Do the children of the parents who make a choice of schools benefit academically? If they benefit, by how much do they gain in achievement?  What are the consequences for the children of parents who do not choose, and for the schools from which some children have departed?

Like all parents, immigrant parents are concerned about the educational welfare of their children. They have often made great sacrifices in migrating to a new and unfamiliar country. Less familiar with the schools in their new community, these parents often ask me about the Fraser Institute rankings. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the research about how parents use rankings to select schools for their children. 

Lesson 1: Parent decisions are not typically based on the evidence available.

Beginning in 1981, Scotland gave parents the right to request that their children attend a school outside the school attendance areas to which they had previously been assigned. The legislation required that educational bodies responsible for schools in their region publish brochures providing information about each school (including examination results), required that they take into account parental requests, and limited the grounds for refusing a parent’s request to send their child to the school. This experiment in school choice was the subject of considerable research.

One group of researchers interviewed more than six hundred parents who chose the school their children attended in three Educational Authorities in Scotland. Rather than seek the academically best school for their children, parent choices were fuelled by a desire to avoid the school in the area to which they had been previously assigned. Most parents were more apt to consider a school’s general reputation and how close it was to their home than they were educational factors such as examination results. In other words, they based their decisions on hearsay and convenience rather than evidence.

Those who made a choice were better educated and better off than those who did not choose the schools their children attended. Moreover, those parents tended to choose the older, previously more selective schools whose pupils were of more advantaged backgrounds and had higher academic achievement.

Lesson 2: Parents do not always make the best choices for their offspring.

When choosing among the previously more selective schools, parents were unable to differentiate those that were more or less effective. Instead, they choose schools whose socio-­economic compositions and examination results were marginally higher than the schools to which their children had been previously assigned. They did not necessarily choose schools that would maximize their children’s educational advantage. They inferred that, because children with higher examination scores attended the schools they selected for their children, that the school had caused the higher examination scores.

While schools obviously exert an influence on student achievement, they only account for approximately 30% of the difference in student achievement. The remaining 70% of the difference in student achievement is due to factors over which schools have no control. The many factors outside of school that influence student achievement include: parental education, educational aspirations and expectations, family income and living conditions, and community economic makeup.

Canada takes prides in being a multi-ethnic society that relies upon immigration and is accepting of immigrants

Despite having a wide range of schools from which to choose, more than 60 per cent of the parents requesting a placement considered only one alternative to the school to which their children had been assigned. Advantaged parents paid more attention to the information provided by teachers and school administrators and to direct observations made from their visits to the school than did less advantaged parents. Less advantaged parents were more concerned about the reputation and the disciplinary climate of schools.

Lesson 3: Parent choice has only a small impact on their child’s school achievement.

The school choice literature indicates that children whose parents choose their school will make only a modest gain in achievement: on average three to four percentage points. It is not particularly surprising that choice appears not to improve performance very much. If parents do not choose schools to maximize educational advantages for their children, such advantages are not likely to occur.

Lesson 4:  Parental choice leads to increasing economic and ethnic-­group segregation.

Economically advantaged families have resources such as time and transportation that enable them to choose, so they are more apt to do so. And the schools they are likely to choose are those with student bodies from families much like their own. As a consequence, choice produces higher concentrations of children from advantaged backgrounds in some schools and increasing concentrations of less advantaged students in the schools from which the more advantaged children have departed.

Doug Willms at the University of New Brunswick points out that, for poor students living in poor communities, there is a double disadvantage. There is the dis­advantage that comes from their own poverty and the additional disadvantage from the influence of their peers who are also poor. When choice removes the most able students from the peer group, the similarities among the remaining students increase. When most of the students who are left behind live in poor circumstances, their segregation amplifies and reinforces their difficulties.

Lesson 5: Inclusive schools – schools that have a healthy mix of children from the local neighbourhood – enjoy a balance of neighbourhood political support.

Charter schools are sometimes seen by parents as a way to maximize educational outcomes for their offspring, though the evidence suggests that this is not the case. Charter school student bodies are often more homogeneous than the public schools from which the charter students were drawn, resulting in ethno-cultural and/or socio-economic segregation.

In 1999, researchers studied the ethnic composition of fifty-­five urban and fifty-­seven rural Arizona charter schools. They found that nearly half of the charter schools exhibited evidence of substantial ethnic separation “large enough and consistent enough to warrant concern among education policymakers.” They observed that students who attend schools segregated along ethnic lines do not get the benefits of integration with students of a rich variety of backgrounds.  

They found that nearly half of the charter schools exhibited evidence of substantial ethnic separation “large enough and consistent enough to warrant concern among education policymakers.”

“Ethnic and class-­based separation,” the researchers argue, “polarizes the political interests which look out for neighbourhood schools, which results in further disparities in resources, quality of teachers, number of supportive parents, and the like. Schools without political support struggle and the students suffer.”

What seems clear from the evidence is that, while the achievement gains from school choice are modest, school choice has the capacity to fragment Canadians, reduce the influence that Canadian schools exert on the transmission of common values, and diminish social cohesion. Canada takes prides in being a multi-ethnic society that relies upon immigration and is accepting of immigrants. It can hardly afford practices that have, in other contexts, polarized and segregated communities along economic and socio-cultural lines. We need to take a closer look at the motivation of the Fraser Institute in fuelling parental anxieties through emphasizing differences among schools.


Charles Ungerleider, a Professor Emeritus of Educational Studies at The University of British Columbia, is Managing Partner of Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group, LLP, a partnership of professionals with experience in applied research, policy analysis and evaluation in a variety of domains, including K-12 and post-secondary education, social services, justice, and health. He has served as Deputy Minister of Education in British Columbia, Director of Research and Knowledge Mobilization at the Canadian Council on Learning, and Associate Dean (Teacher Education) at The University of British Columbia. 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

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