Two cheers for Ontario’s school information website

Ontario’s new School Information site a (small) victory for parents

“Due to high volumes,” explains the Ontario ministry of education’s new School Information site, “you may experience problems accessing the School Information Finder. Please try again later.” Oh, I’ve been trying again later. Time and again, hour after hour. For most of this afternoon, I was unable to get beyond the homepage. The reason? Ontario’s new, searchable database of elementary and high schools is apparently very popular — as popular among parents as it is unpopular among a certain group of professional education lobbyists.

The website doesn’t tell you much that you don’t already know — this has been the government’s main defence against the critics — but it’s pleasantly surprising nonetheless. Ontario’s education ministry and establishment has a long-standing aversion to the gathering (let alone the publication) of any data that might allow anyone to identify problems in the province’s public education system. We don’t have standardized test, we don’t have high school leaving exams, we have little with which to measure school progress (or lack thereof) and little useful data for parents choosing a school for their child, or parents who would like to figure out where their school stands so as to light a fire under the administration to improve things.

Which may explain the response to the School Information site, which today apparently overwhelmed the Ontario’s government’s web servers. People are starved for information. Does the site give them everything they want? No. Not even close. But it does offer an opportunity to see how your local school(s) measure up in a variety of areas. When you’re starved for information, even the smallest disclosure is likely to attract your excited attention. People may have been even more frantic to get on to website because news stories published earlier today seemed to be suggesting that the site might be shut down, or at least curtailed. (And a “compare schools” feature was removed before I had a chance to look at the site. Not to worry: all this means is that you can’t make side-by-side comparisons on the screen. You can still do them yourself with a printer and/or a pad and paper.) I’m sure many parents had the same reaction I had: if somebody doesn’t want us to see this information, it must be good.

The lead spokesperson of those opposing the website has been Annie Kidder of People for Education. She told the Globe that her problem with people having access to the info on this website is that, “[y]ou see divisions along class lines in terms of the schools parents are choosing… But the job of government is to look out for the overall public good. Their job is not to help me work the system or get around the rules.”

It’s not clear what “rules” this website would help people to get around. Ontarians already have some (limited) choice when it comes to deciding where their kids will go to school within the public system. They may (or may not) be able to choose among more than one local school that has not reached its enrollment limit, and is accepting students. They may be able to choose between a local publicly-funded Catholic school and a local public school. Its hard to understand how anyone is better served if these choices are made in an information vacuum.

People for Education may be opposed to the new website, but People Who Want My Kid to Get An Education are the reason the site is overwhelmed by visitors. Information is power. People want information. They want to feel that they have choice and that they can in some way influence the often unhappy outcomes generated by a monolithic, bureaucratic education system where quality education is rarely the first priority for anyone, save parents. For parents, their child’s education is not some abstract and theoretical construct, to be balanced against other goods. They want their child to attend the best school possible and they want information showing that the school their child is attending is meeting the highest standards. (And if it isn’t, well, they want to know that too — along with what the school is doing to improve). Parents are going to grab on to any and all information that will help them meet those goals.

People for Education is particularly upset about the inclusion of demographic data on the website: for each high school, for example, you can see what percentage of its students met the average on the province-wide literacy test or in Academic Math, but you also learn the percentage of students whose first language is not English and the percentage of parents with a university education. Demography can sometimes be destiny; for example, the children of upper income, university educated parents are more likely to themselves perform well in high school and attend university. The fear that People for Education seems to have is that People Who Want My Kid to Get An Education will use this website to make bad choices. You know, the weathy and educated will be scrambling to get into schools filled with students of the similarly wealthy and educated.

But to some extent that already happens. It happens because people with means have always chosen to live in certain neighbourhoods, close to certain schools. If they are wealthy enough or frugal enough, they do it by sending their kids to private school. Parents will make rational choices to benefit their children, and woe betide the politician who seeks to thwart them. But most parents can’t do what the wealthy can do. Their only hope is for the local public school to be as good as possible. That’s their battle. It’s impossible to imagine how less information — in particular information about underperforming schools — makes that outcome more likely.

As I browsed through the database (I finally got into it this evening), what jumped out at me is how some schools in Toronto with high non-English speaking populations perform at an extremely high level, while others do not. What are these schools, these neighbourhoods, these parents, these kids getting right? What other factors are at play? And at those schools that are falling behind, what can the province, the school board, the administration, the teachers, the parents and the students do to raise outcomes?

We as a society can either provide as much information as possible so that parents, armed with information, can deeply involve themselves in the project to improve schools, or we can try to try to keep a tight lid on information that might highlight areas of failure, for fear that such information will be misused.

I know what most course most parents, and most citizens, would choose.