Project explores alternatives to school rankings

Nanaimo educators are excited about the work a group of Vancouver-based advocates is doing to determine how well schools are meeting the needs of students and communities.

Nanaimo educators are excited about the work a group of Vancouver-based advocates is doing to determine how well schools are meeting the needs of students and communities.

The Great Schools Project, which consists of a group of teachers, parents, academics, unionists, education activists, school trustees, school administrators and others in the Vancouver region, aims to develop methods to assess schools that support students, the community and the public education system.

Many educators criticize the Fraser Institute’s report cards for ranking schools based on standardized test results, writes David Chudnovsky, a former NDP MLA and former president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, in an article published on the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives website.

But criticizing these reports as telling parents very little of value about how well their child’s school is doing is not enough, he added.

“It’s not enough to oppose. We also need to propose.”

And that’s exactly what the group plans to do.

The range of educational outputs the group is interested in using to assess schools is dramatically wider and deeper than what can be measured on a standardized test, writes Chudnovsky.

The group is looking at inputs like class sizes, school cleanliness, library resources, staffing levels, and availability of quality out-of-school care; outputs such as critical thinking, problem solving, self-confidence, emotional resilience and community responsibility; and experiences such as availability of extra-curricular activities that students are actually taking advantage of and whether students feel happy and fulfilled.

Project members have looked at a whole range of processes for evaluating schools and are now focusing on about half a dozen of those, said Chudnovsky in an interview with the News Bulletin this week.

“My guess is it will likely be a series of recommendations for helping communities determine how well their school is doing,” he said. “We’re interested in actually making things better for kids, not doing politics.”

Derek DeGear, president of the Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association, hopes to attend one of the group’s meetings in Vancouver.

“I think it’s exciting to have conversations about how students are doing in a more holistic way,” he said. “Ultimately, we all want to know how our students are doing.”

Teachers are not afraid of accountability, said DeGear – they simply believe the Fraser Institute’s system of accountability undermines rather than supports public education.

“Ranking a school as last in a community does nothing to support that school,” he said. “I don’t think public humiliation is an effective strategy.”

DeGear said the Great Schools Project complements what the district is doing with its assessment task force, a group of teachers and administrators that is reviewing assessments done at the classroom level and ensuring these assessments align with their values as educators.

The project will hopefully be the answer to the “tired” Fraser Institute debate, he added, because it could provide the system with something better and different.

Mike Munro, superintendent of schools, said good, formative assessment and feedback is important.

Nanaimo schools used to go through an accreditation process, where an external team would come in and review a school after staff had done considerable reflection work. This was replaced by a district review process, which was also phased out a few years ago.

Munro said the external team was able to provide schools with useful advice and recommendations on how to improve.

“I think all school systems should be receptive to outside perspectives,” he said.

But ranking schools should not be a part of any productive assessment, Munro added.

“It just doesn’t give you any information you need to do something better,” he said.