TORONTO - “Not pleased.”
That’s how Toronto District School Board chairman Chris Bolton feels about his board ranking yet again at the bottom of the heap of GTA schools, according to this year’s Fraser Institute Secondary School Report Card.
Out of a dozen school boards in the GTA, the Toronto District School Board scored 5.5 out of 10 — the only board besides a French immersion one that fell below the average of 6.0.
“I don’t think we’re pleased with the results,” said Bolton. “Will we learn from them? Yes. I don’t think we’re standing still. I think we’re trying to move ahead in a comprehensive fashion. Not just doing well on test-taking, but getting kids ready for their dreams in the future.”
Halton Catholic District School Board was the top performer with 7.8, followed by York Region’s public board at 7.5. Toronto’s Catholic board squeaked in just above the average with a score of 6.2.
For the past five years, TDSB has remained roughly the same.
This year, the Ministry of Education is spending $24.1 billion on 72 school boards across the province, while the province faces an $11.7-billion deficit for 2013-2014.
TDSB’s share of the pie this year is $2.64 billion — about 11% of the province’s annual funding and the highest amount doled out to any school board.
Why is Toronto’s public board not performing better?
Bolton blames the challenges of having a heavy influx of English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students. He said York Region has a different demographic than Toronto, with fewer inner-city challenges, which could explain why York is higher in the standings.
“It’s most likely the multicultural nature of the city that’s probably causing the situation with the literacy test,” he said, noting in his Trinity-Spadina ward, there are over 200 visa students.
“I’m not surprised with the discrepancy between math and literacy because often students who come to us from outside the board have a different understanding of math and are much more able to do a test that is strictly content and calculations,” he said.
There are 740 schools across the province featured in the report card (put out by the Vancouver think-tank each spring), based on test results from the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO).
TDSB trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher said while she’d be happy to see the Fraser report sink to the bottom of Lake Ontario, she acknowledges the TDSB has a number of obstacles, starting with $500 million in funding to the board being yanked from the province after amalgamation in 1998.
“Cut out this, cut out that, it sounds like excuses, but it’s not,” said Cary-Meagher. “We have more poverty, more inner-city issues. Poor kids do poorly — which doesn’t necessarily apply to all groups. We are also dealing with rising populations. There is nothing about the care and growth and education of children that is simple.”
Cary-Meagher said TDSB is heavily weighted in special education students and deems the Fraser report too narrow a scope in its rankings.
“The increase of autistic kids in the system is staggering,” she said. “We’ve got one kid that requires so much attention, he requires two education assistants all the time, every day. That’s really complicated. And I’ll bet in Temiskaming, you can’t get two education assistants to do that. You can’t compare northern Ontario with Toronto and lump them in the same report.”
Peter Cowley, co-author of the Fraser report, said TDSB tends to do “much worse” in rankings at the secondary level than elementary.
“It’s tantalizing in the questions it poses and frustrating because very few people within the education sector are taking this data and saying, ‘This is interesting. We’re going to find out why,’” said Cowley.
TDSB executive superintendent of student success, Christopher Usih, said the board is making gains, but doesn’t use the Fraser report as a measure because it’s based on one test. Instead, it looks at credit accumulation.
There was a 9% increase in Grade 9s who were getting their eight required credits from 2012 to 2013. For the Grade 10s, that number is 4.5%. The graduation rate has increased by 10% from a decade ago, Usih noted, to 79%.
“We recognize that, in some of the schools, we don’t have sufficient numbers of students who are meeting provincial standards in the EQAO,” he said. “But, we look at the report card marks, even though some of them may be high needs, and you’ll find that over time, those marks have improved.”
Usih called out three special-needs schools in the report card, which have all received 0 out of 10, as “misleading.
“It doesn’t tell the public and parents really what the story is — which is those students are making gains, many of them are graduating school, even if it may take them an extra year or semester,” he said. “That story is not captured in the paper and pencil test. We would like to see a lot of students in the 70% to 80% range — the way to do that is more differentiated learning for students.”
Doretta Wilson, executive director of the Society for Quality Education, said trustees are using ESL and special needs as “excuses” for failure and the board needs to acknowledge kids in elementary school aren’t being taught basic building blocks of literacy and numeracy.
“I don’t think the school board has done anything drastically different,” said Wilson. “They should stop making excuses and acknowledge these are challenges and start looking at the earlier grades. I think it’s systemic problem. It’s the way we teach math and children how to read and by the time they get to high school, any deficiencies are almost impossible to overcome.”
Ontario PC education critic Rob Leone said parents should be demanding more for their children.
“I’m concerned about anything that doesn’t expect we don’t do better,” said Leone. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen governments invest $8.5 billion annually in education, we have 250,000 fewer students and our test scores are going down. This is just the tip of the iceberg in some of the things we’re going to be seeing in our education system.”
Leone said in the next few weeks, the Ontario PC caucus will be unveiling a plan on how to deal with failing math and literacy scores.
“We have the responsibility of coming up with some bold ideas that will ultimately improve student success,” he said.
Looking at the rankings of the GTA school boards, TDSB has 73 schools compared to the second-place York public board, which has 31.
TDSB director of education Donna Quan has previously said having the highest number of schools under the TDSB umbrella is not an excuse for poor performance.
“It may be that no-excuses attitude is why so many of the schools of the fastest-improving variety are from Toronto,” Cowley said, adding 18 of 45 improving schools in the GTA are from Toronto and 11 of those are from the TDSB.
And that is the silver lining — that 45 schools in the GTA have been on the road to improvement over the past five years.
Among them is C.W. Jeffereys — which scored 3.7 out of 10 this year, rising from the 2.5 average it has scored the past five years — which has its fair share of challenges, including a stigma of past violence, poverty and mental health issues.
Monday Gala, who’s been principal at the North York school for one year, said he’s used a tactic to separate older students from younger ones to ensure they aren’t a bad influence on them.
“For me, it was a big issue,” said Gala. “We intentionally put a block between older kids and kids that are coming in (to high school) to make sure we don’t end up with a situation where some of the younger kids start acting out with the older ones. We monitor that in the hallways.”
C.W. Jeffereys has an after-school program for those struggling with literacy and numeracy. Drop-out rates are also decreasing, said Gala.
Only 13 schools in the GTA showed significant decline and all but three are above the average parental income of $74,700. Five of them are in Toronto.
“The most interesting thing is — nine of the top 10 have below-average income,” Cowley said. “That is amazing. That is the answer to how the reason we don’t do well is because the families are poor. Any school can improve.”
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