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Why inequality is growing in public schools Add to ...

Securing a spot for your child in the most desirable public school requires a combination of clever machinations and outdoor survival skills. And good luck to those who fail to plan their strategy before the registration deadline.

(Which, by the way, is this month in most Canadian school districts for those of you who foolishly thought that teaching your five-year-old to dress themselves in time for September was your chief parental duty.)

You may, as Andrew Hope, a father in Nanaimo, B.C., did last March, sleep in your truck for two nights in the school parking lot, to win a kindergarten spot for your daughter in the local high-performing French immersion school. Or bring a lawn chair and radio to survive the hours-long lineup, as Lorraine Baldwin, a mom in Willoughby, B.C., did for each of her two daughters (the second time, it wasn’t only for the innovative neighbourhood school – she had her eye on a certain teacher and wanted morning classes).

Alternatively, with a well-crafted transfer-request, you may want to stress your son’s long-standing interest in learning German, a course taught only at the better high school a catchment area away – that’s what David Langner, an Ottawa father, did, while still lining up at the school, letter in hand, as a precaution.

After all, in a society of ever-expanding choice, why shouldn’t parents get to customize the academic path of their children, the same way they choose life-enriching extracurricular activities?

Parents make a reasonable argument: When families “vote with their feet,” it creates an incentive for a public system to innovate or fix problem schools.

Even cash-strapped boards are offering more specialized school programs, charter schools and generally loosening cross-boundary transfers – keen to retain the best students and appease their vocal, well-organized parents. It’s a trend that’s happening across the Western world. But growing research – including a new report this month from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development – has also uncovered a worrying side effect: growing social inequality and segregation in public schools.

That shouldn’t be a surprise: The parents with the savvy to write letters, the time to line up and the resources to drive across town to get their kids to the better schools are usually not the ones working two jobs and split shifts, just trying to get by.

The impulse is understandable. Research shows that good students help the performance of struggling peers, but if that school is in a rough neighbourhood, if it has low ranking and an out-of-date science lab, a bad (if undeserved) reputation for drugs and gangs, who can fault a parent for seeking a better option?

As Mr. Langner says, having spared his two sons entry into just such a worrisome high school, “I want the best for my kids. I am uncomfortable with them being treated like a social experiment. The school isn’t managing the problems and the best the board could do was take away choice – that’s what I really bristled at.”

And while social integration is a worthy goal in principle, Nanaimo father Andrew Hope says, “If you have a certain school that’s going the extra mile, I would do whatever I can do to get my daughter there.”

On the other hand, Canada already boasts top-ranked international test scores and a smaller gap between poor and richer students than most other countries. Advantaged students benefit most from open competition in public education: Choice helps only those students whose parents are able to exercise it.

Countries such as Australia and Britain, with a high level of choice, are now struggling to improve test scores in classrooms vacated by wealthier and more educated families, who then crow over their self-selected high-performing schools. (Though it’s hard to imagine a school not succeeding with a homogeneous population of enriched students and educated, homework-policing parents.)

And while specialized programs, such as schools focused on arts and science, are appealing, University of Calgary education professor Darren Lund, who studies social-justice issues in schools, points out that they drain the system of funds that might be used to bring innovation and a good music program to all students, especially in early grades when students haven’t self-identified interests. Aside from overcrowding some schools and emptying others, making choice equitable also costs money: How does the system ensure a low-income student has the bus fare to cross town to their desired school?

“It’s basically privileged parents getting their way,” says Prof. Lund. He observes that choice is already a fact in Canada – when wealthier family buy better homes in good-school neighbourhoods. Creating more specialized programs and choice, “works counter to the idea of public schools being a microcosm of a diverse Canadians society.”

This is, incidentally, a view that B.C. mother Lorraine Baldwin supports as well: She stood in line not to get her kids out of the neighbourhood but to keep them in. The elementary school in her catchment area, R.C. Garnett, a demonstration school that pilots best practices in education, is so overcrowded that even students who live in the geographical area have to line up for too few spots. At the end of this year’s January registration, 19 students were on a waiting list. “We have parents in tears, they bought houses across the street and they find out their kids aren’t going to get in.” (Of course, Ms. Baldwin concedes, they wouldn’t be lining up if the school weren’t strong.)

That said, even though her daughters demonstrate artistic aptitude, she says she won’t try, eventually, to get them into the arts high school. She prefers them in a neighbourhood school like the one she attended when she was young. “School just isn’t about learning to read and write, it’s about socialization and learning to get along,” she says. “I want them to be able to walk to school and know their neighbours. I like the fact that I run into my daughter’s teacher at Starbucks.”

And that’s the point that parents may be missing, as they jockey for a prized school: In the end, studies show that a great teacher makes the most difference to student performance, no matter what the shape and makeup of the classroom. Which is why Andrew Rotherham, the co-founder of Bellwether Education in the United States, a non-profit organization that advocates for school reform, says parents are lining up and writing letters for the wrong reason; he argues that advocating for the best teachers might eventually force boards to better address the ineffective ones.

So if you failed to stand in line on time, you may want to start drafting a new letter to the principal. After all, the other parents in the playground are probably way ahead of you.

Around the world

The school choice trend: In the last 25 years, two-thirds of countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development have increased school choice. In Belgium and Italy, for instance, parents have complete freedom to choose their public school – and students must be accepted unless the school is full. In Sweden, parents receive a “virtual voucher,” equivalent to the average cost of educating a student in the public system that they then take to the public or private school of their choice.

Student performance: A recent analysis published by the OECD, concluded that only a few studies found a link between school competition and student performance, and the gains were small. Most of the research – including international comparison of test scores – found that it didn’t improve schools or impact individual student achievement. While lower-performing students benefited from the presence of high-performing peers, the latter group wasn’t negatively impacted.

Who chooses and how: International research was unanimous that affluent parents were more likely to exercise choice. Several studies found that parents often based their choice on the social status of the school population, as opposed to strictly academic performance, leading to increased class segregation in schools.

Fair choice: The report recommends that school transfers be controlled by a central authority, so that parents who “know the system” don’t have an unfair advantage, and that poor-performing schools losing students should receive more funding and support.

Source: School Choice and Equality, OECD, January 2012

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