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Real estate agents should sell houses, not rank schools

News that a real estate agent in the Greater Toronto Area has devised her own scale to rank schools is alarming. One element of her rankings, ESL learners in the classroom, is one on which we have conducted extensive research.

It is completely inappropriate to assume that just because a child or youth speaks English as a second language, he or she causes more difficulty for the teacher. Simply looking at raw numbers of ESL speakers in a school and deciding that larger numbers equate with more difficulty is absurd.

Factors such as previous education in the first language, competence in the first language, country of origin, immigration class (independent, family, refugee), parental ability to help the child, student behaviour, overall family income, and teacher training are other predictors of success. For example, in a study of Vancouver public schools, Lee Gunderson found that Mandarin-speaking students "scored significantly higher than Canadian born students, with math averages phenomenally high."

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To lump all ESL children together as though they all achieve or under-achieve in the same way is evidence of overly simplistic thinking, just as assuming that any child of a single parent is going to make a teacher's job more difficult.

If parents want to find the best school for their children, they should visit the schools in the areas they are considering and see for themselves what the schools can offer.

A real estate agent is not an education expert. Would you rely on the advice of an education professor as to the state of a house's foundation, subfloors, roof, or skylights? No. Would you trust an education professor to advise you on how to best stage the house for quick sale? No. So why would you trust a real estate agent to assess the best school for your child, when clearly the situation is far more complicated than the percentage of ESL children or children of single parents in a given school district?

Canadian-born, English-only speaking students enrolled in classrooms with students from other language backgrounds are fortunate to be exposed to peers who come from a range of cultures and traditions. Given a context in which learning from peers as well as from teachers is encouraged, students will be better prepared for diverse workplaces in the future.

In our own research, we determined that there is a great deal of difference across individual schools in terms of academic achievement. Our 2008 study in Vancouver indicated that schools in lower SES neighbourhoods can do well, and schools in higher SES neighbourhoods may not be the best fit for some children.

In other words, parents need to examine the contexts in which they would prefer to situate their children, but this decision must be informed by much more than the naive and crude calculations that a real estate agent can offer. To what extent the schools accommodate students has a significant impact on ultimate success rates.

Patricia Duff observed two Grade 10 social studies classes and interviewed the students, half of whom were ESL speakers. She found that the teachers in this case did not make adjustments for the ESL students, and recommended that students be helped to develop both their social and their academic language. Schools that actively incorporate strategies to integrate learners from a range of backgrounds will have more success.

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As professors in education faculties, we would encourage parents to go to the schools directly, talk to the administrators, ask to visit the classrooms where their children would be placed, and make their own determination based on a wide array of data, rather than giving credence to an inaccurate website posted by a real estate agent, whose main goal is to buy and sell houses.

Tracey Derwing is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta and Kelleen Toohey is a professor of education at Simon Fraser University.

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