Day 5
The road ahead

Story by Teri Pecoskie

Teri Pecoskie is an award-winning multimedia journalist and The Spectator's education reporter. She also co-authored the landmark BORN: A Code Red Project series, which was awarded the country's highest investigative journalism honour in 2012.

Teri has covered issues related to school achievement since she started at The Spectator in 2010.

Photographs by John Rennison
Web design by Pete Smaluck

Published April 17, 2014.

How we did it

Interactive map: Find your school's scores


In 2008, Ontario’s education ministry set a goal for student achievement.

It was to have 75 per cent of students meeting the provincial standard in reading, writing and math by the time they reached Grade 6.

“Strong literacy and numeracy skills are the critical foundation for all other academic achievement and for a lifetime of success,” the ministry wrote in its report. “Their importance cannot be overstated.”

At the time, no less than $650 million was committed to early learning strategies, smaller class sizes and other supports to boost achievement province-wide. Yet six years down the road, dozens of Hamilton schools are still falling short of the ministry’s goal.

Last year, just over half of the city’s elementary schools hit the target in reading and writing. In math, it was less than 8 per cent.

But overall achievement isn’t the only challenge facing local school boards. There’s also the issue of achievement gaps.

Over the past four days, the Keeping Score series has uncovered troubling differences in standardized test scores between the city’s most and least vulnerable schools.

It also found significant disparities between the pass rates of boys and girls as well as between Hamilton’s public and separate school systems.

That said, it’s not all bad news.

The Spectator’s analysis of six years of EQAO data also revealed several positive trends, such as a steadily shrinking gap between the schools at the top of the heap and those at the bottom. Many schools, at-risk or otherwise, also experienced healthy gains, particularly when it came to literacy scores.

Take the ministry’s target pass rate, for instance. Six years ago, just a quarter of local schools were hitting the 75 per cent mark in reading — 51 per cent fewer than today. When it comes to writing, 87 per cent more schools are meeting the goal now than in 2008.

“I think the good news in Hamilton is that our boards and our directors are focusing much more intensely than in the past on ways in which we can ameliorate these challenges,” says Terry Cooke, CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation.

The question is, are they doing enough?

Participate in a live web chat on today at noon with Spectator education reporter Teri Pecoskie and key education experts and stakeholders. Send your questions and comments via Twitter using the hastag #keepingscore or via email to [email protected]

The panel features urban health expert Jim Dunn, Hamilton Community Foundation CEO Terry Cooke, Jessica Brennan and John Malloy from the public board, and Pat Daly and Dave Hansen from the Catholic board.

A group of Grade 3 students at Adelaide Hoodless Public School, including Brendan Storr, right, works on a writing project, a subject that comes more easily to girls.

For Cooke, whose foundation works closely with local education officials, the unfortunate answer is no. But the former regional chair isn’t demoralized.

“I think the more we shine a light on this — the more we commit, particularly as institutional leaders, to this being a priority — we are going to continue to make progress,” he says. “I’m just perhaps less patient than I would have been some time ago.

“I think we have to continue to keep the heat on and focus a very sharp lens on where we can continue to improve.”

Cooke isn’t alone in this view. Education experts agree more can and should be done to ensure all kids, regardless of personal circumstance, have a more equitable shot at success.

“It’s definitely not good enough,” says Jim Dunn, a professor in McMaster University’s department of health, aging and society. “Those are very avoidable gaps.”

“The public good is better served when we reduce inequities,” adds Paul Bennett, an education professor at St. Mary’s University and the director of Halifax-based consultancy firm, Schoolhouse Consulting.

“As long as there are such radical variations of performance levels based on socio-economic factors, we can’t ever be satisfied.”

Education Minister Liz Sandals, when asked whether she thinks local boards are doing enough to improve outcomes for at-risk and low-achieving kids, says:

“I think that in some cases it varies a bit from school to school. That’s why we keep working with school leaders and school staff to make sure they fully understand everything they can do to support kids.”

The achievement gap isn’t a new problem.

For years, local boards have worked hard to tackle it, funneling extra funding and resources into the city’s most challenged schools.

The top-ups are intended to offset some of the obstacles facing at-risk students, such as poverty, hunger and language barriers. In many cases, they’ve worked.

Breakfast programs have made it easier for students to concentrate in class. After the bell, homework clubs offer support mom and dad can’t always provide.

In-school interventions, such as specialized teachers and smaller class sizes, help target students’ unique learning needs. And technology initiatives allow kids to have access to gadgets like iPads and computers their families might not be able to afford.

There are also less tangible things contributing to higher achievement. High expectations make a difference, educators say, as does a high level of trust among parents, teacher and kids.

The improvements at St. Patrick, one of the downtown schools profiled on Day 1 of the series, offer evidence that these types of interventions can help level the playing field for less advantaged students.

But money and resources are no magic bullet. In fact, some schools continue to fall further behind, in spite of the interventions and additional cash.

“It’s a multifaceted challenge,” Cooke, the Hamilton Community Foundation CEO, says when asked why the top-ups aren’t enough.

He goes on to explain.

In vulnerable schools, it’s not unusual for parents to have a high school diploma at best. It’s also not unusual for them to have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet.

“It certainly can translate to the amount of time they’re able to spend with their kids,” says Cooke, “and also the premium they would place on education.”

The extras can’t always make up for that.

Jeff Kugler, the executive director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban Schooling, has a different answer. It could be rooted in administrators who aren’t prepared to make the difficult decisions really needed to bring about change.

“I don’t want to teacher-bash at all, because I think there are some really hard-working and committed, wonderful teachers,” he says. “But there are also teachers who clearly shouldn’t be teaching” as well as those who shouldn’t be teaching in certain places.

Principals, Kugler adds, have a duty to rectify that.

“I mean the union is supposed to fight it — that’s their job,” he continues. “But it’s the administration of the school’s job to say ‘this isn’t good enough for our kids and we’re going to make sure that changes.’

“It’s everybody sort of needing to do their job and be held accountable by somebody at the top.”

Hunter Linkletter, a Grade 3 student at Adelaide Hoodless, has his pencil poised for prose in a creative writing class.

As part of the St. Patrick breakfast club, Ashley Andrade, 8, waits patiently for a smoothie. Breakfast programs are one initiative that makes sure kids are fuelled and ready to learn in class.

The Spectator asked education leaders what they make of the persisting differences in achievement between their students and schools.

They admit there’s more work ahead.

“Generally, what we’ve seen is improvement, which is obviously our goal,” says Pat Daly, the Catholic board chair. “In saying that, we understand and appreciate that the challenges are significant, particularly with respect to severe socio-economic situations in some children and some schools and that, perhaps, even additional resources and programs are necessary.”

“I don’t think any of us expected this would be done overnight,” he adds.

Jessica Brennan, Daly’s counterpart at the public board, is more blunt in her response.

“We still have work to do,” she says. “And we will continue to do that, no question.”

AUDIO: Catholic school board chair Pat Daly weighs in on narrowing the achievement gap

There’s consensus among educators, officials and experts that more must be done to level the score for local kids.

The consequences could be grim otherwise.

Consider a new report by the Education Quality and Accountability Office showing that students who fail to meet the provincial standard in elementary school are much less likely to pass Ontario’s high school literacy test, which is mandatory for graduation.

If they don’t graduate, a cascade of poor outcomes can follow.

As Jim Dunn, the urban health prof, explains on Day 1 of the series, individuals who don’t finish high school are more susceptible to physical and mental health challenges.

They’re also more prone to family breakups and criminal involvement, and have a greater tendency to rely on social assistance, particularly early in life.

On top of that, there are economic effects. For instance, researchers have found that kids who don’t graduate tend to have fewer job prospects and a lower earning potential than their more highly educated peers.

The good news is change is possible. And the time is right to see it through.

Over the next several years, Hamilton’s public school board plans to assess the future of all but a handful of its 95 elementary schools.

That means everything from school closures to boundary changes to transportation will be on the table.

For Cooke, it’s a window of opportunity — a chance for trustees to rethink more traditional approaches to education, which, over the years, have contributed to vast inequities between local schools.

“It’s politically volatile, it’s challenging,” he says. “But I happen to believe we have a leadership now that is prepared to do some of the hard things that I think we avoided for a long time.”

Jim Dunn, Associate professor, Department of Health, McMaster University

Brooklyn Hobin, left, and Abby France work on a project in their Grade 3 creative writing class at Adelaide Hoodless school. Girls consistently score better than boys on literacy subjects such as reading and writing.

Five things: Raising the bar and closing the gap

At its best, public education can break down barriers, offering children, regardless of gender, religion or personal circumstance, a fair shake at success.

In Hamilton, however, we're not there yet.

Interventions and supports are improving outcomes for children in the city's most vulnerable schools, but more can — and should — be done to level the playing field.

Here are five ideas educators and experts say could help raise the bar and close the gap in local schools.

1 | Better utilize EQAO data to identify challenges and improve student achievement

Five years ago, the Auditor General of Ontario looked into the province's Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) as part of his annual report. His primary criticism was that significant changes in year-to-year results by schools and school boards weren't being investigated.

Paul Bennett, the Schoolhouse Consulting director, says he'd take it a step further.

He's yet to be convinced that educators are using the results to develop remediation plans and improve student learning. “In other words,” he adds,” they're not capitalizing on the data.”

Supporting teachers in all grades to understand and examine the annual test results is a good first step toward identifying problem areas.

“Dealing with the difference and looking at the difference among kids, that's really useful,” says People for Education's Annie Kidder “Not just so you can get the scores up, but so you can actually make sure those kids who are struggling have what they need.”

2 | Improve collaboration between the
province, city, school boards and local agencies

It's not fair to expect the education system to take on this challenge alone. After all, much of what matters in achievement happens outside class, in the home.

“Schools shouldn't be doing it all, and they can't afford to,” says Kidder. “So we have to be willing to take that on and make systems that make it easier to work together.”

The province's mental health strategy is a good example, she adds. The Ministry of Children and Youth Services works with the health and education ministries so that kids can access the help they need directly through their schools.

Streamlining other services, such as child care, could have the same benefits.

“Kids don't care what ministry it comes from or what level of government,” Kidder says. “And when you're a family you don't care either.

“You want the things to work together.”

3 | Head off poor
outcomes early

In 1995, a groundbreaking study by a pair of University of Kansas researchers showed that by age three, a child in a high-income family will be exposed to 30 million more words than a child whose family is on welfare.

The discrepancy can lead to significant differences in knowledge, skills and experience before a child even enters a classroom. It can also have lasting effects on academic achievement and other outcomes later in life.

By intervening earlier, through early childhood education and other family supports, school boards, municipalities and the province could head off poor outcomes long before they show up on Grade 3 tests — and save money by doing so.

“Once a child is at school it's almost too late,” says Magdalena Janus of the Offord Centre for Child Studies. “We should really put our resources into stopping the difficulties occurring in the first place. That's more efficient, and it will be more cost-effective.”

4 | Take steps to create a healthier
income mix within all schools

Mixed-income schools have been shown to be one of the most effective interventions when it comes to improving achievement for low-income kids — in part, because they're more likely than high-poverty schools to have a climate that emphasizes high academic success and supports.

Local education officials know this, and have taken some steps, such as boundary changes, as a result.

But they can do better.

Through transportation policies and magnet programs, which draw elite athletes, artists or academic achievers to more vulnerable schools, Hamilton school boards could strike an even greater socioeconomic balance.

They should also strive to collaborate with the city on municipal housing policies, such as inclusionary zoning, to further reduce economic disparities between neighbourhoods.

“It's important to remain focused on what we're doing everyday in the classroom and provide wherever possible additional resources to those places that have greater challenges,” says Terry Cooke, the community foundation CEO. “It's also important to think about the broader systemic changes that need to happen if we're going to have a more equitable and better performing society in the future.”

5 | Teach and assess students to better reflect their diverse cultures, lifestyles and learning needs

“In general, schools teach to a middle class experience,” says Jeff Kugler, the U of T prof. “And middle class kids do well in that kind of environment, because it's reflective of everything they know.”

By striving to better understand students' unique cultures and needs, teachers could help improve their pupils' chances for success. The key, says Kugler, is to place the kids' experiences at the centre of the class and curriculum, so they can connect and engage with what they're learning.

The EQAO could benefit from similar advice.

“I remember when I was a principal,” says Kugler. “There was a whole section of the EQAO that year that was based on zucchini and most of the kids in my school had never seen or heard of a zucchini. That's just a simple example.”

Teri Pecoskie

The Hamilton Spectator

Want to know how you would do on EQAO? Try our interactive test.

Grade 6 Reading

1. Choose the best way to combine the following sentences.

Soccer practice is on Tuesdays. Mr. Dennis coaches our soccer team. Our coach makes us work hard at soccer practice.

2.Choose the sentence that is written correctly.

How we did it

Last fall, The Spectator obtained six years of standardized test results from Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office. That information included the percentage of students who met the provincial standard in reading, writing and math at each of Hamilton’s 143 Catholic and public elementary schools between 2008 and 2013. On top of that, the data was broken down by grade level and gender — that is, the percentage of boys and girls that met the Ontario standard on any given test.

The Spectator then cross-referenced the results with socioeconomic information obtained from the Ministry of Education. The school-level data was calculated using information from Statistics Canada’s 2006 census, the Ontario School Information System, which tracks student population characteristics, and postal codes collected by individual schools.

For the purposes of this investigation, The Spectator analyzed results at those schools for which all data was available. The EQAO omitted data in cases where there were fewer than 15 test takers — or, in the case of the 2012-13 results, fewer than 10 — in order to protect against the potential disclosure of students’ personal information. The office recently changed its omission rules to align with ministry standards for data suppression.

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