Cherry-picking in research means choosing data that supports your argument while ignoring other data that disproves your point. In an Aug. 8 opinion column, the Cardus think-tank writers have picked enough cherries to make themselves a whole pie.
I will ignore the callous use of the terms “good schools” and “bad schools,” as these reveal either a shallow understanding of education or a heartbreaking disregard for students. Instead, let’s begin with the column’s use of provincial achievement tests as a measure of each school’s work.
Buckets of research as far back as the 1960s have decried the use of standardized testing as socioeconomically biased and therefore not a reliable measure of a student’s learning. Using standardized test results to base an argument for independent schools is shaky at best. Achievement tests are one slice of a child’s learning at one point in time. They are not a complete or arguably accurate measure of learning.
That two schools with different socioeconomic backgrounds have different results is not a startling revelation but it is a great cherry to pick and one that wraps opinions in the guise of authority.
Here’s some information that the provincial achievement scores don’t show and wasn’t mentioned. Schools that work with children who don’t speak English, and who may have experienced war, poverty and hunger, help transform these children. I have seen these so-called “bad” schools help children become fluent in English. I have seen these schools welcome children who have never held a pencil, who alternate school with siblings so they will have food in their lunches, and turn them into learners. These are not “bad” schools. In fact, they are great schools. Truly understanding what is happening in those schools requires the ingredients of meaningful research — richer data, reflection and deeper analysis than a PAT result provides.
Another piece of data not shared? There is one pot of funding for K-12 education. The provincial government does not add more money when alternative schools emerge; rather each school gets a little less. Allowing more funding for more types of schooling might sound great in theory but there is a terrible cost. While the opinion writers argue that “all schools would be better off if independent schools got public funds,” that simply isn’t true. What would happen is the very schools that work so effectively and humanely would be faced with larger classes, fewer books and computers.
So, some of these students don’t do well on their provincial achievement tests? In fact, they will in time, and they do. Maybe not each year but, by the time they leave the public school system, most do. You see, public education is not about how a child performs in a moment in time. It is about the whole child over the space of 13 years.
The column also asserts that a “robust, fully funded independent sector would spur failing schools to improve.” In the United States, the “no child left behind” policies operated under that same misconception. In actuality, it achieved the opposite. Schools with high-needs students had funding withdrawn, leaving schools to do more with even less. It didn’t change who attended the schools — it simply punished them further for being in a poor area.
Public education is the foundation of a healthy democracy and shame on those who seek to erode it. Shame on those who seek to take more funding away from schools that do so much with students who need it the most. Shame on those who manipulate statistics for their own gain or that of their organization.
The thing about this type of cherry pie is that it’s actually not good for you. Slice it open and see the pits hiding in all of that goo.
Karen Pegler is a retired teacher-educational specialist with the CBE.