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What East Van’s Schools Can Teach Us

Author looks at what helps students learn – and what doesn’t work.

Crawford Kilian 2 Sep

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

As a sociologist, Daniyal Zuberi has published three books on Lower Mainland working-class communities: one comparing the lives of hotel workers in Vancouver and Seattle, another dealing with the health consequences of outsourcing cleaning staff in our hospitals, and now this one comparing 10 East Van elementary schools.

Zuberi, now at the University of Toronto, wanted to answer a fundamental question: “Why are some East Vancouver schools with high percentages of students from low-income visible minority families more successful in teaching early childhood literacy and numeracy skills than are other schools in the same area that have similar student demographics?”

To find out, he and his team interviewed teachers, principals and staff in the schools, as well as analyzing student performance on regular objective testing – the controversial Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA). They conducted most of their research from 2001 to 2007, along with FSA data up through 2012-2013.

Nevertheless, the book seems far from dated and in some ways provides very useful context for today. Zuberi shows us East Van’s schools largely through the voices of their parents, teachers, and staff (all pseudonyms). Though he never mentions the provincial government, or interviews education ministry officials, we see the effects of provincial policies. Nor does he interview school trustees or spokespersons for the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association or the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

Their absence from Zuberi’s book should make us realize how automatically we round up the usual suspects for sound bites on one side or the other of education issues. Each side will stick to its talking points, but we will be no wiser about the students and teachers the debates are all about.

Instead, Zuberi studies each school as the core of a community – usually a community in the midst of change. Housing was almost as big an issue in the 2000s as it is a decade later. East Van then offered working-class visible minorities relatively cheap rents and the possibility of home ownership. But gentrification was already under way, driving up rents and house prices and changing the demographic blend. (Zuberi tells The Tyee his next book will be on just that subject.)

He also deals with key issues in Vancouver schools: the enormous diversity of students, the problems posed by “challenging” students, the involvement (and alienation) of parents, the creation and maintenance of effective programs, and the general problems of standardized testing. Critically, he includes a long appendix on his methodology that deserves careful reading by all education stakeholders.

When success means trouble

The diversity includes not only countless ethnic groups and languages, but classes as well. As neighbourhoods gentrify, test scores rise. A school may then actually lose its “inner city” designation, ending programs that really help the poorer students and recent immigrants. Meanwhile, as poor families move from one house to another, East Van’s schools see a lot of student turnover, putting still more demand on teachers and programs.

Such students’ parents may speak little English but hold down two or three jobs; their kids may rarely even see both parents together. When they are home, the parents are too exhausted to take much interest in school matters.

Zuberi’s interviews show that principals, teachers and other parents are keenly aware of these issues. His sources love the kids and love their schools, but struggle to get adequate resources: an extra ESL tutor, a counsellor, and so on. And access to resources seems to be the key to the schools’ success.

Strikingly, the sources don’t blame the Liberal government or the Vancouver School Board. They just need more money to fund more programs that they know will work – often programs developed right in their own schools.

The dubious FSA rankings

Standardized test are a problem for them all. Citing American research, Zuberi argues that “Standardized testing has been shown to problematically change the way teachers teach, encouraging them to ‘teach to the test.’”

Rankings based on those tests are dubious, he maintains.

“These lists do not, for example, account for the percentage of students from very low-income families in the school. They also do not report on special programs that might be attracting disproportionate numbers of students with special needs or talents.”

Zuberi’s description of Vancouver newspapers’ coverage of the Fraser Institute’s yearly rankings is mordantly accurate: “handwringing” about “low-performing” schools, touting the achievements at high-resource schools, blaming administrators for drops in school performance and success stories about schools that improve after some simplistic change like “back to basics.”

Zuberi and his researchers found some dramatic swings in the rankings of the 10 East Van schools they were studying, often based on the number of students not taking the FSA in a given year. The number of tested students in each school’s Grades 4 and 7 changed from year to year, and that could affect outcomes: two poor outcomes in a small class were more significant than in a large one. As a result, the percentage of students meeting grade-level expectations “dramatically fluctuated, up, down and in both directions” between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013.

Talking with teachers and administrators, Zuberi found they really didn’t like the FSA exams “because they’re used mainly for political reasons” and are often biased in favour of white middle-class students. Among the negative results: staff at “low-performing” schools tend to raise the drawbridge and refuse to talk about their exam results, and in the U.S. such testing has even led to widespread cheating by teachers and administrators.

Zuberi concludes: “Judged by the measures I have discussed here, such as validity, reliability, fairness, usefulness, and accuracy, the FSA standardized testing regime as implemented in British Columbia has not been successful. With little evidence of benefit, the costs of the current regime are simply too high.”

In an email, he told The Tyee: “I believe there is growing use of and appreciation of the value of qualitative methods in assessments and even evaluations, but this trend is largely swamped by the push for data and standardized testing, despite the problems and opposition to this approach.”

Zuberi offers no quick fixes and points to no “successful” or “failed” schools. (He usually conceals his schools’ identities behind fictitious names, including names of nearby streets.) But his methodology points the way to evidence-based policies that could indeed school the next generation better than we’ve done with this one.

Education debates are generally dominated by advocates’ groups and politicians, and they tend to propose policies based on the latest scare or fad or government ideology. In fact, ideology might be defined as an organized system of scares and fads.

In such debates, communities like East Van appear to be all the same and never-changing, just like schools on Vancouver’s west side. They aren’t, of course, but oversimplification offers better political traction. It also guarantees that the policies eventually adopted will fail to meet most schools’ needs, and put some students at needless risk.

If, however, education policy were based on Zuberi’s kind of research – at least a careful, ongoing tracking of social changes in neighbourhoods and their schools – politicians, teachers, and parents would at least be arguing about facts, not ideologies. “Solutions” like standardized testing would look less appealing.

Hard as it is to imagine, evidence-based information on schools and their communities could even bring a truce in the 50-year war between teachers and B.C. governments.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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