The TDSB's Learning Opportunity Index

Tonight the trustees of the Toronto District School Board will be looking at revisions (and here) to the Learning Opportunity Index, a measure which ranks schools according to the needs of their students and then focuses resources on the most needy ones. (The final rankings are available here.)

I had the pleasure over the past eighteen months in helping to revise and improve it, so I have two arguments to make:  first, why the LOI is an important, and essentially Canadian, educational tool, and second, why this new version is an improvement.

The purpose of the Index is to support students who are falling behind in school because of challenges they face outside of school. This new Index will allow scarce school resources to be driven to those most in need, those who are facing some of the greatest barriers to academic achievement and who are, by our measures, doing poorly in school.

The LOI deserves continued support because:

  • Our Canadian ideal of public education is to allow every student a fair chance to participate in our broader society. To do this, we have to make sure every child has a good start. Because the effects of poverty are cumulative, building exponentially, poor kids in poor schools face the largest learning barriers.
  • This is a best investment of educational dollars. Investments in poor kids make a bigger improvement than investments in kids in other income brackets – they just have more room to grow.
  • The LOI is and has always been one of the most cutting-edge educational measures in North America, mimicked in other jurisdictions, because of its statistical validity and reliability. It does the job it’s supposed to do: leveling the playing field.

The proposal going forward to the school board tonight should be supported because it shows an even stronger relationship between external challenges and academic achievement. The revisions should be supported because they:

  1. strengthen measures of poverty
    The current LOI measures income, looking at average and median incomes in the neighbourhoods where students live. These measure the middle of the pack. However educational research shows that low income is one of the main drivers of poor academic performance.

    • The proposed LOI keeps median income, for stability and consistency, but strengthens the measure of low income, adding
    • the percentage of Families who fall below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Measure (those living with incomes that are less than half the median Canadian income, i.e. those who are in the bottom quarter of income earners), and
    • includes, for the first time, a measure of families receiving social assistance.
  2. eliminate variables which confuse the issue
    Variables with a weaker correlation to academic performance were dropped; the new LOI is better able to predict how students would perform academically.

In recent years, housing type has become a poor variable because of problems of under-reporting and because no distinction is made by Statistics Canada between high-rise rental apartments and condominiums. Housing type no longer shows a strong correlation to academic performance.

Immigration is also a poor predictor of how students will perform. For instance, students from some areas of the world outperform students from other parts of the world, including students who are Canadian born. So, immigration status alone does not accurately predict academic problems.

The removal of immigration and housing type will mean that school located in areas with high immigration and multiple story dwellings may not be as high on the LOI if those income levels are not comparable to other parts of the city. However, when we looked at the academic performance of these same schools, we found they were performing more closely to the level predicted by the revised LOI. In actuality, the LOI is now a more accurate predictor of those students’ academic potential.

Some critics have also raised the issue of race as one variable that is missing from the proposed LOI. Educational research shows this can also be a factor in academic achievement because it is a substitute measure for racism. (i.e. one’s race does not predict one’s academic potential, but it does predict the barriers to academic achievement). Even though I chaired the school board’s equity advisory committee for a number of years, I feel comfortable with leaving the variable of Race aside for the moment for two reasons. First, the Board is being asked to make a public commitment to look at the variable of race when Toronto data is available, and I believe this should and will be done. Second, and sadly, because visible minority status and low income are so closely correlated in Toronto, that by strengthening the poverty measures, the proposed LOI captures many of the same students that a race variable would. In effect, race is currently a fair proxy for poverty, and so the strengthened poverty measures capture many of these same populations.

In another post, I will explain the mechanics of the LOI that make it work so well.

(Update on the TDSB’s LOI, after its release: Belonging Community: School board releases new Learning Opportunity Index)

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