Small Schools, Big Decisions

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. –T, S. Eliot

It’s that time again–a few small rural schools are once again in the fight of their lives. Sadly, I noticed Swift Current Academy and James Cook Memorial are among those on the list.

Back in my university days, I had a very good friend from Swift Current. We were residence roommates for a while.  Though we came from communities fairly close together and of roughly the same size I was always envious of the extras he enjoyed while being a student at Swift Current Academy. For instance it had a drama club and he was able to attend numerous provincial festivals. It also had music at all levels and I was decidedly envious of his ability to play piano, something he’d picked up at school. They also had a gym. The one in my community, while I was in school, was just an empty shell; the money was not found to complete it until after I was gone.

swift-current
Swift Current, viewed from a hill above nearby Black River. I can see the tops of those hills from my house in Souhern Harbour. 

In the summer, from time to time, I’d drive down and spend the day with him. Perhaps we’d head down to Marystown, just for a gab and a bite. He loved poetry and would spend most the time trying to make me love the work of T. S Eliot as much as he did. It didn’t work. I still don’t like it much. Perhaps we’d hang out at his house and play board games or talk about books. My favourite times would be when we’d just walk along the roads, stopping from time to time to go out on the many wharves that lined the river’s edge. Mostly, the water would be drifting lazily by; Piper’s Hole was generally sleeping monster. From time to time, though, especially after rain it would awaken and I’d see the furious flow that gave the place its name. Swift Current is like that.

He’s gone now, died over thirty years ago, but never really all that far from me; I think fondly of Steve and his home all the time.

During the 1990s I was a Physics / Math instructor with the province’s distance education program. Daily, I’d enter one of our audiographic studios and hold class with my students, dispersed all throughout the province. Swift Current Academy was one of my schools and, for years, I was a virtual member of the staff. I even managed to get out to a few of their spring proms.

That’s been a while, too. I moved on to educational administration in the late nineties. Most of my former students are, by now, in their forties or just about there, and busily getting on with their lives…mostly somewhere else, as it turns out.

Swift Current is what you might call “off the beaten track.” To get there you have to travel about 25 km down the Burin Peninsula highway The school is similar to what you’d find in most small communities, perched kind of out of sight on the side of a hill and meant to handle around 200 to 250 students, which is what it had in the ‘70s and ‘80’s.  Back when I taught via distance, it was declining from 150 to 110. There’s a little less than that there right now. Last time I checked it was home to 28 students. That’s right, 28. Today’s enrollment may be a little off but there are around 15-16 students in k-6 and 12-13 in 7-12, or thereabouts. That’s all the more remarkable when you realize that it also serves two other nearby communities, Garden Cove and North Harbour.

Same for Cook’s Harbour. When I taught there via distance, enrollment was declining from around 60 to 50. No there are 10 or 11 students, about equally divided between k-6 and 7-12.

Now the existence of the schools is under question, for what must be the umpteenth time. The district feels there’s money to be saved by busing Swift Current Academy students either to Arnold’s Cove or to Clarenville, where, additionally, the schools they will then attend can offer “better programming.” Besides, it can be pointed out that a trip from Swift Current Academy to Tricentia Academy in Arnold’s Cove is only around 45 km and should only take about 30 minutes by bus. Similarly with Cook’s Harbour. The distance from The school there to White Hills Academy is 45 km, a trip that can be done on a bus in 45 minutes.

There’s just one thing wrong with this reasoning–basically everything. Let’s dissect it bit by bit.

garden-cove
A fisher’s wharf in Garden Cove.

Let’s start with the supposed savings of money. Anyone who’s ever done educational administration knows there are no simple formulas. Everything is interrelated, just like the Earth’s own living system. Attempts to enact change using a simplistic cause-and-effect approach tend to fail–they often backfire, in fact–because of the many hard-to-see complexities that lurk beneath the surface. Cutting a school does not translate to savings as the move-around of students creates additional pressures on the communities they leave and on the schools to which they are moved. As often as not, the loss of 2-3 teachers at the school to be closed is met by a needed addition of the same number of people in the school that receives them. Oh, and vastly increased bussing costs. No savings. None. Forget it.

Now there’s the issue of “better programming.” This notion is based on the two false and stupid premises I shall call “False and Stupid Premise 1” or “FSP1” and ”False and Stupid Premise 2” or, FSP2. Let’s now take them on.

FSP1: Multi-age, multi-grade classes are second-rate. This is mainly driven by the people who’ve known nothing else–mostly people who are ignorant of life in small communities. They’ve only been in a classroom where a teacher is in charge of just one grade and therefore assume that if you pop in a second grade the teacher’s efforts have to double. Since that’s not possible, then it follows that the students then only get half an education. That’s not necessarily true. It’s only true if you view classes as teacher-centred, which, frankly most urban folk tend to, having come from an environment where all hands sit neatly in rows, listen diligently as a teacher drones on about whatever from the front of the room and then go and do a bunch of paper-and pencil based homework at home. My friend Dr. J. H., puts it like this, “Too many people equate teaching with telling.” In most of our small rural schools it’s not like that, nor has it ever been. That’s because, with multi-age multi-grade (let’s call it MG-MA) being an omnipresent reality, classes have always tended to be more student-centered. Unlike the urban classrooms, the rural ones have been much less rigid. The teacher does not drone on, ad nauseum, to the  whole group. They can’t. And that’s a good thing. Instead, with the MG-MA class, the focus is more on getting the students to do the work and on finding ways to help them do just that. Now, think about it–which way do you think would be more effective (a) listening and watching a teacher do something (bear in mind the typical tolerance that a child has for watching and listening to anything) or (b) the child being made to do that thing for themselves. Unless you are truly daft you can see that the answer has to be the latter. Now, this is not to imply that MG-MA is necessarily easier and more effective–it’s not. Pulling off MG-MA requires appropriate training, support and a student-centered mindset. With those in place, though, it’s in no way inferior.

FSP2: A larger school naturaly has more to offer. It’s only natural to assume that if you double the school’s complement of students, so, too, will the staff complement double. And, then, with more students, and teachers who, presumably, will also give of their extra time voluntarily there’ll be a broader offering of courses and extracurricular activities. Too bad it does not work that way at all. First of all, the larger the school, the leaner the operation. Look for yourself at the pupil-teacher ratios in the various schools. You’ll notice that they’re quite generous in the small schools and not so much in the larger schools where teachers have to struggle with classes from 25 to 35 students. Simply put, the larger the schools the more harried the teachers and the less attention each student gets in class. But it doesn’t stop there. While large schools DO offer a wider variety of extra-curricular activities the number that each student can reasonably get involved with also declines. Consider varsity sports, for example. In a school of 1000 students, only the 15 or so BEST basketballers can make the team, and that team only. In a small school, just about everyone with an interest gets to do it. Besides, they also get to play on the volleyball team, the badminton team, etc. Small schools, by their very nature, encourage all students to participate in most, if not all, activities.

Finally there’s that whole load of misinformation and just plain wrong-headedness around busing. Consider again Swift Current, sure, it only takes around 30 minutes to drive from Swift Current to Arnold’s Cove but that’s not how buses work. The bus has to start it’s run right at the southern end of the community and then wend its way through the town making anywhere from 4-7  stops along the way. Each stop takes time. With that done, the bus then has to go down into Garden Cove and do the same. With that out of the way it then has to do the same in North Harbour. That’s a total distance of about 70 km and a total driving time of around 1 h 15 minutes. And that’s on a good day. How many good days to you think we can expect in the winter? Not a lot. Over the typically snow-covered roads we expect from December to March you can double that. Of course things can be made more efficient. The buses from Garden Cove and North Harbour, for example can just meet the bus from Swift Current and shorten things up somewhat–you’ve still got three busses running though. Not exactly a recipe for cost savings.

Now let’s look at Cook’s Harbour. It’s about a 50 km trip from Cook’s Harbour to While Hills Academy in St. Anthony, with as associated driving time of around 45 minutes. Adding in the stops you need to make it’s more like an hour. Again, though, on a good day. Have you ever driven the route in winter? I have, several times, and let me tell you, it’s harrowing. Cook’s Harbour is way up there at the top of the Great Northern Peninsula and it tends to get a lot of wind and drifting snow. To put it mildly the roads are tricky. Once again, I’d double the driving time on most days in winter, assuming the roads are passable at all.

Think about it, the busing “solution” ensures that the students from the community spend three to maybe four hours per day on school buses. Let’s do that again, but slower: Children. Spend. The. Bulk. Of. Their. Time. Out. Of. School. Driving. To. School. “Only on the bad days!” you may well retort to which I can only respond, “Have you ever been on those routes?” Most days during the school year are bad days. That’s how it is at the foggy soggy bottom of Placentia Bay and the wind and snow swept tip of the Great Northern Peninsula. You just think you know it because it’s not quite like that where you’re used to living.”

Which kind of brings us to the heart of the problem: the decisions for the community are not being made either by the community or, for that matter, to be in its best interests. That’s how it has to be, given that, by law, education in Canada is a provincial / territorial matter. Since we’ve socialized it, it stands to reason that the needs of the province as a whole takes precedence over that of any individual, school or community.

That said, there’s a certain inevitable sense of tragedy associated with the notion that those who decide are not those who have to live with it. For me, a transplanted bayman, it’s hard not to feel a certain double-dose of bitterness. First, it saddens me to see how so many of my fellow bayman expats so quickly adopt townie ways and completely shun the rural life that nurtured them. Worse, though, is the anger I get listening to listening to casual conversations in town; it’s long been my suspicion that townies would love it if they didn’t, in their words, “have to foot the bill for all of the lazy people who choose to live the comfy life ‘out around the bay.’”

Ah, yes, “around the bay” that catch-all phrase for everything in this province that exists outside the Northeast Avalon, that homogeneous hinterland where the people apparently talk funny, ride quads and do precious little work.

Which brings me back, sort of, to that T. S. Eliot quote, but in a very messed up way. Rather than gaining wisdom and depth of understanding from that long time of coexistence between the urban and rural parts of the province, it seems as though nothing changes. Yes, we come back to where we were, but none the wiser and none the better. Poor Eliot is totally wrong, at least as Newfoundland and Labrador is concerned. He’d have been better off using just two words–nothing changes.

We’re just back to where we’ve always been. In times past, decisions regarding outport Newfoundland were frequently made in St. John’s, for reasons that primarily suited the city and were based on a limited, negatively-biased understanding of not just outport life in general but also on what effect these choices would have not only on the communities directly affected but also on the province as a whole.

The basis of that very decision making is typically the back-of-the-envelope type where someone estimates the taxes paid directly by the community and then compares that value to the cost of providing services. If the former is smaller than the latter then it’s concluded that the service is too expensive to provide. It’s not worth it; a sinkhole that needs to be plugged. This is typically followed by complaints about self entitled bay dwellers, perhaps even calls for resettlement.

The stupid narrow mindedness of this so-called logic is rarely called to question, even though the flaws are readily apparent.

Frankly, there’s a complete ignorance of the simple fact that the economy of the St. John’s area is essentially parasitic, akin to a tremendous sucking vacuum, a ravenous black hole that only exists as long as money is lobbed into it from some external source.  It has few primary industries of its own. The majority of the jobs—retail, government, health care and education—do not create wealth themselves, but, rather redistribute it secondarily.

By contrast, the viable rural communities are home to industries that generate the wealth that sustains the capital. Every time a load of fish is landed, perhaps processed and then sold outside the province, every time a boat or train load of ore is sold on the world market, every time a load of lumber or paper is shipped off, each and every barrel of oil that leaves here, new money is put into the province’s coffers. Oh and let’s not forget the huge money that pours into outport Newfoundland courtesy of the men and women who take it home from the long work commute to Fort Mac. The best that St. John’s can do is recycle it a bit, through retail, services and taxation, and then pass it around for the crowd to have a few jars and complain about the stupid baymen and plot how they can all be fixed for once and for all.

Simply put, a vibrant and wealthy St. John’s is totally dependent on an equally vibrant and wealthy everything else and everyone would do well to bear that in mind.

swift-current-2
Swift Current, viewed from a wharf in Garden Cove.

But that’s not what’s really disquieting. What is truly bothersome is the ease with which everyone accepts simple two-column financial accounting to be the only yardstick by which fiscal and social policy can be measured and decided. Life’s value cannot be properly and completely  counted using a financial balance sheet. Sure it’s one huge and reliable measure–after all, there’s absolutely no point in trying to create or build anything you cannot afford–but it cannot be the only measure. There are other things, including overall quality of life, especially as it affects one health, both physical and mental and, of course, the deeper portions of finance that extend beyond a simple balance sheet.

So what’s the point here? This: when making decisions about the future viability of communities it’s important to look beyond the obvious. Sure, do an accounting, but do it thoroughly. Look at the money but bear in mind that some dollars (ones that grow the economy) are worth more than others (the ones that are just recycled and which trickled down). Look also at the bigger picture. Is the loss of a single small school really worth it if it leads to the economic death  of  once-viable community? Are the alternatives as good as we think? Are they even safe? Even desirable at all?

I am reminded of my 21 years at the Department of Education. In the late eighties and early nineties, when the huge drop-off in student enrollment was first being realized, a term was coined: necessarily existent schools. It’s pretty much self-explanatory. At that time, there was a huge cull underway on schools and on school boards. Approximately 40 school districts was reduced, in several cycles, down to two–an English and a French one. At The same time the number of schools was reduced from around 1000 to a little over 300. Through it all, though, there was always a realization that, for some communities, closing a school was not a practical option and, even though the costs of operating those schools were significantly higher per capita, there was agreement, grudging, perhaps, but still agreement, that this was just part of maintaining a primarily-rural society. As time went on, though, more and more mean-spiritedness crept into the psyche and the term “necessarily existent schools” was dropped some time in the mid nineties. Now, nothing is off the table. Anything goes–literally.

We Newfoundlanders and Labradorians pride ourselves on being friendly, caring and community minded people. Is that really the case, though? A friend of mine has set me straight on the idea of the friendly NL’r. For years I recall him telling me, perhaps it’s not that we’re naturally friendly but that we haven’t been tested, really tested, lately. Well now, with oil at just under $65 per barrel, a depleted fishery, an all but dead pulp and paper industry and a mining industry sadly in need of some TLC it’s safe to say that we’re being tested and what’s the response from the supposedly affluent urban part of the province? “Shag the rural part, shut it down. Too expensive. Let them move to town or move away, whatever.”

Is that we we really want? Clearly, for me, the answer is, “no, not necessarily, let’s look closer.” In the case of of Swift Current Academy and James Cook Memorial I believe that to be very much the case.

Just today, on the radio I heard a story of how students from the recently damaged Bishop Field school had to move to the former School for the Deaf. Many of the parents concerned about the long bus ride. It’s a good thirty to forty minutes and the general consensus is that this is too long and that the situation needs to be rectified as soon as possible. Too bad the same sympathy cannot be extended to the few rural students who may soon have to face rides 4 times as long.

sound-island
The tip of Sound Island (home of my children’s maternal Great-Great Grandmother), where Piper’s Hole River meets its brackish end

A few months back I was out home in Southern Harbour and had a little time on my hands so I drove down through Swift Current, just like it used to so many years ago. I stopped by the side of the road a few times and even walked out on some of the wharves, still marvelling at the river winding its way to its brackish end just past Sound Island. I looked toward the graveyard and thought of Steve, realizing that, of the people I knew from there from back in the day, none were left. I made a point of driving through Garden Cove and North Harbour on the way back. For the whole trip I did not see a single school-aged child. I so dearly hope this is not a portent.

Advertisements

Save You All A Few Bucks on that Proposed Royal Commission

Contrary to the views of Dr. Wade Locke, widely distributed by the local media as alarm over out-of-control health care costs as well as the notion that NL’r’s live exceedingly unhealthy lives (some truth there, mind you), we don’t really need to spend oodles of dollars on a royal commission to try and get to the bottom of it. The answers or, rather, THE answer is already known.

We’re older than average; a province of increasingly older farts. Health care costs are higher for older people.

Check out the graph, prepared by StatsCan with your own tax dollars (the data has already been gathered at public expense). It shows the average age of Canadians broken down by province and territory.

age-canada

Notice two things:

  1. Blue Bars: In 1982 we had the youngest population in Canada.
  2. Yellow Bars: In 2012 we had the oldest one.

See—that’s the whole thing, innit?

Why did we get so old so fast? Is it something about the fog? The moose sausages? The toutons? Our crappy water supplies, perhaps? Blue Star beer? The awful weather?

Nope, we all know why, don’t we–our young people left.

In 1982 they were all here. Over the years, off they went, mostly to Alberta I suppose, leaving only the older ones behind. This did two things: 1—left us with fewer young people and 2—left the rest of Canada with more young people. In other words our Blue bar went up while this helped drive everyone else’s down.

And, now, more to the point, now that those who moved away are having kids of their own, somewhere else, this is again dropping the rest of the Blue elsewhere in Canada, while ours keeps climbing as we get older with each passing year..

Might I suggest that instead of wasting piles of money on a question that’s really been answered that, perhaps, we engage in a much harder, but more fruitful conversation around the topic of what should we do, as a people, in response to the fact that our young people really don’t want to stay in this place?

(Oh, and can I have the million$ the province was going to spend on the commission now? I need to pay off my MasterCard, Mortgage and Line of Credit. That would be almost enough to fix it so I can still stay here after Muskrat Falls comes online and the s**t really hits the fan.)

What do I Teach?

My friend Ed Wade was shocked to hear I planned to offer you advice.
Said, “They’ve heard enough of our old stuff. Some stories should suffice.”
Let’s do both, but be forewarned, you’re about to hear the pronoun “I” a lot.
It’s not about me, but about you, and maybe you’ll find some food for thought.

As this past year went by so fast many thoughts have came my way.
So I supposed I’d draw on those to frame out what to you I’d say.
I don’t want to ramble as I often do. I’ll try to be more concise
and gauge my speed against your need to check what’s on your mobile device.

This time each year I try to put a few words together for you
who are about to start; words from the heart; advice on what you might do.
In the past I made a list of things that seemed important at the time
and figured a way for me to say them in a way that rhymed.

But looking back I realized I’d made an error fundamental,
said too much, and so, as such, lacked an idea that was central.
Therefore, this time I took my own advice, and thought it through before I begun.
So now I’ll share one idea here, not a bunch as from a scatter gun.

“What do you teach?” I’ve often been asked by people I’ve just met.
That’ll be the thing to which I’ll cling in the few words you’re about to get.
But first let’s come around to it in a way that makes more sense
for you’re all from here, and you know, my dears that’s not how things commence.

You see around here, when you meet someone, first thing they will blurt out
is, “Hello me son, where are ya from?” They know people from there no doubt.
Next thing you’re asked is what you do—that’s the one that leaves me most concerned.
Are they following cues, or judging you, based on what they think you earn?

And so you answer them as you see fit; maybe ask about them too,
‘til finally they come around to the one about which I’m making all this ado.
“Oh! What do you teach?” they’ll ask, expecting you to answer in terms so short & plain.
Ah, it makes me squirm, I must affirm! Please sit and listen while I explain.

You’re thinking maybe I can’t commit, for many of you know why I have no tattoos.
You’ve heard my fears that after seven years, when our bodies are made anew,
the several things that once meant the most will likely have been replaced
as experience brings even more new things and the old stuff gets displaced.

But it’s more than that, sure I’ve changed. In first year MUN I’ve memories so clear.
Physics and Math, choosing, all the while musing teaching them as my career.
But my first job in a small rural school proved that wouldn’t be the case.
Eleven courses kinda forces subject teaching to an impossible pace.

I found it best to look at my students instead of the subjects that I taught.
It being a small school I found, as a rule, I’d have ‘em again more often than not.
Knowing their strengths & shortcomings let me get the most from those I’d been assigned.
Nine years came & went with me giving 100%, ‘til to move on I felt inclined.

I still recall that day twenty five years ago when I landed what was then my dream job.
Teaching Physics and Math online—ah the stars had aligned for this poor geeky bay-dwelling knob!
And to my delight I found that things hadn’t changed much. I still taught students from small rural schools.
Taught multiple subjects, and in many respects still able to use all my tried and tested teaching tools.

And so the time passed. Every few years brought more change: some good, some bad, some unexpected.
I got better, yup, yet I often screwed up, but each time I had more experience thus collected.
And so, over time, many things became clearer—that’s one gift that experience brings.
What I teach,” I now know, and I’ll tell you, although, first let me clarify several important things.

In the time you’ve been here many of you’ve come to know there’s some questions that I love to ask.
My favourite? This is it, “What’s love’s opposite?” If you say, “hate” I will take you to task.
For both love and hate coexist; you can feel both at one time, so opposites then they surely can’t be.
So take away love, yes, go give ‘er a shove, and what’s left is not hate but apathy.

So I caution you, then, when you’re put in clarge of a class and your priority is maintaining control,
keeping the sweet little dears all quiet—or in fear—really, that should never ever be your first goal.
Be mindful that when they’re unwilling to express what’s going on inside of their heads
you’re just flying blind, while they’re falling behind. All hands’d be better off at home in their beds!

But in all the time that I’ve asked of the opposite of love not one soul has shot back, “But what’s love?”
To me that seems weird, but perhaps you were “afeard” I’d keep babbling…I’m like that…sort of.
As you probably know, there’s many possible responses; the ancient Greeks spoke of no less than eight.
But it is this for me: “to want you become the best you can be.” So to teach is to love; ain’t it great!

So, then, as you practice your craft, and get on with your lives, you’ll let students in more and more.
And while their joys you will share, I bid you beware for then they can hurt you right down to the core.
And after several bouts of this you may feel jaded and wonder if it’s all really worth the price.
But let there be no doubt, once they’re “in” there’s no “out.” Been there, and on that I’ve advice.

At times you’ll get hurt, perhaps by students you love, or maybe because of the stunned things you’ll do.
Perhaps you’ll be too headstrong, at any rate there’ll be wrong that will leave you feeling broken too.
When you’re down you’ve three choices of what happens next. Here they are in the order of ease:
First: stay down, don’t get up, you poor sweet buttercup. If that’s you, you best quit now; do it please.

Second, you can get back on your feet and go on, displaying fortitude and resiliency.
But there’s a third choice: become stronger; it’s been voiced by sages with some brilliancy.
In order to get stronger, first you must get hurt but work carefully on that damage, I implore.
Because your strength it will grow and in time it will show, you’re far better than you were before.

After all there’s no sense expecting students and class to always be perfect and bright.
Rose-coloured glasses, are only for asses convinced their way is the only one that is right.
For once you get used to letting your students just be, even cranky and putting you to the test
they’ll trust you enough to share with you the stuff you need to help them be their best.

So I know you’re wondering, “Where’s the point in all this?” After all I promised an answer to you.
But you made a mistake, said my time I could take. To me that’s licence for some ballyhoo.
One last thing I will tell: back when I was in school, I was advised I should be an engineer.
At gadgets I liked to pick, I could fix ‘em right quick so ‘twas a good choice for me, they were clear.

But there was this thing, see there was something else that intrigued me far more than that stuff.
And so when I applied to MUN ‘twas cut and dried, choosing Education, for me, was not tough.
Yes, messing around in the lab is still fun, but a life in the classroom leaves me with no remorse.
And if you haven’t figured it out, what I teach, there’s no doubt: I teach students, of course!

The Bellislilunnel–Completely Unaffordable

Every so often you will hear talk about a proposed under-sea tunnel across the Strait of Belle Isle connecting mainland Canada—Labrador or Quebec—with the Island of Newfoundland. The benefits to the province as a whole are often pointed out—things like the possibility of increased tourism, more reliable transportation schedules and the potential for construction-related jobs—however the costs associated with the project are generally not discussed. That’s too bad because they are exceedingly high.

A study commissioned in 2004 indicated that the tunnel could be built at a cost of $1.7 Billion, however, for the life of me I cannot understand where the numbers came from. As I see it they are underestimated by an amount that can only be termed laughable.

Let’s assume that the proposed project—and let’s term it the Bellislunnel—can be to some degree compared to its much more famous elder sibling, namely the Channel Tunnel or Chunnel.

The Chunnel cost $21 Billion dollars and is 50.5 km. Since the Chunnel was completed in 1994 you need to adjust for inflation. According to the Bank of Canada that would be $31 Billion today. Dividing that by the length gives a cost of $600 Million /km.

To get across the Strait, the Bellislunnel will need to be 18 km long. Simple math gives an overall estimate of $10.8 Billion, a figure nowhere near the amount from the 2004 study.

As I see it my figure is a low-ball estimate since the Chunnel was built under ideal conditions, specifically:

  • Between two countries that each had a healthy industrial base right next to the endpoints;
  • With guaranteed sustained, heavy use that would defray the costs;
  • Through a region whose geology was well known and well-suited to tunnelling;
  • Through a no-ice, no-iceberg zone—a place where no ice impact and scouring would be a factor;
  • In an area that does not experience harsh weather effects.

In light of this, it would be reasonable to mark up the estimated cost by at least 40% giving a more realistic figure of $15.1 Billion but let’s leave it as is, for now.

The $10.8 Billion price tag needs to be mortgaged. Let’s assume a 40-year term and a 3.8% interest rate, which is about the same as the terms for the Muskrat Falls project. That gives an annual finance cost of $525 Million, a figure that does not include maintenance. Let’s put it on perspective: the Bellislunnel will cost every person in the province over $1000/year, not counting usage fees and maintenance.

The only current fund available to offset this is the budget allocated to Marine Atlantic, which operates the ferries between NL and NS. That is currently only $19 Million but has been more typically in the $150 Million range, which though sizeable in its own right is paltry compared with the debt payment needed to service the construction loan.

Using Marine Atlantic’s budget as an offset complicates things even more. It’s been done before, yes—he PEI Confederation Bridge’s main source for revenue is the Federal Government grant taken from the monies that used to pay for the ferry the bridge replaced. This complicates things moreso than they did in PEI.

Marine Atlantic is, in effect, the highway linking Newfoundland to the mainland. If you use its budget then you also have to account for a proper highway connection to the mainland. As it currently exists the Trans Labrador highway could not provide the connection that’s currently needed. Not only could it not handle the traffic volumes but, more importantly, the conditions that exist on it in winter would mean delivery schedules subject to frequent shut-downs owing to winter storms, making for a situation that would in all likelihood be even less reliable than the current state. That’s not to mention the added fuel and maintenance costs owing to the much longer route.

A new highway linking Blanc Sablon to Kegashka along the south shore of Quebec would be equally unrealistic. Not counting the bridges the 400-450 km road alone would likely cost around $2.5 Billion. A quick glance at a map of the region also shows the terrain to be particularly watery, marked by numerous lakes and rivers so the many bridges required would increase this base cost by a considerable amount, perhaps even doubling it.

Some may object to the numbers I’ve provided, noting, for example that the Chunnel is in fact three tunnels, two train tunnels and one for maintenance. They may say they we only need one so the cost needs only be one third as large. That’s not accurate. Certainly two train tunnels are not needed given the anticipated traffic volumes but the maintenance tunnel is still required so the best reduction would be by one-third, not two-thirds, bringing it down to a still unaffordable $350 Million per year.

Admittedly this simplistic essay has limitations. First you can’t really model things using simple proportions as I have here. There are start-up costs such as environmental impact studies that do not scale; they are what they are so reductions downward as I have done here are likely going to result in under-estimates. Second, most projects like this one tend to go way over budget so any figures you have seen are really rock-bottom estimates with the real costs—assuming the go-ahead was ever given—being possibly as much as twice the suggested amounts. There’s also the issue of ongoing maintenance.

In either case the status of the Bellislunnel project should remain, for now, as unaffordable.

 

The Myth of the Good Old Days and the Lies it Perpetuates

Stories in the local media pertaining to k-12 education tend to generate a lot of audience feedback, especially of the negative variety. Just allude to student achievement and the barrage of emotion responses begins. The majority–or at least the most vocal–come from adults who have long since left the system, and the implication is always the same: EITHER schools are not doing nearly as good a job as they used to OR today’s young people just can’t cut it. The comments run a bit like this: (From those claiming to to be post-secondary instructors) students entering the institution are far weaker than they used to be and (From the general population) the schools obviously are offering a watered-down curriculum and students these days are awfully lazy and unprepared.

Know why brainstorming doesn’t work–doesn’t EVER produce the diversity it is supposed to? It’s because it’s human nature to try and find common ground. Ask for divergent opinions and people will timidly at first and then with increasing ferocity state that which they are sure the rest of the group will agree with. Everyone just wants to be the one saying that thing, the thing that everyone is thinking at the time, regardless of how accurate or helpful it may be. It’s like that with education too. Over time it’s become accepted in the popular press to bitch about the sorry state its. It’s now to the point that people just go along with it without even thinking it through.

Too bad it’s pretty much nonsense.

As an educator with over three decades of experience in the system at the classroom, government and university level I have had ample opportunity to observe it from a variety of perspectives. What’s more I’ve maintained decent records over the years and, based on what I have accumulated, those popular assertions can be challenged and possibly even exposed as unfounded myths.

There are two items that need to be addressed.

  1. The opinions you encounter in the media are just that: opinions. They are not based on fact, just impressions that are based on recalled events. Memory is a complex thing and, while it is without doubt vivid and useful, it’s overall accuracy is questionable. Many studies (like this one) have clearly demonstrated that the events, as remembered, change over time. Those who base an opinion on remembered details should be clearly aware of the limitations and resign themselves to the reality that the conclusions they reach are of questionable value at best. Simply put: your recollection of how school was is probably wildly inaccurate.
  2. You may be assuming that the situation is far simpler than it really is and, as such, are ignoring details that have a very real bearing on the situation. Things in education are not simple, physical things that can be easily described. Take the often-used term “success” as an example. On the surface it seems to indicate achievement–something that does not change over time. The reality could not be further from that! There are many ways of measuring this thing we call “success”: scores on provincial exams, scores on international assessments, graduation rates, percentage of students who enroll in particular programs (advanced vs. standard math, for example), how many actually finish, on and on. The list is virtually endless. Worse again, even if we stick with a particular measuring stick–and let’s take provincial exams for example–the situation is still quite undefined as (1) the exams may change from year to year and (2) the curriculum that they are based on also changes every few years. Things are always much more complicated than they seem.

Let’s just apply one bit of this thinking to the aforementioned rants. In particular let’s take a drive through this one thought: your memories of when you want to school were only based on a sub-set of the students. There’s a whole HUGE group of students you have forgotten about, as a result of the two items above.

Here it is: when you were a child a very large percentage of students never made it to high school. Only what might be (cautiously) regarded as the “top” students, or the “keeners”  remained to be your classmates. Whenever you take pot shots at the current system you are therefore guilty of comparing ALL of the current students to the TOP students from your day. It should go without saying that is profoundly inaccurate and unfair.

I can back this up. Based on previous experience with similar arguments its probably a waste of time because I’m using facts to fight an argument that is not based on them but, rather, on ill-informed emotion. Whatever. If you are interested in the truth read on.

Owing to various issues such as (1) students moving from province to province, (2) students repeating grades and (3) the lack of digital data prior to the late 1980s it is quite difficult to get a handle on just what fraction of students, historically, have left school before obtaining a graduation certificate. We won’t have to, though. We are looking instead at the people that self-appointed education critics feel were their classmates when they were in high school. They just assume it was “everyone I always went to school with, which is basically everyone from my generation.” Nope–it’s not. Let’s find out just who it really was for any given year.

Since most people are thinking of high school let’s focus on the grade eleven class. For older folks like me that would be the senior year. For those who would have started grade 1 1 1973 or later it would have been the second last year. Let’s compare the grade 1 enrollment for any given year to the grade 11 enrollment ten years later–in other words let’s track the students and see how many of them made it to grade 11. Acknowledged the results won’t be perfect. For the most part you will be looking at the same group of students. Yes, some students may have repeated a grade and now be recorded with the grade 10 group for that year but it’s safe bet that this would be more-or-less equal to the number of students from the grade ahead who repeated a grade and found themselves with this group.

Of course this analysis more-or-less assumes a closed system; that is that no students either left or entered the province. As you will see that is invalid and the data shows it.

The graph below shows the result of the analysis. The horizontal axis depicts the year that the students in question reached grade 11 and the vertical axis represents the percentage of students who started grade 1 ten years prior who now find themselves surviving to grade 11.

Before commenting on the graph several notes need to be made:

  • Grade 1 was used instead of Kindergarten because the data indicated that for many years not all of the grade ones did kindergarten.
  • Grade 11 was used throughout, instead of grade 12. This was done for two reasons. First, Grade 12 did not exist in this province prior to 1983 and second, it was felt that changing the period in mid-stream would result in not “comparing apples to apples.”

Percentage of students in grade 11 compared to the when they were in grade 1

Most importantly you will note an overall increasing trend over time. That is, overall, it’s clear that as time goes on, more students, survive to get to grade 11. The trend, however is far from linear.

Prior to the mid 1970’s: The fraction of students who survived to get to grade 11 was appallingly low thus indicating that anywhere from 35 to 40% of students who started school never made it to grade 11, let alone found themselves in a position to graduate. Fortunately, the graph also shows a marked improvement, over time, in that sorry state of affairs. This is the main point of this essay and we’ll come back to it shortly but before doing so it’s worthwhile examining two other portions of the graph.

Between the mid 1990s and 2005: The gains that were made in the decades leading up to this period began to dwindle. At first glance it looks as if something went terribly wrong and that, perhaps, maybe something was affecting the dropout rate. Upon closer analysis, however, you can see that something different is happening. In a previous post (on Duck Starfish 23, my other Blog) I charted NL’s population over time and noted a significant decline in population–out-migration–during that very same period. In all likelihood that dip in the graph is just a reflection of what was happening with the overall population. Many of the students were simply heading out of the province with their families and presumably completing grade 11 elsewhere.

The period from 2005 onward: Notice that the trend rises beyond 100%. I will admit this had me stumped fro a while, thinking I’d done an arithmetic error. Inspection of the data tables, however, showed no error. For any student cohort starting grade 1, by the time they reach grade 11, the cohort will have grown! This can be explained easily enough, though, when you take into account the reality that in recent years, some of the people who moved away in the 1990’s have returned along with families they started elsewhere. Likewise, the Oil and Gas industry has been attracting young families. This explains the trend, however, it also sheds light on the limitations that exists with making conclusions abour how many people are staying in school when analysed this way.

Nonetheless it’s safe to say that since the late 1960’s the fraction of students who stayed in school long enough to reach grade 11 has shown a remarkable increase. It’s up from an appalling figure below 60% to at least 95%.

Which brings me to the point. Let’s go back to the title. I alluded to Myths and Lies.

First the Myths: there’s a general “understanding” among our adult population that what happens in schools has gone significantly downhill; that schools have gotten worse, courses have been watered down needlessly and that students are far worse off as a result. I assert that this is a myth and the data supports it.

The adults who are perpetuating it are basing their opinions on what they remember about their own high school experiences and there are two problems with that. First, there’s no telling at all how accurate those memories are and second, and much more importantly, those recollections ignore the fact that the classmates from those days were only about 60% of the ones they started out with. Forty percent of the students never made it to be included in those memories. In all likelihood the ones that made it that far were the ones best suited to the “bookish” way of life that they now claim is diminished.

Those complainers are completely ignoring the HUGE fraction of students who, for whatever reason, simply dropped out; acting as if they did not count.

Today, most of the students who start survive to find themselves in high school and the entire school system has been re-imagined and redone to cause that and to nurture it–a fact conveniently overlooked by those who just wish to find fault.

And the lies that the myth creates:

Lie: Schools have dropped standards. No, they have not. We now have multiple paths for students and we acknowledge (well some of us do) that school doesn’t just exist to prepare students for universities. We’ve broadened the definition of success to include more than just readin’ and cyperin’. Sure, those things are important but so, too are other things–things like accepting responsibility, being able to use discrimination, the ability to do research, an acknowledgement that in this country multi-cultural is in our best interests… the list goes on.

Lie: Schools are failing students. We did once when we simply allowed–even encouraged–almost half of them to leave before it was completed. As for now–look around. We try and nurture all of our students, not jst the chosen few who seem suited to a life of academia. As a result, guess what, “She’s not falling apart.”

Lie: Students are ill-prepared. My response–for what? Perhaps they can’t rattle off, from memory, the list of mortal sins, the capitals of all of the countries, the dates when European conquerors did this or that, and, of course, the multiplication facts up to 20×20 (Mini-Rant: not that there’s any excuse for students not knowing at least up to 12×12, mind you, but that’s another story and another whole can of myths spread by adults who claim to have been forced to memorize them by rote in school when, in fact they did not since issues with math facts have, in fact, been in a horrible state since at least the 1960s). No, now they now have a much broader skill base. The evidence? Literacy rates are way up, the general tone of public discourse is greatly expanded especially for our young people and, of course, we continue to create (and, sadly export) highly skilled workers. As for being prepared for university there are 2 things to consider: (1) enrollments at University are generally rising and this means that students who at one time would not have considered university are now there. Once it was just the so-called top students and today the cross-section is wider and, of course, (2) the complaints about preparedness are  NOT NEW. The same complaints were occurring 10, 20 and even 50 years ago. Check the pass rates in first year courses–you won’t see the precipitous downward trend you’ve been led to believe exists.

But, of course, this bit of rationality will do nothing to appease the hoards of people who continue to complain about the schools based on their own inaccurate memories and based on only those who survived a different system, as those arguments are based on emotion, and not facts. Sadly, you can’t win an emotional argument with facts.

Still, facts are facts and the remembered state that our young people are being compared to is one that simply discounted as disposable the huge fraction of the population that today’s schools do not.

Small Schools Rank Higher: It’s Built-In; Do the Math (& a twist)

From time to time you will see institutions ranked according to various criteria. Generally this is done with the intention of demonstrating how well each is performing. It’s not unusual to see this done with schools and here’s a claim that is often made, and substantiated by the numbers:

Small Schools Tend to Lead the Ranks

This is consistent. For years I saw it in my own region, reflected in the annual report card issued by the Halifax-Based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). Year after year, small schools led the provincial rankings. As a professional whose entire career was devoted to the betterment of small rural schools I wanted to be able to brag about this, to puff out my chest and say, “look, I told you that small schools were better for our children. It’s obvious that the extra care and attention they get on an individual basis, as well as the better socialization caused by the fact that everyone knows everyone else, is making a positive difference.”

I never did that, of course. It’s not because I don’t believe in small schools–I truly do. My silence on the matter was, to some degree due to the fact that at the time the studies were published I was a non-executive member of the Department of Education. As such I was not authorized to speak on its behalf. That was not the real reason though.

No, I knew that a far more powerful force was afoot; something that affected the results much more than did either good teaching, a supportive (small) ecosystem and the presence of many brilliant bay woman and men.

Although all of those are positive factors.

No the most powerful effect was something else, something related to straightforward mathematical behaviour, and if you’ll spare a few minutes of your attention I will explain.

Simply Put: Small schools have an advantage in these rankings that is due only to the fact that they are small.

And there is an unexpected twist too, one not often mentioned in the discussion of the reports.

Here goes!

Let’s simplify the situation and assume that the rankings are based on the outcome of one test only. Furthermore, let’s say that the result of that test, for any given student, is completely random; that is, any student who writes it will get a random grade between 0 and 100. In other words let’s act like there’s really no difference between the students at all of the schools. The small ones will still come out on top.

Let’s see what this would mean for ten small schools (we’ll arbitrarily name them sml01 to sml10), each one having only fifteen students in grade twelve and writing the test on which our report is based. The results for all of the students are tabulated below. In reality the table was produced using a random number generator in Microsoft Excel. You don’t need to read the table in detail. It’s just here so you know I’m not making the whole thing up!

School sml01 sml02 sml03 sml04 sml05 sml06 sml07 sml08 sml09 sml10
Score 15.0 14.0 45.0 55.0 53.0 70.0 55.0 100.0 79.0 56.0
Score 6.0 34.0 94.0 75.0 64.0 75.0 59.0 75.0 73.0 52.0
Score 15.0 83.0 65.0 30.0 84.0 46.0 64.0 10.0 35.0 20.0
Score 64.0 16.0 80.0 77.0 10.0 55.0 85.0 32.0 91.0 97.0
Score 29.0 28.0 96.0 98.0 6.0 67.0 51.0 74.0 69.0 9.0
Score 43.0 29.0 49.0 79.0 17.0 64.0 54.0 11.0 32.0 91.0
Score 31.0 49.0 62.0 33.0 0.0 92.0 35.0 59.0 91.0 45.0
Score 51.0 21.0 98.0 75.0 47.0 57.0 32.0 32.0 25.0 58.0
Score 45.0 27.0 18.0 6.0 24.0 31.0 84.0 5.0 89.0 2.0
Score 62.0 62.0 38.0 84.0 16.0 23.0 39.0 84.0 36.0 17.0
Score 9.0 0.0 6.0 67.0 53.0 99.0 54.0 23.0 97.0 15.0
Score 38.0 34.0 21.0 70.0 58.0 40.0 37.0 21.0 56.0 50.0
Score 21.0 55.0 51.0 97.0 92.0 40.0 48.0 100.0 76.0 4.0
Score 17.0 50.0 43.0 38.0 6.0 1.0 72.0 77.0 16.0 25.0
Score 35.0 69.0 83.0 34.0 75.0 16.0 46.0 51.0 77.0 33.0
Average 32.1 38.1 56.6 61.2 40.3 51.7 54.3 50.3 62.8 38.3

Table 1: School results for ten small schools.

That’s a huge pile of numbers and we are only looking at the results for the schools so lets just redo that table showing only the schools and the averages.

School Average
sml01 32.1
sml02 38.1
sml03 56.6
sml04 61.2
sml05 40.3
sml06 51.7
sml07 54.3
sml08 50.3
sml09 62.8
sml10 38.3
Table 2: Small School Results

Notice that the results show a fair bit of variability. They cluster around an average of 50  but some schools had averages in the thirties while others were up around 60.

Now let’s do it all over again, but this time let’s see what would happen in larger schools (named big01 to big10). For the small schools we assumed there were only 15 students per grade level but for the larger ones let’s assume that there are in fact 120 students in grade 12 writing the test.

The rather long table is below just so you know I’m not pulling the numbers out of my head. As was the case with the small school simulation it was done using a random number generator in Microsoft Excel and just pasted directly into WordPress. Scroll to the bottom of the table 🙂

School big01 big02 big03 big04 big05 big06 big07 big08 big09 big10
Score 67.0 100.0 82.0 25.0 27.0 100.0 10.0 69.0 22.0 96.0
Score 42.0 92.0 63.0 16.0 42.0 12.0 69.0 94.0 66.0 60.0
Score 100.0 27.0 42.0 59.0 88.0 79.0 83.0 49.0 27.0 96.0
Score 44.0 29.0 46.0 63.0 28.0 69.0 31.0 19.0 18.0 59.0
Score 16.0 33.0 66.0 81.0 11.0 21.0 76.0 67.0 70.0 85.0
Score 95.0 31.0 11.0 2.0 80.0 15.0 21.0 78.0 91.0 33.0
Score 32.0 32.0 38.0 34.0 44.0 61.0 55.0 0.0 89.0 64.0
Score 82.0 6.0 96.0 57.0 8.0 52.0 64.0 55.0 62.0 72.0
Score 100.0 48.0 45.0 10.0 49.0 93.0 89.0 72.0 87.0 72.0
Score 88.0 91.0 33.0 0.0 36.0 11.0 76.0 10.0 78.0 55.0
Score 54.0 95.0 41.0 68.0 92.0 75.0 54.0 75.0 20.0 52.0
Score 44.0 79.0 88.0 69.0 82.0 9.0 31.0 74.0 1.0 78.0
Score 71.0 36.0 2.0 51.0 58.0 2.0 17.0 68.0 29.0 36.0
Score 93.0 47.0 89.0 91.0 25.0 47.0 85.0 96.0 63.0 23.0
Score 9.0 79.0 33.0 41.0 68.0 19.0 74.0 81.0 57.0 47.0
Score 77.0 84.0 28.0 44.0 2.0 54.0 37.0 48.0 25.0 54.0
Score 20.0 74.0 33.0 57.0 15.0 65.0 85.0 59.0 21.0 80.0
Score 56.0 98.0 27.0 68.0 45.0 75.0 58.0 71.0 92.0 58.0
Score 7.0 70.0 83.0 74.0 26.0 52.0 71.0 40.0 75.0 87.0
Score 80.0 32.0 65.0 7.0 54.0 62.0 68.0 7.0 87.0 88.0
Score 65.0 12.0 68.0 22.0 5.0 26.0 36.0 92.0 79.0 40.0
Score 87.0 89.0 51.0 70.0 96.0 98.0 56.0 13.0 10.0 51.0
Score 52.0 71.0 13.0 86.0 88.0 54.0 11.0 20.0 26.0 18.0
Score 69.0 57.0 11.0 36.0 39.0 5.0 38.0 56.0 82.0 40.0
Score 95.0 54.0 54.0 77.0 52.0 74.0 100.0 82.0 35.0 7.0
Score 49.0 80.0 24.0 42.0 11.0 82.0 70.0 18.0 30.0 19.0
Score 46.0 26.0 3.0 56.0 54.0 50.0 2.0 9.0 26.0 47.0
Score 58.0 57.0 98.0 62.0 65.0 50.0 7.0 94.0 9.0 43.0
Score 86.0 86.0 32.0 81.0 63.0 49.0 60.0 61.0 93.0 5.0
Score 9.0 54.0 74.0 65.0 27.0 38.0 42.0 30.0 42.0 99.0
Score 41.0 37.0 30.0 70.0 77.0 86.0 58.0 48.0 53.0 99.0
Score 23.0 82.0 9.0 73.0 9.0 9.0 86.0 27.0 57.0 50.0
Score 52.0 97.0 91.0 90.0 58.0 11.0 56.0 16.0 53.0 89.0
Score 54.0 84.0 46.0 0.0 26.0 55.0 36.0 94.0 89.0 46.0
Score 94.0 75.0 32.0 16.0 77.0 9.0 87.0 21.0 58.0 59.0
Score 77.0 27.0 93.0 65.0 61.0 23.0 53.0 60.0 29.0 23.0
Score 41.0 26.0 34.0 21.0 24.0 57.0 34.0 78.0 99.0 90.0
Score 73.0 67.0 83.0 54.0 99.0 63.0 24.0 65.0 75.0 37.0
Score 55.0 76.0 30.0 85.0 92.0 57.0 31.0 69.0 82.0 43.0
Score 12.0 38.0 53.0 56.0 40.0 67.0 3.0 50.0 86.0 90.0
Score 48.0 89.0 86.0 77.0 80.0 83.0 92.0 38.0 67.0 0.0
Score 59.0 81.0 65.0 0.0 47.0 24.0 57.0 18.0 27.0 90.0
Score 32.0 72.0 46.0 54.0 92.0 54.0 41.0 99.0 0.0 87.0
Score 5.0 55.0 0.0 78.0 13.0 83.0 60.0 68.0 68.0 86.0
Score 0.0 0.0 91.0 66.0 38.0 22.0 2.0 82.0 32.0 12.0
Score 19.0 74.0 40.0 54.0 93.0 37.0 68.0 75.0 57.0 35.0
Score 13.0 81.0 36.0 39.0 50.0 3.0 44.0 19.0 100.0 16.0
Score 36.0 95.0 4.0 100.0 60.0 89.0 47.0 99.0 70.0 43.0
Score 29.0 46.0 12.0 92.0 35.0 28.0 17.0 74.0 38.0 85.0
Score 49.0 84.0 35.0 70.0 36.0 12.0 32.0 43.0 81.0 39.0
Score 87.0 32.0 89.0 71.0 11.0 0.0 93.0 51.0 10.0 39.0
Score 43.0 27.0 12.0 9.0 81.0 78.0 52.0 99.0 82.0 86.0
Score 51.0 41.0 50.0 73.0 83.0 65.0 51.0 44.0 89.0 5.0
Score 21.0 56.0 89.0 6.0 47.0 41.0 57.0 17.0 72.0 53.0
Score 12.0 39.0 51.0 18.0 96.0 75.0 23.0 39.0 75.0 39.0
Score 0.0 48.0 11.0 51.0 61.0 22.0 39.0 35.0 88.0 75.0
Score 33.0 53.0 23.0 68.0 88.0 69.0 48.0 40.0 19.0 100.0
Score 31.0 30.0 82.0 31.0 13.0 55.0 89.0 94.0 40.0 60.0
Score 90.0 5.0 19.0 26.0 68.0 60.0 77.0 63.0 51.0 6.0
Score 41.0 65.0 72.0 76.0 91.0 11.0 71.0 37.0 68.0 53.0
Score 24.0 80.0 70.0 73.0 61.0 4.0 79.0 59.0 37.0 73.0
Score 11.0 24.0 72.0 48.0 64.0 28.0 38.0 79.0 66.0 22.0
Score 22.0 13.0 14.0 83.0 2.0 21.0 95.0 100.0 55.0 55.0
Score 50.0 97.0 59.0 85.0 15.0 82.0 77.0 31.0 21.0 92.0
Score 81.0 9.0 45.0 56.0 16.0 55.0 66.0 69.0 79.0 78.0
Score 36.0 74.0 68.0 7.0 36.0 42.0 5.0 76.0 41.0 76.0
Score 30.0 35.0 68.0 59.0 92.0 50.0 9.0 50.0 98.0 97.0
Score 30.0 31.0 2.0 1.0 62.0 64.0 82.0 88.0 84.0 53.0
Score 4.0 46.0 55.0 54.0 61.0 42.0 81.0 77.0 25.0 27.0
Score 32.0 51.0 79.0 58.0 2.0 33.0 66.0 92.0 20.0 68.0
Score 70.0 76.0 52.0 24.0 2.0 21.0 6.0 98.0 63.0 37.0
Score 54.0 68.0 91.0 56.0 58.0 32.0 41.0 74.0 64.0 45.0
Score 37.0 48.0 29.0 42.0 4.0 93.0 10.0 29.0 97.0 40.0
Score 14.0 47.0 46.0 83.0 80.0 52.0 42.0 54.0 33.0 29.0
Score 15.0 2.0 100.0 12.0 9.0 84.0 52.0 53.0 53.0 6.0
Score 8.0 23.0 35.0 63.0 78.0 34.0 30.0 75.0 14.0 54.0
Score 16.0 90.0 13.0 80.0 32.0 29.0 99.0 21.0 34.0 80.0
Score 99.0 48.0 47.0 5.0 71.0 88.0 77.0 68.0 50.0 2.0
Score 45.0 15.0 18.0 38.0 49.0 8.0 90.0 13.0 71.0 33.0
Score 42.0 50.0 86.0 80.0 79.0 53.0 21.0 81.0 53.0 36.0
Score 16.0 14.0 51.0 14.0 19.0 97.0 50.0 49.0 8.0 2.0
Score 34.0 85.0 55.0 54.0 49.0 63.0 1.0 58.0 73.0 13.0
Score 8.0 98.0 9.0 7.0 70.0 78.0 41.0 18.0 94.0 74.0
Score 59.0 43.0 31.0 30.0 97.0 85.0 64.0 94.0 3.0 91.0
Score 29.0 34.0 6.0 17.0 43.0 78.0 67.0 17.0 50.0 34.0
Score 80.0 12.0 98.0 24.0 84.0 25.0 96.0 76.0 16.0 67.0
Score 87.0 89.0 11.0 86.0 5.0 39.0 83.0 98.0 27.0 13.0
Score 62.0 73.0 69.0 91.0 47.0 52.0 91.0 57.0 87.0 39.0
Score 22.0 64.0 86.0 64.0 10.0 88.0 6.0 62.0 91.0 26.0
Score 28.0 74.0 88.0 19.0 45.0 97.0 94.0 3.0 75.0 30.0
Score 27.0 11.0 11.0 55.0 39.0 30.0 39.0 54.0 99.0 86.0
Score 94.0 85.0 60.0 1.0 42.0 23.0 57.0 97.0 58.0 24.0
Score 78.0 7.0 30.0 94.0 26.0 75.0 100.0 11.0 99.0 11.0
Score 94.0 12.0 81.0 50.0 49.0 36.0 68.0 95.0 67.0 33.0
Score 5.0 9.0 39.0 23.0 31.0 29.0 23.0 22.0 57.0 46.0
Score 67.0 55.0 98.0 81.0 80.0 72.0 31.0 53.0 80.0 95.0
Score 68.0 57.0 17.0 34.0 26.0 38.0 46.0 55.0 74.0 24.0
Score 8.0 39.0 82.0 34.0 65.0 74.0 34.0 39.0 62.0 19.0
Score 83.0 97.0 14.0 84.0 71.0 66.0 62.0 13.0 8.0 82.0
Score 83.0 78.0 39.0 45.0 15.0 70.0 63.0 65.0 75.0 68.0
Score 8.0 32.0 75.0 8.0 53.0 67.0 22.0 4.0 34.0 46.0
Score 91.0 38.0 48.0 85.0 11.0 93.0 96.0 17.0 80.0 13.0
Score 46.0 90.0 14.0 41.0 0.0 40.0 97.0 74.0 0.0 25.0
Score 26.0 14.0 85.0 92.0 29.0 63.0 77.0 94.0 80.0 8.0
Score 99.0 60.0 48.0 94.0 23.0 37.0 74.0 57.0 2.0 96.0
Score 51.0 99.0 89.0 67.0 69.0 5.0 91.0 6.0 97.0 97.0
Score 41.0 21.0 55.0 63.0 68.0 55.0 1.0 60.0 11.0 54.0
Score 35.0 18.0 65.0 78.0 96.0 79.0 3.0 22.0 80.0 44.0
Score 64.0 62.0 37.0 12.0 81.0 71.0 50.0 29.0 33.0 82.0
Score 27.0 24.0 4.0 29.0 86.0 36.0 11.0 47.0 77.0 5.0
Score 40.0 14.0 44.0 95.0 78.0 90.0 42.0 41.0 99.0 83.0
Score 10.0 93.0 37.0 48.0 87.0 27.0 79.0 15.0 94.0 57.0
Score 92.0 100.0 24.0 81.0 61.0 93.0 68.0 8.0 54.0 46.0
Score 55.0 79.0 17.0 88.0 96.0 83.0 88.0 99.0 49.0 21.0
Score 88.0 46.0 20.0 17.0 74.0 76.0 12.0 53.0 89.0 22.0
Score 85.0 42.0 26.0 26.0 87.0 69.0 49.0 68.0 57.0 49.0
Score 59.0 31.0 21.0 74.0 56.0 3.0 94.0 95.0 26.0 18.0
Score 100.0 75.0 59.0 39.0 64.0 54.0 7.0 30.0 34.0 38.0
Score 58.0 100.0 60.0 96.0 100.0 70.0 71.0 19.0 58.0 7.0
Score 13.0 66.0 94.0 82.0 92.0 87.0 51.0 51.0 80.0 13.0
Score 36.0 3.0 32.0 29.0 83.0 95.0 20.0 42.0 53.0 95.0
Average 48.7 53.9 48.2 51.7 52.1 51.8 52.8 53.9 56.0 50.4
Table 3: School results for ten big schools.

As before let’s just look at the averages for each school.

School Average
big01 48.7
big02 53.9
big03 48.2
big04 51.7
big05 52.1
big06 51.8
big07 52.8
big08 53.9
big09 56.0
big10 50.4
Table 4: Big School Results

Notice that, like table 2 the results are clustered about an average of around 50. Notice, though, that the numbers are not spread nearly as much.

Let’s put the two tables side-by-side for a better look

Scool Average School Average
sml01 32.1 big01 48.7
sml02 38.1 big02 53.9
sml03 56.6 big03 48.2
sml04 61.2 big04 51.7
sml05 40.3 big05 52.1
sml06 51.7 big06 51.8
sml07 54.3 big07 52.8
sml08 50.3 big08 53.9
sml09 62.8 big09 56.0
sml10 38.3 big10 50.4
Table 5: Averages for both small and big schools

The thing to notice is that the big schools show much less variability. In small schools, individual students who do very well or very poorly (we call them outliers) tend to have a large effect on the average. In larger schools, the increased number of results tends to “smooth out” the results; to make them less variable.

This is something that is well-known in mathematics. It  even has a name: The Law of Large Numbers. Simply put, in larger populations repeated experiments tend to cluster better about the expected result.

Now, this is where things get interesting. Recall that this is all about the fact that small schools get a built-in advantage due only to the fact that they are small. Let’s see what it looks like when all twenty schools are ranked from highest to lowest.

School Average
sml09 62.8
sml04 61.2
sml03 56.6
big09 56.0
sml07 54.3
big08 53.9
big02 53.9
big07 52.8
big05 52.1
big06 51.8
big04 51.7
sml06 51.7
big10 50.4
sml08 50.3
big01 48.7
big03 48.2
sml05 40.3
sml10 38.3
sml02 38.1
sml01 32.1
Table 6: All twenty schools ranked from highest to lowest.

Did you see what happened? The top schools were all small schools. They reached the top due to nothing other than the law of mall numbers working in their favour. Random variability–two or three bright students or an absence of  two or three weaker students had a profoundly positive effect on the school average.

Recall also I mentioned there would be a twist. Notice that while the highest ranking institutions were drawn from the pool of small schools, so, too were the lowest ranking ones, and for the same reason–namely the presence of a few weaker students or he absence of a few strong ones.

So, based on this little experiment it’s plain to see that when ranked this way, small schools will tend to come out on top simply because they are small and the fact that the law of large numbers is better able to work in their favour.

As for the small schools at the bottom, it happens too and it’s at best likely that these are rarely mentioned due to the presence of selection bias on behalf of whoever wishes to weave the numbers into a narrative that suits their own political ends. One wonders, though, how many small schools have been closed or otherwise penalized for nothing other than being the unfortunate victims of chance.

Closing Note: this is in no way intended to cast AIMS in any negative light. To the best of my knowledge neither they, nor the various Departments of Education nor the various school districts ever tried to spin the reports into any grandiose claims regarding big and small schools. The false claims I have heard have generally be made by private individuals, each with their own axes to grind.

As for my own conclusion: Ranking systems, regardless of the context, whether it be health care, law enforcement, customer care or, as is the case here, school-based student achievement, serve a useful purpose but be wary of the law of large numbers before making any sweeping generalizations.