Letter to the Editor

Fraser Institute’s school report cards lie On June12, the Yukon News published an editorial titled, Think Tank Numbers Lie.

Fraser Institute’s school report cards lie

On June12, the Yukon News published an editorial titled, Think Tank Numbers Lie.

In response, Peter Cowley, director of the Fraser Institute’s school performance studies, wrote a rebuttal for the June 19th issue titled Fraser Institute Doesn’t Deserve Its Bad Report Card.

Most people would probably agree there is nothing wrong with testing secondary school students using the Foundation Skills Assessment, or other tests, as long as there is no over indulgence.

So what’s the controversy?

In 1998, the BC-based institute started ranking Canadian secondary schools.

Its ranking uses the students math and literacy test scores to evaluate schools, something assessment was never designed for.

Context often plays a role in education.

How well do the parents either speak French or English?

Is the school in a region with disproportionate Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder occurrence?

Do the parents have enough money for a nutrition that sustains learning?

Is there extensive TV exposure because meaningful childcare is not available?

Even tough schools in Canada are more than places to store kids — they are also places of higher learning.

Now, through the remarkable effort of the institute report cards, such public secondary schools routinely get comparatively bad marks. But, in reality, those schools often promote students on all levels very well.

Across Canada, but especially in BC, where the institute’s report cards have been around the longest, there is a growing grassroots movement of parents, teachers, schools and communities who defend public education and fight the distortion brought about by school rankings.

Mr. Cowley, let me give you an idea what a few of the countless reactions look like by experienced educators, researchers as well as parents and the general public:

“The problem is that these results are generally meaningless,” Hugh Burke, principal of Maple Ridge, BC’s top-ranked Meadowridge School, said in a letter published in the Vancouver Sun in 2003.

“We reject our ranking, as any good school will. I would be most suspicious of any school that actually boasted about such results.”

“Many media outlets have carried news that five Vancouver public schools (Magee, King George, Castilian, Byng, and U-Hill) have refused a nomination for an award from the Fraser Institute,” according to the January/February 2005 Teacher Newsmagazine article titled The Problem Behind the Fraser Institute Awards.

“Alex Grant, principal of Magee, sent a polite note declining the nomination and stating he had little confidence in the institute’s ‘ability to conduct a meaningful assessment.’”

Cowley asked for clarification.

“Dear Mr. Cowley,” wrote Grant, in answer. “It was not my intent to enter into a debate regarding your awards program; however, I would be pleased to have Magee recognized for excellence in any aspect of our school program, including academic excellence, if the assessment of excellence was credible.

“Your report card on secondary schools purports to rate and rank schools, yet it ignores entire dimensions of student performance.

“My criticism of the Fraser Institute ratings is not based solely on the fact that areas such as music, art, drama, business education, physical education, special education, and technical studies are completely ignored.

“I object to the manipulation of a limited data set to produce a rank ordering of schools from one to 279 as though such a feat had meaning or validity.

“One of the more obvious shortcomings of your data analysis is evident in your rationale for including a rating according to the number of provincially examinable courses taken per student.

“It is simplistic in the extreme to suggest that, ‘for most students a decision to take advantage of these courses is a good one and a school that is successful in encouraging students to take these courses shows that it offers practical, well-informed counselling.’

“This is analogous to ranking diets on the

basis of their recommended intake of protein; since protein is essential for a healthy diet, those that recommend the greatest daily intake of protein (regardless of age, sex, weight, medical condition, etc.) must be the healthiest!

“… once admission requirements are met, there is no compelling argument for assigning value to a provincially examinable course and no value to a non-examinable course.

“If Magee students stopped enrolling in music courses and switched to provincially examinable courses (even if those courses were neither of interest to the students nor required for their post-secondary plans), then Magee’s ranking on this indicator would go up.

This is not evidence of a well-considered indicator.

“In summation, the best suggestion I can offer in regard to improving your report card (short of eliminating it) is to stop amalgamating disparate types of data to produce a single rating/ranking for schools.”

The Coalition for Public Education also opposes the institute’s report cards.

Its members include the BC Teachers’ Federation, Canadian Federation of Students, Canadian Union of Public Employees, College Institute Educators’ Association, BC Government and Service Employees Union, and the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of BC.

An expression of the movement opposing the report cards is the Charter for Public Education, which reflects a consensus from public education hearings across British Columbia, 2002-2003.

Mr. Cowley, of course you are aware of the institute’s fading credibility — some of these statements were directly sent to you.

Your letter to the Yukon News basically assumes that we don’t know the controversy and you try to exploit that.

In your letter, you state the FI data are compensated for inaccuracy caused by annual fluctuation by providing a five-year data history.

Unfortunately this is irrelevant.

I read the contentious paper, Cautions about Rating BC’s Schools, by three Simon Fraser University professors from faculty of Education, which was originally published in criticism to a Vancouver Sun article that discussed BC schools based on FI report card ratings.

The Simon Fraser profs reflect sufficiently on the aspect of fluctuation of data over time and other statistics aspects.

They make clear how well-established the influence of social privilege is regarding the scores of literacy and numeracy tests.

That is not a problem for the tests, but it’s a huge problem for your report card rating. Schools that have a high proportion of disadvantaged students are often, at the same time, excellent institutions for every kid in the classroom.

The paper concludes that the education debate needs quality research, which is not coming from the institute.

Mr. Cowley, in your letter, as well as on the institute’s website, you are ignoring the professors’ criticism.

Your letter affirms a point that was not in question, pretending that it was, thereby trying to deflect from the well-substantiated failure of the institute report card.

The trouble with your report card is not a little data fluctuation.

Let’s be clear, the institute stands out in its time-honoured rhetoric, not research.

Can you give us advice where we can learn a bit more?

Perhaps from studying the late political philosopher Leo Strauss, whose policy concept of the “noble lie” is really interesting?

If you really want to be taken serious in a debate, you don’t have to agree with another viewpoint, but you do need the capacity to acknowledge its existence.

It’s not a question of one opinion against another, because the institute tries to get on top of the debate with Machiavellian deceit.

And it’s not leftist against conservative opinion either — after all, conservatives are expected to conserve keystone traditions and institutions, being very careful what to change and what not to change.

They are not expected to smash the work of generations to pieces.

The wisdom of our nation builders, who created stability in the culturally most diverse and geographically most difficult country on Earth, who were aware of the danger of mayhem and anarchy, still counts today.

The institute report cards are contradict the Yukon Education Act’s universality, its inclusiveness, its focus on excellence in a diverse geography of studies.

Continuing attention to the message of the institute’s report card ranking, which is derived from an unscientific interpretation of score averages, runs the danger of generating mediocrity in schools.

The learning environment can become stale and unproductive when the focus shifts away from its fertile, foundational structures towards abstract and illusionary plans for education like the one your FI report cards points at.

Lack of appreciation for the law of the land and lack of respect for a tradition of principled education doesn’t set such a great example in teaching.

The force of example is a thoroughly established aspect of teaching, very different to your ideology driven school report cards.

I recognize the report cards have already eroded the political will to fund public schools properly, especially in BC, Alberta and Ontario,

Every parent and teacher I know understands that you are engaged in a well-funded lobby campaign against public schools.

Your code word for privatization is parent’s “choice.”

Everybody knows there have been and there will be private schools, but your “choice” “argument” is demeaning when all you care about is diverting public funding towards private schools and away from public schools.

This process has come furthest with the Charter Schools in Alberta. They are turnkey readied for privatization.

Private schooling as the only real “choice” is a concept from the from the dark ages, feudal Europe — elitist, rigid, mediocre.

You are trying to re-brand it as cutting edge.

Public schools were and still are the modern concept that can keep up with a changing world.

This does not happen when students are isolated into the social contexts they were born into.

One way to prepare children for the world is to expose them to diversity in the classroom at an age where the ability to imagine the “other” is effortless.

Some time ago, ethnic wealth was smaller, but diversity was always extraordinary. Democracy and prosperity are built on public education in Canada, which has been a world leader in education for 150 years.

In a knowledge-based future, is there a country that can afford to leave half of their bright kids behind, and once public education standards are eroded, surrender the other half into the dull elitism of private schools?

There is no point for divisive debates how one school or the other comes out ahead in the annual institute report card, as has recently happened regarding the Watson Lake Secondary School, because the school ranking is fantasy.

In April, Former Official Opposition education critic Lorraine Peter noted the institute’s bias in favour of private schools as well as its questionable “research.”

She asked Education minister John Edzerza what he had to say.

As of now, an answer is still forthcoming, perhaps because the institute’s report cards are poorly designed research that avoids peer review and cannot be published in science journals.

Perhaps because there are no correlation data to validate any of its findings with regard to professional or life achievements of students.

Perhaps because the institute’s data interpretation is not just overreaching, it is arbitrary.

Mr. Cowley, you are wrong when you think that Canadians don’t demand excellence in research and science and that it’s enough for the Fraser Institute to apply pressure in the media to get the propaganda out.

Your letter’s arrogance is shocking.

Parents want the best future for their children and exploiting their anxiety for corrupt goals, as well as bringing damaging stress into the schools is terrible.

Your revolutionist agenda is to privatize and commercialize public schools and since the education “market” needs don’t live up to your expectations, the Fraser Institute report cards systematically and artificially mark down public schools to further this special interest of yours.

I urge the federal and provincial/territorial governments to be clear about that, stand up for the democratic principals they are elected to represent and reject the report cards; show leadership and remember Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine who involved cutting-edge research in the 1840s to plan the future of education in Canada!

His idea of the right of the child is modern in the 21st century, in his address from 1840 to the electors of Terrebonne, LaFontaine said: “Education is the first public good that a government can confer on the people….”

Peter A Becker