Conservative institute trashes Yukon public education … again

Most Yukon high schools got a passing grade, but just barely. The Fraser Institute report card on secondary schools marked Vanier Catholic Secondary…

Most Yukon high schools got a passing grade, but just barely.

The Fraser Institute report card on secondary schools marked Vanier Catholic Secondary School top of its class in the territory, with 5.9 out of 10.

Watson Lake Secondary School was bottom off the heap with a 0.

  These results were expected, said school superintendent Lee Kubica.

“This is basically a follow-up to the report (the Fraser Institute) did in the Yukon in the fall,” said Kubica.

“We certainly weren’t surprised with how the report came out and obviously we’d like our schools to do better than they have been.”

The controversial test measures schools in eight categories, half of which are based on exam marks.

Yukon schools are lumped in with BC.

For a course to be included in the calculation, it must be testable by BC provincial exams.

“They’re all done only at the Grade 12 level,” added Kubica.

“The report card is directed towards a university entrance component.”

 This excludes certain Yukon-made courses.

Some of the territory’s own technical, humanities, fine arts and science courses do not qualify for the report card, even though they are accepted by universities, said Kubica.

The validity of the report card in assessing schools, is also contested in BC.

“Beneath the bland pronouncements about report cards, outstanding principals and children first lies the spectre of powerful people pursuing a political agenda to weaken the nation’s public schools and redistribute supports for those schools so that privileged students are favoured over needy ones,” said Simon Fraser University communications expert Donald Gutstein, in an article published in BC’s Tyee daily newspaper.

The results certainly favour private schools.

The 10 highest-ranking institutions are private.

“It’s no secret that schools, which can pre-select their students will do better than those which must take anyone — special needs, ESL — who shows up at the door,” wrote Gutstein.

“Nor is it a secret that schools in upper-middle-class neighbourhoods where parents are well educated and have sufficient money to spend on their children will do better than schools in poor and working-class neighbourhoods where many youngsters go to school hungry.”

This point has not gone unnoticed in the territory.

“A public school allows all students, regardless of ability and work ethic, and all sorts of other things that go into making a good student,” said Kubica.

“Those things just aren’t counted.”

The criteria for evaluating schools is narrow, according to Fraser Institute director of school performance studies, Peter Cowley.

“Is it narrow because we, at the Fraser Institute, don’t believe that developing sound body, mind, etc. is important?” asked Cowley on the phone from Vancouver.

“Is it because we don’t believe developing good citizenship skills or leadership skills is important? Is it because we don’t have an appreciation ourselves for the fine arts?”

Of course, he said the answer is “no.”

But critics should do their own studies, he said.

They should provide data on the relative effectiveness of schools with programs in these areas to the Fraser Institute.

“There are quiet a few areas where the school systems — the superintendents and the boards of trustees — have decided not to collect data … or simply have not collected data,” he said.

 “Then they have the nerve to criticize the Fraser Institute for not reporting on the data that they haven’t provided.”

The Fraser Institute is, however, a national think-tank with 350 authors in 22 countries.

The report states the average for all 281 evaluated schools is 6.2. All Yukon schools fell below average.

Is it useful or valuable to compare Yukon schools to private schools in BC?

“I think it would be useful for people in many of these schools to say, ‘What other areas in BC would probably have the same kinds of populations as ours,’” said Cowley, suggesting FH Collins may be comparable to a high school in Peace River or Prince George.

Another issue for the territory’s schools is numbers.

Some schools have too few students to be counted, said Cowley.

To qualify, a school needs to have at least 15 students in its Grade 12 class.

“That’s simply to ensure that we have a reasonable amount of data to talk about the schools with,” he said.

Even in larger schools the overall population is so small that few students could significantly alter the results, said Kubica.

The four schools, which ranked in the Fraser Institute’s report card were Vanier with 5.9, FH Collins Secondary School with 5.2, Porter Creek Secondary School with 5.0 and Watson Lake with 0.

There are a number of programs in the territory that seek to increase literacy and numeracy, two of the main components of the report.

Promoting learning at the earliest possible age is key, said Kubica.

“Most of our efforts and most of our dollars are for early intervention programs,” he said.

“Dollars spent in early intervention are much, much better used than dollars spent trying to fix things once something has gone amiss.”

These include programs like full-day kindergarten, training for math teachers for Grade 4 to Grade 7 and one-on-one reading help for Grade 1 students.

While it takes years to see the impact of these kinds of programs, the results are promising, said Kubica.

“Our Grade 3 results are as good as Alberta, and they’re the best in the world,” he said.

There are some programs directed towards high schools as well.

In rural communities, the department has a funding program for high school students who need tutoring at home.

Providing greater course options and cultural programs for First Nations youth are also ways the department is hoping to boost attendance and success in high school.

For Watson Lake in particular, the department is looking to keep teacher-student ratios low and to offer a wider range of courses.

While the results can be disheartening, they can also be a call to action, said Cowley.

“Once the urge to send a nasty letter to the newspaper or to (the Fraser Institute) goes by, the question is, ‘What are we going to do now?’”

He suggested the five lowest-ranked schools form a coalition called “The Bottom Dwellers,” to infuse humour into the dreary results.

By sharing resources and coming up with a collective plan, these schools may well be able to up their results, said Cowley.

Watson Lake principal Carson Atkinson could not be reached for comment.