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Judging the judges

Katherine Mackwood has no confidence in the Fraser Institute's assessment of secondary schools in the region. "It is well known, or it should be well known, that the Fraser Institute's mandate is to privatize education."

Katherine Mackwood has no confidence in the Fraser Institute’s assessment of secondary schools in the region.

“It is well known, or it should be well known, that the Fraser Institute’s mandate is to privatize education,” said the president of the Yukon Teachers’ Association. “They’re not education’s friend.”

The institute’s most recent report, which showed failing grades for both FH Collins and Porter Creek Secondary Schools, refers to students as clients, she noted.

“Students are children, they’re not economic units,” she said.

“There is no reason - no basis - to assume that the best possible education for the largest number of children can be delivered by government-run schools,” said Peter Cowley, the lead author of the Fraser Institute’s newest report card for BC/Yukon secondary schools. “It’s a limiter to suggest that only government-run schools can provide better quality education for kids. It implies that governments are paragons for innovation and improvement.”

Mackwood also challenges how the institute gauges schools.

The institute relies on report cards from the students’ marks on standardized tests for the region.

“To give the Fraser Institute validity in this regard is, to me, ludicrous,” she said. “To rate on these tests that they write, it doesn’t make sense to me.”

Standardized tests don’t consider the whole picture, said Mackwood.

“What else would you like us to judge it on?” Cowley asked.

More than 13 years ago, before being hired by the Fraser Institute, Cowley starting rating schools on his own website.

He did so as a concerned parent.

But he quickly realized he had no objective evidence to support the concerns voiced by other parents or their kids.

He wanted parents and children to be able to analyze their choice of school - not by subjective and usually outdated reputations, but by impartial data, he said.

Soon enough, he discovered the regional tests.

These tests are not created within the territory and are based on Outside curricula, said Mackwood.

“The Yukon Achievement Tests have been written by our students for many years and I have no idea as to why,” she said. “How can you base the success of a school just on standardized tests? It doesn’t make any sense. How can you assess relationships with your teachers? There’s a whole lot more going on in school than just math and literacy.”

Mackwood would rather base the success of Yukon schools on teacher assessments or sample-based learning tests, she said.

And schools shouldn’t be pitted against the other, she said.

But comparison and competition is common in education, said Cowley, pointing out a mainstay in every school: the trophy case.

“Do you have track meets? Do you have music competitions? Do you enrol your kids in the Physics Olympiad or the Waterloo Math Contests? And if so, why do you do it?” said Cowley. “Through competition, people can be the best they can be. If you don’t believe that competition is good to bring out the best in people, then purge your schools of any notion of competition and see, somehow or other, if your school - or more importantly, your students - are better off for it.”

When you buy a car, don’t you choose between competing automakers? said Cowley. “And isn’t that a good thing? Why do you think competition is bad?”

People who oppose comparing schools to one another do so because of two reasons.

They believe schools will not find a better way to do things, or that those who do, won’t share that discovery, he said.

“Why would any teacher in a public school not tell teachers in other public schools about their successes?” he asked. “Even if those other schools got better, how is that going to diminish the first and most successful one?

“This is an example of knee-jerk reactions that don’t stand up in the face of a logical discussion,” he said.

Cowley challenges his report’s critics to suggest a better method, or to provide the data they prefer their school be graded on.

“The criticisms of the report card that you hear could disappear if more data were provided by the very people that make the criticisms,” he said, listing teachers, superintendents, and department of education officials.

“In reality, you want to do the best you can,” said Mackwood. “Yes, we have to have a gauge on a baseline so we know where we’re going. We need to know how we’re doing. But we can design tests - we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we need to take a look at what truly is happening within our schools. And a full picture, not just one that’s based on a company that wants to privatize schools. We have to take a real good look at it if we want to improve the situation.

“Am I saying that we don’t have room for improvement? Not at all. Every education system, nationally or internationally, always has room for improvement, but do we base their success on the standardized test? I can’t agree with you there.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at