||Volume 22, Number 7, May/June 2010
CanWest newspapers in Vancouver to discontinue publishing Fraser Institute rankings
By Noel Herron
In what is being interpreted by some as a major blow to the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, two of CanWest’s leading newspapers The Vancouver Sun and The Province will not publish the controversial annual, comparative, ratings of BC’s elementary schools this year. These results are released each year in early February.
This information was confirmed by Peter Cowley, the lead researcher for the Fraser Institute’s controversial rankings of the province’s elementary and secondary schools.
When asked why the two Vancouver-based newspapers are no longer willing to publish the institute’s elementary rankings, he cited CanWest’s reluctance to give up space because of the upcoming Olympics. “We are not disappointed with this decision as other outlets, namely the Black Press with 78 daily and semi-weekly papers across BC will pick up where CanWest left off.”
An upbeat Cowley stated, “We have had a long and good relationship with both The Sun and The Province over a 12-year period,” and he feels that this decision will not impact negatively on the Fraser Institute’s determination to continue its work. Last year, both newspapers devoted less space than usual—just two pages in fact, one for truncated results and one for commentary—to the institute’s rankings. Because of the ongoing controversy surrounding the rankings, some feel that the impact of these rankings has diminished over the past few years.
However, the Black newspaper chain, which owns the majority of smaller, local, newspapers across BC, has confirmed in a recent press release that it will publish this year’s full or partial rankings with, in some instances, accompanying commentary from the heads of local teacher unions. This “decentralized” move, in itself it appears, is not without controversy in the corporate BC journalistic world as some rural editors were less than enthusiastic in publishing these rankings alone.
Outside BC, the province of Manitoba was accused by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and Frontier Centre for Public Policy of operating “…in the dark ages…” because it doesn’t compare students’ performances like some other Western provinces.
Manitoba’s Education Minister, Nancy Allen, pointed out that while Manitoba does provide province-wide information on high school graduation rates and on overall performance she does not agree with the Fraser Institute’s approach. Responding in The Winnipeg Free Press, she stated, “…we don’t really have a comfort level of pitting one school against another. One school ends up at the bottom, and it could be a great school. It could be demoralizing for everyone involved.” The position was endorsed by the Manitoba School Board Association.
With The Vancouver Sun and The Province now discontinuing publishing the Fraser Institute’s elementary rankings this month, speculation focuses on whether the two papers will continue publishing secondary school rankings in the spring. Peter Cowley was unable to confirm if this would take place. And CanWest has not commented publicly on its recent decision regarding elementary schools leading to speculation that the two high-profile city newspapers have dropped the institute’s rankings altogether.
Two reasons for this surprise move are being put forward—the newspaper chain’s current deepening financial difficulties, coupled with the fact of dwindling parental support in some school districts for the controversial analysis.
The annual publication, with great fanfare, of more than 20-page plus supplements ranking every elementary and secondary school in BC in both city papers, while welcomed by some parents was scorned by all of the province’s professional groups. The technical validity and reliability, from a strictly assessment perspective, of the province’s Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) results on which the Fraser Institute’s rankings were based, were repeatedly challenged by various professional groups representing teachers, principals, superintendents, and school trustees. (These latter groups were dismissed by Crowley as “the educational establishment.“) An internal working group within the Ministry of Education, a few years ago, expressed strong reservations on this particular point in a memo to the education minister of the time, and went on to challenge the usefulness of the comparative rankings.
However, it now appears that the estimated cost of over $400,000 for both newspapers was too much for the cash-strapped CanWest chain in its current financial difficulties. The added space required by the newspapers for Olympics coverage was the reason given to online reporter Sean Holtman. The Fraser Institute also does not have the resources, according to Cowley, to shoulder this expense. (A full-page ad costs between $20,000 to $25,000.)
The other alternate explanation offered for this sudden cancellation of publication was the increasing withdrawal by parents across the province of their offspring from participating in the Grades 4 and 7 provincial tests in response to an aggressive anti-Fraser Institute program by the BCTF. For example, in Maple Ridge, 40% of the student population did not participate last year; Vancouver had a 30% withdrawal rate, while the provincial withdrawal rate rose to 16.5%.
All of this raises questions about the future of the Fraser Institute’s rankings. Will our local dailies publish the secondary school rankings? Will rural newspapers continue next year to publish these results now that the province’s two largest newspapers have dropped their elementary sponsorship? Or will the Fraser Institute go it alone and be willing to fund a province-wide or limited dissemination of its rankings? Only time will tell.
Noel Herron is a former school principal and Vancouver trustee.