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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 4, January/February 2005

Where are the Finns?

by Richard Walker

If you knew that I had recently seen Finding Nemo, you might suspect that my headline indicates questionable spelling proclivities. However, I thought I would "scale" back on my usual soapboxes and spend some time with "accountability" in this issue. Teachers have been facing some pretty "fishy" manifestations of accountability promoted by our current government—everything from FSA scores driving accountability measures to the latest five-minute drive-by teacher supervision model.

The scope of the government’s strategy should come as no surprise to anyone who read the first draft recommendations of the Select Standing Committee on Education the Liberals sponsored at the start of their mandate. Although the group concluded that B.C.’s education system is world-class, they cited a few areas, like Aboriginal students’ success rates and meeting the needs of students with special needs, that could be improved. The measures needed to correct these deficiencies apparently required massive changes to the entire education structure. One could argue that the changes have worked to the detriment of the majority of students in the province and have provided no gains for the groups for whom they were supposedly enacted. The entire exercise has been like finding a patient with a broken ankle and attempting to correct it with brain surgery.

And how does anyone assess how B.C.’s education system is doing? Do we rely on international testing, the equivalent to our FSA? It’s tempting because these tests show B.C. doing extremely well compared with other countries. The U.S. does not rate very highly. On the other hand, I came across an article that took an unusual approach to school-system assessment. It examined graduation rates and participation rates in post-secondary institutions. It also examined the socio-economic backgrounds of the students. The measure of a public school system’s success was the degree to which public schooling equalized the success rates between have and have-not students. It was gratifying to see that, comparatively, we did reasonably well on that measure as well. The U.S.A.’s rating worsened in this style of measurement.

I received an e-mail the other day from one of the elected college councilors. He said that a young teacher he had sponsored had gone to Texas to teach. She had won some kind of state recognition award as the "best teacher in Texas" for the year. That put her in the running for an equivalent award at the national level. The councillor acknowledged that the person was indeed quite good for a beginning teacher. However, he was left with some skepticism about the quality of a school system whose "best" teacher was an import in her second year of teaching.

We in B.C. live close to the "elephant" Pierre Trudeau identified. As educators, we understand Trudeau’s metaphor, and we feel the grunts and scratches. In our case, it manifested itself in the deluge of educational "reforms" that emanate from our neighbours to the south. We’re quick to pick up the latest and eager to try for ourselves some of these initiatives—even if by the time we see them, they’re starting to fail down there. We invite southern gurus to lead us to the promised land. Yet by every assessment measure that I’ve seen, their system is much worse than our own. On the last set of international tests that were widely publicized, Finland just edged out Canada in several literacy areas. So, when it comes to inviting delegates to help improve our educational system, where are the Finns?

Richard Walker is president of the Comox District Teachers’ Association.

Reprinted from the Comox District Teachers’ Association Newsletter, November 2004.


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