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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

The Fraser Institute’s flawed report card

By Noel Herron

The midsummer release to an enterprising Globe and Mail reporter (via the Freedom of Information Act) of background briefing notes prepared for Education Minister Shirley Bond on the Fraser Institute’s annual report card on public and private schools in BC provides a devastating indictment of the right-wing think tank’s misleading ranking of schools.

With this revelation the shocking lack of forceful criticism by successive education ministers on the Fraser Institute’s approach over the past decade should now come to a grinding halt.

The institute’s methodology comes in for a withering critique by Victoria bureaucrats on no less than 23 separate counts of biased, inaccurate, and misleading strategies in preparing and publishing its rankings of schools.

The strong denunciation of these widely publicized reports, now emerging from an official government source, echoes the swelling criticisms by teachers, principals, superintendents of schools, school trustees, and some local parent groups.

This now makes it more difficult for the Fraser Institute, which many consider has a notoriously anti-public school bias, to dismiss criticisms of its methodology as simply coming from vested interest groups.

The institute’s listings have previously come in for an additional scathing technical review from at least one other study (separate from the ministry’s analysis) that challenged both the validity and reliability of its methodology. Adding questionable, interpretative tables to these lists, as the Fraser Institute has done in the past few years, does little to enhance its credibility.

All of this certainly won’t stop the monopolistic CanWest media chain through its BC outlets, The Vancouver Sun and The Province newspapers, from publishing 15-page supplements each year ranking almost 1,000 schools across the province.

Both of these newspapers, with accompanying so-called "balanced" editorials have strongly supported the Fraser Institute’s approach while patronizingly acknowledging the narrow academic focus it utilizes. But don’t expect either of these newspapers to discontinue publication of their supplements in light of the recent revelations—these biased lists sell far too many papers.

Some of the pointed backgrounder criticisms made by ministry of education officials were:

...there is "no consideration of context, region, or socio-economic factors" by the Fraser Institute in its comparative analysis of schools. In other words, public schools like Strathcona Elementary in the heart of the Vancouver’s inner city (with the poorest postal code in Canada) are unfairly compared with elite private schools such as Little Flower Academy or St. George’s in the affluent Westside:

...that three of the Institute’s measures for high schools are based strictly on provincial exams but this "does not take into consideration such components as sports programs, arts, and caring teachers."

...that the over-the-top and misleading claim by the institute that it provides "a detailed picture of each school that is not easily available elsewhere" ignores the fact that both school and district reports supply far more in-depth and comprehensive information.

Contrary to the institute’s claims that its annual exercise contributes to "encouraging and assisting all those seeking to improve their schools" with schools moving up a notch or two or more on its scales, there is evidence that its widely publicized results have had a negative and dispiriting impact on schools working hard on genuine school improvement.

The simplistic and narrowly focussed test-result approach used by the institute ignores the intersection of varied and complex school components that often combine in different ways to bring about genuine and lasting school improvement.

Some of these varied components are:

  • co-operative and supportive leadership by principals
  • ongoing, intensive, professional development by teaching and non-teaching staff
  • systematic curricular goal setting and reviews
  • updating the adequacy of a school’s stock of contemporary teaching supplies and materials
  • voluntary involvement by staff in extra-curricular activities
  • the availability and the hiring of specialized teachers at the elementary level (physical education, ESL, special ed, and French) and at the secondary level (science, technology, ESL and learning assistance, and/or skill development) when needed
  • access to innovative funding at a local level to combat a decade’s worth of offloading and to meet increased demands
  • added resources for schools in disadvantaged areas across the province
  • perhaps most important, a close focus on the development of a warm and welcoming school climate that generates school pride, productivity, and perseverance.

In particular, in reference to the latter component, contrary to the Fraser Institute, there is no quick fix for genuine school improvement. And it is patently absurd to state that a flawed ranking system of upwards of 1,000 schools, with some schools moving up a notch or two, offers a clear incentive for school improvement.

An experienced observer recently stated that the Fraser Institute’s annual rankings simply serve as a provincial showcase for elite private schools that annually top (surprise, surprise) these lists with their sky high fees and exclusionary (no ESL or kids with special needs ) admission requirements.

The invidious, ideological, comparison of these exclusive private schools with outstanding, open, public schools, year after year, is increasingly viewed with tremendous skepticism.

It’s quite an understatement to say that the Fraser Institute’s annual report card doesn’t tell the whole story, as CanWest newspapers in Vancouver never tire of reminding us, but it’s quite another matter to allow this misleading approach to go publicly unchallenged from the education minister’s office.

The muted responses, and the almost apologetic tone of Shirley Bond and her Liberal predecessors over the past several years in responding to the annual ranking reports have been quite disgraceful.

Giving a free pass to the Fraser Institute is no longer acceptable in this province.

And while it may hitherto have been politically and ideologically astute for the BC Liberals to provide their toned down, non-responses, the jig is up in Victoria with the minister’s briefing notes now in the public domain.

Education ministers must finally step up to the plate and publicly blast this contextless and biased listing for what it is—a well-financed and organized strategy designed to undermine public schools in this province.

Noel Herron is a former principal and Vancouver school board trustee.

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