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ReFraser The Question

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Issue: 36 Section: Opinion Geography: West British Columbia Topics: education

April 25, 2006

ReFraser The Question

The Flip Side of the Fraser Institute's Annual School Ranking

by Anna Kirkpatrick

What is the purpose of education according to the Fraser Institute? photo: York House School
On April 9, the Fraser Institute (FI) released its annual Report Card on Secondary Schools in British Columbia and Yukon. The FI published its first report card on B.C.'s secondary schools in 1999. Since then the Fraser Institute has broadened its focus and now issues yearly reports on elementary and secondary schools in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, as well as a special report on Aboriginal education. This year, the B.C. report was expanded to include four Yukon schools.

Over the past eight years, the annual report has become well-known. In B.C., The Province newspaper publishes the report in its entirety and references to the report are frequently made in the mass media. The report, authored by Peter Cowley and Stephen Easton, sets out to influence the educational assumptions and decisions of parents from the outset. According to Cowley, "Parents use the Report Card's indicator values, ratings and rankings to compare schools when they choose an education provider for their children."

The Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based think tank, focuses on "the redirection of public attention to the role of competitive markets in providing for the well-being of Canadians." The Institute's Report Card consistently favours private schools and public schools located in wealthy neighbourhoods. All six of the schools receiving perfect scores in this year's report are private institutions. Four of these schools-- Crofton House, Little Flower Academy, St. George's and York House-- have held this position for five years or more. The FI uses provincial exam marks and graduation statistics to assign every eligible secondary school a rating out of 10. A new sports-participation indicator has been added to this year's report, but is not used in calculating the overall scores. The Institute has repeatedly come under fire for the narrowness of its criteria. Vancouver School Board Chair Adrienne Montani has expressed concerns about "the bias and dubious statistical validity in the calculations used to create the report card."

Certainly, the report, in trying to use quantitative analysis to evaluate something as complex as education, is bound to encounter problems. But while the report's criteria may be narrow, perhaps they accurately reflect the interests and priorities of the Fraser Institute. The annual report judges schools as successful insofar as they produce adults who will contribute to the economy. Cowley and Easton claim that they are interested in helping "students make good decisions about their education." But instead of encouraging a spectrum of educational choices, the report penalizes schools with lower graduation rates and schools that fail to process students within the normal timeframe. The reason for this efficient processing has more to do with economics than with the well-being of individual students. Teya Klavora graduated from Crofton House, one of the FI's top-rated schools, in 1998. Reflecting on her time at the school, Klavora commented, "The priorities were solely academic excellence and getting into as many prestigious universities as possible… the sky was the limit, but only in the university department."

The kind of narrow academic achievement the report rewards has little to do with the most important kinds of learning. In fact, there may be a direct relationship between conventional academic achievement and the magnitude of our social and environmental problems. Writer Elie Wiesel once noted that it was a highly educated German society that gave birth to the holocaust. While German schooling may have been academically rigorous, "it emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience." The implications of Wiesel's statement are worth considering. Perhaps the schools with the most efficient processing and strongest exam results also do the best job of preparing students to participate in a destructive economy. Unfortunately these are the same schools that the Institute highlights and holds up as models. According to the report, "There is great benefit in identifying schools that are particularly effective. By studying the techniques used in schools where students are successful, less effective schools may find ways to improve." The effect of holding up private schools as examples may be to encourage the further privatization of education.

What constitutes a 'good school' depends on your priorities. If your main concern is the creation of cogs for an economic machine then a certain set of schools will fare well. If, on the other hand, your aim is the development of thoughtful and compassionate people, the results will be quite different.

The private schools at the top of the Fraser Institute's charts have plenty of advantages: excellent facilities, low teacher-to-student ratios, and a student body drawn largely from affluent families. Yet built into the private education system is a disadvantage these schools cannot overcome: Private schools separate kids with certain academic skills and/or access to money from other kids their age. It is not uncommon for students to graduate from these elite schools having never interacted with a person with a disability, a refugee or someone on welfare. According to Klavora, "We were sent out prepared to function in a closed university environment, not the world…the most important life skills I learned were outside of the ivy walls." It is an ironic twist that these top-ranked schools have a fundamental flaw that, by definition, they cannot overcome. The schools that the Fraser Institute favours may provide a good education in a narrow sense. Unfortunately, the perfect 10 scores the Institute awards to this handful of elite schools overlook the failures of this type of education.

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