Opinion

B.C. goes backwards on education

Thousands of teachers and union supporters rally in front of the B.C. legislature before the 2005 election. The union battles the government constantly on class size and other issues, including skills testing. - Tom Fletcher/Black Press
Thousands of teachers and union supporters rally in front of the B.C. legislature before the 2005 election. The union battles the government constantly on class size and other issues, including skills testing.
— image credit: Tom Fletcher/Black Press

VICTORIA – Guess who said this last week: “We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.”

No, it wasn’t B.C. Liberal leadership hopeful Kevin Falcon, who has gone quiet on education since he caused a stir with his proposal for merit pay for public school teachers.

And it wasn’t the Fraser Institute, which is about to release its latest rankings based on foundation skills assessment (FSA) tests in B.C. schools.

It was U.S. President Barack Obama, in his state of the union address. He was talking about Race to the Top, a federal bonus program he called “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.”

“To all 50 states, we said, ‘If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.’”

B.C., meanwhile, is going backwards. After years of B.C. Teachers’ Federation sabotage of skills testing, the essential mechanism for any improvement in education techniques, the B.C. Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association abruptly surrendered a couple of weeks ago.

The tests aren’t flawed, association president Jameel Aziz admitted, but they have been “successfully undermined” by the BCTF.

Aziz listed three reasons for abandoning FSA tests. Two of them are factually wrong.

He claimed that after years of BCTF disruption tactics, participation has fallen below 50 per cent in some districts.

Ministry records show the lowest participation was 62 per cent, last year in the Vancouver school district. The provincial average was 83 per cent, despite letters sent home by teacher union locals telling parents the tests are bad and suggesting they find some excuse for their kids to skip them.

Aziz also blamed the Fraser Institute for its “misuse” of FSA data that “does not reflect the many unique challenges faced by individual schools, nor does it credit the many unique successes of individual schools.”

Wrong again, says Peter Cowley, the Fraser Institute’s director of school performance studies. He notes that the rankings track local factors such as parental income and the proportion of English as a second language or special needs.

“We’re hunting for schools that have shown that they are actually improving,” as well as those that are slipping, Cowley said.

Critics like to set up a straw man by comparing schools in rich urban areas with poor, remote schools. That’s “misuse,” designed to discredit the rankings and the tests.

Parents should start by looking at the performance of their own school over five years. Is it getting better or worse? Rural parents can look at similar regions of B.C. and see if comparable schools are doing better. All parents can ask what extra help their children are getting to improve their individual areas of weakness.

Aziz claimed that “some in government” have suggested FSA tests be replaced. Well, rookie cabinet minister Moira Stilwell has. For a more informed view, here’s Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid in an open letter to parents:

“The push by the BCTF to end the FSAs is political. It’s about hiding information you, as parents, have a right to know about your child’s education and future.”

Leadership candidate George Abbott made vague noises about supplementing FSA tests. Here is one change he could consider.

The tests measure reading, writing and arithmetic skills at Grades 4 and 7. They track the individual student’s performance, as well as that of the team of teachers he or she has had to that point.

Additional measurements could give a clearer picture of the performance of each individual teacher. Then Falcon’s merit pay idea could be implemented.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com. tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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