Friday, February 05, 2010

The Fraser Institute picks its messenger

The Fraser Institute released its always controversial elementary school rankings to the public on Friday, a listing of 876 schools based on the results of the Foundation Skills Assessment tests conducted on an annual basis.

We'll explore the results in a post later this weekend, after we've had a chance to look over all the data, but what we did find of interest is the "sneak preview" or "exclusive" granted to an apparently favoured media outlet in the province.

As we noted on the blog on Tuesday, the Northern View posted the first early returns on the Fraser Institutes numbers this year, an article featuring some of the details on how local schools fared, flagged as an exclusive and posted to the publications web site.

As it turns out, the Fraser Institute provided many such exclusives to member papers of Black Press, a collective of community papers across the province, of which the Northern View belongs.

The early release to Black Press of specific elements of the report, was something that was noticed by the larger papers in the province, with the Vancouver Sun's Janet Steffenhagen outlining some of the fallout from that release on her always interesting to read Report Card blog.

As she predicted in her blog item, the report has been released in full as of Friday, making it now available for a comprehensive review and examination of the findings and how they may impact on education across the province.

Why Black Press was favoured with that sneak preview is a curiosity, perhaps the Fraser Institute fancies them to be fellow travellers in their cause, or soul mates in philosophy, but if so, they perhaps have mis-understood that relationship.

While the researchers and executives of the institute may find common ground with individual publishers and investors in the chain, down in the trenches of journalism it seems that the story wasn't going to be turned into just a PR exercise.

Locally, Shaun Thomas provided some balance on the Prince Rupert findings by providing feedback from local School District 52 officials and representatives of the PRDTA. School Board chair Tina Last offered up an opinion of a desire to not have the school board caught in the middle of the ongoing controversy over the tests. Understandable perhaps what with more than enough to keep them occupied this spring, the school board is hesitant to get drawn into the emotional debate over the tests, though some might suggest that such things very well may be their mandate.

Of even more interest however than the local reaction, has been an editorial which appeared in the Golden Star, provided by the publisher of publications for the Kootenays, Chuck Bennett, who provided the following as part of his reasoned and informative preamble to the Fraser Institute's gift:

Usually these results would be first released in the Vancouver Sun and Province, but this year the Fraser Institute approached The Golden Star’s parent company Black Press about getting the exclusive rights to run these report cards before any other media in the province. I was initially opposed to the offer because I believe these “report cards” are really nothing more than fodder for this province’s over-zealous right wing.

"I still believe that.

Clearly the Fraser Institute was wrong if they thought that by approaching the community newspapers of the province they were going to get a head start and maybe a free ride on the pushing their agenda, without any push back.
Rather than providing the findings with a tug of a forelock and published without balance, those papers, or at least the ones that Mr. Bennett has control over offered up a refreshing examination of the reports and how they are viewed.

Mr. Bennett's full editorial from the Golden Star can be found here, but if nothing else a pair of closing paragraphs from it perhaps provides the most lucid examination of how these rankings can affect education in local communities and more importantly, what they don't seem to address when it comes to what should be celebrated in education in the province.
"The negative impact of these reports should also not be undermined. Because of its flaws, this report casts what are likely very good schools, and ultimately very good teachers, in a bad light. For example, schools in very poor communities are compared with schools in wealthy communities, and while the schools may be equal in size, that is where the equality ends. There might be wonderful things happening in the poorer school, but that day’s biggest challenge might be maintaining a breakfast program so that students learn on a full stomach.
"Another reason is because I hope it leads to positive and important discussions between parents and their child’s teachers and the school’s administration. I hope that by presenting both sides of this issue, parents will take the time to find out more about their child’s education and the many successes that are happening within our schools, and I truly believe the successes far outweigh the failures. Ultimately, that might be the best report card any school could get."

Bravo to Mr. Bennett, who clearly understands the role of the media in our communities, not as cheerleaders or agents of spin, but as a valuable service that should be dedicated to providing all sides of a story, examining the issues that are of the most importance to a community and speaking out on them when required.

He more than fulfilled that mandate with his handling of the "sneak previews" of this week.

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