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Gary Mason

B.C., not its teachers union, should run education Add to ...

For years now, there's been a debate in British Columbia about who runs the education system - the government or the teachers union. In recent weeks, evidence suggests the answer is the all-powerful B.C. Teachers' Federation, which now appears on the verge of a pivotal, perhaps precedent-setting, win on standardized testing.

The federation has always complained about the test, known as Foundation Skills Assessment. The objections are familiar ones, levelled elsewhere in the country by teachers unions similarly opposed to standardized testing.

It forces our educators at the levels where the test is administered (Grades 4 and 7 in B.C.) to teach to the test, the union says, instead of teaching what's in the students' best interests. The results don't factor in the dramatically varying socio-economic backgrounds of students.

In B.C., the union is irked that the test results are crunched by the conservative Fraser Institute, which then produces a school ranking system.

After complaining for years and getting nowhere, the union began urging teachers to counsel parents to not allow their children take the tests. The government was forced to go to the Labour Relations Board to get the teachers to cease and desist from this activity. But, by then, the well had been poisoned.

A couple of weeks ago, B.C. principals and vice-principals demanded that Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid throw in the towel on the testing. It had become too politicized, they said. Astonishingly, Ms. MacDiarmid announced this week that she won't impose the tests because it would only further incite the Teachers' Federation and hurt kids in the process. She said there needs to be a way to "take the politics out of testing."

Out of the mouths of babes.

This latest showdown with the teachers union will become one of the early problems for the new B.C. Liberal leader - and premier - who'll be chosen at the end of February. This could play out any number of ways, depending on who gets elected. But beyond the question of whether the skills test is a valuable tool for measuring a child's performance, the new premier is going to have to clear up, once and for all, who runs the education system.

I can't believe anyone, other than teachers, thinks it should be the teachers union.

Most people agree that standardized testing has limitations. But it's not the vastly inferior measuring stick that teachers unions will have you believe. A 2009 study by David Johnson, a Wilfrid Laurier University economics professor who looked at Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office results and other census data, showed that anyone claiming that schools with the same socio-economic background get the same results is wrong. Quality of instruction matters - greatly.

Yes, the challenges that some teachers face in some districts is greater than others, and the cold data published by the Fraser Institute doesn't reflect that. But you don't scrap a government-mandated testing system because of what a conservative think tank does with the results. That's absurd.

The B.C. government has a duty and responsibility to demonstrate in a tangible way how the public school system is doing. Right now, that method is the Foundation Skills Assessment, a form of which is used around the world.

In B.C., this test has been in place for 10 years and has been used to provide valuable insight into the educational progress of aboriginal children as well as other kids deemed at risk. It's also been hailed as an instrument to identify kids in trouble.

Other options are being used in different jurisdictions. One is known as "portfolio-based assessment," in which teachers, students and parents select pieces of a child's work over four years to examine the progress that has occurred. I can't imagine there'd be much appetite for that as an alternative to the skills test.

The B.C. government should keep what it has until an alternative that is deemed more effective in measuring learning can be found. The public, through its government, should be running the education system. Not the teachers union.

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