Tuesday, February 8, 2011

D is for Dollars

A new study released by the controversial Fraser Institute in Canada has crowned Bountiful Elementary-Secondary school as the top schools in the country. It just so happens that Bountiful BC is a polygamous community, also known for its own fair share of controversy in Canada, as a fundamentalist Mormon community.

On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense that a polygamous community would come out on top. When you think about it, who always scolds you when you don't do your homework? Mom, of course. And when you have several of them, well, it must be a lot harder to ignore. Could you imagine being grilled at the dinner table every night by moms 1-3 about your homework assignments and having 3 pairs of eyes boring into you if it so happens that you didn't do it? And then the wait until your father comes home speech probably DOES sound more threatening the third time you hear it.

But the results aren't causing a lot of the strife. While polygamy itself is not being called into question with this declaration, it's the teachers who are up in arms on the issue of standardized testing and the use of these results to rank schools. They deem this practice to be unfair, as they are against the very concept of ranking schools against each other and argue that the tests don't show a clear picture of the education system or their efforts to better their students.

The ranking of schools is a touchy theme, which has been used in the US to show what many experts call a race to the bottom. The schools that had the worst results were often boosted with extra funds so that they could do better the next year, while others, deemed to be lost causes, were closed. The schools that were closed were often in poorer neighbourhoods, where teachers dealt not just with numbers, but fights, knives, drugs and gangs. Hardly the kind of atmosphere that encourages quiet reflection and the desire to satisfy one's thirst for knowledge. The schools that were rewarded with dollars, often produced similar results for years, with no exceptional improvement, lest dollars disappear in the future.

While dollars don't disappear much in the system, teachers do. Teachers have often been the victim of their students success or lack thereof. I will never understand what teachers are talking about when they say that they love teaching; it's obviously not for the money that they stay in their jobs, yelling at the top of their lungs for young people to sit down and shut up. Add to that the constant distractions of ipods and cellphones, and you have a recipe for listlessness and mayhem. Ah, youth.

The Fraser Institute insists that using tests are a good measure and that ranking of schools is a fair way of seeing how Canadian children are doing across the board. One of their arguments is that this is the only system currently available, so why not use it? That's like saying that you only have a weather vane at home so it's ok to use that to decide whether or not you need to wear a coat outside that day.

They also say that teachers haven't been able to come up with a better system to measure academic success, so they should just accept their findings. That's like a cook saying to the people in the restaurant that they couldn't possibly make souffle, so they'll have to accept his, even if it's flat in the centre.

One of the things that they seem to forget is that school is not just about testing the main skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. It's also about behaving in society, learning social skills, being prepared to go out in the world and learning about one's potential. It's not just what you learn, it's how you learn it and why. Those things make the basis of a sound student for life, not just an A plus report card toter.

And you can't measure that or rank that.

Testing has been successful for other things, though. It has managed to cut funds from a badly bled system and to remove the option of education to disadvantaged youths. It's also managed to make the average child feel dumb, acquainting them with the crueler aspect of society's concepts of winners and losers and to give up on the idea of education.

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