Friday, January 15, 2010

Why parents should support FSA tests

The great FSA test battle is on again as the B.C. Teachers' Federation continues its campaign to kill the school tests.

That would be a great loss.

Coincidentally, a study has confirmed the usefulness of the Foundation Skills Assessment tests, which measure the performance of Grade 4 and 7 students in math, reading and writing.

The tests are a limited tool. But they let parents see how their children are doing compared with other students across the province. Teachers can see how their classes are performing in these basic skills areas compared with others. Perhaps there is something to learn from a counterpart in a similar school across town.

Administrators, school districts and the Education Ministry can look at the results and judge how they are doing. Again, they can assess where lessons can be learned or more effort is needed.

And researchers have a unique source of data that lets them look at ways of improving student performance.

A just-released study from the University of B.C.'s Human Early Learning Partnership offers a timely example. The study used FSA data to look at the link between where children lived and how they did in school.

Partly, the answer is obvious. Children from affluent neighbourhoods do better across the board than children from poor communities. That's expected. They have a range of advantages, from attending preschool programs to the benefits of having parents not struggling to scrape by to better nutrition.

But the study, which tracked 2,648 students from kindergarten to Grade 7, also found just how crucial the formative years are. Even if students moved to a more affluent neighbourhood after starting school, their performance in basic skills continue to lag.

That's important to know. It means that if improving educational performance for all children is the goal, then a large part of the focus has to be on support for families with young children before they enter the school system.

And according to the researchers, the study would not have been possible without the universal FSA tests.

Critics - mostly teachers and their union, but also some administrators - have a largely unconvincing list of complaints. It's true that the tests measure only part of schools' performance and don't reflect successes in developing good citizens or critical thinkers. But that's not an argument against assessing performance in a critical area.

Some teachers have complained about the stress on students and time spent preparing for and administering the tests. But two sets of tests in nine years of elementary school isn't a huge burden. And teachers should not be spending time specially preparing students; the tests measure long-term progress.

The teachers' union is particularly rankled by the Fraser Institute's annual report ranking school performance on the tests. The results fall to consider socio-economic factors and favour private schools, they say.

That's to some extent true. But parents and other readers aren't stupid. They can consider those factors. And there is nothing preventing the BCTF or the Education Ministry from preparing its own reports.

A more compelling argument concerns the response to the reports. Some parents transfer their children from poorly performing schools, which further weakens them.

But the notion that parents should be denied information about how well their child and the school is doing because they might make use it is unacceptable.

The strongest argument against FSA tests might be that there is little point in spending the time and money if they don't result in any action.

A 2008 study by a Simon Fraser University professor used the FSA scores to identify districts where much greater progress had been made in closing the achievement gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students. The study then looked at what strategies were working. Unless the lessons are applied - and funded - the value is lost.

But the tests remain an extremely useful tool to learn what is working and what isn't and improve educational opportunity for all students.

Footnote: The teachers' union is urging parents to refuse to let their children write the tests. That's a destructive form of sabotage which leaves the test program in place, but reduces its effectiveness for researchers.

Jody Paterson: Seniors face huge care cost increases

It isn't often that a landlord can quietly order up a 30 per cent rent increase for more than 2,000 people without anybody making a public fuss about it.

But maybe that's what happens when your tenants are elderly, frail seniors living in B.C.'s long-term care facilities.

As of Jan. 31, "rents" will go up for most of the 26,000 people living in government-subsidized residential-care facilities, in some cases jumping as much as $672 a month.

Read the rest here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Giving to Haiti

I might be overly sensitive, but while the $500,000 provincial contribution is useful, I'm not sure the Haitian earthquake is really a marketing opportunity for B.C. forest products.

If you are moved to help, Don Cayo of the Vancouver Sun offers some excellent suggestions here. Cayo is one of the arguments for daily newspapers; his columns are valuable and it's hard to see how they could be supported without papers like the Vancouver Sun.

NEWS RELEASE For Immediate Release 2010

PREM0008-000031 Jan. 14, 2010

Office of the Premier

B.C. ANNOUNCES SUPPORT FOR HAITI EARTHQUAKE VICTIMS VANCOUVER - Premier Gordon Campbell announced the Province will provide $500,000 to the Red Cross to support victims of the January 12 earthquake in Haiti.

The Province will also work with the federal government to offer assistance to help Haiti rebuild.

"The $500,000 will go to the Red Cross for immediate medical and emergency support and we are also encouraging all British Columbians to consider reaching out through aid agencies like the Red Cross," said Premier Campbell. "We will also co-ordinate with the federal government to explore the possibility of helping Haitians rebuild their homes, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure." Forests and Range Minister Pat Bell is working with the federal government to co-ordinate an effort to provide wood products for rebuilding as well as construction expertise, just as British Columbia did after the 2008 Sichuan, China earthquake.

The January 12 earthquake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale and caused immense destruction, leaving millions of Haitians without homes.

"Everyone's priority right now is to put forth a co-ordinated support effort to save lives and treat as many victims as possible," said Premier Campbell. "Right now our hearts and thoughts are with the victims and their families of this terrible tragedy."


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Seniors’ care recommendations snubbed by government

I doubt that growing old has ever been much fun. 

But the latest report on seniors’ care in B.C. — and the government’s reaction to it — should alarm people looking into residential care for themselves or a family member.

Maybe my generation, the Baby Boom crowd, expects too much.

But it’s hard to escape the sense that once you can’t make it in your own home these days, you diminish. You become more problem than person.

Consider a basic challenge — finding and then living in residential care when you no longer live on our own. 

Ombudsperson Kim Carter heard more and more complaints and concerns about seniors’ care in B.C. The office launched a provincewide investigation and delivered its first report just before Christmas. 

It was grim. And the government’s response was discouraging. 

Carter found the government hasn’t identified what it is prepared to do for seniors in residential care or told residents what rights they have.

It has failed to ensure families can get adequate information about residential care facilities, so they can plan and make informed decisions.

And although resident and family councils are important in ensuring the well-being of people in care, the government hasn’t supported them. 

Carter said the public response to the investigation was “unparalled” in the history of the ombudsperson’s office. (That’s the official name now.) 

About 900 people presented concerns; 200 individual complaint files were opened. The investigators went to 50 residential care and assisted living facilities, public and private, around the province.

The complaints covered a range of issues, from poor food to long waits for help with basic tasks like going to the bathroom to medication errors to neglect of residents’ needs. Many will be dealt with in a subsequent report.

A lot of the concerns centered around the huge difficulty in figuring out what care is available, what it costs and what’s covered. 

Families and individuals looking for care want to make the best decisions. But there is now way to get useful information on the private and public care facilities available in different communities without visiting each one. Responsibility for residential care is split between two ministries — the Health Ministry and the Ministry of Healthy Living and Sport — and the health authorities.

Families reported being panicked by the challenge of making snap decisions critical to a senior’s future with no real useful information. Standards are unclear and information about past problems sketchy.

Once seniors have landed in a home, it’s unclear to them and their families what rights they have or what they should do if they believe care is substandard. They’re reluctant to raise concerns, in case that brings reprisals.

And there is no effective process that lets the government monitor legitimate complaints and ensure they are being addressed.

Carter’s first report made 10 recommendations, all common sense and none obviously expensive.

The government committed to acting on four of the 10. It had already passed legislation on a residents’ bill of rights, one of the recommendations.

But on six of the 10 recommendations, including some of the most critical, Carter found the government’s proposed efforts “fall short of what is needed” to remedy the problems her office had identified.

The government wouldn’t commit to monitoring and reporting on whether residents’ rights were respected by operators.

It waffled on the recommendation that single website that allowed people to get the basic facts on every care facility — the costs, the services, the standards of care — be in place by Sept. 30.

And the government wouldn’t commit to prompt action to set out a clear role for resident and family councils.

The outpouring of concern to the ombudsperson’s review indicates significant concerns. The challenges are certain to increase with each year — by 2038, the number of people 80 or older in B.C. will have more than doubled, to 460,000.

And not enough is being done to face the challenges.

Footnote: The report is available online at Expect to hear a great deal about the findings and the fee increases for three-quarters of those in residential care when the legislature finally resumes regular sittings in March, after a three-month break.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Harper paying a price for shutting down Parliament

Stephen Harper has been widely thrashed for shutting down Parliament. Here's why you should be mad too.

Prorogation, it's called. MPs were scheduled to be sitting now. There were 36 bills, including crime bills the Conservatives had said were essential for public safety, waiting to be passed. They're dead now and will have to start their path through Parliament and the Senate at square one.

MPs had questions about the Afghan detainee issue, the economy and jobs, deficits, climate change, airport security. Those are all silenced.

It's convenient to get rid of elected oversight if you're the head of the party in power.

It's also undemocratic.

Harper didn't defend the decision when it was announced. His communications manager said the Conservatives wanted time think about the economy and watch the Olympics. They apparently could not do those things while doing their main job. (That's kind of disappointing, since MPs just got a raise taking their base pay to $158,000.)

Anyway, it's common practice, say the Conservatives. Which is not really true, as we'll say.

Some of the sharpest criticism came from The Economist, a London-based global newsmagazine for smart people. Its editorial position has much in common with Harper's platform - support for free markets, globalization and private enterprise. (Though it is also socially progressive, seeing no conflict between the two positions.)

An editorial in the weekly suggested Harper must think his cabinet ministers too dim to cope with the business of Parliament and watching the Olympics.

And it rejected the claim that past prime ministers had frequently done the same thing. "In almost every case, they did so only once the government had got through the bulk of its legislative business," the editorial noted. Past prorogations were brief; this time Parliament will be shut down for more than two months.

The shutdown shields the government from democratic scrutiny and looks like "naked self-interest," The Economist wrote. Canadians might soon decide their government is not in good hands, the editorial concluded.

A group of more than 150 Canadian academics with "expertise in the principles of democracy." also weighed in.

They noted our system rests on a responsible government overseen by an elected opposition.

Harper was undermining democracy for partisan gain, they wrote. If the Conservatives a break, they could have adjourned the session until a later date, the academics added. Parliamentary committees would have then kept working and the bills wouldn't have died.

So why not adjournment, if the government needed to "recalibrate"?

Despite the bluster and attack tactics, the Harper Conservatives were facing tough questions on the treatment of Afghan detainees. The issue was not the actions of Canadian troops, who were doing their job. The focus was on whether the government failed to take reasonable measures to ensure prisoners handed over to the Afghans weren't tortured. And, as critically, whether the government had been honest with Canadians.

And adjournment would not have triggered the appointment of five senators to fill vacant seats; that can only happen when Parliament is prorogued. Appointing five loyalists would mean Conservatives would outnumber Liberals in the Senate. (Though not hold a majority.)

That's on top of the questions about Canada's role in the Copenhagen climate talks, joblessness and the claim that the budget can be balanced without tax increases or deep spending cuts.

It might not have seemed much of a gamble for the Harper tacticians, who could have concluded Canadians don't pay much attention to Parliament and how democracy does - or doesn't - work.

But an Ekos Research poll found a majority of Canadians were aware of the decision to prorogue Parliament and 58 per cent were opposed. Opposition was strongest outside the prairie provinces; undecided voters also disapproved.

For the latter group, the action raises the kind of questions Harper should not have wanted in the forefront in what could be an election year.

For example, if the Conservatives don't accept democratic oversight now, what would they do with a majority?

Footnote: The decision looks much like a blunder. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who was floundering badly, has seized the issue and, helped by the Conservatives' lame rationale for shutting down Parliament, captured some positive attention.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Forest carbon credits complex

I wrote recently about carbon credits from forests. I didn't mean to suggest it was a scam, just complex.

In any case, this e-mail in response from someone much more knowledgeable is worth reading.

Regarding your post Paying not to cut down trees”, it is an interesting topic, but unfortunately you did not accurately describe the carbon credit opportunity and made it sound like a ridiculous situation. It is a very complicated thing.  

Some information for you: First, a single tree would not weigh 1,000 tons. The largest on the B.C. coast may be about 25 tons, on average about two tons. 

Secondly, the carbon is about one-half the weight of the tree. The carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e, the units sold) is 3.67 times that. 

Third you have to own the tree and the carbon in order to sell it; this is not at all clear in the case of Crown land.

Next, you don’t get $18 per tonne of CO2e per year, the price for a CC would be for a long-term commitment — 100 years according to the California protocol, but this aspect is not universally defined. 

The trees have to represent a positive business case for harvesting, so the carbon credit money is paid in exchange for not cutting the forest as you stated, but, not if you just go cut trees somewhere else to make up for your lost harvest (that is referred to as leakage). 

So a company would have to reduce its allowable annual cut to demonstrate this. 

Next, you have to find someone who will pay you for it and convince them that this carbon credit is worth as much as a carbon credit paid for installing a wind turbine for example. Risk of loss has to be accounted for as well, perhaps as much as 25 per cent of forest has to be set aside in case of loss due to fire, etc. 

Then you need to have someone verify your project and have it registered, another cost. Then there’s legislation in Alberta that prevents and Alberta-based companies from purchasing carbon credits outside Alberta, and the U.S. is considering that as well.  

Selling carbon credits for not cutting trees on Crown land, besides the carbon ownership aspect, is tricky because the Crown accepts stumpage for the right to cut the trees and presumably the Crown would collect some portion of the CC money as well, affecting the business case. 

Also, as the Crown considers the socio-economic value of a tree being harvested, providing employment as it is harvested, processed, used and exported, with a stream of tax revenue along the line, the Crown would have to take this socio-economic loss of opportunity into account. 

The out-of-work harvesters and processors would also have a claim to the value of trees not being harvested because they would argue that by not harvesting it, it is not being put to best use for the province. 

Private land forests are valuable to the owner because stumpage does not have to be paid, administrative costs are less and export markets are available. The net CC value per m3 is a lot less than average log market value for private lands, so don’t expect them all to be conserved for CCs.  

You can see that the forest conservation CC opportunity shrinks considerable from these considerations. The huge money opportunity you describe is not reality. It is another value to consider, and in some situations it may work.  

You state that there are a lot of questions – I suggest that you should have asked a professional forester who is involved in this area to answer them for you before writing your article.

 The Association of BC Forest Professionals could get you in touch with one. There are already many answers available. It is not right to give the public the impression that this is just a big scam to allow companies to continue to pollute.  

Brian R. Smart, RPF, RPBio.

Halfmoon Bay