Friday, May 25, 2007

Fraser school ratings invaluable for parents

It's appalling to hear some of the nonsense being talked about the Fraser Institute's recent report on elementary schools across the province.
Kids are in big trouble if they can't read, write and work with numbers. Before they're even out of elementary school, some children - many children - have fallen behind. Catching up is hard.
And some schools, year after year, are doing a significantly worse job than others of ensuring children meet minimum standards for literacy and numeracy. More of the children who go to those schools are starting life behind.
That should alarm us. The public education system is supposed to be the great equalizer. Poor home, inattentive parents, too many moves - all children are supposed to get the chance to learn the basic skills that will let them make the most of their lives.
But it's not happening. The latest report from the institute looked at elementary schools. It's based on the performance of students in Grade 4 and 7 on standardized provincial tests in reading, writing and numerical skills. The report includes information on the percentages of special needs and English as a second language students in schools, factors that can affect test results.
Many schools have great results. That's not surprising; B.C. has an excellent public education system.
But the results also show some big problems. The report, among its measures, includes data on the percentage of students who aren't meeting the province's basic standards for reading, writing and math skills.
That's a critical measure of how many children are being left behind. Up in Prince George, across the public school district, 22 per cent of children were not performing up to the basic standard set by the province. That's worrying in itself.
But there were also dramatic variations. In one school, only a few students - seven per cent - did not meet the basic standard. But at five schools, more than 30 per cent of students failed to meet the standard. At one school, almost half the students weren't able to read, write and do math at the level the government considered acceptable.
Parents - anyone with an interest in children and the future - should welcome that information. If almost half the students in a school aren't meeting standards for basic skills, the school needs help. If a school district has too many schools where students aren't meeting standards, the district needs help.
None of this means the teachers are bad, or the principal, or the program, or that there is something wrong with the children. It means there is a problem. It's not the children's problem; they just need it fixed.
Instead of accepting that, the reaction from some quarters - sadly, especially from some teachers, backed up by Education Minister Shirley Bond - has been to attack the review.
The basic argument is that schools' success doesn't rest on test results. The ability to involve children in a supportive community and help them experience the arts and sport, to make school joyful, those are important too.
That's true. A school that simply churned out students who did well on tests, without gaining the experience of working with others and the joy of learning, would be a failure.
But it is extremely important that children learn the basic skills that will give them a fair chance at life. When the report suggests that that is not happening for a significant number of students in a school, we should pay attention.
That doesn't mean panic at slight differences or one-year swings in results. The number of students can be small and results skewed.
But if two schools are in a district, with similar populations, and one is doing much better at ensuring students acquire skills than the other, then perhaps lessons can be learned.
And if in one of those schools almost half the students aren't getting needed reading, writing and math skills, then we have to do something.
Footnote: Some critics dismiss the report because it comes from the Fraser Institute, which has a mission of promoting privatization. That's reason to look critically at the information, but not to dismiss it blindly. The reason the report is widely publicized is because it responds to the near-total lack of useful information on school performance.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Salmon farming committee dodged key question

The legislative committee on salmon farming was supposed to set out a direction for the controversial industry.
But after almost 18 months of work, community meetings and more than 800 written submissions, the committee members chickened out. They failed to answer the critical question about the industry's future.
People who don't live on the coast might wonder why they should care. The industry provides about 1,500 jobs and generates about $370 million in economic activity, significant but not huge.
But a long battle involving commercial and sport salmon fishermen, environmentalists, industry, First Nations, communities and politicians could cause damage that reaches far beyond the coast.
The issue has been around for more than decade. The NDP government struggled with it, then commissioned a scientific review that said the industry could operate safely in B.C. But it still allowed only limited growth. The Liberals were more enthusiastic and the industry expanded significantly.
So did criticism, especially after research showed sea lice populations from the farms were a risk to migrating young wild salmon.
In the 2005 election, the Liberals lost every riding where the industry operated. Which lead to the committee. Premier Gordon Campbell established it and gave New Democrat MLAs a majority. Clever trap, said some. Pragmatic response to the issue, said others. It doesn't matter who was right.
The committee came up with useful recommendations. It proposed a ban on salmon farms north of the tip of Vancouver Island, a proposal that seems to be supported along the north coast, where wild salmon stocks support commercial fishing and tourism. It called for better rules to reduce the sea-lice problem and more independent enforcement of all regulations.
But when it came to the big salmon farming issue, the committee bailed.
Salmon farms keep the fish in net pens in the ocean. That's the accepted model and the cheapest approach, an important factor when salmon farms around the world are producing the same product. But excess feed and waste fall to the ocean floor, there's no barrier between the farmed Atlantic salmon and the environment and escapes and sea lice are problems.
The committee concluded the risks are too high and called for an end to salmon farming using open-net pens.
One alternative would be closed containment systems on land - big swimming pools for salmon. But that would be expensive, energy-intensive and create waste problems. And, no one on the world is doing it. The committee rejected the idea.
Another option is closed-containment pens in the ocean, not watertight but with much reduced contact between farmed salmon and the environment.
Again, though, there are problems. The industry says it would be a much more costly way to raise the salmon. Buyers would turn to other countries, most likely Chile's growing aquaculture sector.
The committee's solution was pull out a magic wand. Presto, an effective closed containment system would be developed within three years. Abracadbra, the fish farms would all be using the new system within five years.
Instead of magic dust, money would be sprinkled about. Provincial and federal governments should subsidize the research, the report said, and provincial taxpayers should help pay for the company's conversion costs.
That all seems a little casual. How much money to develop the technology? And where's the business case for spending that money, or helping out the companies' shareholders?
That's not even the big problem. The committee says open-net pens are unacceptable. But it acknowledges there is no viable alternative today. A strong research effort should see solutions in place within three years, it says.
Perhaps. But what if that doesn't work?
Ron Cantelon, the Liberal deputy chair of the committee, said the recommendations would kill the industry. A little precipitous in leaping to judgment, but it raises the question.
If the choices are open-net pens or no industry, which would the committee reluctantly accept?
That question needed to be answered.
Footnote: The government hasn't said what it plans to do with the report, but it's likely to be ignored. That would be unfortunate. Despite the failure to tackle the big issue head-on, the committee offered useful recommendations in a number of other areas. Even the proposal to move to ocean-based closed containment merits proper assessment.