Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Some lessons from a bizarre year

So how about these four lessons from 2008?
Things can change dramatically and rapidly.
People who are supposed to be smart and knowledgeable are neither.
People who are supposed to be looking after the public interest aren't.
And in response to those three, we have to accept our personal responsibility - including our responsibility to demand better from the people who are supposed to be acting in our interest.
A year ago, Premier Gordon Campbell was all fired up about climate change. Dealing with it was a moral and practical imperative, he said, calling for a focus and effort like Canadians brought to two world wars. People should be prepared to sacrifice.
And the public was mostly onside. After all, homeowners were feeling pretty rich as prices climbed ever upward. The economy was ticking along nicely, unless you were a coastal forest worker. Most forecasts called for more growth and rising markets.
A year later, nothing seems certain. The news is all bad and there's no clear bottom in sight. The public isn't quite so convinced that climate change is the big priority.
And the people who were supposed to see the change coming - the ones who are paid well because they claim that ability - didn't.
Packs of quite smart, trained people are paid to focus on a limited number of companies and report on their prospects. They've got great educations, superb technical support and good access to information.
And they were hopeless. An analyst tracking one media company rated it a speculative buy and set a target price of $3.50. It's trading at 50 cents.
They're hopelessness was exceeded by the failure of the agencies that were supposed to be protecting the public interest by regulating markets.
Start with government, of course. It's become fashionable to see regulation as a bad thing. Gordon Campbell even set up Kevin Falcon as junior minister of deregulation in 2001 and set out to cut one-third of the rules in place.
The U.S. deregulation push removed rules that have prevented lenders from offering $500,000 mortgages, with no payments for a year, to people earning minimum wage.
Deregulation allowed the lenders to package the loans in bundles, claim they would produce a steady income, and sell shares in them to other companies. They in turn flogged them- including to people trying to set aside money for retirement.
Deregulation was supposed to be good for the economy. The people who have lost billions and the taxpayers bailing out companies won't agree.
It's not just government regulators who have failed. The big accounting firms audited these companies and didn't report any problems. Bond rating agencies reviewed them and gave great ratings for stability and safety.
Economies go through good and bad times, of course.
But this collapse, without warning, did terrible damage. Remember, in early October Prime Minister Stephen Harper was suggesting the drop in markets was a "buying opportunity." Anyone who took his advice and bought a bundle of leading Canadian stocks has lost about 35 per cent of his money so far.
Cutting unneeded regulation increases freedom and encourages innovation and brings few risks. The fewer unnecessary rules the better. Letting barbers cut hair without a licence means a few people might look funny, but a few great haircutters might emerge.
But that kind of deregulation wasn't at the core of the agendas of many governments over the past two decades.
Which leads to the fourth lesson, based on the first three.
If you want something done right, be prepared to take some personal responsibility. The people who are being paid to work on your behalf might not.
That includes taking responsibility for the people you elect to all levels of government - to vote, of course, but also to keep informed about what they're doing and offer your views.
Onward to 2009.
Footnote: After more than a hundred columns over the last 12 months, I wanted to thank everyone who took the time to read at least some of them and the editors who have found a place in their newspapers. It's a great privilege to have the chance to be part of a discussion with the people who will decide our shared future.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Teachers' union opposition to FSA test unfair to children

It would be a great loss to toss out the Foundation Skills Assessment tests and the chance for more effective public education.
The B.C. Teachers' Federation - and a lot of teachers - want the tests dumped. They are both wrong and short-sighted.
The FSA tests are taken annually by every student in Grades 4 and 7. They provide a snapshot of reading, writing and numeracy skills.
Most parents like the information. They might know how their children are doing and have report cards from school. But the tests are a useful way to help confirm a child is mastering some critical skills.
The teachers' union doesn't like the tests, which among other things, allows comparisons between the success rate in schools, or classrooms. School superintendents aren't that keen either. Districts can also be assessed using the results.
Even Education Minister Shirley Bond, who blasted the teachers' federation on the issue, has been critical of the use of the results. Bond is a former school board chair in Prince George.
The tests are far from perfect. The information they provide has been neglected. There are risks of misuse.
But they're still great tools. For parents, obviously. But also for anyone who cares about doing a better job for students.
The opposition to the tests seems contrived or wrongheaded. The teachers' union says students are stressed by the tests. But it's hard to see why, unless the stress comes from the teacher. There's nothing riding on the tests, and students can be told that.
The union complains about lost teaching time. But two sets of tests in eight years hardly seems a problem.
The union fears teachers are spending too much time preparing students for the tests. If that's a problem, they should stop. There's no need to cram for skills tests.
Then there are the philosophical arguments. The information should not be gathered because someone might misuse it. You can't measure education. The exams just test literacy and numeracy skills, and don't assess all the things that schools provide students. They don't reflect students' backgrounds. The whole idea of testing is seen as a plot by some.
Of course the tests don't measure all the wonderful things schools offer students. But reading, writing and numeracy, those are fundamental enough to be worth measuring.
Of course some people could misuse the data. But that argument could be used to shut down almost every form of research being done in the academic world today. It is a prescription for ignorance.
And of course the results don't reflect different social and economic factors. It is an absolute certainly that the children sent to a $20,000-a-year private school in Vancouver will score better than their Grade 4 counterparts in a school in poor inner city neighbourhood or struggling resource community. But everyone knows that. The results also let you compare schools dealing with similar student populations.
If one is achieving much better results in the core skills tests, we should know that.
The tests should encourage different ways of teaching or preparing children for school or involving parents. Creative, bright people in the system can test new approaches and measure how well they work.
And the results allow valuable research. In the last four weeks, a Simon Fraser University professor released a study on the gap in FSA scores between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students in B.C. Some districts have almost closed the gap; in others, it remains dramatic. The study identified strategies that help improve aboriginal students' success. That could not have been done without the FSA results as a starting point. (The study, of course, adjusted to compensate for socio-economic factors.)
The FSA tests aren't perfect. But eliminating them would be a great step backward.
Instead, parents and teachers should be using the results to learn. And to force the government to provide the support needed so all schools can achieve the best results for children.
Footnote: The teachers' federation is threatening a boycott of the tests. That's irresponsible. The union doesn't run the school system and is accountable to no one but its members. Elected trustees and the provincial government have a mandate to make decisions about education.