This week a tobacco industry-funded think tank in Vancouver, the well-known Fraser Institute, published its annual B.C. & Yukon secondary school report card, a ranking of schools in that region based on their performance on provincial exams. This means it’s time for me to publish my usual list of objections to these bogus statistical compilations, updated to the new material. As usual, I recommend that you peruse this report and then send it to its well-deserved location in the recycling bin (or the Trash can, for Mac users).
As usual, five of the reviewers of this report are actually dead, some others are in their 90s, and one of them is also the author, a conflict of interest if ever there was one. None of the authors are school teachers, although Michael Thomas used to be an education bureaucrat. (Now he runs a private school scholarship fund.) This year, it appears that the report card for BC has been paid for by the Hecht Foundation, which donates to a variety of right-wing causes, including a climate change denial group on the Prairies, the Frontier Centre. Such organizations usually fund the Fraser Institute’s work. Other report cards have been funded by the right-wing Donner Foundation, which created the Frontier Centre as well as the Montreal Economic Institute and the Atlantic Institute. Together with the Fraser Institute, these think tanks are responsible for promoting a consistent message of lower taxes, deregulation, and privatization of virtually all social services, including schools. Remember that when you read a Fraser Institute “report card” on schools.
My objections to the Fraser Institute elementary report card’s varying problems can be found here, here and here — including the comments section, which features important contributions by a pair of teachers. As usual, the Fraser Institute makes no attempt to seriously engage the voluminous social research that already exists on education and success, which almost universally agrees that Canada in general does well, that British Columbia in particular does very well, that standardized tests are a poor and partial way of understanding the education system, and that socioeconomic inequality can explain most of the grade difference between different groups of students. All of these findings are in direct contradiction to the Fraser Institute’s approach, which assumes that standardized tests are a good (if incomplete) measure, that inequality has a minor role only, and that more private schools equals better education for kids. For my real thoughts, see those links. Here my examination is going to be slightly more technical.
The Fraser Institute does try, marginally, on the subject of inequality. This report says that 30% of the difference between schools is explained by socioeconomic status — a 50% rise from the level they pegged it at in the elementary report card earlier this year, a discrepancy for which no explanation is provided. Nor do they bother to provide any substance for the conclusion they’re happily trumpeting in the media, which is that private schools do better because they have to compete for parents’ dollars — specifically, they say 1.9 points better on average. And never mind Century High, which despite being private came dead last with a score of 0.0. As usual, private schools do very well in these rankings, with all ten of the top ranked schools — at which you’ll typically pay somewhere from $15000 to $20000 per kid. In contrast, the bottom ten schools are almost all public schools and only one of them is in Vancouver (and another in Abbotsford). Amusingly, the only Vancouver school in the bottom ten happens to be the only private school, and it is the worst school in the province: Century High.
First, as usual, the Institute’s overall score is highly suspect. Some indicators are not really independent, and so tend to give an extra shove to schools at the bottom and a push to those at the top — failure rates, for instance, also drag down scoring percentages. Assigning a score for a gender gap is useful, but integrating it isn’t necessarily helpful for parents (if you’re interested in the best school for your kid test-wise, then it just might be one with a large gender gap in their favour).
Second, as I’ve discussed before, the Fraser Institute’s socioeconomic indicator is calculated so simplistically that it is almost infantile. Although logic suggests that many schools must fall well below average (which is 5.0), the socioeconomic indicator starts well above 4.5 out of 10. Logically the benefits of living in a higher-income home would also rise quickly, then begin tailing off after, say, $100,000 or so, but the Fraser Institute’s chart just keeps on going. This means that families earning very high five-figure and low six-figure incomes, people we would generally consider to be upper middle-class if not on the cusp of upper class, are still only expected to score around 7 out of 10. All of this aside, many of the numbers are simply wrong — they’re based on old census data about neighbourhoods, matched with current student data by postal code, and obviously the “average” resident of most neighbourhoods isn’t the one going to private school.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that while your $16,600 tuition bill at West Point Grey Academy is above average, private schools in general collect more money from parents than public schools do from the government. The government per-pupil grant is around $8500, and it gives a half grant to private schools. To discuss whether a private school can provide just as good a service as a public school, which is the debate that the Fraser Institute wants to have, what we really need to do is see how private schools do when they spend around that amount — in other words, when they collect about $5000 or less in tuition. Here’s the chart of secular private schools in Vancouver (which is where I’ll be doing my comparisons, for reasons of statistical validity and simple time-saving) which appear to operate on a budget similar to public schools:
Oops, there are none. The cheap schools are all religious ones — at Regent, for instance, you need to include a letter of reference from your minister in your application package, while the mission of White Rock Academy is to produce “knowledgeable and skillful followers of Christ.”
The above chart is important for one reason: the Fraser Institute promotes privately operated schools as superior to the public school system. In general, though, private schools are either (a) much more expensive, (b) religious, or (c) both. In such circumstances it seems very silly indeed for a supposedly libertarian, results-based think tank to be promoting private education. Such a think tank presumably has no use for religious schools, and outside of those schools (which receive support from other sources as well), it has not been demonstrated that private schools can consistently demonstrate comparable results to public schools when operating on a comparable level of funding. Part of this simply illustrates the lack of demand for such schools, I assume, but if the argument is that heavily funded private schools do better than poorly funded public schools, we’re still left with the question of how well-funded public schools would compare. In short, rather than privatize education, we could just fund education properly.
Using the Fraser Institute’s own data, then, it is relatively easy to argue that public schools actually outperform private schools, that a different socioeconomic indicator is needed anyways, and that there is no evidence the private sector can deliver a quality secular education with a budget similar to that currently used in the public system.Tweet