Ending the Reign of the Fraser Institute's School Rankings

Article excerpt

In 1998, the Fraser Institute published its first Report Card of high school rankings in British Columbia. Grounded in provincial accountability initiatives, the rankings have negatively affected low-ranking (usually low-SES, high-poverty) schools when parents of high-achieving children move them to higher-ranking schools (1) (cf. "Chinese-Speaking Parents," 2010). In spite of such consequences, by 2009, the Institute was publishing rankings for elementary and high schools in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Washington; secondary schools in Quebec; and middle schools in Washington. In 2011, the Institute also began ranking secondary schools in the Yukon. Interestingly, in February 2010, after 12 years of defending parents' rights to access the rankings, Victoria's Times-Colonist newspaper (a member of the Postmedia Network, formerly Canwest) decided not to publish them. What factors have permitted the rankings' long reign in the Canadian media? Equally important, why did the Times-Colonist abruptly change its policy and stop publishing the rankings in 2010? Using critical discourse analysis, this paper explores the multiple factors contributing to the Fraser Institute's long media reign and the Times-Colonist's 2010 decision not to publish the rankings.

Background

Ranking and publishing school performance have become commonplace in recent years as western nations have witnessed growing public concern for accountability in all social service sectors. During the past few decades, education systems around the world have experienced unprecedented reform initiatives (Calderhead, 2002; Holt, 2001; Massell, 1998). Whereas school choice has been touted as the mechanism necessary to free public schools from bureaucratic constraints that allegedly stifle innovation (Byfield, 2002; Chubb & Moe, 1990), testing has served as the "vehicle of choice" for promoting accountability (Earl & Torrance, 2000, p. 114; Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2006; Volante, 2004). Provincial, national, and international test scores provide data that fuel parental choice as well as curricular reform (Plomp & Loxley, 1994).

Established in 1974, the Fraser Institute is a "research and educational institution" with offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal. The Institute's vision entails: "a free and prosperous world where individuals benefit from greater choice, competitive markets, and personal responsibility." Its mission "is to measure, study, and communicate the impact of competitive markets and government interventions on the welfare of individuals" (Fraser Institute, Mission, n.d.). Education, taxation, government spending, health care, and trade are but some of the social domains it researches

The first Fraser Institute School Report Card ranking secondary schools in British Columbia appeared in 1998. (2) According to the Institute's website, their report cards

offer detailed tables showing how well schools performed in academics over a number of years. By combining a variety of relevant, objective indicators of school performance into one easily accessible public web site, the school report cards allow teachers, parents, school administrators, students, and taxpayers to analyze and compare the academic performance of individual schools in an attempt to answer the question, "How are our schools doing?" (Fraser Institute, Report Card--Overview, n.d.)

The Institute has supplemented its report cards of rankings with in-house research studies examining such questions as what factors attract parents to private schools in Ontario (Van Pelt, 2007) and what factors characterize low-income schools that exhibit high standards (Hepburn with Douris, 2008).

Although the Fraser Institute insists that its rankings are "based on academic achievement," a school's rank does not only reflect its test scores. This is because the Fraser Institute generates overall ratings on a scale of one to ten by combining and weighting multiple indicators, including some that are unrelated to academic achievement. …